1. The Upper West Side, where grown men and women wear trench coats with sneakers and one in every three people may in fact be a pet dog, is now host to a number of remarkable visitors – at least until January 18th of next year. Find them at the American Museum of Natural History where the line to get in is 300 deep at noon on a Thursday. “Mummies” is the timed-entry exhibit (at $25 a head no less) responsible for the accordion-style squeeze from the improbable number of people around me shouldering very full backpacks.
For the next couple of seasons, an Incan youth calcified for over seven centuries in a seated position will greet the constant ogling eyes of museum “guests.” A neighboring mummy of Egyptian provenance several millennia the Incan’s senior has nervous, almost baleful, eyes painted on his sarcophogus: the result, perhaps, of unflagging poking and prodding by the living, who can use an adjacent tablet to examine the mummy’s CT scan, a digital exhumation shamelessly repeated day after day.
An elderly white couple in walkabout tourist gear stops by each mummy quickly but attentively. They’re wearing matching ball caps that have “Harlem” stitched large across the front and the same word again beneath the first, only smaller. Overextended parents strain to read the details on each display and diorama while keeping an eye on their kids who, despite their age, are precociously adept with their (!) iPhones. Nearby teens sulk with their hoods pulled up waiting to see something interesting.
Photographs prohibited, the nearby gift shop offers an abundance of options for commemorating your experience. Items available for purchase include an array of affordable Cleopatrian jewelry, shot glasses, Andean wind flutes, the Penguin Classics edition of “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” various ceramics, stylized musical gourds, an excavate-your- own- pharaoh kit, Gastón Acurio’s acclaimed cookbook “Peru,” and, for $899.00, a set of three Egyptian nesting tables.
2. Back at street-level outside the museum is a stretch of 79th between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West that looms large in the imagination of America’s youth. Months from now, some of the most famous balloons in the world will be ceremoniously inflated and, in a modern ritual of preservation and passage, brought to life for the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In the middle of the park, roughly between the Museum of Natural History and the Met, sits a popular hub for groups traveling through Central Park: the Bethesda Fountain, site of countless pennies tossed, selfies taken, and acoustic guitars strummed, where dogs bathe in the water yapping at the bubbles, and everyone’s amused. Its statue was originally erected to honor the opening of the Croton Dam that brought fresh water to the city, limiting the catastrophic spread of cholera, and also serves as a memorial to the Navy’s dead and lost during the Civil War. Today, it is mostly an agreeable pit stop , flattering to most camera angles and any postcard frame.
3. Down in Green-Wood, a Victorian cemetery adjacent to Prospect Park and roughly the same size, the sun is everywhere. Nestled between South Slope, Industry City, and Sunset Park, Green-Wood was the most sought-after final resting place for the New York elite of a certain era. William Magear “Boss” Tweed, Horace Greeley, Jeremiah Hamilton (“the only black millionaire in New York”), Henry Steinway, and Emma Stebbins (sculptor of the Bethesda Fountain) all lie here. It’s notoriously difficult to end up there nowadays following more than two centuries of renown, though almost thirty years ago the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat managed to find himself a humble grave.
Carvings, pillars, engravings, heavy copper doors, bas-reliefs, and other statutory amble up and down the cemetery’s hills and dales like so many Wordsmithian hobbit burrows. This being New York, the peace usually afforded the deceased is in insufficient supply. Walking by and under aged trees, gnarled and pillorying the earth, the resident monk parakeets make themselves sonorously evident in their numbers. One woman with the improbably literary name Aphrodite Finale is buried in a family sepulcher beside a pond that seems calm enough on the warm April afternoon that I visit.
In the British TV comedy, “Fleabag,” the titular protagonist goes for regular jogs in a London cemetery. “You come here every day?” asks her uptight sister, Claire. “It’s really inappropriate to jog around a graveyard,” she scolds. “Flaunting your life.” Founded in 1838, the original proprietors of Green-Wood may not have seen anything wrong with that. For a time, it was the second-most popular tourist attraction in the States after Niagara Falls. One only needs to combine a gothic, Shirley Jackson-style sense of humor, with the typical New Yorker’s yen for solitude amid the cosmopolitan to imagine jogging here—the site of Brooklyn’s natural topographic peak, Battle Hill.
4. Not every cemetary (different from a graveyard, which tend to be affiliated with churches) in New York is held in such high-esteem. In parts of Staten Island, busy through-roads bisect 18th Century graves. The tombstones of colonial progenitors are neglected, brittle, and worn by the years and fumes. That borough is also home to the Arthur Kill boat graveyard, itself a moribund time capsule of marine vessel makes.
Still, once you look for it, these spaces are everywhere in the city. Especially across the Hudson over in lower Manhattan, which is remarkable considering that the City banned burials south of Canal (neé Pump) Street in 1804. Hidden among federal buildings and civic causeways in the Swiss cheese layout of FiDi streets lies the African American Burial Ground National Monument. Seeing it for the first time brings a sense of stillness removed from the garrisoned-off streets, hurrying office workers, and K-9 patrol units on their beat. South some few blocks, tourists cavort around Alexander Hamilton’s tombstone. Then there’s the site of the former Twin Towers, part of which is occupied by the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Busy as the area is with the public going about its business – even if that business is quiet mourning or taking tactless-though-tangible pictures – the presence of life here is evident: faces moving out through prayer, confusion, or laughter as they watch children chase a small and irritable dog, rudely awakened from its nap in the sun.