Thursday, June 07, 2007

Monuments on Parade: A Cranky Travel Guide

Just asking, but what in the world is this obsession with monuments to the dead all about?

Just today, I read two stories about a monument to the 40 innocent people on board the famed Flight 93 of Sept. 11, 2001, which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., evidently as the hijackers aboard were trying to turn it toward Washington, D.C., where the target presumably was the Capitol building.

We know that some very courageous passengers and flight attendants violently resisted the religious psychopaths who'd commandeered the plane, and we're pretty sure that resistance led the hijackers to fold and just crash the aircraft in the rural area. Mission unaccomplished.

(Not to get off the subject here, but I wonder how those 72 virgins the hijackers each believed they were be issued as martyrs in Paradise are working out? Certainly, I cannot be the only person who thinks that residing for eternity in the company of 72 virgins, no matter how beautiful, could possibly be uninterrupted bliss. Can you imagine how many doors would be slamming in those celestial manses every single day?)

But I digress. This is an essay about what seems to be a growing, and I think a little nutty, obsession with monuments, and this gigantic monstrosity being planned by the increasingly embarrassing National Park Service in godforsaken Shankesville, Pa. is a case in point. I can't figure out either of the two stories I read today -- maybe all the editors were at the annual picnic. Evidently there is a dispute about money, which is no surprise. The monument is partly to be built on some guy's land. Nobody seems to have thought to ask the reporters to explain: What the hell are they doing?

What gets me is the size and cost of the of the thing -- 1,300 acres and $58 million. I'm told by both stories that 4,000 people a year visit the site, leaving those dreadful bundles of supermarket bouquets that helped make the commotion over Princess Diana's death so ... well, creepy.

Of course, the planned monument at the World Trade Center site is way more expensive, but it's only a few acres and, besides a 1,776-foot-tall skyscraper, it will contain memorial gardens, a theater and a practical, useful-to-the-living rail and subway station. And the image of those buildings coming down -- terror theater from hell -- will remain in our collective consciousness for centuries.

(An aside: Anyone in New York, if they didn't actually see the horror with their own eyes, knows lots of people who did. For years, I have asked those who actually witnessed the planes hit or the buildings collapse what the first words out of their mouths were. "Holy shit," uttered slowly and with disbelief, wins by a huge margin. Ask around and you'll see I'm right.)

Anyway, what is it with this National Park boondoggle in Shankesville? A hundred acres wouldn't be big enough?

Speaking of monuments, until a few years ago, I'd never been to the old Book Depository Building on Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald lurked at a sixth-floor window to take at least a couple of the shots that hit President Kennedy.

(I'm back and forth on the conspiracy theories. Gerald Posner's book arguing the lone-assassin theory had me persuaded for years, but now I'm wavering. David Talbot's wonderful new book "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years" goes into a great trove of historical detail about who might have had the means and opportunity, and most certainly the motives, to conspire to assassinate JFK.)

Anyway, the event was of course a central moment in memory from my high school years, so a couple of years ago, on a business trip in Dallas, I went to the Sixth Floor Museum at the old Book Depository building. On the ground floor, before taking the elevator up to Oswald's dark lair, they had installed an airport-like security checkpoint. You had to put anything metal on a conveyor belt and pass through a magnetometer. I just couldn't see the point.

"Now you're checking for weapons?" I asked the security guards, who were not amused.

Nevertheless, the sixth-floor displays are interesting. It is especially fascinating to stand where the odious Oswald stood and see what an easy, easy shot it was.

Nobody asked me, but you know the monument I hate most in this country (though whatever the National Park Service is up to in Shankesville may well edge into first place)? That surly monstrosity, Mount Rushmore.

Nothing against Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson, but when you actually go there to South Dakota, it becomes absolutely clear -- at least to me -- that this monument, staring smugly as it does into the Black Hills and the holy grounds of the Lakota Sioux nation, is making an imperialist statement! Bugger off, it seems to be saying to the indigenous ghosts. The fact that tourists speak in reverential whispers and act as if they're in church while there gave me the willies.

Monuments I like because they convey dignity and grace:

The battleship Arizona. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; the Iwo Jima statue; Arlington Cemetery; Benjamin Franklin's grave in Philadelphia. FDR's modest mansion and grave beside the Hudson in Hyde Park. Lyndon Johnson's tombstone in the little family graveyard at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, and only because it's typically LBJ: It towers over the those of rest of the clan, looking like it's apt to grab one of the others' lapels at any moment.

I like the feeling inside the John Paul Jones memorial at Annapolis. Even if he was a ballsy wastrel, the boy got things done. I even kind of like Grant's Tomb in the Bronx, though that's partly because it was the answer to the booby-prize question on Groucho Marx's television quiz show: "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb," and also, nobody goes there anymore.

{Correction appended later: Grant's Tomb, as several readers pointed out, is in Manhattan, not the Bronx.]

Meanwhile, there is the other subject of fake monuments -- places that become tourist attractions simply because they're seen in movies or on television.

Everybody in the Montclair, N.J. area -- the town to which half of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and three quarters of the media crowd, seems to relocate to once they have a kid or two -- knows about a wonderful little ice cream parlor/luncheonette/candy store called Holsten's in Bloomfield. Walk in, and you really do feel like you're back in 1964.

On the left is a soda fountain with stools, behind which young men and women work to churn out sundaes, fizzes and other sodas. They are invariably pleasant and friendly. On the right is a big candy counter where you can guy a couple of macaroons or a two-pound box of chocolates -- all delicious and all made, like the ice cream, on the premises. In the rear is a little luncheonette with booths, where you can order BLTs, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, French fries, sundaes -- whatever. Whole families gatherer here for Saturday lunch or for things like birthday parties.

We love the place. There simply aren't many like it anymore.

But lately, it's been a little difficult to get in on some days. See, Holsten's was where they shot the final scene of Sunday night's final episode of "The Sopranos." People are already standing outside taking pictures. Strangers are wandering in.

If Tony gets whacked Sunday night, and my money says he does, Holsten's is the place where the whacking gets done.

All sorts of locations in North Jersey are regularly seen on "The Sopranos," and tour buses do a steady business dragging gawkers to monumentss like the Bada Bing, a strip club on Route 17 in Lodi actually called Satin Dolls; Pizzaland in North Arlington; Satriale's, a fictional pork store (actually a former auto parts shop in Kearny), and even the house used for the exteriors of the Soprano family home in Caldwell.

And now, alas, dear Holsten's. Soon to be the most famous of them all.

Bada-bing, bada-bang, bada-boom -- there goes the sofa fountain where you could always get a seat.


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