The garden in Riverside Park is fragrant and full of kids playing, but only several hundred yards away Grant’s Tomb maintains its atmosphere of austerity and stillness.
The sign on the plaza outside the Tomb, under the sycamores, reads NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES. And immediately one thinks of whiskey and of the General in his Union-blue private’s coat and of the roughness of his appearance and the sadness in his eyes. Is this one of the reasons we are so consistently drawn to these men–their sadness? Grant, Lincoln, Sherman: Some of the greatest vessels for sadness the world has ever known. Fathers, every one–our fathers–saints and sinners both. But they got the job done. They won the war. They preserved the Union. They held the house together. And they stood by each other. It moves me so much to her Sherman tell of how Grant stood by him when he, Sherman, was crazy, and how Sherman stood by Grant when grant was down on his luck and being vilified as a drunk in the press. Protect your flank.
The tomb, as always, is scarcely visited. As always, I lean over the lip of the balustrade encircling the well of the rotunda. As always, it seems staggering that Ulysses S. and Julia D. have left their actual remains here in these sarcophagi, here in this indifferent city. I descend to the lower rotunda, down the symmetrical marble stairwell. Softly I whistle “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” trying to sound straightforward about it, but I guess there is no getting away from the fact that it carries a sentimental freight. It still seems the right sound for this place.
I look around. The general’s generals have been given bronze busts, and they stare out from recesses in the rotunda walls like lost passengers in forgotten subway stops. Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga. Sherman. McPherson, and Tiny Philip Sheridan.
Above, one park ranger, a man, stands looking down into the Grant sarcophagi, and bellows at top volume, as if he were at home and the bathtub were overflowing, “JANE! JANE! YO, JANE!” Meanwhile, I am standing at the knick-knack and postcard cash register, but this man can’t take my money because of whatever crisis is making him howl Jane’s name at the top of his voice in the sacred tomb of the of the 18th President of the United States.
When he finally comes over, full of insincere apology, he snatches at my money and says that it’s the Japanese–“These Japanese tourists who don’t know where they’re going”–and off he goes again, like a Jack-in-the-Box, rapidly unfolding a new York City subway map to show a group of stranded Japanese tourists.
On the walk back, it all weighs a little heavier than on the walk in. I’m hungry, mainly, I guess, and tired, and I have to fight hard to keep my feelings about last night’s pleasant but unexciting date and this morning’s slight spiritlessness under control. I wish I didn’t feel this way or think this way–wish I would just shut up and get down to some real work, but I can’t seem to find the will.