Rosemary’s Baby

There’s a rare opportunity to buy a co-op apartment in The Dakota right now. I know this because an ad keeps finding me online this week telling me so; I don’t know who thinks I might want to buy a $1.8 Million one-bedroom on the eighth floor of a historic building – that’s not including the “maintenance fees,” which are higher than my rent in Brooklyn – but they should check their algorithm.

I do like history, I’ll give them that. The Dakota to me isn’t about the tragedy of John Lennon, it’s about the tragedy of Rosemary Woodhouse. I can relate to how congenitally nice and accommodating she is to neighbors. I’m the sort of person who’d rather put a pillow over his head than tell the neighbors to quiet down.

The day my wife and I first saw the place we’ve called home for five years out here in South Brooklyn – not quite Sunset Park, but not exactly South Slope either: I just call it “by the cemetery” – was on a hot 4th of July. We woke up and watched Rosemary’s Baby on a whim. Afterwards, while no one else was searching the ads for apartments on a holiday, my wife logged on and noticed the name of a broker she’d met once before, and called him, and he said “I’m actually at the place right now, come on over.”

Rosemary wasn’t as lucky. I don’t know who’s going to drop One Point Eight on a gorgeous little “starter” apartment in the Dakota this year, but if a kind old, uh, Jewish-seeming neighbor knocks on their door asking questions about their family plans, they might want to grow some boundaries.


A Frozen Zen Garden Awaits Someone

I don’t like it when the sky dumps over two feet of snow on a city and forces it to shut down; I love it when the sky dumps that snow. It forces the inflexible to change their plans. It forces the ambitious to relax. It forces the pedestrians in the most in-a-hurry city in America to stop and let one another pass.

When the city banned cars from the road on Saturday, people on foot took to the streets, smiling and snapping photos of each other in the middle of avenues. The moon was full somewhere up in that sky, and many were inebriated – nothing was open except for bars and liquor stores, and a few bodegas and hardware stores hoping to sell a few more shovels.

The next day, I wasn’t the only person to think of going to Green-Wood Cemetery: I came across a dozen or so people, mostly in twos, but one other solo guy as well, a bat shit crazy Chinese-American ranting about a disagreement he was having in his head, who greeted my “hello” with a scared silence that lasted till he was thirty yards behind me.


Come to mourn the loss of absolutely nothing.

I was looking for a spot I’d found the week before, one day when my wife and I were the only people who’d thought of going there. We’d come across a part of the cemetery I’d once known as a dumping ground for torn-out shrubs and piles of leaves, and then a construction site. Now the construction was finished.

Old cemeteries are under financial pressure to find more patches of ground within their gates to bury bodies in. Civil War vets don’t pay the bills. Green-Wood, I could see, had converted its biggest compost pile into a new mausoleum.

Why do we like cemeteries? What compels people to go think about life surrounded by other people’s ancestors? In most places they’re the only parks made for silent contemplation. Roller blading is forbidden. Lycra® is bad form. Reading the names of strangers whose place in the fabric of life is already final, you feel connected to that fabric.

Still – and I say this as someone who does U-turns on country roads in Pennsylvania when he sees that he’s missed a boneyard by an old Moravian church – you feel pangs of guilt about the voyeurism of it. This isn’t your great-grandparent, and it isn’t your faith. The beauty of this spot was cultivated to ease the grief of someone else.

This wall of empty space in Green-Wood provides all the contemplation with none of the distraction of the actual object of mourning. Very tastefully done too, I might add.


Boss Tweed’s grave, worn by generations of hands.

With few actual graves in this pile of snow, it’s understandable that the crew at Green-Wood was in no hurry to dig out its paths. I would have walked right past it yesterday if I hadn’t made a mental note that it was just around the corner from Boss Tweed’s grave. I always found it curious how much corrosion Tweed’s stone has, presumably from people who’ve come to touch history. He’s not Saint Mark or Elvis Presley. He’s the symbol of something that, to those who care about it, they probably have mixed feelings about. Forgive the pun, but I guess he’s still a touchstone.

If you can find Boss Tweed’s grave, keep poking around. I’d put my rubber boots on to wade into the drifts, but only got as close as the next ridge over, about as far as it takes for a madman to feel like danger has passed so he can start ranting again. It was so pretty I didn’t want to disturb it.

This week while water trickles from underneath the drifts, one of you will break through the crust on top of the snow to find a frozen meditation garden, a place to contemplate being on this planet and what’s really important. All the things we miss while we’re doing, doing, doing.

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.