The day Louis Farrakhan played Bellevue

Bellevue homeless shelter. (cuttlefish, via flickr.)
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The Alexandria Center for Life Science is a gleaming, immaculate “science park” along the East River at 29th Street. It’s where huge pharmaceutical and biotech companies convene to do innovative things. It also happened to be just outside my seventh-floor window at 30th Street Intake, more commonly known as the Bellevue homeless shelter.

Bellevue, of course, is famous as the oldest public hospital in the United States, with a notorious psychiatric ward that became the shorthand for "insane asylum" in 20th Century popular culture. When the hospital moved out of its gargantuan, Ivy-covered building to more modern facilities up First Avenue in 1998, New York City moved hundreds of homeless men in. Lately, the shelter’s well-to-do Kips Bay neighbors, and the city, have been campaigning to redevelop the shelter into something more up-market and send the 850 residents to a more adequate site—meaning, the hell away from here. These plans apparently stalled last April.

Still, Bellevue is the odd man out on a First Avenue strip that includes the modern Bellevue Hospital Center, N.Y.U. Hospital, various luxury residences and now, Alexandria Center.

I never noticed Alexandria Center until the night its wireless network popped up on my netbook. Faint signal, one bar.

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“Unsecured!” I blurted to my roommate, Shabazz.

Shabazz is 80 years old and only four years out of prison (after 60 years in, he says), so he could only reply, “Huhwha?”

“I might have caught a wifi signal, no security password. You know, Internet!” I said, sounding like the junkie in withdrawal that I was without the web.

He understood “Internet” and sat up in his bunk. He said, “Can you see if they got the Farrakhan speech on there?”

I shrugged. “I’ll see…”

He was referring to the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s keynote address at an event called Saviours’ Day on Feb. 27. He’d told me earlier that folks were raving about it.

Shabazz, whose more formal name is Mack Wade, became a Nation of Islam follower in prison. Radicalized from the moment he stepped into the prison system, he was in his 30's and 40's during the revolutionary 1960s. He often spoke of that time with aching nostalgia: "Brothers just don't think like that anymore."

He spoke vaguely of being sent to "the hole" often for "starting trouble with the crackers." For him, Farrakhan is a throwback to that era of fearless resistance.

I got up off my bed and took the laptop to the window. Two bars. Shabazz pulled up the heavy metal window frame to “let that radio get in there better.” But we were stuck at a wavering two bars.

I checked my email and looked up dry-cleaning jobs for Shabazz, who had mastered the trade in prison. Then I went to YouTube, where Farrakhan’s speech was the first result in a search for “Saviours’ Day 2011.”

The damn thing was 261 minutes. That’s over four hours. Beyond the miracle of video compression that allowed the whole speech to fit into one upload, I was amazed that it even started playing for a few minutes before crashing my web browser. Shabazz went back to his bed with the lost expression of a kid who’d dropped his ice cream in the dirt after one lick.

Shabazz naturally appeared to be a slim, boyish 60. His lightly graying afro was combed back into a fan-like Cornel West mane. Only the tight wrinkles around his eyes gave some indication of his true age, but his thick bifocals softened and widened his eyes. He wore gray sweatshirts and loose-fit jeans, the kind of thing I imagined he’d worn in 1945, when he was first incarcerated.

When I climbed on top of my locker by the window to make a seat out of it, a third green bar flickered. I stood up on the window ledge, and the bar became strong. I slid the top window pane down and balanced my computer on it. That’s when I saw Alexandria’s sleek buildings sprawled across a campus of fresh-cut grass (or artificial turf?), driveways and benches. Pools of pearl-white light fell on the walkways. Thank you, Alexandria.

I loaded the Farrakhan YouTube link into ATube Catcher and started downloading it to my desktop; then I went back to emails and job search. Shabazz was in for a surprise.

He wrote down a list of dry-cleaning skills he’d picked up in the penitentiary, and I turned it into a quick email to a couple of the cleaners posted on Craigslist. In less than an hour, a dry cleaner proprietor left a message on my Google voicemail for Shabazz. I relayed the info to him and he went to a case worker’s office to set up an interview for the next morning.

The next day, he didn't come back. Bellevue curfew is 10 p.m., and by 11 I figured he’d lost his bed, or got transferred to Wards Island or some other horror-show shelter. Poor guy. But I knew by the voicemail left on my Google Voice account that he’d gone to the interview, at least, and that the owner was impressed with him.

When I went down to the first floor around midnight to get some water, I passed by "The White House," the purgatory where latecomers and new arrivals wait either to be assigned a bed at Bellevue or shuttled elsewhere. There was Shabazz.

“It wasn’t even my fault,” he started.

He told me of his long, crazy adventure getting back to Bellevue from Brooklyn, where he’d gone to celebrate getting the job with old friends. I offered him congratulations and sympathy; I told him his new boss had left him a nice message.

This is where friends tell me I am simply too nice: The guy looked so distraught at losing his bed and at the likelihood of having to move to a crowded dormitory style room full of unsavory characters that I found myself saying, “Hey, man, I got the whole Saviours’ Day thing on my computer. Wanna watch it?”

He came to life. “My man! For real? Oh, man, if you don’t mind. I’ma be stuck down here all night. I could use some inspiration right now.”

I brought down the netbook and, after confirming that he was to be transferred only within the facility, left it with him for the night. I trusted him. When I first arrived at the room we’d shared, he’d extended me every courtesy, sharing surplus juice boxes and snacks he’d accumulated from the cafeteria. Although he says he's still a virgin at 80—he entered the system, he says, at 15—he had given me the most thoughtful and reasoned relationship advice I’d ever heard. (He had studied his fellow inmates’ women troubles like a science—without exactly understanding the intensity of it all: “I’m kind of afraid to fall in love with a girl. What is it about pussy that makes a man lose his mind?”)

He was always quick to say, “We have to look out for each other. That’s what we’re here on this earth for.” For a guy who had been institutionalized for six decades, he said such things with a surprising lack of jailhouse opportunism in his voice. Whatever he’d done or been through in his life, I took him as a good guy. “You know where to find me," I told him. He said, “I will see you first thing in the morning, baby brother!”

I got up around 8 a.m. and awaited his return. My new roommate, a middle-aged Latino, was chatty and a bit fidgety, which made me reflect on how cool rooming with Shabazz had been.

It had been only a week and a half for me there. I had been transferred from a very spooky room on the 8th floor, which looked like a laboratory straight out of James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, with cots and lockers in place of beakers and knife switches. Huge bay windows on three walls allowed an epic view of the East River. But the sea-green tiles on floor and walls were caked with filth.

I remember asking one of the six or eight guys living there if they had a pest problem. “Oh man, we got a little of everything: mice, roaches, all kindsa creepy crawlies to keep you company.”

I lost my bed in that room deliberately by staying out at McDonald’s that night, writing and web surfing until after curfew, and, luck of the draw, ended up on the 7th floor in this relatively clean two-man room with Shabazz. When I later told him about the 8th floor, he and his former roommate informed me that Bellevue is full of ghosts.

“The eighth floor and the basement is where they did the human experiments.” Shabazz said he’d been shoved into a wall by one of the spirits, and that the showers here often turn themselves on and off.

It was only a little later that he told me his backstory. According to Shabazz, these are the facts: At 15, he shot two Jersey cops who he says were trying to rape his mother. Double homicide. He spent four or five decades teaching himself law sufficient enough to win an appeal, finally, in '07. He claims to have spent five years in solitary confinement at one point because of his “militant” activity among inmates. And he was a prison lightweight boxer for 25 years until retiring undefeated.