I’d been planning to have my usual late supper at the Waverly, where I’d sup on a Waverly melt deluxe medium rare ($9) with a side of mayonnaise and an iced coffee ($2) when my mother’s mental defections led me to a unexpected dining pleasure at the famed Bellevue Cafe. I used to think that you had to be nuts to eat at Bellevue, not so, you just have to be hungry.
The moon has yet to rise when we first enter the spacious hospital that houses the Bellevue Hospital Cafeteria. It’s 2 a.m.—but it’s never too late for lunch here.
Those who have too deeply considered the futility of their own existence trill like nightingales in the entry room as attendants ask them to part with their shoe laces and match books. A small Mexican man screams “Muerte, muerte, no mas,” and I think of the hills in Mijas on the Coasta Del Sol. A short nosed girl breaks my reverie, speaking loudly as if volume might make him better grasp a language he doesn’t speak: “Sir? Sir? Do you want to kill yourself? Hmmmmm? Sir?”
Someone tells a man reading an algebra textbook, “This is a pair of socks and a soap. You have to go to the bathroom and wash your feet and then put them in these socks. You need to do this now!” I admire the thoughtfulness and discretion of the staff. His paper blanket shields him in the spacious cool and rustles as he shuffles into the bathroom. My charge is irritated with me. While being questioned by the aged administrator behind the Plexiglass, Mother points out to me I’ve dialed 911 on 9/11. (It is now 9/12, but who wants to split a lunatic’s hairs?)
I ask an officer holding one handcuffed patient with a back brace where I can get a decent cup of coffee. He gives me directions in a thick Caribbean accent.
I follow his instructions through a labyrinth populated exclusively by fat, sleeping Haitian guards. But I am worried that the officer’s accent, however beautiful, may have caused me to misunderstand his directions as I progress without visible purpose through the staff-only rooms unmolested. But policemen always know and finally, the main entrance of the Bellevue Café appears in all its grand, sprawling glory.
Unaccountably, given its recent notices, I’m the only one there besides the help. They are good enough to allow me a booth. I order a large cup of coffee with milk and sugar ($1, with refills)—a price that long ago went the way of the dodo elsewhere in Manhattan. When I realize I want an iced coffee they make the substitution graciously, with no extra charge, and make it with fresh iced coffee rather than simply pouring my hot coffee over ice, even topping me off later. These are good people who help and pity me. They must witness great suffering daily. The coffee sings to me of the coasts of Tanzania, and I detect a fruity burst that makes me wonder if the beans haven’t been roasted when they were still a day or two from ripening.
The menu is diverse in its offerings, which span from chicken Parmesan ($6) to pasta marinara ($7) to ham sandwiches ($4.50) to fruit cups ($2). I order a grilled cheese — American on rye with tomato (a steal at $4). It bursts with lush, velvety undertones topped with crisp grace notes and comes with steak fries—soggy but tasty. That’s how I like them. I am pleased. It reminds me of London “chips” soaked to the core, limp and flaccid with fish juice. (No metaphor, just my tastes.)
As I eat I see from down the hallway at a distance a fat teenage girl in a wheelchair. A plain-clothes female officer, calling her Maria, stands by her, and the attendant cheerfully goes to fetch her a Pepsi ($1). Pepsi, mind you, not Coke (also $1). Both are options here, the sort of touch—along with the quick, unobtrusive service—that tells and distinguishes. She takes her Pepsi and is wheeled off stage. I think of Fellini and leave to smoke a Camel ($4.25 a pack twofers at the Smoke Shop right off the south-most exit of the West Fourth train station).
I sip my iced coffee, which having set for a while now seems to whisper to me of Eritrea. Back in the waiting area, I see, to my surprise, Maria from the café. She is sitting opposite my charge, sipping her Pepsi. They’ve given her a straw, a token of dignity to compensate for the shoelaces. It thankfully distracts me from the bruises on her arms and the woman leaning down next to her, with “midwife services” on her dirty canvas bag. With her child safely born, Maria can again enjoy her favorite soft drink.
Time passes. “Muerte, muerte,” grumbles the Mexican man.
Once assured that there is no more I can do for my charge, I make my way to the exit, where I am intercepted in front of the café by a junkie with open sores on her face. “I hope you smoke,” she says. Tell me you smoke—I would love a cigarette.” I give her a Camel. She then asks me if I might have any dope, if I have ten dollars, and if so, if would I like to “roll” with her.
“I ain’t rolling with nobody tonight,” I tell her. There is an attempt to physically intimidate me for the ten dollars. I gaze at her, incredulous. I am 50 pounds heavier than this woman, thirty years her junior, and can thrash her within an inch of her life. She understands. We part ways, and I go home, satisfied, and yet quiescent.