Shawn, my trainer, comes into the city from Rockaway in the wee hours. Last Monday, he told me, he found a crime scene on 14th Street. In the even smaller hours a young man had been stabbed to death with particular savagery — his throat cut, an ear sliced off. Surveillance cameras recorded the crime. Apparently it was a case of mistaken identity — the alleged killer thought his victim was a man with whom he had had an argument in a bar earlier that night.
When I passed the spot on my way back from the gym it had already become a memorial. A soccer jersey was affixed to a tree (the dead man had been a coach). Mourners had covered it with declarations of praise and regret. Bunches of lilies were tied to the tree’s base; in their midst stood a candle emblazoned with the Sacred Heart.
Spontaneous shrines appear at the sites of sudden death, car crashes being an all-too-common occasion. In the country several years ago a NASCAR beach towel was unfurled alongside Lucas Turnpike. There was no obvious danger factor in the road itself, which curved, but gently. But some danger had claimed the life of a NASCAR fan. More recently, another shrine appeared on Samsonville Road. Here was an accident waiting to happen — a bend to the left after a quick uphill-downhill. The dead were memorialized there, and for a while on the sign of the pizza/convenience store up the road.
The first big commemoration of this kind that I can remember was the collection of mementos — bouquets, teddy bears, notes — heaped on North Moore Street outside the home of John F. Kennedy Jr. after he, his wife, and his sister-in-law died in a plane crash in 1999. 9/11 turned the entire city into a memorial. First came the appeals for news of missing persons — all those sheets of paper with pictures, descriptions, and phone numbers. As time passed the queries became acceptance, panic subsided to grief.
I associate such ad hoc memorials with Mexico (coincidentally, the suspect in the 14th Street murder fled to Mexico; the victim was English). They seem part and parcel of the increased prominence of Halloween, which has all but obliterated Thanksgiving and encroaches upon Christmas; they also echo the hipster cult of skulls, half Day of the Dead, half Damien Hirst. My inner WASP curdles with suspicion, as if displaying lilies will lead to child marriage or salmonella at the salad bar. But I might equally associate roadside devotions with the Greeks, for the inventors of philosophy took notice of all sorts of sacred locations, including spots where people had died. “I am the tomb of a drowned sailor. Sail on. / Even while we sank, the others sped away.” Clearly, death markers are no longer the marks of alien cultures; they are now customary in my country too.