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In the spirit of Joseph Mitchell and E. L. Doctorow, a haunting and genre-defying portrait gallery of once-eminent, now half-forgotten New Yorkers buried in the city’s largest cemetery
Woodlawn Cemetery is a massive necropolis, four hundred immaculately and privately maintained acres in the north Bronx that serve as the final resting place for three hundred thousand New Yorkers. It is a place of startling serenity and architectural distinction...
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In the spirit of Joseph Mitchell and E. L. Doctorow, a haunting and genre-defying portrait gallery of once-eminent, now half-forgotten New Yorkers buried in the city’s largest cemetery
Woodlawn Cemetery is a massive necropolis, four hundred immaculately and privately maintained acres in the north Bronx that serve as the final resting place for three hundred thousand New Yorkers. It is a place of startling serenity and architectural distinction as well as cultural and historical significance that nonetheless remains unknown to the majority of people who live in the city. Which is surprising when one learns that its (very) long-term inhabitants include Herman Melville, Duke Ellington, Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia, Miles Davis, and dozens of Gilded Age grandees—including Goulds and Astors—who were determined to spend eternity with opulence to match their residences while alive.
Writer Fred Goodman stumbled upon Woodlawn one day when he wandered off his bicycling path. The Secret City is the product of his frankly obsessive researches into the lives of many of the once famed, now forgotten men and women buried there. Featuring nine dramatic episodes, chronologically arranged, each story presents an exceptional individual caught up in a defining or historical moment of New York’s social, political, commercial, or artistic life. Readers meet phrenologist and publisher Orson Fowler, ASPCA founder Henry Bergh, Gilded Age railroad magnate Austin Corbin, political satirist Finley Peter Dunne, “Boy Mayor” John Purroy Mitchel, attorney Francis Garvan, sculptor Attilio Piccirilli, Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, leftist East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio, and pioneering aviatrix Ruth Nichols.
Framing and tying together these novelistic tales is the first-person narrative of the author’s discovery of Woodlawn and his research. The Secret City is, then, an act of resurrection—a way of putting flesh on the anonymous dead, and humanizing and demystifying a city whose fabulous history is, too often, interred with its inhabitants.
I Call On Herman Melville
I first glimpsed Woodlawn through the window of a commuter express train. It was just another of the half-dozen Bronx stops I sped past twice each workday, and the concrete platforms and dull green signs of the Woodlawn station indicated nothing more than a disheveled collection of auto body shops, track yards, and overgrown lots framing an old, gray cemetery tucked against the city's northern border. It was, like so much of my native borough, just somewhere settled in some vague past and then left to its inevitable anonymous fade. If I happened to look up from my newspaper, I never gave the place a thought. And I certainly never imagined that some years later, in the wake of that terrible and inconceivable New York September, I would slip my moorings and drift out on the ocean of the city, floating without aim until the currents delivered me up to the ghosts of Woodlawn.
If I'm to be honest, I should say that I didn't even know I was drifting--just that I was suddenly having trouble sleeping. I live on a quiet street just beyond the fringe of the city these days and I'd never had a problem turning myself off before, even when I had an apartment across the street from the noisiest biker bar in Brooklyn. Back then, it fell to my girlfriend--bloodshot and bleary-eyed--to fill me in the next afternoon about the drag races which had shattered the sleep of everyone else at closing time. She would conjure malevolent chrome and black Harley choppers with glasspack-amplified exhaust systems roaring like rockets on a trajectory straight for either hell or Bay Ridge, whichever came first. For all I knew--blissful, unperturbed log that I was--she was making it up. Lately, however, I'd found myself dozing off earlier and earlier only to awaken at four, or two, or even midnight. The worst were the foggy or rainy nights when the nearby airport rerouted incoming jets right over my house. Then I'd snap awake with a sharp stab of panic at the ominous crescendo of enormous engines which, although actually high above, sounded as if they were about to crash through the roof and obliterate the house.
