At the Cemetery

The best way to clear one’s head in a city has long been the walk in a park, and if it’s a park inhabited by dead people, all the better. Dead people scare most living people away, and give the rest of us the sense that we are visiting them on the day of their funeral, not on a day they were alive. It feels right to stay focussed, not speak out of turn, and to keep small worries in perspective. There is no sunbathing or frisbee, and very few children. At Green-Wood Cemetery in my part of Brooklyn, I once suggested to one of its board members that they start enforcing a dress code, but he seemed to think that was going too far.

A branch in Green-Wood, post-Sandy.

All this prohibitive decorum makes cemeteries priceless to the person who craves some quiet time.

It’s easy to spot a writer trying to compose a story with dialogue in another public place such as the train. He or she is distinguishable from the actors practicing their lines because, for one, the actors are usually prettier and more polished-looking, but they’re also speaking in one single voice while they mumble to themselves. The writer trying to juggle the tone and state of mind of the narrative voice AND each character participating in the story, stares deep at a tiny hunk of paper or a cell phone with her lower lip quivering. If he or she spoke out loud we’d take her for a schizophrenic, not an average narcissist. These people need rooms of their own, or some open space.

You can’t think a deep thought on the West Side Highway, with bikes and rollerbladers, and a de facto fashion show, whizzing by you. The writer in the West Village trying to take in winter sunlight while deciding if his ending is too predictable seems like he’d be S.O.L, but I digress – real estate! the most omnipresent and boring conversation in New York. The weather is more exciting, especially lately.

The dead don’t mind if you talk to yourself. And the little facts you know about them from their tombstones inspire you to write biography after biography as you walk by, priming the writing pump, like a warm-up lap before a soccer game. “This guy fought in the Civil War but his brother didn’t: Probably ran his father’s business.” “Died the same year as his wife, name sounds Scottish, I bet they were Presbyterians, and maybe that made her unhappy.” “Married an Italian: Wonder if they liked the Dodgers.” “Wife chose not to be buried here: Must have gotten remarried, or maybe she died in Florida. Bet the kids never liked the new guy. Sounds like an asshole.”

In Green-Wood yesterday morning, I was finally taking the time to let go of all the tension of the U.S. Election Day two days prior – and a day in between spent at Coney Island, where the projects were still without power ten days after Hurricane Sandy – and to start thinking comedy again. The first snow of the year added a bit of cruelty to those who are still suffering, but only made the cemetery more peaceful.

They give you a flyer when you enter Green-Wood now, saying that there are downed trees everywhere, be careful, you were warned. Most of the trees that went down were adjacent to asphalt roads, where half their roots are compromised.

Gigantic, dying trees, many of which were here when the inhabitants were alive, leave you with the impression that to the trees we are all just pups. “They teach so many things,” I stopped to muse, “including how to die with grace.” And right then, I shit you not, the tree behind me bends its limb down in the breeze, and drops a wet snowball on my head, right between my glasses and my cheekbone. Apparently they have a sense of humor too.

One grave of a guy named Theophile Kick described his death: “Aged 46 years. His sun set while it was yet day.” That was in 1878, and it’s likely that Mr. Kick had feelings about the Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden election every bit as righteous and turbulent as my feelings about Obama-Romney. Voter suppression, Southern racists, Supreme Court intrigue, it’s a different set of characters in a familiar genre. But life goes on, and you have pages to write, until you die.

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