Saturday, November 01, 2008

November One

When I was a police reporter in Pennsylvania, whenever I heard the call for “November One” on the scanner, I knew somebody had just died.

“November One” was the code for the county coroner so if I heard the code for a car accident (I think it was 10-15) followed by the coroner’s radio handle, I knew that we had a fatal accident—and a most likely a page-one story.

Yesterday was Halloween and today—November One-is All Saints Day, so I guess it’s not surprising that I would think about a man who worked so closely with the dead.

This is also the Day of the Dead in Mexico, or Dia De Los Muertos, where friends and family come together to honor deceased loved ones.

And--my thanks for Flatbush Gardner for reminding me--today is also the 90th anniversary of the Malbone Street Wreck, where nearly 100 people died in the worst transit disaster in New York City history.

It happened in Brooklyn, just outside Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. After the accident, the name of the street was changed to Empire Boulevard and that's the name it carries to this day.

"November One" seems like a good handle for a coroner.

Burning Bright

A few nights ago I was walking down my street when I smelled smoke. I looked up the alley of the home I was passing and saw a cardboard box burning away, completely engulfed in flames.

It looked so unusual and primitive blazing away in this modern setting. There was no one around and in my rather overactive imagination I thought of some kind of strange ritual.

Then I remembered that this was the home of an adorable little girl who had died over the summer. I have no idea what was in that burning box, but I am convinced it had something to do with that beautiful child whose life was so cruelly snuffed out.

Perhaps it was something so strongly connected with the little girl that her parents couldn’t bear to look at it anymore, but the idea of throwing it into the trash was unthinkable. It's like changing the name of a street after something terrible has happened.

So they destroyed it completely, exerting some tiny bit of control over a world that must look brutally chaotic to them.

Also, I believe these people are Buddhists and, according to one web site I checked, tradition calls for family members to burn the deceased possessions 100 days after the funeral so he or she can enjoy them in the next life.

If that's so, I hope this sweet little girl has all her dolls and toys with her now and having fun every day in a place where November never happens.

I was recently thinking about Eliza, a woman I met a few years ago when she was running a movie-goers club. One Sunday a month, Eliza would organize a group of people to see a movie and then go to lunch or dinner. (I think we did breakfast once, too.)

It was the first internet-related group I ever joined and I had some great times with it. I met new people, saw some good flicks, and ate at some nice restaurants.

The first movie I saw with this group was Spellbound, a documentary about spelling bees, not the Hitchcock classic.

Eliza was waiting outside to greet any stragglers and direct them into the theater and then afterward about a dozen of us went out to eat. This group meant a lot to me, especially in a city where it can be very hard to make new friends.

Each month, Eliza sent out an e-mail saying what movie we’d be seeing and what restaurant we’d go to afterward. She’d always end up by saying “Have fun—and that’s an order.” Great advice, when you think about how short life can be.

One time in the winter we went to a theater where the heating system had broken down. A lot of people in the group complained about being cold, so after the movie Eliza marched up to the manager’s office and got free passes to another flick for every member in the group. She was all kinds of brassy.

I should mention here that I wasn’t cold at all, having just put away a nice steamy bowl of turkey chili, which kept me warm for the duration of the movie. But I took the pass anyway.

A Golden Heart

Eliza once invited me to a birthday dinner she was throwing for herself at Guantanamera, a fabulous Cuban restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. I accepted and met up with her and two of her friends.

I got the distinct feeling that a lot of invited guests had blown this party off, which is pretty crass, actually, but between the great food and the jumping music, nobody seemed to mind.

Eliza ran several media-related events and when I got laid off from a job, she gave me a freelance editing gig on her e-mail newsletter. My first attempt at editing this publication was disastrous, but I improved quickly.

I didn’t get rich doing this, but I put it on my resume to show prospective employers that I was working instead of sitting around playing video games all day. As a result, there were no blank spots on my resume.

I eventually drifted from the movie group, got steady work and, as all too often in life, I lost contact with Eliza.

Then last September, I went to a small theater on the Upper West side to see a production of “The Innocents” and two other ghost stories, and there was Eliza, who had also joined this particular group.

She told me she had disbanded the movie group because it was too much work organizing the thing. We talked about getting together sometime and a short time later she sent me an e-mail inviting me to join her new sports Meetup group. She always had something going on.

I honestly meant to join, but I’m not into sports and I belonged to so many Meetup groups already that I didn’t want to sign up for any more. But I told myself that I’d keep in touch with Eliza.

Two months ago I received an email from Eliza’s account, but it turned out to be from her sister. She was writing to say that Eliza had died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. She was 45 years old.

I meant to write something about Eliza on that day, but I didn’t, and it is to my great shame that I am finally discussing my friendship with her two months after she died.

But then I meant to stay in touch with her last week and I didn’t, so all I can say now is rest in peace, Eliza.

Last week I went to a wake for a woman who was related to a friend of mine. My friend was about the only person in the room that I knew. It was an odd sensation, going to a wake after burying my parents.

I felt detached, away from everything, and I suppose I was. But I'm glad I went. A little bit of effort can touch people so deeply.

At one point I went downstairs to use the men’s room and I was amazed at the size of the place. As I was leaving, I saw the funeral director and told him what a great facility he had.

“It’s a good place to stay out of,” he said with a laugh.

On the way out I picked up a funeral card for the departed. This had an image of Jesus on one side and a poem on the other. The last stanza of the poem reads:

“A golden heart stopped beating,
Hard working hands at rest,
God broke our hearts to show us,
He only takes the best.”

That could be said about a lot people I’ve lost. Something to think about on November One.

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