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.