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PHIL
                     by Gil Fagiani


At the time, I was working as an aide at Bronx Psychiatric Center, raising two children but separated from my wife, who had suffered a mental breakdown—schizophrenia ran rampant in her family. She was staying at her mother’s house, along with our kids, in the Soundview section of the Bronx, and rebuffed every effort I made towards reconciliation.

I lived across town from her, in the Fordham Road neighborhood. Arson-related fires made it dangerous to remain in my Bronx tenement, but I didn’t have the money to move. An aide’s salary was paltry, and to pay my bills—which included both my sons’ tuitions at Catholic school—I often worked double shifts. This grueling regimen made it difficult for me to take the classes necessary to get my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and find a better-paying job—my exit plan out of the lunatic asylum.

Making matters worse, Governor Cuomo, in spite of his rhetoric about family and compassion, had sharply cut the New York State Office of Mental Health’s budget, resulting in working conditions at the hospital becoming ever more demanding and dangerous. Admittedly, I wasn’t dealing with the situation in the healthiest way: smoking—weed and tobacco—drinking heavily, and at times, on payday, buying half-gram packets of cocaine. More and more, the patients—the crème of the craziest, as my supervisor called them—were getting on my nerves. At the top of my shit list was Phil Nasuccio.

Although he was on the corpulent side, with a big head and honker, Phil’s hands and feet were the size of a 12-year old’s. Clean-shaven, with a meticulously-coiffed ‘50s pompadour, he wore the same outfit daily: blue-and-white striped shirt, blue knife-creased pants, and black wingtips, which looked like they belonged on a doll or puppet.

At first I thought Phil and I would hit it off, since he came from the Italian neighborhood of Morris Park Avenue, where my maternal aunt, Mariuzza, still lived. But when I called him paisan and tried to engage him in conversation, he stared straight ahead, his vibe as chilly as a blast of polar wind. Soon, I acclimated myself to his routine. Every morning, after Phil finished his breakfast, he’d take a seat in the dayroom and talk to himself all day long. I never saw him share a word with a fellow patient. Phil talked with great gusto, staring straight ahead, his tiny hands in constant motion. I used to sidle up to him to hear what he was saying. He would orchestrate different voice parts: one voice might be a baritone; the other, an alto; still another, a tenor. His cadence would vary from drawl to double-time; likewise, his emotions could range from cooing, to cranky, to sobbing hysteria. Still, I never succeeded in getting close enough to hear the actual word-content of Phil’s odd vocal modulations.





As soon as he caught me sneaking up on him, about to enter his magic circle, he’d shut down, and return to his normal squeaky ward voice. I would ask him who he was talking to, and what he was saying, but he’d just ignore me. He never showed any anger at my disturbing his scene, but his silence conveyed his utter disdain. And once I was out of the circle, he’d shift his tongue—or tongues—into passing gear, as if wanting to make up for lost time.

Phil had only one visitor—his mother—and she came every day, at the same time, 2:30 p.m.—midway between lunch and supper. She was a short, stooped woman, with wiry black-dyed hair. Early on, I made a friendly comment about the enormous variety of Italian delicacies she lugged onto the ward, but, cocking one eye in my direction, she gave me a look, not exactly of contempt, but of opaque non-recognition, like beyond the aura of her son, nothing else existed.

I resented Phil. There was something provocative and smarmy about his private conversations. I became convinced it was unhealthy—regressive—for him to indulge his auditory hallucinations; after all, he was in a state mental hospital at tax payers’ expense to get better and rid himself of his symptoms. Up until the day his mother was willing to take him back again, I made it a point to dart in and out of his circle, upending his one-man choral society. But never getting any satisfaction.

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© Jim Zola: IMG_6189

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