Stillness in the Cemetery

by

01/02/2001

50 2nd Ave. 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

I tried to break into the Marble Cemetery . 

One Tuesday, towards midnight, I changed out of my office clothes into jeans, a sweater, and narrow-toed tennis shoes, because I would have to climb a chain-link fence entwined with barbed wire.  I gathered up supplies–a bottle of Poland Spring water, a Power Bar, and a flashlight–rejecting the Swiss Army knife as added weight, and went looking for a backpack on the top shelf of the coat closet.

I shared the apartment with my boyfriend, and my bags and his were entangled up there. When I pulled on a single strap, a whole mass of them fell to the floor. He was out of town on a business trip.  That was just as well, I thought. It would have been hard to explain my plan, not only because breaking in was a bizarre idea, which I recognized, but also because he knew of my fascination with the place and didn’t share it.  Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me much, but that summer, I was noticing things we didn’t have in common.  Our particular differences weren’t the point–among tastes, ideas, habits–but they added up to a distance between us.  We had been living together for a year and a half, dating longer, but somehow we had drifted to the far ends of our irregular orbit around each other, and it made me want to escape entirely, to disappear for a while.

If you’re looking for somewhere to disappear in New York City, there are few places more isolated than the Marble Cemetery.  It lies at the heart of a block in the East Village, walled off from the houses all around. It has been there for 172 years, abandoned not only by the living but also by some of the dead, whose families disinterred them and moved them to more fashionable cemeteries outside Manhattan.

There is one official entrance, and it’s usually closed. It’s a dim alley off Second Avenue, squeezed between the windowless side of an apartment building and the Provenzano Lanza funeral home and barred by a tall, rusty iron fence. I used to pass it back when I lived in the East Village.  Once I spoke to Duane Krautman, the manager of the funeral home, who had a key. He said he often got queries.  He never let anyone in.

“I see guys going over the fence and I go after them with a bat,” he said.

He was a vigorous guy in his mid-40s with a broad, bald head and big shoulders that stretched his black suit.

“Hmm,” I said.

Later, I did manage to get in, for a moment, when Anne Brown, one of the cemetery’s trustees, let me follow her in through the gate.  Inside was a surprisingly large lot, a rectangular half-acre covered with thick weeds. There were no headstones. The vaults, made of solid marble, were deep underground, and the owners were named on marble tablets set in the cemetery walls–a selling point in the 1830s.  The stone was worn and yellowing, melting the way a sugar cube does.  When I touched it, a crystalline grain came off on my finger.  On one wall, Ms. Brown said, a large marble plaque that once proclaimed “Place of Interment for Gentlemen” had been erased as if from a chalkboard.  At most cemeteries, the dead struggle to retain their identities, engaging visitors with their markers and messages, their firm control of real estate. Here, the dead were discreet in their absence.

Ms. Brown told me what was inside the tombs, too. A few years ago, she got a team of engineers to open a century-old vault and show her and Mr. Krautman how it had held up. When they climbed down into the shaft, she said, they found the tomb’s door swung open with a touch.  Inside, the marble, intended to keep things dry, had worked.  Mrs. Brown said the gleaming white blocks reminded her of the way she imagined an igloo.  No one brought flashlights, so the only light came from Mr. Krautman’s CamCorder, as he walked behind them muttering into the machine.  The room was seven feet high at the center, eight feet wide and ten feet long.  It had been lined with shelves like a pantry, but nothing was left except a humus of rotting coffins and bones, and, mysteriously, circles of soft rust, as if someone had sprinkled a design through his fingers, she said.  The funeral director identified the circles as frames left from flower wreaths.

What struck me was that even there, things were happening. 

Iron was crumbling.  Bones were slipping and settling. Visitors’ breaths were condensing on the wall.  I found it comforting: the liveliness of inner space, the submerged activity, the way that hidden mechanisms–even those of death–kept clicking along.

That was about all I knew about the cemetery. But the place had taken on a kind of glamour in my mind.  I had begun to picture it at night: It would have the clarity of a silver chloride print, the grain of the marble wall tablets sparkling against the nubbly masonry, the grass stiffly black, and underneath, glints here and there, like snow left in the hollows of a mountainside.  It would be the stillest place in the city.

My way into the Marble Cemetery was through Albert’s Garden, a fenced-off community plot that stretched from the street to a side wall of the cemetery. The garden wasn’t open for more than a few hours a week, but the chain-link fence, about 8 feet high, looked scaleable, and a section of it was obscured by branches.  I had noticed a ladder at the back of the garden.

