Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Death in the City

To outsiders New York seems like a monolithic "Big City" in which one is swallowed up in this nebulous mass of people. Unfortunately, this stereotypical image of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds is only enhanced by the experiences of tourists who often see little more than the few blocks around Times Square - which happens to be the most non-"New York" section of Manhattan. (I avoid it all costs.) Indeed, Manhattan really feels like a bunch of little villages strung together by the subway and bus systems. Each neighborhood has its own "feel," with distinctive restaurants, shops, bodegas, parks, and personalities. Rather than feeling like some anonymous cog in the Manhattan machine, I walk around the West Village and actually know people, from friends and neighbors I pass every day, to the employees of the shops and restaurants we frequent. I'm convinced that one feels a much more personal connection to one's neighborhood in the City, its residents, and its businesses, than one might in suburbia, where so much of one's activity is defined by the automobile and the detachment of mall shopping.

Nevertheless, there are times when New York City lives up to that reputation of fostering urban anonymity. Look closely enough - particularly on the subways and in the parks - and one can see the isolation and loneliness of the solitary and silent masses. I was reminded of this stark reality the other day when two policemen showed up at my office. Apparently an elderly man had died that morning while sitting on a bench at nearby Madison Square Park. No one knew him and he apparently had no permanent address. (The fact that he didn't appear to be homeless, however, led them to believe that he was a resident of one of the neighborhood's remaining SRO's, which are typically filled with the elderly.) However, he did have a meal card from the Sunday Meals for Seniors program that we offer on the first and third Sundays of each month. The police were hoping that he had some permanent affiliation here to assist in their identification efforts. Alas, he was not a member, only a regular at the Sunday meals. So he remained just a name, with no apparent family or identification beyond the cards and slips of paper in his worn leather wallet (which the cops were carrying).

I'm left wondering what the city does with these cases. Given the substantial homeless population, I'm guessing this sort of anonymous death must be a common event. In the 18th and 19th centuries the bodies might have been taken to a "potters' field" like the one that lies under Union Square Park. But today? A city morgue? And then? Are they cremated? Taken to a public cemetery to rest anonymously for eternity, like some unknown soldier?

(Shrine, Our Lady of Padua, painted 2005, 5"x7", Fabriano paper)


One Wink at a Time said...

How very sad this is. One would hope that the authorities would work and work until an identity is established, but realistically, I doubt that would happen often. It's hard to believe that no one is looking for him, though that is not necessarily true. I guess this is just another of Life's ugly truths in this day and age.

Kitty said...

That is very sad. Oh dear.

Reminds me of when I ran for the subway and the cops had discovered a guy had died on the train, sitting up. (I'm sure whoever had sat next to him was freaked out).

The prospect of dying alone, without anyone...that is a deep fear we all share. It happens, it can happen. Our society doesn't like to think about death, but it's an essential part of life!

The key is, of course, as cliched as it sounds, to make the most of it. To have these fears drive us to connect with others, and treasure what time we have.

nice post. Thanks for writing it!

Anonymous said...

how touching and heartbreaking, all at once - but also, what a lovely way for someone to die, sitting in a park enjoying the fresh air. i'm sure his relatives wouldn't want to hear me say that - it is a sad and simple fact that he died, no matter how or where. i know this from experience, because whenever folks hear that my brother died in his sleep (supposedly in his sleep, anyway - a heart attack), they say, what a wonderful way to die. not really. we don't know the pain that my brother, or this elderly man, might have suffered just before slipping away....
your shrine painting is beautiful, brian.