Nothing could lull me back to sleep, especially not the late-night news programs on the radio. If I went downstairs to reheat the coffee, just a glance at the day's spent grounds turned my stomach. The next morning on the train, exhausted and frazzled, I read my paper as I'd always done but without real comprehension, the words floating in the air before my red eyes like bits of disembodied ash that could never be put together again. And it wasn't just me. Everyone on the train, in the street, at work, lunch, or even just grabbing a smoke in front of the office buildings, was the same. That is, they were the same as they'd always been but different. Mourning hung like a gray cloud, yes, but it was more: a new uncertainty about things never questioned, a feeling of deep doubt akin to the first time you heard your father tell someone a lie. I don't know what others did, but I soon realized there were evenings when I needn't bother trying to get back to sleep. Instead, I surrendered and took to bicycling through the empty late-night streets of New York City.
Although my nocturnal sojourns were my own idea, I owed the original impetus for biking to my doctor. He's a nice guy, young and very low-key, and I like him despite the fact that he's conspicuously solemn in the manner of all modern doctors. As a kid I rode the bus with my grandmother for many of her frequent visits to a physician on the Grand Concourse--she had a heart condition--and I remember those appointments as something warm and congenial. After her exams, the doctor, a gray-haired man who favored vibrant silk ties and had a small pencil mustache like the urbane Manhattan gentlemen in Depression-era movies, would sit with her in his office and talk and laugh and share a smoke. Not something you'd want to see in your doctor today, of course. And perhaps as a seven-year-old I couldn't conceive of the approaching end that must have been the reason for all those exams, or decipher the subtle admonitions that I now suspect were the real meat of those seemingly casual conversations.
The tenor of my own trips to the doctor was all the proof I needed of how much times had changed, in general and for me. Somewhere along the line my annual physical had been magically transformed from the pro forma tests for infections and hernias that comprise back-to-school checkups into something a good deal more adult--and a great deal more anxiety-provoking. No more pencils, no more books: just stress tests, cardiograms, and the myriad nuances of the language of middle-aged blood with its lipids, glycerides, triglycerides, and omegas. "I know it seems a little humiliating," my nice doctor who doesn't smoke said sympathetically while snapping on the plastic glove for my first prostate exam. But I wasn't having any of his condescending crap. "Only one of us endured eight years of college to get to this moment," I shot back testily while exposing my best side, "and it wasn't me."
Maybe it was the glove, maybe it wasn't. But there's no doubt that there is a moment in midlife when you can feel death probing you and the inescapable fact of mortality finally comes to roost. No matter how good the rest of your day is it's always there when you get home, like the awful next door neighbor who will never move away. That's certainly not the way it is when you are younger, when the people who die are suitably old--like, forty or fifty--or the victim of some rare disease or catastrophic event. Don't misunderstand me: I am grateful for a life blessedly free of such heartaches, for healthy children and a home. Still, you don't have to be as wretched as John Cheever to understand why all those straight-arrows with nice families, big houses, and rewarding jobs suddenly take lovers or get serious about their drinking or waste the better part of their afternoons watching the breeze shake the leaves out beyond their office windows, daydreaming about drifting away from the facts of their lives as lightly as a milkweed seed. But I'm the kind of coward who likes to do all of his running away close to home. So I bought a bicycle.
Growing up in the Bronx, my brothers and my friends and I all rode Huffys and Royce Unions from the Korvette's on the Boston Post Road--a fancy bike was a Schwinn and usually reserved for an only child or someone whose parents were getting divorced--and I can vividly remember my dad assembling my red and white Japanese three-speed in the living room of our apartment while keeping one eye on the first Nixon-Kennedy debate. When I took up riding again it was an unpleasant surprise to discover six-thousand-dollar bicycles. My childhood recollection is that bicycles were toys and that when you went to a bike shop the only adult was the owner. And it's the same on the roads now: you don't see kids with baseball gloves hanging from the handlebars on their way to the ball field, or hear baseball cards clicking against the spokes--it's middle-aged men and women with heart monitors tricked out any sunny Sunday morning in padded shorts and moisture-wicking socks, heading for Starbucks on expensive hybrids with oversized, prostate-friendly seats.
