Monday, January 5, 2009

Visiting Melville's Grave

First, this entry centers on Herman Melville, the guy who in the middle of the 19th century wrote a book about a whale, among other things. Maybe you've heard of it. Maybe you couldn't give a rat's ass. If the latter, then you won't want to keep reading. He means a great deal to me, though, more than maybe I could write, so I wanted to honor his death by visiting his grave.

Melville's buried in the Bronx, at the tippy-top of both the 4 and the 2 lines. Either way you take the train all the way to the end and you're there. Which meant I could walk to a stop in Brooklyn, hop in, and about an hour and a half later I'd be at the place. Finding the actual gravesite might be a little trickier, as the cemetery is honkin huge (that's just a section of it), but that's later.

Let's set the scene. I head outside and it's a clear, cold day, a pretty much pitch perfect gray Winter day in Brooklyn--overcast, light wind, just enough to make the bare trees shiver and clack their branches, and cold without being freezing. You see your breath but it's not uncomfortable. So I decide to walk to the 4 train, which is just a little farther than the 2. As I walk I get more and more sensitized to my surroundings, and giddy. I'm going someplace in the city I've never been before! It's on my list of crap I tried to do for all of 2008 and now it's 2009 and this is a little belated but hell I'm doing it! A group of seagulls are all wingspread and circling overhead. I think it's a good sign. Then there's apprehension, as the Bronx isn't exactly pedestrian friendly--it was designed later, and for cars--and my worries I'll get lost, the weather will get awful fast, I'll get too chilly. Essentially I'm worried I'm too much of a little bitch, unworthy to visit the bones of a mighty sailor turned scribbler.

I go on anyway, and a train is just arriving. I've packed along with my trail mix and apple--this is the closest I get to a field trip in the city--a copy of Moby Dick, and while that may seem corny or hokey to some of you I don't care. I'll shout it from the rooftops: I'm a big dork! I heart books! I double heart books, especially ones that nobody reads but thinks they should or have had to in school and have since summarily forgotten!! In the spirit of Ishmael, I will revisit his sentiment that when some feel down in the mouth and rimed and hoary about their beards, they fall on the sword; I quietly take to graves. The new year hadn't brought me so much cheer, and I had already been not only delayed heavily by a visit to the post office, but completely thwarted by that institution in my efforts to pick up my package--in short, I was not a chipper whistling Popeye heading out for the spinach factory that day. But I walked onto that train, sat down, took a deep breath, and opened to the chapters called, in succession, the Chapel, the Pulpit, and the Sermon, being as they are concerned with deaths of whalemen and how to grieve for them.

As I mentioned, I was feeling pretty radiated, and the world inside had become quite bright whenever I looked up from my reading. I noticed an old white woman with dyed carrot-orange hair coiffured into a perfect almost pumpkin roundness around her head sit down across from me with a young beautiful girl. The girl had this perfect flat face--she was adopted, I guessed, and either from Vietnam or Laos, some place full of orphan cannibals in need of Christianizing--and darting almond eyes. Her nose looked stretched across like her ears formed the tips of the Y-shaped branch of a slingshot. She was bopping her legs against the underseat heater and yammering about 86th street, about how they were getting off at 86th street, right? The high-toned white woman--who had absolutely flabbergasting blue eyes, the color of the atlantic ocean--sighed and nodded and generally looked deflated with weariness and out of her league. I had just gotten to the part where Ishmael notices Queequeg in the chapel, solemnly listening to Father Mapple go on about Jonah with very little recognition (and later marking off every fifty pages of the Bible and grunting at the impressive weight and length of the tome he can't read). I dug back into the cenotaphs marking off dead sailors so their families would have somewhere to attach their grief, and Ishmael talking about you don't know how lucky you grievers of those who died on land have it, with the bones under the earth under your feet! For the misery of not knowing just where the dead have been lost is nearly unbearable, and the doubts it raised haunt the living endlessly, and prove that the dead are always with us, and that the past is a heavy ballast on our soaring soul balloons indeed. And Ishmael is telling us that there is great loneliness in living, and that the ocean doesn't lie about that, and Mapple's telling us, too, and both tell us their stories and observations and thoughts and tell us that these things have their meanings as well.

When the train pops up above ground and goes local at the leading edge of the Bronx, I hear the two fat women to my right say in West Indian accents that it's snowing. I look up from the book again and I think they're mistaken, that it's just foggy. Then I see that these are just waves of finely grained snowflakes blowing in almost perfect 45 degree unison. I start nervously eating my trail mix with its omega-3 fortified cranberries and pumpkin seeds it calls "Pepitas" because it's from Trader Joe's and they're hip like that.

