Standing in squares of sunshine

“Is this place haunted?” my colleague asks.

Five of us from the Chemical Heritage Foundation are seated in the surgical amphitheater at the historic Pennsylvania Hospital. The hospital’s archivist is leaning on the non-historic operating table, awash in the sunlight that made nineteenth century surgical operations possible. She pauses, considering my colleague’s question, and cocks her head, measuring her response.

“What I always say,” the archivist says now, “is that things happen to you when you’re open to that experience. If you don’t believe in that kind of thing, it’s not likely to happen to you.”

My coworkers and I are touring the historic part of the Pennsylvania Hospital because we’ve just learned it’s possible to do so. This place, the first hospital in the United States, was founded by Thomas Bond with the help of Benjamin Franklin, before the nation officially existed, and it’s our kind of place, with its rare books library, history of medicine archives, plaques and busts honoring Philadelphia’s finest founding fathers and mothers, and a connection to Franklin, one of our favorite innovators. The day is bitterly cold and we’ve hiked across Old City Philadelphia against the howling wind. Soon after we arrive, when we’re standing in the original entryway at the base of twin sweeping staircases, the archivist only briefly opens the huge main door, allowing a glimpse from behind of the William Penn statue that stands guard over the pristinely raked front yard. The archivist tells us there are stories of the spirit of William Penn descending from that statue and dancing in the yard—which seems unlikely to us all, not because of the spirits but because we’ve never heard of Quakers dancing.

*

I have only been in the Pennsylvania Hospital once before, three or four years ago. At the time I was doing some research for a short story that took place in Old City Philadelphia—research that involved trekking along the cobblestones of Society Hill and Queens Village, following in what I imagined to be Ben Franklin’s footsteps from the covered marketplace at Head House Square down to the unmarked graves in Washington Square Park and, finally, to the hospital, where I paused outside the gates, looking in on the historic front yard, with its statuesque rendering of William Penn and the solemn, quiet reverence of its rhododendrons. I spent that afternoon skirting the hospital, circling it on side streets, lingering in shops on Seventh Street and retracing my steps back up to the train station. I couldn’t go home though, because the story required that I make my way into the hospital itself. I had imagined key scenes in the short story taking place in that hospital, and I needed to get to know the building the way I’d just gotten to know the cobblestones and side streets.

I’d started writing that story at about the same time that I began to take myself seriously as a writer. In fact, the idea was so new to me that the mantle of story research seemed like a flimsy excuse to give hospital security if they berated me for trespassing. I worried about getting stuck in some hallway, about being escorted off the premises, about learning too much about the inner workings of the Pennsylvania Hospital for my own good.

Finally, though, I set those worries aside. I took a deep breath and walked in the main entrance of the modern wing of the Pennsylvania Hospital. I walked with purpose to the bank of elevators and rode to the top floor, letting the door slide open at each intervening floor, clinging to my story line for guidance if anyone asked where I was going.

And no one asked. I rode the elevator back down to the first floor and wandered into a waiting room, where I settled into a chair to watch the hallway traffic. I listened to codes called over the PA and paged through an old issue of InStyle magazine. I browsed the hospital gift shop and bought a Hershey’s bar. I bought a cup of coffee at the stand near the hospital’s side exit and, eventually, stepped from the building back on to Pine Street, surprised that I’d managed to infiltrate the hospital. I felt invisible, invincible. Like a ghost.

*

Before we leave the surgical amphitheater, the hospital’s archivist says she’s never invited Ghost Hunters into the building because she doesn’t want to upset the balance she’s got going with whatever spirits haunt the hospital. “I have to work here,” she says. “And, anyway, it’s a working hospital.”

I tell my colleagues about visiting the part of the building that still operates as a hospital, about the story research. I don’t tell them that I still haven’t finished that story, that it’s ballooned from something short and overwhelming to something longer, a little more manageable for the kind of writer I’ve become. That traipsing through the hospital was like a rite of passage, the beginning of a new writerly life. These days I claim I’m doing story research so often that my mother chuckles at the claim, as if she doesn’t quite believe that writers are the kinds of people who investigate the world in order to learn something about the past, present, and future possibilities around them—around us—in order to summon what might be lying just beyond the boundaries of what most people perceive.

It’s easy to believe the hospital might be inhabited by previous patients who were once strapped to the operating table in the third floor amphitheater, their bodies sliced open at high noon, when the sunlight up there was brightest. It’s also easy to understand why someone today might want to maintain the balance between the past and present.

I still know every brick and cobblestone between the hospital and the part of Old City where I now work. I can, I think, find my way from Washington Square to the hospital, without much reflection. My feet carry me there as if I haunt this particular corner of Philadelphia, and sometimes I let my feet do just that. Then I stand at this most familiar corner at the intersection of past and present and watch the Penn Medicine MDs dart, bare armed, between buildings, their patients and families trundling into the new lobby so that a receptionist can print out official visitor badges. I follow the bricked sidewalk from the modern entrance to the main one, where William Penn presides. I feel the sunlight as it falls on the gravel and the greenery and the skylight in the cupola, my own square of sunlight letting me perform surgery down here on the ground.

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