Like anyone who gets on a bicycle for the first time in twenty years, I was encouraged by the truism that riding is one of those things you never forget. But my first couple of weeks made me wish I had. They were bad. Real bad. Forget leg strength--I didn't have any--the shock was how winded I became at the first hint of a hill. And not just the big, obvious ones, either, because I made it a point to stay away from those, but the gentle rises you never notice in a car, the modest but steady slope of neighborhood streets normally noticed only by the children who have to walk to and from school every day. When I recall that first week, I don't picture myself on the bicycle. Usually I'm walking. Or kneeling alongside it, fixing a jammed chain, my hands coated in thick, black grease. Still, I stuck it out and was soon proficient enough not to drop the chain whenever I downshifted for a hill. Within a month my wind and endurance were much improved, my rides increasingly ambitious. Another month and I was averaging fifteen to twenty miles with longer rides on the weekends. The gains came faster and faster and soon I was looking to extend my territory like a neighborhood dog. Inspired, I picked up the pace and rode daily. I also changed my diet, giving up meat. When that made me feel even better, I also dropped cheese and whole milk. I had discovered The Brutal Inverse Law of Midlife Fitness: If you want to feel good as a man, you've got to run around like a boy and eat like a girl.
Before long, it wasn't uncommon for me to ride fifty miles at a clip, and when I tried my hand at centuries, organized hundred-mile rides, I was pleased to discover that, while I certainly wasn't at the front of the pack, I could do them without difficulty. I also began to glimpse another level in the distance: I was meeting bikers who rode more than twenty thousand miles a year over the hilliest routes they could find, athletes training for triathlons, and riders who participated in double centuries--a particularly grueling kind of insanity requiring roughly fourteen hours of nearly nonstop riding over two hundred miles. I wasn't sure how I felt about taking it to the next step.
Then something unanticipated happened: my satisfaction proved short lived. It was that same feeling you have when you go to bed tired and happy after a hard day only to find yourself suddenly wide awake two hours later, an elusive but profoundly unsettling thought skipping quickly away along the far edge of your consciousness. I was kidding myself--no matter how far I rode, no matter how many sprints I did, it was never going to be enough. I gave up oils, fats, and nuts. Then white flour and white rice. I rode twice a day.
So I can't just blame my nice doctor who doesn't smoke. He was only doing his job responsibly when he diagrammed my family's history of heart disease, or raised his eyebrows and tilted his head meaningfully when I recounted my long, sweet affair with tobacco (those good old pre-mortality days!), or when he sonorously listed the striking number of my close relatives who chew Lipitor like it is pez. Something else had happened. I had become superstitious.
At first it was an unspoken but increasingly strong conviction that a direct correlation existed between how many long, torturous miles I could ride and the length of my life. After all, isn't that the dynamic of exercise--something like putting money in the bank? The more I ride, the safer I'll be. But I had to get off the bike sometime, and that was the conundrum, the nameless nag. This is a game you are going to lose.
If my bicycle had subsequently languished in the garage, perhaps you can still understand why I reached for it once again on those late summer nights when every commuter plane sounded like a missle and Mars looked to come crashing down from the twilight sky. We were in a new world and I wasn't even sure that all the old streets--so quiet, so dark, and so empty--were still out there. I prayed the vibrations from the wheels of my bicycle would travel up my legs, make my body tingle with the rhythm of the city, and hum a familiar lullaby in my sleepless ears.
