35: Spuyten Duyvil & the City of Bones

When I started visiting all 78 locations on the literary map last October for READING THE CITY, I was taunted by the northernmost spot. At the time I only visited locations I could reach on foot during masked walks. I had no idea how long it would be until I would be in a car or train again to reach the tip of the city. But more than that, this location haunted me because a version of myself that no longer exists in the flesh lingers there, in a place I once lived during a strange transitional time of my life.

Danielle at Brigida’s Mausoleum in Woodlawn by Rita J. King

Location 35 is described on the Writing Manhattan map:

Washington Irving in Knickerbocker’s History of New York gives a fanciful origin for the name of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, the channel connecting the Harlem and Hudson rivers. In Dutch colonial days, one Anthony van Corlear, after vowing to swim across the river “in spite of the devil,” or “spyt den duyvil,” was pulled under by “a huge mossbunker” (a sort of fish) and drowned. Since then, Irving writes, “no true Dutchman will admit them to his table who loves a good fish and hates the devil.”

I was told when I moved there that the name Spuyten Duyvil emerged because the rivers are reminiscent of a spitting devil. After I moved, a train derailed in that spot. The engineer went into a daze called “highway hypnosis” before he hit the dangerous curve. He was not screened for sleep disorders, so his sleep apnea went undetected. Four people were killed and 116 were injured.

I did not choose this destination as the next one on my list. It chose me when my friend Danielle asked me to visit the Woodlawn Cemetery nearby in the Bronx with her. She recently inherited a small enamel matchbox painted with the Roman temple of Castor and Pollux. Inside is a key to a mausoleum belonging to her father’s aunt, Brigida, who died young soon after her father lost his temper and wrecked her happiness. Being the daughter of an overprotective Neapolitan, I understood the rough shape of the story as Danielle shared the details. Late in their lives, damaged by dementia and trauma, Brigida’s brothers all mistook their own daughters for Brigida. They all apologized to her for the way she had been treated.

But she was gone.

You might recognize Danielle from a 2018 cover story in The New Yorker, gorgeously illustrated by Jenny Kroik, featuring a business Danielle runs with her husband, Arthur Avenue Food Tours. Brigida’s parents are Danielle’s great-grandparents. They came from Naples in 1918 and opened a baccalá store on Arthur Avenue. Their shop was featured in the Academy Award winning movie, Marty, starring Ernest Borgnine. Decades later it was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and preserved in the Library of CongressNational Film Registry. In my world, Danielle herself is the ultimate arbiter of cultural, historic and aesthetic relevance (read this piece she wrote, The Secret of the Unicorn Tapestries, in The Paris Review, about a guard at the Cloisters, where Danielle also worked, who became obsessed with the Unicorn Tapestries). She understands the context of history in a way nobody else I’ve ever known can because she uses her own powers to draw her conclusions rather than repeating what she learns.

I met Danielle when she was part of an event at Science House. I gave a talk about creativity and imagination and she prepared a meal including handmade ravioli stamped with Michelangelo’s logo, exactly as his staff might have eaten 500 years ago. This night changed my life. In the time since I have listened to everything Danielle has advised me to do, including going alone to the cave of the Sibyl of Cumae in Pozzuoli, near Naples. Meeting her catalyzed the beginning of an art mystery in my own life, one that had been unfolding now for seven years.

Laocoön by Rita J. King

I had no idea what to expect at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx when we rolled up on a blisteringly hot day. The grounds are half the size of Central Park and she had no idea where to find Brigida’s mausoleum. Her last trip there was as a child. Staff chatted in a fieldstone office near the front gate as we entered. A man named Bruce volunteered to show us where we were going. We followed his golf cart to the mausoleum labeled OTERI, with its doorway carved with oak leaves.

“The key doesn’t fit,” Danielle said, turning back to me. Bruce thought he could make it work by greasing it with his face, but no amount of trying would make that key fit. Security was contacted to see whether the vault held a copy of the key. In the meantime, Bruce showed us the location of his own future grave on the map. I was overcome with the memory of conversations overheard in my childhood about the family plots, three rows of nine, purchased for people who were all alive at the time and filled them, one by one. Grief for each of them waved through me as we stood there. My grandmother was the last to take her place among our loved ones. The last time I visited the cemetery with her she brought flowers and held them as she announced, with a smile on her face, that she was standing on her own grave. She had her outfit picked long before as if she anticipated a cotillion instead of a funeral at the end of her life. I have not returned to the Long Island cemetery since then, because I have only ever been to her grave with her when she was alive. I’m not sure how many people can really say that about their grandmothers.

I thought about this as Bruce smiled and pointed to his future spot in the city of the dead.

300,000 people made of bones and memories are in their final resting places at Woodlawn. Many of them are famous. Danielle and Bruce both knew a lot about many of the inhabitants. I wandered among the stones, filled with wonder that we happened to visit during the one time of the year when the blooming azalea was on fire with a hot pink glow, completely overwhelming some of the graves in the most glorious way.

Spangles of sun dappled the grass and trees scattered on the rolling hills. Stone angels wept perpetually. It is obvious, looking at the difference between the old and new sections of Woodlawn, that people once put time and effort into imagining their final resting places as a reflection of the lives they once lived. It isn’t that people were wealthier then. It’s that they seemed to care. In the newer section, at least the one I saw, the ground is razed flat until it loses all character and the stones are all the same size and shape, lined up like chores in an industrial factory that never produces anything useful like an engine at the end.

The security guard arrived with the key and let Danielle in. I expected the pictures of Brigida in front of the stained glass window. I did not expect an entire family packed in there with her. Danielle looked down at a small chair she once sat in as a child and the broom left by her late father. Even in a year with so much death in it, this event is singular in its tragedy. They all are, to someone. The thought of so much grief everywhere closed around my throat like a fist, the finality of collective loss, experienced alone at the same time by each person differently.

“This is a storage shed,” Danielle said, her dark eyes sparkling under the shadows. “This is not final. I will free Brigida.”

I want to know about this brilliant woman lost to history, Brigida, whose remains are locked in with her parents in the most claustrophobic way possible while her memory finds its way to the heart and mind of the woman who can do it justice.

Co-director, Science House. Futurist, @SciEntEx. Writer. Founder Treasure of the Sirens.