Welcome to Our Tomb

Visitors to Ulysses S. Grant's final resting placehave an opportunity to preserve their reactions for posterity. They don't need any prodding

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?"

Occasionally people wax a little more contemplative. Once in a while, for example, someone will offer an interpretation of "Let Us Have Peace," a famous postwar motto of Grant's, which is inscribed over the tomb's entrance. "No more wars!" "Peace to all," "Someday, let us all know peace," and "Peace, please!" all pay homage to the general's pacifistic inclinations. I'm not so sure about "Let there be peace and balance the budget" and "No Jesus, no peace--Know Jesus, know peace," but at least they were trying.

So, I suppose, was the guy who scribbled "Free beer! The general would agree!" I imagine he's someone whose presence at a party inspires everyone else to wonder who invited him and why; still, he did evidence some knowledge of history. I try to find something redeeming in everyone, but occasionally there's just no way. One guy from Greenwich, Connecticut, used his "suggestions" space to demand, "Abolish funding for public TV." A woman from Wermelskirchen, Germany, wrote, "Is it so important still to honor this person? Let's look to the future!" Thank goodness for the fellow from Knokke, Belgium, who wrote on the very next line, "It might scare you! Let us look to the past and learn for the future"--displaying, I believe, remarkable restraint.

"What are the international implications?" a local man wrote one day. As if to answer him, a tourist from Taipei wrote, "The floor is not shining!" (thus demonstrating what is meant by the expression "Taipei personality"). "Diversity is liberty and tolerance," wrote someone from Barcelona; I don't know exactly what that means, but I'm sure it's a noble sentiment, one that undoubtedly became popular in Spain sometime after the Inquisition. Its author certainly showed more thought than did the family from Windsor, Connecticut, who wrote, "Open the coffins!" three times. "We get that one a lot too," a ranger told me with a sigh. "There are some sick people out there."

The ranger wasn't laughing. Gradually I stopped laughing too. The whole thing was starting to irritate me. "I love Robbie W.!" "It's my birthday!" "My boyfriend did the snow angel out front." "Hey ho let's go." "Let's go Rangers!!" "Oh Baby, Oh Baby, Oh Baby!" One day a woman who identified herself as a native of Havana wrote, "Very nice for a dead guy."

. . .

Ultimately I was saved from terminal curmudgeonliness by one of the tallest, darkest people I have ever seen. It was a muggy August day; I was sprawled on the tomb's front steps when I saw him walk inside. Later, when I got up and went in myself, to cool off, I spotted him at the book, bent over the podium and tapping the pen against his wrist, deep in thought. Then he wrote something, replaced the pen gingerly, and walked out. I stared at the register for a few seconds, uncertain whether I wanted to know or not. Finally I walked over and looked at the bottom line. The man was from Lagos, Nigeria. He had written, "I join the U.S. people in saluting this great hero."

That was it. Nothing witty or clever or self-serving or self-referential. Just ten words indicating that he appreciated Ulysses S. Grant and his monument, that "the international implications" were plain and obvious, that the money the government shells out to keep the place open and running is money well spent.

Fortunately, he's not alone. A guy from Champaign, Illinois, wrote, "Best things my taxes ever paid for, these parks." A woman from Berlin wrote, "A great tomb after a great life." A man from Nice wrote, "A most impressive display of national memory." A couple from Manhattan wrote, "Simple, yet beautiful and elegant. They don't build monuments like this anymore. Too bad." A woman from Buenos Aires wrote, "It's nice to see you give such an importance to your traditions and the people who built your nation." Some visitors from Manchester, England, wrote, "Impressive and a credit to the American people to show their gratitude in such a way." A man from Beijing wrote, "Freedom is great."

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1996; Welcome to Our Tomb; Volume 278, No. 1; pages 18-22.