The clock in front of the Sherry Netherland Hotel at Fifth Avenue and sixtieth Street said 4:35 when I began my first ride, a simple, familiar route through midtown and Central Park, very early on the first Sunday of October. I'd worked many years in midtown, had walked most of these blocks more times than I could count, yet they looked and felt different in the quiet dark. At lunch hour on a sunny summer day Sixth Avenue's plazas, benches, steps, and fountain walls are lined with the office girls from Bensonhurst, Long Beach, and Elizabeth, smartly dressed in their Loehmann's finds and nursing bottles of water or eating salads and falafels purchased from the corner carts, trying not to get caught sneaking peeks at the boys who hang on the fringes, smoking and braying into their cell phones and pretending in turn to be here for something other than the girls. And in the daytime chaos of the cramped street there is the relentless, creeping army of traffic: trucks, stretch limos, and the countless indomitable yellow cabs, as common and indestructible as pigeons, fighting for every inch and dreaming of taking a mile. I'm not afraid of that kind of traffic; truckers and taxi drivers are as focused and aggressive as assassins, but unlikely to target me. Instead, I reached Thirty-fourth Street and found the wide and rutted pavement was virtually mine from the looming fa*ade of the Empire State Building to the squat industrial ugliness of Madison Square Garden. Maybe it's the fact that the late and much-lamented Penn Station once stood here and that the building is across the street from the General Post Office, an extraordinary structure in the Federalist style guarded by a regiment of Doric columns and enough marble stairs to reach heaven, but never has anything deserved less to be called a garden. This one always reminds me of the enormous industrial air-conditioning units found on the roofs of midtown office buildings, and I barely gave it a glance. Although cabs shot across the avenues with regularity, there was almost no one else out and around. On Thirty-fifth Street I peered into Han Bat, a well-known twenty-four-hour Korean restaurant whose oversized seafood pancakes, called pa-jeon, were once among my favorites. It was deader than heaven on Saturday night: just a waiter and one very bored chef. They were doing a little better over at the brightly lit Gray's Papaya stand at Thirty-seventh and Eighth, where several nighthawks who obviously don't share my desire to live forever were wolfing down dogs while a pair of cabbies leaned against their cars drinking the stand's famously frothy concoctions of fruit-juice-and-God-knows-what.
In the world of New York street food, the drinks at Gray's Papaya are the culinary equivalent of alligators or coelacanths--living fossils, the remnants of a once flourishing world. What happened to Orange Julius? They were the kings of New York's hot-dog-and-fruit-juice stands into the early sixties, as ubiquitous as the Chock full o'Nuts counters with their "heavenly" coffee and cream cheese sandwiches on raisin bread. I never drank an Orange Julius--it was one of those things Jewish mothers wouldn't let their children have, like Bungalow Bar ice cream or any luncheonette sandwich with mayonnaise made between Memorial Day and Labor Day--and I guess I miss them the way I miss the old Penn Station, which I never actually visited. But I would be cheered an hour later by the discovery of a new Tad's Steak House in an otherwise Disneyfied Times Square--their $4.99 dinners of broiled steaks (as thin as the sole of a shoe but a good deal tougher) served with garlic toast, baked potato, and salad were once a common New York delight. And a little later at Fifty-seventh and Sixth, I snickered at the new restaurant--a faux landmark clearly aimed at the tourist trade--which boasted of being a New York tradition since 1935. The building used to be an Automat, one of the Horn & Hardart restaurants where you fed nickels into the coin slots of small, individual glass display cases to buy pots of franks and beans or egg salad sandwiches and slices of pumpkin pie while an unseen army of women in hair nets and tan-and-white uniforms hustled on the other side of the glass to reload the cases. Later, when I was working in the neighborhood, it was a pretty good deli and the last place where I saw my friend, Elliot. He was a publicist and the kind of old hipster who began and ended each day with Lester Young, quoted Lord Buckley, and looked out for young writers. Just a few weeks before our lunch he had taken early retirement following the sale of the company he'd worked for and was starting a little PR shop with one of his cronies. Finally freed of a job he had loathed for twenty years, he was exuberant and ready for action. A lively, almost hyperkinetic man in his early sixties who if he was growing up today would likely be pegged ADD, he still played pickup hoops on Saturday mornings near his home in Brooklyn. He attacked his lunch with gusto while ranting about the hopelessness of the Knicks, railed against an article a mutual friend had just published in the Village Voice, and hocked me to come fishing with him in Eleuthera. Two weeks later he was in the hospital, diagnosed with a rare and particularly virulent form of lymphoma; three weeks after that he was dead. I remember how enraged and terrified Elliot was. It was all so fast, such a dirty trick, and he couldn't accept it.
Ghosts. There are ghosts in New York. Someday I'll be one of them--no matter how far I ride.
|1||I call on Herman Melville||1|
|3||Reading Walt Whitman||47|
|4||The animal tsar||77|
|5||An idyll of Babylon||110|
|10||Harlem and other stratospheres||279|
|12||Crying session - April 6, 1947||329|