When I got to the garden’s fence that night, I walked by several times nervously. There were people talking in nearby doorways.  A security light by a closed-up fire station next door clicked on and off. I timed it by counting: on for ten seconds, off for thirty.  The hardest thing was to approach the fence. It took a few minutes, but in a moment when the light was off, I stuck my foot in the fence links and hoisted myself up. Halfway up, I figured I might as well get to the top; halfway over, I figured I might as well go all the way. There at the top, I paused–froze–as someone walked by. He didn’t see me; I had already entered the shadows and become invisible. I had trouble swinging my backpack, which I now noticed had only one strap–some slick prowler I was–over the top.  I got hung up on the barbed wire at the top, tore my jeans and scraped my palm, but managed to lower myself.  My upper arms cramped up. I got out my bottle of water and took a sip.

I walked into the back of the garden.  From there, the street seemed impossibly bright.  With the street lamp behind the trees, every leaf was diffusing waxy green light.  As I struggled to extend the ladder, I realized the cemetery wall was too tall for me to get over. It loomed ten feet high, while the ladder went up only about six feet. Everywhere I touched the wall it crumbled into my hands.  I climbed to the top of the ladder, stood on tiptoe, and peered over the wall.

There was no moon, but a low haze reflected the lights of the city back into the cemetery.  An eight-story homeless shelter on one side was the most prominent thing around, with bright institutional neon coming out of all the windows and an industrial fan sending a stale, cafeteria-food smell into the air.  In other buildings around the perimeter, home lights shone–a glowing red curtain at one window, a lamp at another, and a flickering TV reflected in one more.  The space below waited for furnishings like one of the excavated Roman houses I’d seen in a magazine, with gray, tumble-down walls and a missing roof. It was just a plain box of grass. I looked for a while and then sat down on the top rung of the ladder to try to figure out what to do next. I leaned back against the wall.

Gradually, my attention turned outward to the other end of the garden, where between the leaves I glimpsed figures passing under the street light.

To the dead, there must be such a racket.  Here was a burst of car horns from the Bowery, a deep rumble of trucks, footsteps, and the voices of people walking by.  I couldn’t make out most conversations, except when people were loud: “If it’s your career, it’s your career,” I heard a woman say.  A door clicked; a car accelerated with a bass beat pumping; a hiss marked the glide of a roller-blader.  High heels tapped down the street fast.  There was a rhythmic jingle that sounded like keys in someone’s pocket but turned out to be tags at the neck of a dog.  And in the background, a roar, rising and falling like breakers, of traffic everywhere. Every now and then it quieted down, and I heard things as small as a dry, curled-up leaf scraping along the garden path. A breeze came sifting through the grass. 

Watching people felt intimate and lonely at the same time.  It reminded me of how, when I was a child, I used to go outside at night and sneak up on my own house.  I’d stand in the dewy grass, where the windows cast a neat square of light on the lawn, and look in.  Inside, the rooms would be lovingly arranged to a doll’s-house perfection: the coffee table lined up with the couch, chairs turned out expectantly from the wall, a glare off a wood floor, beige curtains pushed aside in neat folds, and sheaves of mail in a bowl.  My parents might walk through–though, more likely, at night, they would be sitting and watching TV or paging through the newspaper, my father holding up the paper so it masked him completely. (I used to be so silent, not wanting to set anything in motion, the way you lift the lid of a music box just a crack, so that the mechanism won’t start. Opening lids: the washing machine’s warm churning, the ice box exhaling coolness before the interior light clicks on, the white vaults of the cemetery. Everything has a secret life.)

After a period of watching the rooms of my house without myself in them, I would begin to feel wistful and self-pitying.  I would think this was what a ghost feels like: exiled, sad in its solitude, wanting to knock at the window.  I don’t know whether I was worried about my parents’ death, or my own, or whether I was just sensing our gradual alienation, the separation of my consciousness from theirs. 

This was what it was to be gone.

Now I was watching the city like a ghost, and I realized it was the same gesture: scaring myself to face the fear straight on.  This time, the fear was the sensation of being alone in the city, the world.  I was spying on a whole metropolis, half-hoping it would come looking for me. I could have been invisible in an apartment or on the street–looking into strangers’ glowing interiors–but the cemetery was the most forsaken place I could find.

Another room came to mind.  There were two bedside tables, one on his side, one on mine. Between them was a bed with a plaid comforter. When I was in that room in our apartment, where our things commingled, it was hard to imagine leaving, but now, I thought about being inside and then stepped out again, hovering in the dark, testing each state. I was lonely in our apartment, too, though it had been hard to recognize the feeling. 

Some people have affairs; some people go to the Marble Cemetery.  Then they figure out what to do. Soon I would go back to the apartment, at least for the moment.  I would drop down into the dry leaves, get the ladder shut, and climb back, unseen, over the chain-link fence. This was as close as I would get to the Marble Cemetery. But first, I sat on the ladder for a while, leaning against the wall.  I felt the chill of the marble chambers seeping inside me. I thought this must be why people go to cemeteries: to give shape to that interior hush.  It seemed it would always be there, an untouchable stillness like a long pause between breaths, as I sat and looked out at the city.

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