Pilgrimage for Herman Melville
“Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” Herman Melville
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Herman Melville
I awoke in a dark cave of a room on a Saturday morning and jump to a start, for I knew that Stubbs was somewhere in Brooklyn. We have talked for years about going on a pilgrimage to Herman Melville’s resting place.
To Herman Melville’s grave!
Stubbs and I read Moby Dick in tandem for the first time as we traveled through Southeast Asia and India in the spring of 2005. And we have been talking about joining together and visiting his grave for ever since. Our talk of this pilgrimage was always in the overly excited way that travelers tend to talk about future travels. Both of us knew that SOMEDAY we would find ourselves in New York City, ready to make the pilgrimage.
This particular someday just happened to come today. Fate and happenstance had brought both Stubbs and I into the Big City in the dawning days of autumn. We knew that the crumbled remains of our written-word-hero laid in the soil of the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I was excited that a long standing plan would soon be acted upon, and my thrill only grew with the knowledge that Stubbs was somewhere in my relative proximity. Years, yes years, have passed in which we have awaited this very day.
A pilgrimage to the place that holds the bones of the man who made The Whale!
To these ends, I jumped from bed and made a call in the dark, windowless room to Stubbs. He answered. I tried to get him to tell me where he was, and his only response was, “Brooklyn, 95th and 3rd.”
As Chaya and I set off to find Stubbs in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, it became apparent to me that, given enough time, a traveler will eventually do ALL of the things that they plan to do. I was excited that I was actually embarking on a mission that was suggested years ago; I was excited at the prospect of accomplishment. I have the impression that travelers make plans just for fun. I enjoy having crazy talk with a friend about all of the places that we will someday travel to. I seldom actually know when I really get there, but I know that I am always going to be doing SOMETHING, SOMEWHERE. I have learned that travel plans sometimes come to life immediately, and sometimes they must wait their turn in a colossal ‘to do’ list before the time is ripe to act. .. ..and on and on and on into the horizon.
Stubbs is the name of a good friend as well as a period of my life and travels. We met as digging partners in the woods of Upstate New York on an archaeology project, and spent the next year and a half living and traveling together. Stories were made, yarns were woven. To meet back up with Stubbs now is to dig deep into the trove of past adventures and to resurrect our days of old with smiles.
“Friendship at first sight, like love at first sight, is said to be the only truth.” Herman Melville
Chaya and I got down to 95th and 3rd, which is way down by the sea, and found Stubbs wandering around on the streets with a Buffalo Sabres cap upon his head. We met, shook hands, exchanged hugs, introductions, and then set off to the Bronx.
It took around two friggin hours to get up there, as we traversed New York City from south to north. We soon arrived at the Woodlawn stop at the end of the green subway line, and, after receiving directions from a jerky moving Indian station attendant, we stumbled out to find the cemetery. When we did, we found a think chain sealing the entrance closed. We were too late, it was after 5 PM. No workers or gatemen were even milling around the gates to bribe to let us in. There was no way to get through. The cemetery was closed.
Well, there was no legal way in.
Stubbs came down all the way from Buffalo, and this pilgrimage had been planned for years. We could not fail now that we were so close to reaching the ends of this long journey. We walked around the sky high gates in hopes that we could find a way through. Chaya noticed a break in the barrier next to a tree that some powerful vandal of old must have kicked in.
We slipped through the gap in the gate and ran happily into the locked up cemetery. Then an ominous feeling overtook us, for there were hundreds of thousands of gravestones and we knew not where Melville was buried. We had absolutely no bearings to take and, in desperation, we jolted quickly through the cemetery rows hoping that simple intuition would lead us to a headstone entitled “Melville.”
We looked and looked, searched and searched. It was clear that this pilgrimage would not give up its fruits so easily. The cemetery was deserted, but we kept up hope in lieu of our hopeless mission. Reading the names on the headstones, the three of us walked quickly through a giant haystacks in search of a single needle.
“If I was Melville, where would I be buried?” Stubbs asked.
We were walking along a cemetery street called Pansy Ave. We all agreed that Melville would not be buried here.
We soon came across Hawthorne street and I thought that we could be getting close, as, in life, Nathanial Hawthorne was once Herman Melville’s neighbor. Could this not also be possible in death?
Both Stubbs and Chaya disagreed.
“Herman Melville should be buried on Melville street!” they berated me in unison.
So we looked for a sign that could possibly lead us to the tomb of the man who did not even know that he was America’s greatest writer.
Eventually, a white sedan pulled up behind us. It stopped by our side, and rolled down its window. I walked up to the car and found two middle aged ladies sitting in the front seats.
“We are looking for Herman Melville’s grave, could you tell us where it is?” I asked.
“Yeah, I could tell you,” spoke a plump woman in the passenger seat, “but you can’t go there, the cemetery is closed. I am going to have to call security to have you escorted out.”
As she lifting her cellular telephone to her ear, Stubbs and I fell to lowly state of beggars. We pleaded and pleaded, told the women that we had traveled over mountain, river, and sea to visit Melville’s grave, that he was our hero, and that this was our only chance to complete our pilgrimage.
“Ha ha,” the plump lady laughed, “and I swam over from Alaska! Haha, it doesn’t matter, you have to leave. I am calling security.”
Stubbs and I shot a glance around the cemetery looking for a way to escape, as we continued pleading. Something one of us said must of struck a chord deep inside the plump lady, because she lowered her cellular telephone from her head and told us to hop in the back seat.
Happy conversation was made with the two ladies, who were cemetery employees, as we drove to Melville’s resting place. The plump lady in the passenger’s seat was the local historian, and she pointed out a few famous graves as we drove by.
“That is where Pulitzer is buried,” she told us.
VROOOM! The car roared by. I waved.
“That is where Bat Matterson is buried.”
VROOOM! The car roared by. “Who the hell is Bat Matterson?” I asked.
The ladies laughed at me as if I were dense. Bat Matterson must be a New York City thing.
After this less than whistle-stop tour of the Woodlawn Cemetery, we arrived at the final destination of Herman Melville’s body. We hopped out of the car and followed the plump historian up a small hill. She yapped and yapped about Melville’s history and that of his family and the particulars of his headstone. But her words were just background wind, as Stubbs and I were transfixed upon the words “Melville” that were carved before us. We had made it to the end of a rainbow, we had completed our mission. I felt as riveted as I did on the day that Stubbs and I finally made it to India after the long journey from Hong Kong.
Photograph of Herman Melville’s Headstone in Woodlawn Cemetary.
I then reached into my pocket and withdrew the pen that I meant to lay to rest with Melville, as this has become a tradition. There was a pile of pens from past visitors on the headstone, and I made a motion to lay mine with the pile, when I stopped short.
“Yeah, hark, hark, hark,” roared the plump historian in laughter, “all kinds of failed writers are now coming to Melville’s grave and leaving their pens! hahaha.”
Failed writers? My ears pearked up.
The historian did not yet see the pen that was tucked inside my hand, and I indiscretly placed my offering back inside my pocket.
We came to Melville for darshan, for a revealing, for the pot of gold that lays at the ends of the pilgrimage rainbow, and all we found was a sarcastic fat lady making fun of us.
“He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great.” Herman Melville
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville
Stubbs and I at the end of a long pilgrimage.