ONLY THE DEAD…

I enjoy the blessing, or curse, of residing in two of the most self-conscious places on the planet, though of the two Brooklyn has the edge, solipsism-wise, in part because it’s so much more populous than Vermont and in part because so many people have at one time or another made it their home, if only on the way to somewhere else, like a tract suburb on Long Island or a medium-sized city in the Midwest where you could start over clean and cheap.

What does it mean, exactly, that only the dead know Brooklyn?

Perhaps it’s because there are so many Brooklyns. East New York, New Lots and Canarsie don’t have much in common with Park Slope, DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights. And then there are all the microclimates no one thinks about unless they’ve fetched up there, like Boerum Hill or Gowanus or Sunset Park. Windsor Terrace, for that matter.

Still, what gives the dead special knowledge of the Borough—the notion that their souls may roam freely across it after their passage, and that they’re drawn back to the light and warmth of all those people going about the daily business of being alive? That might explain why the dead wouldn’t drift away to any number of more hospitable climes, like Hawaii or Paris or Portofino, even if, as the author of Dracula asserts, the dead travel fast. (They can skip the TSA lines, for one thing.) Maybe, by some arcane law of the afterlife, the dead aren’t allowed to roam far beyond their boundaries in life and, given the prodigious number of people who have died and are buried in Brooklyn, there’s a large contingent of them there with a lot of time on their hands in which to become more intimately acquainted with the place in which they spent their lives.

There’s something that just feels true about this assertion. Maybe it’s just the poetic cadence of the phrase, or the incomprehensible vastness of the human endeavor going on across the East River from the Center of the Universe, which of course would be Manhattan. Nobody says “Only the dead know Manhattan.” Perhaps that hypercaffeinated borough just seems that much more knowable; it’s not a city that knows how to keep its secrets in the way we might think of Chicago or San Francisco or, of course, L.A. It’s better lit, for one thing. Manhattan is all glittering, humming surface. And to say that only the dead know the Bronx or Queens or Staten Island doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Also, in the first and third instances, it doesn’t scan nicely.

One could say, I suppose, that the expression is true because Brooklyn is where the bodies are buried, if you’re thinking of activity among the shadier elements, but that could just as easily apply to Hoboken or Bayonne or other spots in the swamps of Jersey which nobody has ever claimed that only the dead know.

The phrase is the title of a story by Thomas Wolfe, who was a Southerner and came to Brooklyn relatively late in life. The crazy big guy in the narrative, with the map and the determination to visit all of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, is probably the author himself as seen through the eyes of a native Brooklynite. Wolfe was a man who asserted without fear of contradiction that “You Can’t Go Home Again,” although surely that isn’t always true either. And if it isn’t, then who’s to say that in fact only the dead know Brooklyn? Brooklyn natives, especially those whose families have lived there for generations, may surely be allowed to claim knowledge of the place. Someone like my friend Bob, for instance, whose grandparents lived in Brighton Beach and who himself grew up in Flatbush. I’d take that non-ghost’s word for a thousand pound.

Maybe it’s that Brooklyn is ever-changing, ever evolving, so that no one now alive can claim full knowledge of the full sweep of what it once was and what it is now and what it will become. That’s true of anywhere, you could argue, but you can also argue that Brooklyn changes in more interesting ways than other places, attracting a particularly artsy and literary breed of cat, disposed to tell the truth but tell it slant with an edge that will only later become fashionable in the tonier climes across the East River (and, come to think of Whitman’s famous “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which may well have inspired Wolfe’s story, what was the name of the Ferryman?).

The Brooklyn intelligentsia are the makers of manners, the innovators, who toil in conducive obscurity until they’re eventually discovered and installed in SoHo galleries or sent on national book tours and thereafter sought out by the fawning and fashionable doyens of Uptown salons. So there are always interesting future phenoms for Brooklyn’s dead to be keeping an eye on.

This all gets me wondering if there are places only the living know. Las Vegas comes to mind. There seems absolutely no romance in the notion of being one of the dead of Las Vegas. It may be the fastest growing city in America, but surely that’s about sprawling, featureless, artificially hydrated and ultimately temporary suburbs, where no ghost would ever find a comfortable roost, much less learn anything worth knowing. The same would be true for anywhere that’s been a wasteland hitherto and is only recently something with any kind of identity, like Dubai or Disney World or—I was about to say the Yucatan Peninsula, but in fact that’s an odd hybrid of places only the dead could truly know, like Chichen Itza and Tulum, and nouveau, artificial places only the living could relate to, like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Same for Singapore.

Come to think of it, though, there are an infinity of contenders for the designation of Place that Only the Dead Know, among them Rome, Venice, Paris, Istanbul, Oxford, Edinburgh, Jerusalem, Boston, maybe even Québec. Most of these are places that I, as a living person, would far rather spend time in than those that only the living know, like Brasilia and Bonn and East Kilbride and Tel Aviv and Welwyn Garden City.

Our Brooklyn place is two blocks north of the vast memory-park that is Green-Wood Cemetery, which for me was even more of a selling point than its being four blocks south of Prospect Park. Find me a town with an old, old cemetery or two and you’ve found me a place I’ll happily haunt myself. Brooklyn definitely qualifies.

 

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