City of Gracious Living

When I think about my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, or return to visit my family still living there – usually crossing the Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge and making landfall at Tarrytown, hometown of Rip Van Winkle — I somehow come unstuck in time, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim.

Henry Hudson’s ship is anchored off Yonkers, right where the Nepperhan Creek drains into the Hudson River. At the nearby Yonkers post office, an anonymous clerk is showing up for work – he’s David Berkowitz by day, Son of Sam by night. A talking dog barks and Gene Krupa’s hands blur as he plays his drums in his Park Hill mansion while down the hill on School Street a young girl named Ella Fitzgerald snaps her fingers to the beat. Forty years later, the School Street tenements are gone, replaced by two high-rise public housing towers, and a little boy named Earl Simmons gazes out of a window and twenty years later becomes the rapper DMX. An Otis elevator drops down from the clouds and the Musak plays “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” by DMX and out of the elevator struts James Cagney, a Yonkers boy, dressed as George M. Cohan as Yankee Doodle Dandy in a red, white and blue top hat. He’s arm in arm with Linda Lovelace, also a Yonkers girl.  They walk down to the train station, across from the post office, and join the thousands of Yonkers residents who watch and weep as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege passes slowly through, and I’m in the crowd, and Sousa’s band is playing a dirge, and just then I hear a splash – my great-uncle Thomas Crooks is being pulled out a vat of acid by his fellow workers at the old Alexander Smith carpet mill.

The men wrap Thomas in burlap and carry him up the hill to the old St. Joseph’s Hospital – just two blocks away from the Mulford Gardens housing project, where thirty years later I live as a boy and look out from our third-floor window at the city’s crowded hills and dozens of church spires and the gilded dome of City Hall and the dark Palisades cliffs across the Hudson in New Jersey and, shimmering in the distance, the lights of the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge.  As I look out my Mulford Gardens window, I see the other mill workers who have rushed up the Palmer Road hill to fetch Thomas’ mother – Anna Crooks, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. Anna arrives at St. Joseph’s hospital and embraces her burned and dying son. Thomas dies. His skin is red and blistered and peeling off like tissue paper. He’s just twenty-three years old.

I’m twelve years old and I’m a delivery boy for the local daily newspaper, the Yonkers Herald Statesman. The bundle of papers is dropped at the usual corner, a block up from the corner of Palmer Road where the Crooks home stands to this day.  I take one newspaper out of the bundle to read (the customers on my route always complain that their papers come late – now they know why). One headline says MAN WALKS ON MOON. Another says FAREWELL TO LINCOLN. Another says CARPET MILL TO CLOSE. Another says SON OF SAM CAPTURED. Another says MAN HAS PREMONITION OF OWN DEATH. The last headline gets my attention. The article describes how young Thomas Crooks had met his unnamed fiancé for a picnic lunch under a tree at the beautiful old Oakland Cemetery, located across from the carpet mill. According to the article, the work whistle sounded at the mill, and Thomas started to return to work. But “before returning to work, Mr. Crooks turned to her and said, ‘I am going in. But I shall be carried out.’ “ Fifteen minutes later came my ancestor’s dive into that acid bath. The newspaper article described my great-grandmother’s arrival at the hospital, just in time for her young son’s death. This is the last sentence of the newspaper article: “Mrs. Crooks was burned about the face as she continually kissed her dying son.”

Anna Crooks, mother of Thomas, was my mother’s grandmother. My mother remembers that her Grandma Crooks had tiny scars all around her lips. My mother never knew why her grandmother had those scars until I found a 1928 clipping of that old Yonkers Herald Statesman article. The clipping was tucked into an old family Bible. “They were scars,” I told my mother. “But they were really birthmarks.”

When I visit Yonkers, I see ghosts everywhere I look. They stroll down the street carrying parasols. They drive fast cars past the strip malls along Central Avenue. They sit in the grandstands and watch the sulkies at Yonkers Raceway. They haunt each and every one of Yonkers’ seven hills. Oakland Cemetery is still there, and it’s filled with ghosts. It’s still hauntingly beautiful – wooded, with narrow curving roads winding around the old graves and monuments. It would be a good place to have a picnic lunch with your girlfriend. Oakland Cemetery is hemmed in by the Saw Mill River Parkway to the east, by the tenements of the old Slavic neighborhood to the east (where the onion dome of the Orthodox church testifies to a bygone day), and by the old carpet mill building to the west. It’s not a carpet mill anymore – the Alexander Smith company closed shop years ago, moved to the South for its cheaper labor, and the huge, sprawling, looming buildings, which stretch for blocks along the Nepperhan and Saw Mill River roads, now house smaller businesses and warehouse stores and even some artists’ studios.

My maternal great-grandparents and grandparents are buried at Oakland Cemetery. So are two victims of the sinking of the Titanic, Alex and Charity Robins. So is a Yonkers physician named Dr. Charles Leale.  Will wonders never cease? No, they will never cease. It is a world of wonders.

Dr. Leale of Yonkers just happened to be working in Washington for the government in 1865 and just happened to be attending the performance at Ford’s Theater when John Wilkes Booth just happened to shoot and kill Abraham Lincoln; Leale was the first physician to arrive at the side of the mortally wounded president, and Leale took charge of the initial efforts to save Lincoln’s life. The grave of Dr. Leale is located within shouting distance of the grave of Thomas Crooks, who abides in the Crooks family plot a few hundred feet from the wrought-iron gate at the entrance to the cemetery, and I have a photograph of his gravestone. I wonder if  Uncle Thomas and Dr. Charles and the good doctor have any good late-night chats.

Revolutionary War troops march through Yonkers along Mile Square Road. My Italian grandfather takes his young grandson to his second home, the St. Cosmo and St. Damien Club on lower Park Hill, where he plays cards and drinks shots of anisette. The steamer Henry Clay burns and sinks in the river off Yonkers, killing dozens – including the young sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edward Hopper sets up his easel in Getty Square, the old downtown business district. Now, it’s referred to as Ghetto Square. A stagecoach pulls up in front of the old Getty Hotel. The stage coach becomes a trolley. The trolley becomes a bus. Out of the bus step Edgar Allan Poe (who visited Yonkers) the English poet John Masefield (who worked at the carpet mill), the cast of “Hello, Dolly!” (which takes place in Yonkers), TV comedian Sid Caesar and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the singer Mary J. Blige (all born in Yonkers). The last one off the bus is me.

I’m nine years old. It’s winter, so it’s already dark at 5 o’clock as I head home for supper. I walk up Spruce Street, turn left onto Linden Street, then turn right and walk up the steep incline of Elm Street, up past Oak Street, finally turning left onto Walnut Street, blazing a trail through the forest of streets until I’m safe at home. I pause on the front porch and look up at the winter sky. Usually the lights of the city blot out the stars. But tonight I see hundreds of stars. My eyes move from one to another to another, noticing a pattern, recognizing the shapes of letters, realizing that the letters form words, like a marquee in the sky. The marquee proclaims:  WELCOME TO THE CITY OF GRACIOUS LIVING!