Monday, October 20, 2014

Staten Island: Moravian Cemetery

One of JMP's requirements when she was in town was that we explore a cemetery. OH OK, IF WE MUST I said, and got to work trying to find a suitable cemetery that I hadn't been to before. She also wanted to ride the Staten Island Ferry, so I started my search in New York's most overlooked borough. I'd been to Staten Island a few times to explore Sailor's Snug Harbor, but never to a cemetery (unless you count Snug Harbor's tombstone-less potter's field).

Moravian Cemetery, the largest on Staten Island, was the ultimate winner. It's 274 years old, "often heralded as New York's most beautiful memorial site," and fairly close to the Grant City stop on the SIR. Moravian ended up completely exceeding all of my expectations and definitely shot straight to the top of my favorites list.

We spent about four hours walking through almost the entire cemetery and more than once I found myself saying "this cemetery has everything!" They had clean, convenient bathrooms when we needed them most, some of the oldest tombstones I've seen in the city (1770s), fascinating new (and incredibly gaudy) mausoleums and the largest concentration of ivy-covered tombstones I've ever seen in one place. I love, love, love a good ivy-covered anything but it adds a creep-factor to tombstones and cemeteries that is almost too much for me to handle.

A section of the cemetery houses the Vanderbilt family mausoleum, constructed by Cornelius Vanderbilt and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead. Unfortunately the Vanderbilt section is private—I was hoping that we could at least sneak a peek at the (supposedly haunted) mausoleum, but the area is heavily wooded and guarded by a barbed-wire fence. They do offer tours that often include the Vanderbilt section so I'll definitely be coming back to test out that haunted theory for myself.

Moravian has an amazing receiving tomb (beautifully labeled as such), a hillside mausoleum with incredible views of the water, the only headstone I've ever seen with the word "bones" on it, and some of the most beautiful fall foliage I've seen all year. East coast Octobers were positively made for afternoon cemetery strolls, and the day we went was perfect fall weather—sunny, yet chilly at the same time.

Moravian also gets the distinction of having the single most disturbing gravesite I've stumbled upon in my cemetery travels thus far. JMP pointed it out to me, and I don't think I'll ever be able to forget about five-year-old Harry B. Cairns—or stop wondering how he drowned, why someone felt the need to permanently etch that grisly fact on his headstone, why the 80-year-old grave looks so fresh, or who left that super creepy and tattered fairy doll behind.

And because I don't wish to leave you on that distressing note, I give you some of the other headstones that we came across at Moravian (although, unfortunately, not right next to each other):

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Coney Island: October

This weekend my friend JMP was in town from Ohio. While brainstorming potential adventures, I discovered that she'd never been to Coney Island. I confirmed that the parks were still open and when I read that they would be decorated for Halloween I knew we had to go. I've lost count of how many times I've been to Coney Island (or blogged about it) but it's just so endlessly photogenic that I find so many new and interesting things every time I go.

The biggest difference between this trip and all the others is that it's no longer summer, so Coney Island wasn't crowded. Not as desolate as I kind of expected, but a lot of the rides were sitting empty. Since the worst part about most places to me is the other people, I loved being able to get up close to the rides without having snotty kids run into my photos.

All the people that were there were in the festively-decorated Luna Park, leaving Deno's Wonder Wheel Park looking like a ghost town in comparison. Some of the rides are pretty terrifying (why does Donald Duck have Satan eyes?) but I'll always prefer the weird and old to the new and bland.

I'm not really a ride person but I did make an exception for the Spook-a-Rama, one of the few remaining "dark rides" left in the country. We paid $7 for about 45 seconds of creepy skeletons, gnarly creatures and screaming ghosts. I wish it was longer, but as with most relics of a past time—and Coney Island in general—I'm just grateful that it still exists at all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harry Houdini's Grave

At the beginning of July, my friend Jess took me on a Sunday adventure to see Harry Houdini's grave. She had been there once, many years ago, and currently lives close to the cemetery belt, a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of cemeteries between Ridgewood and Glendale in Queens. Houdini is buried in Machpelah, a Jewish cemetery that apparently used to be in much rougher shape than it is today. When we went, however, it looked tidy and well-cared for, and Houdini's grave is relatively easy to find.

It's a large, family plot containing Houdini's mother, father, grandfather and siblings along with the famous magician himself. Following years of vandalism (and frequent unsanctioned séances) the site was restored in 1996 with the help of donations from fellow magicians. It's a lovely space with a wide curving bench, a gorgeous mosaic featuring the crest of the Society of American Magicians and a beautiful stone mourner—all watched over by a recently restored bust of Houdini.

I've read that people have been known to leave playing cards or other magic props, but the only things we found were a dime, a rosary (I wonder if they knew Houdini—née Erik Weisz—was Jewish) and a handwritten note. The dime was odd to me because I seem to find them everywhere I go and I'd love to know what the Houdini connection is, if there is one. There were also a lot of stones on Houdini's ground marker, which is a Jewish tradition—flowers are thought to be a pagan custom and you will rarely see them in predominately Jewish cemeteries.

I'm always intrigued to see the gravesites of historical or famous figures—more times than not I find them to be kind of humble in scale and decoration. Houdini's is one of the more elaborate sites I've seen, but it still could be easily overlooked if you're not specifically on the hunt for it. Fun fact: Houdini actually died on Halloween and every November the Society of American Magicians performs a broken wand ceremony at his gravesite. It just might be time to return to Machpelah and pay my respects once more to the entire Weisz clan.