When I get out of the station I'm looking right at the cemetery entrance, practically. And it's beautiful: I'm in a soft swirling snow globe, no bluster at all--just gentle mists of tiny snow all around. The air is still and quiet, and even the cars passing on the melted blacktop have muted tires. I hustle past the entrance gate, remembering quickly that the website mentioned maps in the security booth, and head to what looks like such a structure.

it's the bathroom. But it's cozily heated and I figure I better follow the "make sure you use the bathroom before a long trip--just try" rule, plus did i mention it's cozy and inviting and warm, even for an antiquated public bathroom? So I don't get my map but the experience is pleasant all the same, and when I get back outside I see a guy--the only other patron of the place I see the entire visit, it turns out--staring at what looks like a map behind glass.

And there it all is: a map and a legend to different plots, most of which are named after trees. I had looked up some info. beforehand and so knew Melville was located in the Catalpa plot, so I found that in the index, traced my fingers to I-7, and mapped a route to it from where I was. It was easy it turned out--just stay on central avenue--so i turned off the worried about what lies ahead part of my brain and just took it all in.

What glory! What meaningless testament to rotten flesh! There are entire what looks like villages dedicated to august stone mausoleums in here, all because some rich or prominent or both guy died. There's J.C. Penney, there's Reuter who started the news agency, there's Macy and Woolworth. All these etched giant names in greek pillared houses surrounded by ornated protector lions or acanthus leaves or planters or, Jesus, who knows? All locked up in what looks to be a vault-like mechanism and behind stacks of metal-screened doors--you get to the top of the marble steps and knock knock knock to lay your wreath down, but nobody's home. He been gone a long time, mister. So I walk on in the complete silence--only a rare pickup truck with a snowplow or a sudden burst of birds overhead or in the distance breaks it--and wonder where Miles Davis is buried.

Or Duke Ellington. They're both supposed to be there. I march on and am really grooving on the way the snow has tucked us all into its blanket and how restful death is when I get over a rise and see a greened-up old copper sign to my right: Catalpa. Next I gotta figure out how the frig I'm gonna pinpoint the exact grave. This is a bit nerve-wracking, as the plot is big and winding. But of course you can't quit this close; you can just get annoyed at yourself for not looking harder for a map you could take with you (because, as it turns out and I found out when I exited from the same gate on my return trip after seeing the grave, that the very map I looked at has important people's exact location within plots marked for easy finding. But our hero doesn't know that at this point in the story, because he's a big dumb idiot that doesn't notice important details until they cease to be relevant. Doh!); and you can march around at an ever quickening pace, peering in and squinting at the names on the headstones that a blind man could read from east Des Moines; and you can try to determine the system for how the graves are laid out, as though the dead cared about being organized, or the families of folks had died in chronological and sequential order in such a way as to yield a neatly alphabetical or oldest to newest progression, all so you, the casual visitor, could make your way that much easier past them to the one headstone you really care about.

But I knew what it looked like, so I persevered. I turned a corner, saw what looked like the grouping for W.C. Handy's clan, caught from across the way the sight of an unrolled scroll:

(I actually didn't bring a camera, so I'm grateful to this person's flickr pic for giving me something to share with you all. This seems to be taken in autumn, and so doesn't capture the silent cotton robing of the snow meadow, or the way the flakes nestled into the browned ivy skirt around the base. Too bad, but better than nothing.)

The grave is fairly unremarkable, in fact. Especially amid all the pomp and circumstance of the other big names. You could easily lose sight of this plainspoken puppy. Next to it, the cross, is his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. Her name was covered in snow so I brushed a rectangle out for the "Melville" and the rainbow across the top for her first and middle names. Flanked on either side of the parents are their three kids, their daughter Bess next to their mother on the right, and the two sons, Malcolm and Stanwix, both of whom their parents outlived, next to Pops Herman off to the left. Stanwix's grave I have to guess at because the letters are worn clean off; he died young so it's the oldest of the graves, weirdly (and ghastly) enough.

On top of both Herman and Elizabeth's headstones are offerings of a kind. On the flat left part of her cross there's a neatly folded and faded old American flag under a rock, and a canister of that brand of sea salt, Bailene, with the whale on it, red fading to pink and banked up with a small mound of snow. It looks of a piece with the stone because the snow hides any separation. On the bigger surface area of his headstone there are more and more and still more rocks, along with some carefully and artfully placed twigs and acorns, all of which taken together forms a kind of nest. And the eggs in the nest? Pens. Tons and tons of pens, piled on top. It's breathtaking, and it choked me up a little to see--that and when I first walked up, saying Oh, God, oh, Wow, oh, my God.

It's overwhelming just to be there, and I get a little soft in the head. I start talking to the headstone like it's him, like Melville's still alive. I tell it I want to read it a story, and I read the section called the Castaway, as it's about deep-divers and coming back from long journeys not quite the same forever, and about being darkened but still the brightest, like polished ebony. I read it softly like I'm telling a secret, or like I'm trying not to wake the baby in the next room, and there's another guy--the second person I've seen--pushing a snowblower way off and making a muted machine sound that barely penetrates our soft little drama out here in the cold, with my cheeks puffing and red and my breath visible. I get done the section and tell the headstone thanks for that, deposit an apple core at the foot of a massive gaping oak tree next to the graves, and leave, still lonely but at least whole.

No comments: