On a beautifully temperate Sunday afternoon, I went to Green-Wood Cemetery to watch a group of Revolutionary War reenactors celebrate the Battle of Brooklyn. Dressed in their eighteenth-century best, they stuffed a cannon with balls of tinfoil and shot them towards the distant harbor. “Cover your ears,” warned a man in a tricorn hat before the boom and the ring of floating smoke. The monk parrots nesting in the nearby trees were not pleased.
Benjamin Franklin walked around with his kite, ostensibly waiting for lightning to strike, but the sky was stormless, a clear summer blue. Another man held up a leafy twig, explaining, “This is from a tree planted during the American Revolution. It grows in Woodside, Queens. I think it’s called a beech tree, but I’m really not sure.”
I walked to the top of Battle Hill to look at the statue of Minerva. In her helmet and armored breastplate, she waves down to the Statue of Liberty, who seems not to notice or care. They’re like a couple of estranged sisters, these two, one ignoring the other’s overture.
The grave of Leonard Bernstein is impossible to find. I searched everywhere. Other people were searching, too, looking back and forth from their paper maps. “Have you found Leonard Bernstein?” they asked. “Where’s Leonard Bernstein?” And then the inevitable debate, “Do you say it Bern-stine or Bern-steen?” No one knows and no one can find him.
Back down the hill, the Regimental Band of the United States Merchant Marine Academy was settling into formation, all sparkling white uniforms, ready for the parade. Inside the echoing Chapel, a lone bagpiper practiced, music bouncing off the stained glass windows.
I went in search of a restroom, which was easier to find than Leonard Bernstein. While waiting in line, a man with a thick Italian accent, who has worked at the cemetery for thirty years and knows from its restrooms, informed me that the superior toileting facilities could be found in the Columbarium, where all the cremated people are kept.
“What makes that bathroom better?” I asked.
“Fuggedaboutit,” the man said. “This one’s like military. That’s one’s for a king!”
And so it all came back around–to the American Revolution and the Battle of Brooklyn, a story of militia men and kings, and the fight for a better everything.
Jeremiah Moss is the award-winning author of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com). His writing on the city has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Daily News, and online at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He has been interviewed in major newspapers around the globe.