Land in the Sky: Sticking Together

Melville's-GraveIt was the day after All Souls’ Day. We had walked the length of Westchester County, north to south. An epic hike along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. Toward the end of day, in darkening woods, we came upon a sign. It read: “Welcome to New York City.” We had our doubts but kept going.

This was the forest primeval of Van Cortlandt Park. We pressed on for another couple miles. We came to a trail junction. The sign there read: “John Muir Trail.” We kept going, along with our doubts. From high up in a tulip-tree, a hoot owl kept watch. More time passed. Sounds of fast-moving traffic filtered through golden leaves warned of a dangerous ford ahead. We crossed the Major Deegan Expressway, safely. Now we were headed south on Jerome Avenue. A burned-out vehicle abandoned on the street evoked vague feelings of nostalgia for Rudy Guiliani. Soon we arrived at the gates of the Woodlawn Cemetery. We entered the gates.

Just inside was a quaint gatekeeper’s cottage. Inside that was a uniformed gatekeeper. He provided a map of the cemetery. We had to ask for it. He wanted to know where we were going. We told him. To an Irish pub on Katonah Avenue. Cutting across the cemetery was the quickest way to get there. He gave us a look, then an admonition: “You gotta stick together. Don’t stray from the road. You gotta start making your way towards the gates by 4:00 p.m. Otherwise you’ll be locked in. You don’t want to be locked in.” No, we did not.

We hastened, in failing light, along a tree-lined lane through the mausoleum-jammed plots. It was shade on top of shade. We stuck together. We did not stray from the road. And we did not see a soul. Not for a while. But then, right in the darkening heart of the graveyard, we came upon a middle-aged man standing next to an Oldsmobile. The car was gray. The man was wearing a Mets cap. A red-painted sign nearby said: “Danger Sharp Curve.”

The man was visibly worked up over something. It was his wife, he explained. They had not stuck together. She had strayed from the road to take photographs. That was over an hour ago. He hadn’t seen her since. Had we seen her? No, we had not. We had stuck together—and to the road—and had seen nobody else along the way. The man in the Mets cap told us a uniformed cemetery rent-a-guard, possibly armed, had rolled by a few minutes earlier to scold. The guard, he warned us, was angry at the world and driving a black SUV with Jersey plates. “He said we had to be outta here by 4:30 or we’d be locked in!”

We felt bad for the man with the Mets cap. We told him we would keep an eye out for his wife. Then we resumed our journey. Truth be told, we could not bear the thought of anybody being locked in this place after dark. We made the decision to head “off trail”—into the uncharted backcountry of the graveyard—to look for the lost wife. We knew the risks.

Soon enough we had our own troubles. One’s sense of direction is quickly overturned in the gray gloaming where all monuments to the dead start looking the same. At some point, we passed the grave of Herman Melville and his family. We kept going. A few minutes later, we passed the Melville family grave again. We took this as a bad sign but kept going. By the third time we passed the Melville grave, we knew we were finished.

That’s when we heard it. Far, far away, a lone car-horn—Honk! Honk! Honk!—followed by the plaintive bellowing of a name—“Sylvia! Sylvia!”—then more honking, more plaintive bellowing, but fainter, fainter still, till one last mournful “Sylvia!” drifted—weary ghost—across a long and stony lonesome only to collapse on the threshold of a stranger’s eardrum. By this stage of the game, even metaphor was getting skittish. It bolted. We pursued it. We figured, if nothing else, it would literally find a way out of this burial ground. And it did.

We recovered the road and soon spotted the northeast cemetery gate. It was still open. We could see the blessed traffic going by on 233rd Street. Not a minute to spare. We hurried toward the exit. That’s when we saw it: A black SUV with Jersey plates, parked next to the gate. When we walked by, the driver’s window rolled down. Behind the wheel was a uniformed cemetery rent-a-guard. He looked angry at the world and wanted to have a word with us.

Hoping to deflect his wrath, we tried to be helpful. We told him there’s some guy back in the cemetery who can’t find his wife. The guard already knew that. The reminder only served to make him more angry. So we tried to make polite chitchat: “Do many people get lost in the cemetery?” That did it.

“What, are you kidding me?! These idiots get lost all the time. When they come into the cemetery I tell them, I tell everybody—EVERYBODY!—You gotta stick together! Don’t stray from the road! And you gotta start making your way towards the gates by 4:00 p.m.! For crissakes, there’s four hundred acres of cemetery out there! Stick together, people, STICK TOGETHER! Do they listen?! NOOOO! It’s like I tell my wife when we’re in K-Mart: We gotta stick together! But does she listen? NOOOO! She wanders off! Then she wonders why I’m all pissed off when I find her! It’s not like I didn’t tell her! And it ain’t like I got nuthin’ better to do than run around K-Mart looking for my idiot wife!”

“So what happens when somebody gets lost here in the cemetery?”

“Whaddya think?! We gotta go look for these idiots! Yeah, us! Me and the other guards! We’re here 24/7, ya know! It’s a big place! We got things we gotta do! Plenty of things we gotta do! Sometimes it takes an hour to find these lost bastards! And ya know what’s happening while we’re doing that?! WE’RE NOT DOING THE THINGS WE GOTTA DO!”

To delay this man any further from the things that he had to do was not a good idea. We could see that. So we bid him adieu and headed for the gates. As we stepped out onto the street, we heard a voice behind us booming from inside the cemetery gates: “You have a good night! You hear me?! And stick together!”