and especially those in groves, urban oases, such as in Flushing, the massive ones ringing Mount Hebron Cemetery.
Whoever laid the concrete sidewalks here most recently politely made room for the spreading roots of venerable Quercus palustris.
Excuse me, said the tree, we were here first. And the City complied, which is more than happens in other municipalities. New York’s rigor regarding tree protection is legendary.
A breezy day in Queens. Anthony the flagger on a well-deserved break: It ain’t a hard hat, but it keeps off the sun. Not a day over 40, indeed.
Deeply carved sinuses, the scallops that distinguish the pin oak leaf.
The tree has a unique habit – its branches hold up the sky at the top, stick out straight as a t square in the middle and droop a bit at the bottom of its shape. There is a monster of a pin oak square in the middle of this sprawling burial ground.
Mount Hebron opened its gates in 1909, and its permanent residents include Holocaust survivors and people who lived through the pogroms leading up to World War II. For example, a monument to the immigrants and immigrants’ descendants from the city of Grodno in today’s Belarus is dedicated to those who were “brutally persecuted and slain by the Nazis.” A stroll reveals many people in their mid-30’s and 40’s who died in the 1930s. Beyond tragic.
I couldn’t find acorn litter today. Someone here stays on top of autumnal sweeping. The nut would poison us but make a fit snack for a squirrel. Critters are more present that most people think here in the greater metropolitan area. I watched a woodchuck dive under a scrim of shrubbery recently in Liberty State Park. I’ve seen raccoons in a Flushing alleyway. This morning at six a.m. as I drove onto the Parkway, headed to the work site, an eight-point white-tail stared and stood stock still at the edge of the woods. Haven’t seen deer in New York City proper but surely it’s a matter of time. Do they like hydrangeas? Then they might like Flushing.
The chain link surrounding Mount Hebron had been conveniently pulled aside as an unofficial entrance for me to slip inside. No one I approached in the neighborhood seemed to know the name of the 250-acre burial ground in their midst, not the Mobil station attendants on the next block (5.59/gallon, with the cleanest restroom in Queens), not even the grave digger, who rose above the dirt he was shoveling to Google the query on his phone. The Yiddish theater industry produced quite a few of the souls buried at Mount Hebron.
The lady with the daisies hadn’t a clue as to where they might be.
Plenty of observant Jews have payed tribute to the dead here, leaving stones atop the graves.
Also abundant, the gnarly limestone faux tree trunks known as treestones. As a sculpted quote from the Biblical tree of life, they represent both eternity and humanity.
By serendipity, I came across a friend’s great grandparents’ plot – they fled Kyev when the pogroms came through and wound up in the Bronx, where Abraham was an expert jeweler and watchmaker.
But I knew the Yiddish actors were someplace – though my favorite, the ever entertaining one-time vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red-hot mamas” – had been buried elsewhere.
As a child, Tucker regaled diners in her parents’ restaurant between waitressing duties. She recalled later that she would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing with all the drama I could put into it. At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The chanteuse’s hit Some of These Days made her super famous, kind of like the Taylor Swift of her day, if Taylor Swift were a middle-aged red hot mama and had a ribald sense of humor. Tucker’s version of The Lady Is a Tramp is the best out there. Banned in Nazi Germany: My Yiddishe Momme.
Plenty of mobsters here. Perhaps the most famous was Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, electrocuted in 1944 for the 1936 murder of Brooklyn shopkeeper Joseph Rosen after six judicial reprieves. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commented after the funeral, Well, they certainly tried everything. Pressed as to whether there would be another Lepke in New York, he was certain: Yes, there will, if we turn government over to the politicians. Take the rackets, the slot machines, gambling – that’s where the Lepkes find their pickings and their perquisites. LaGuardia put himself through law school at night by translating for immigrants at Ellis Island during the daytime. During his tenure as mayor he outlawed organ grinders with their capuchin monkeys, eliminating a source of much color on the streets and a certain career for many first-generation Italians.
LaGuardia believed that organ grinders perpetuated a stereotype of his countrymen. He spoke half a dozen languages: Italian, Croatian, Yiddish, German, French and Hungarian.
Mount Hebron sits on the former 2,000-acre Spring Hill estate of Colonial governor Cadwallader Colden, who died in 1776, four days after the British claimed New York. Colden acted as the first colonial representative to the Iroquois Confederacy and wrote the first history of the Five Nations. A doctor and botanist, the polymath was a patrician pioneer of public health, an expert on the subject of yellow fever. Looked okay in his crimson regalia.
Colden was reportedly not a nice guy. A slaveowner, he reputedly sold one female member of his chattel, a “good House Negro,” for a cargo of “white muscovado” sugar. He got a lot of flak from American patriots, who to protest the Stamp Act of 1765 burned him in effigy along with his coach after smashing it to smithereens in a celebratory bonfire on Manhattan’s Bowling Green (note: then a small green park where you could still go to bowl).
Cadwallader Colden had a number of distinguished children, but the standout was his daughter Jane, who followed in her father’s Linnaeus-inspired footsteps and became the first botanist of her sex in America. Most famous for her untitled manuscript describing the flora of the Hudson Valley that featured her own ink drawings – she was the first scientist to describe the gardenia! – Jane died tragically from complications of childbirth in 1766, at the age of 41.
A visitor to her home noted that she actually made “the best cheese I ever ate in America,” a skill she detailed in her Memorandum of Cheese in 1756.
Cadwallader is buried here somewhere, in present-day Queens, in a plot on his old property, where he now rubs shoulders with mobsters, Yiddish stage stars and survivors of evil. Jane lies interred at the family’s upstate estate near her beloved flowers. I think she might have liked the pin oaks that line Main Street as much as I do.