I HAVE the rare good fortune to live within walking distance of a bona fide national monument. Grant's Tomb is just a mile and a half from my apartment, and I visit it whenever I have the time--which, since I am a writer, is too often. I tell myself that making the trek is good for my body, hiking uphill on Riverside Drive, taking in the relatively clean air along with some of the most beautiful vistas in Manhattan. But in truth I do it for less corporeal reasons. I find it comforting, even uplifting, to hang around a place so greatly revered that the federal government pays its bills and even posts rangers to take care of it. And it's gratifying to know that I live so close to something that draws tourists from around the world. Sure, I suppose I could say the same thing if I lived a few blocks from the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center. But Grant's Tomb is far from the glitz of midtown, and besides, it has something those places don't. Something that's new and different every time I see it. Something I didn't even notice until recently, although it's been there for a long time--so long, in fact, that none of the rangers can remember when it wasn't.
Of course, it's not the kind of thing you tend to notice immediately in a classical mausoleum with two eight-and-a-half-ton sarcophagi of Wisconsin red granite, five scowling bronze busts, and a pair of seventeen-foot-high wood-and-bronze doors. And there are so many other things to capture your attention: The great mural on the rotunda of Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox. The displays about Grant's life, about the building of the monument, and about the local African-American community. The tiny gift shop, with its Civil War-related biographies and coloring books and replica Confederate currency. The desk, where the rangers give out brochures and bus schedules and subway maps. The huge electric fan that pushes the marble-cooled air around rather nicely in the summertime. I even spotted the brown blotches on the ceiling, remnants of water damage from the winter of 1993-1994, when a new snowstorm seemed to hit the city every Wednesday. But somehow I had long managed to overlook what has become my favorite Grant's Tomb exhibit, sitting alone atop a low brass bookstand near the door.
It's a big, old-fashioned guest register--the kind you might see at a country inn or a wedding--with columns for name, date, place of origin, and comments. The accompanying pen isn't chained to anything, so it disappears from time to time, but the rangers keep replacing it.
That's a good thing, too. I'd hate to think what would happen if the Parks Department ever gave up on the guest register. At the very least, some local denizens would lose a place to record thoughts, ideas, or merely the fact that they are still alive. My favorite is Bill, a semi-retired security guard who uses the register to keep track of his progress as a runner. Every day Bill, who has survived both a Bronx orphanage and the Korean War, jogs the two and a half miles up from Seventy-second Street. On his way he'll often pass me, less than half his age, and offer encouragement. "Look at me," he'll say, puffing and trotting backward to face me. "Sixty-five years old! I've lost thirty pounds! Someday we'll run together!" The "someday," of course, is when I get into shape. Anyway, whenever Bill makes particularly good time, or just when he feels like it, he takes government pen in hand and records his feat for the ages. U. S. Grant's guest book is his Luxor Obelisk. "Bill T." he'll inscribe, with proud flourishes. "New York, NY. 24:40:89. 4th best time. 65 years old." Had Bill been sixty-five in 1862, I am certain he would have stormed Fort Donelson with "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. Maybe even ahead of him.
Unlike Bill, most people who visit Grant's Tomb do so only once, and most of them confine their comments to two not terribly creative words. "Very nice" is a frequent entry. So are "Good tour," "Enjoyed it," and "Love U.S." (I'm never sure whether that last one refers to the general or his country.) In summertime "Get A.C." and its more polite cousin, "A.C., please!" show up several times a page. "Get bathrooms!" is a year-round favorite. "We see that a lot," a ranger told me recently. "People are always horrified when they find out there aren't any public bathrooms in here. But think about it: This is a cemetery. Do you have bathrooms in a cemetery?"