My First Casualty

by

03/02/2006

W 43rd St & 8th Ave, New York, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

I had been living in New York for three years before I saw my first dead body. Sure, there were those moments of uncertainty all New Yorkers experience, when stepping into an empty train car and seeing a body splayed out, usually a poor homeless person who certainly smelled like death; but you were never sure. I even played a game in those instances, “sleeping or dead”, to make the situation feel not so gruesome. But when I rounded the corner to my apartment after work on a bright, chilly April day, there was no doubt the body on the street was dead. An NYPD officer stood near the corpse, casually, his hands on his hips. The yellow police tape cordoned off a section of the sidewalk, the end of it flicking slowly in the wind. The body was under a clean, crisp white sheet. Less than hiding the horror beneath, the sheet only drew more attention to it. Across the street, in front of the Westin Hotel, tourists waiting for cabs were whispering and pointing, already savoring the tale they’d tell when they got home.

“We were outside our hotel and saw an honest to God dead body, a suicide,” they’d tell their relatives in Duluth or Kansas City. “How New York is that–it was better than a trip to the Statue of Liberty. We had ourselves an authentic New York moment,” they’d say, almost bragging.

Some may have been taking pictures. I was angry at them; I wanted to yell at them to stop gawking. It took me a moment to realize the deceased had not only died in front of my building, he had come from my building, more specifically the roof. He was a jumper.

I live in the Times Square Hotel. It’s no longer a hotel, but was at one point. Built in the early 1920’s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was first a bachelor’s residence, then later decayed into a drug den and flophouse before being resurrected and restored as low income apartments. The majority of the occupants are formerly homeless, or ill, but it also houses a smattering of people like me— writers, actors, dancers—artists who take advantage of the prominent location and cheap rent. Tenants are always passing away—the lobby frequently had signs that displayed “in loving memory”, plus a vase of white flowers. Those who do pass away usually die in their sleep or of an illness and are removed without drawing much attention. The white sheet on the street was different—a symbol of despair, an action of finality.

I cut across the street to avoid the police tape, the white sheet and the body, then straight into the lobby of my building. I was meeting my friend Kelly Jean to go see a Broadway show. I should have called and warned her, but instead, I took a seat, in shock. Maybe I wanted her to see it too, to corroborate the story—another witness. I waited in a chair near the revolving door until she arrived. She entered wide-eyed and clearly upset.

“Did you see…?” She began.

“I know.”

She yelled, “Why didn’t you warn me?”

“Dude, I came from the other direction. I was traumatized.”

Kelly took a seat next to me, we were both inert. She didn’t want to go back out on the street, but I persuaded her. We had free tickets to see ”A Year with Frog and Toad,” a musical based on the whimsical children’s books about the friendship between a cheerful frog and a persnickety toad.

Resolved, we made a run for it, heading east down 43rd Street, trying not to look at the tragedy. I glanced back.

Why hadn’t they removed it by now, I thought.

The show was charming, funny and sweet—innocent. I was transported, but intermittently, the thought of the corpse under the snow white sheet would creep into my head and I struggled to drive it out. It was hard to marry the purity of the show with the sheet, the suicide, and the bleakness that life in the city can create.

Afterwards, buoyed by the performance and in slightly better spirits, we went for hot chocolate. Kelly and I rehashed the incident and by the time we went our separate ways, it had started to recede from our minds, the specter of death replaced by images of dancing amphibians.

A Broadway musical and a dead body. I realized on my walk home that what had seemed an abstraction, an anomaly, was—as the tourists correctly viewed it—a quintessentially New York experience.

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