There are more dead souls residing in this city than the living, and even among the living sometimes that seems a bit debatable.
This does mean there's quite a few old-school cemeteries with huge trees and statues of angels and ornate family vaults. When I was little before the presence of subculture in my consciousness, me and my friend up the street would have her dad take us to old graveyards half-hidden in the woods where we'd go through looking at the stones marveling at the oldness and the quiet. And now, I always stop to wander through the rows of stones whenever I go anywhere, because each place is different, and I try to conjure up the stories so cryptic in the semantics of epitaphs, the size and intricacy of the sculpture, the mementos left saying that they have not been forgotten.
There's a distance that is comfortable, as I have no family members there, and the history is often distant enough that it becomes like a park, a neutral space to linger and be introverted. I wonder if I've turned into a cliche this weekend, as I drove from one to the other on my day off, listening to of all people Nick Cave, snapped photos of stone angels under golden trees framed by the light of the late autumnal sunset.
I told a friend of mine this as we turned the corner to the one on Riverside because I'd seen a sign for a place called Babyland. It's an old place, with an imposing red stone gatehouse with gothic accents galore, so I assumed that Babyland would be similarly archaic.
I was not expecting what we found instead.
Rows of wooden crosses with names and Our Beloveds. Stillbirths and kids that died a day old, granite-etched faces of bright eyes and big smiles and lives cut short. And who decorates a cemetery for Halloween? I'm disoriented by the teddy bears encased in cellophane hanging from hooks. I walk through snapping pictures and trying to glean some meaning, but I just don't understand.
In the old cemeteries, it was common to see the names of children who lived a few weeks or a couple years, and that was the way it was, for every ten kids, maybe five made it. We don't think about it that way now. What also got me was that all of these names were clearly kids from the neighborhood, black and Puerto Rican and the occasional Greek or Romanian.
What were the stories here as fresh as the newly unearthed dirt and the ungrimed silk flowers? Is this another way of grieving that I don't understand? When my grandma would take me to the cemetery with her I would collect rose petals from her garden and scatter them on my youngest sister's grave. My parents never did get a headstone. It was too hard to think about, I guess.
How many of these kids would be in kindergarten right now if they had been born in a place with less pollution and more favorable circumstances? I don't know, and I feel like I'm treading in a place where the grief is still raw. I'm no longer a tourist. I'm an interloper, and I'm glad there's no one here besides us.