NR Digital

City Desk

The Other Shore

by Richard Brookhiser

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.

Why is the place where a person suddenly died sacred? Because one of us has made a quick step to the other side. Even if the other side is vacancy, we feel awe before the transition. Birth is an equally dramatic transition, but less ominous because we know, in a general way, how it will turn out, and we do not anticipate it (at least not our own) beforehand. Memorials are also for us, the living; they express our ongoing loyalty to the departed friend or relative. Life may have cast you off; we haven’t. We are smaller than the world, and weaker, but we are truer. Memorials for JFK Jr. — or Princess Di, or the last dead starlet or rocker — express sympathy for a fellow member of the extended family of fandom (a connection which is not always entirely meretricious).

Wherever the sacred pops up willy-nilly, there is paganism. Science and most of the great world religions war against it, though not very successfully. The recent Pew Research poll that showed that a record number of Americans — one-fifth — professed no religion at all also found that the “nones” were as likely as everyone else to believe in ghosts. The Catholic Church, which has been fighting paganism for two millennia, has built an elaborate machinery of legalism and bureaucracy to tame the luxuriant impulses of its flock. The Virgin of Guadalupe — yes. Santa Muerte — no. José Gregorio Hernández — pending. Buddhism may be the most austere religion of all since, strictly speaking, it has no gods whatsoever. Try to square that with the popular piety of Thailand, or Chinatown.

If I look critically at the regrets and good wishes of my neighbors, I hope it is from sympathy. Our love, our honor, our motions of the heart spring up like the grass, but like the grass they wither away. The NASCAR beach towel on Lucas Turnpike steadily bleached through two, three cycles of sun and snow. I don’t remember seeing it the last time I sped past. The farewell message on the sign for the pizza/convenience store soon gave way to the usual ads for specials on wings; the flowers in the dogleg turn have been lost in new growth, or simply taken away. The daily pilgrimage up and down 14th Street will come to see the soccer coach’s memorial without seeing it, then not see it without remembering that it is gone.

Religions more stable than paganism thrust an oar into the beach of time for a longer look back — a little longer. Old graveyards regularly exhume all the bones and start over. Headstones stay as long as the shale doesn’t split. Congregations pull up stakes and let their very churches go. Art claims it will do a better job. Right — how many immortal artists do you know? And suppose you did? Herr Bach did not have a lot to say about his butcher.

There is another way to look at this. If, as the chaos theorists say, a butterfly’s wingbeat changes the world, what about the billion wingbeats of a life? There is legacy enough.

Live hard, grieve hard, keep moving.

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