April 22, 2007

A Corner of an Island

If you walk straight up Greenpoint Avenue, you trespass without meaning to.

First the neighborhood itself falls away and you find yourself touring a vast industrial complex, with half-built or half-demolished projects spilling out of their scaffoldings and yellow construction tape, physically barring your way. Then the road pushes up and out until you are at rooftop-level as you approach the bridge over Newtown Creek, the horizon widening until you are uncomfortably exposed, making even the dead immensity of the warehouse district behind you seem cozy. Crossing the creek marks your passage into Queens, but that's like saying that crossing the Rubicon merely takes you into Gaul; everything about this passage is forbidden, and as the speeding trucks shake the bridge under your feet, the water stares up at you like a dead green eye as you hurry across. Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted and neglected waterways in North America, and the neighborhood just beyond is redolent with its benzene-grimed influence. All of the buildings appear to be inhabited, and yet they all seem to be for sale. Finally, just when you think you must have walked into the very land of the dead itself, you turn a corner and find yourself looking up at Calvary Cemetery.

One Corner

The city is a great engine fueled by human energy, and when we're used up, we are expelled like exhaust into other boroughs, states, and islands. Queens alone has 29 cemeteries, housing over 5 million power cells, now drained. It's inevitable that this would cause cemeteries to abut other zones in interesting ways, but the sight of it is still always a strange surprise. Stroll along this sidewalk and you will know that the dead are suspended before you at eye-level, like fish in an aquarium.

No Dumping

Whether this seems respectful or even acceptable depends on whether you're standing on the sidewalk or the grass above. I've never walked through a lovelier cemetery than Calvary; its forest of obelisks and crosses blend in perfectly with the Manhattan skyline, and though centuries-old in some cases, the graves seem fiercely well-tended, as if the survivors are determined to make the most of the little scrap of land they've been given. And while the headstones are claustrophobically regemented in tight rows, it's practically luxurious compared to the cemeteries I've seen in Brooklyn, where you can only imagine that everyone's last wishes were for compliance with the gypsy tradition: "Bury me standing."


In this city, there is no sacred place for anyone's rest, living or dead. We carry our own around inside us constantly, periodically finding a quiet place to set it down for a little while, a new neighborhood or new person becoming an annex that temporarily doubles our room to breathe, only to be torn down the moment we look away from it. We are palimpsestic. Far from discouraging, this pursuit beats redly with life's blood. We are closer to the dead and their world, and both sides glow from the attention. Our neighborhoods are side by side with theirs, we have no choice but to look and learn, to discover belief in things that make no sense, and if possible, plan an escape while we still breathe. Re-entering Greenpoint from Queens, scuttling back across the bridge and through zones that punctuate this space like the locks of a canal, I began to plan a picnic.

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