Friday, February 18, 2011

Travels In A Twilight World: Exploring Crime and Culture In Mobile's Church Street Cemetery

Church Street Cemetery 5
Deep within the murky shadows beneath the sprawling canopy of a moss-draped oak, the warmth of an early spring doesn't penetrate. I sit upon a gnarled root surrounded by the crumbling remnants of memorials to the dearly departed. Their faded epitaphs speak of a time few bother to recall, of people no one can remember. Beneath the soil all around me are the remains of those who founded this city. 

Their 18th century names sound foreign as I softly speak them aloud: Cornelia, Manly, Augustus, Lyman.... They hail form New York, Philadelphia, and even Ireland. They came to help lay the foundation for a city on the Gulf, at the confluence of five rivers--Mobile.

Church Street Cemetery lays hidden away, but not quite protected, by walls, doglegs, and obstructing facades. It's quiet here, for the most part. Only the susurrus of leaves in a sudden, chill wind breaks the silence. In the muffled distance, like the constant roar of some mighty river, midday traffic speeds nearly nonstop down the broad artery of Government Street. If I close my eyes, I can almost picture a fat tributary frothing turbulently. 

Tuning out the car alarms, booming stereos, and squawking breaks is more difficult. Still, it's so tranquil inside this necropolis, I am forced to try. I focus on the now, the near, and await the stillness to settle again on the graves like dust. 

It's the cemetery's quietus state that beckons the homeless to seek refuge within its embrace. Perhaps it's a reminder of that tenuous thread that separates us all from oblivion. Or their needs may be more basic: cooling shade, soft green grass, and none but the dead to shoo them away. For the most part, these are harmless drunkards, friendly even. They keep to themselves mostly. I haven't even been bothered for spare change. 

Yesterday, one fellow was kind enough to point out what he knew of the forgotten history that lay scattered ruinously about. He told me his name was David and, with a conspiratorial twinkle in his steely blue eyes, he explained to me his plans for procuring room and board that evening. As he lifted his sack of beers, he stated with a toothy grin,"I'm gonna get arrested." The way he saw it, he would get a free bed and three square meals for something as inoffensive as walking down the street with an open container.

While I can't say I thought his was the best plan one could come up with for landing a bed for the night, I could certainly see his position. You do what you have to to make it some times. He was sharp, articulate, and well-groomed; the streets hadn't yet beat him down. I wished him luck in his endeavor and we parted ways.

I looked for him the following day, but he was nowhere to be found. I can only assume he landed the cell he seemed so eager to find. I figured he would be back. Most of the men who call Church Street Cemetery home--the live ones, anyway--secret their meager belongings wherever they can, hoping to find them again upon returning from the day's adventure. 

Most of those I observed, seemed to have a respect for both the cemetery and those who visit this historic and hallowed ground. They don't overrun it either. I saw evidence of no more than five or six guys camping out there, most of them were away while I visited. A police cruiser was usually parked in the lot to the west. I don't know if he was there merely because it was a convenient nexus for awaiting the next call, or if he was there to harass the homeless. 

If the latter were true, I have to say I think I'm more concerned about the gang tag spray painted on the brick wall. I'm also bothered by those graves that have fallen not to the ravages of time but the desecration of punks. It's the vandals we need to worry about. They come by cover of night to stalk the graves like vampires, preying upon the history, memory, and sanctity of a once-beautiful Victorian cemetery.

And to those who think their spray painted tags assure them a place of prominence in the annals of this city, I remind you that the names Roper, O'Brien, and Cain have little or no meaning to you. So, I ask, what makes you so special? Why should we remember you? 


Autumnforest said...

Yes, it is disturbing to come across city cemeteries that have been tagged and the headstones tumbled. I helped to clean one up right beside a soup kitchen where the homeless were peeing into the cemetery, leaving tags from prisons and mental institutes, lots of empty bottles and cans and condoms. It was not the nicest cleanup job, but had my family been buried there, I probably would have erected tall walls around their graves.

Cullan Hudson said...

Good on you for pitching in. More people should--esp. paranormal investigation teams that trade in them like currency. Give back, I say. Don't just take. I'm associated with a team (you can't even call it that, really, since no one is in charge and there are no t-shirts) in OKC that does similar stuff. It's important to for para-groups to give back to the community. By doing so, I believe more doors will open for them when the citizenry sees that you aren't just thrill seekers hell bent on stomping through their cemeteries or historic homes.