Baby-Sitting a Bone in Washington Square Park, Once a Potter’s Field
The bone kept singing. Long grass and scrub disguised it, half-asleep in lime-white dusk, like an earthworm displaced to a sun-warmed walkway. Flesh once enveloped every tender curve. Lungs once expanded, bellow-like, rehearsing an anthem. This tune, neither melodious nor doomed, needed a more generous interpretation than I could manage, while petting it with the side of my shoe. Pleased to meet you, Femur. Death flattens a corpse’s understory, its ancestry a forgotten dialect, but long bones persevere. Once a potter’s field agitated this soil, 20,000 deceased, indigent New Yorkers were shoveled over, poverty the public’s natural blindfold. Transformed into Washington Square Park, a silhouette of rooftops fringed four sides. Femur continued crooning, huffing at dandelions, angling for one monumental moment. Carefully nudged under a park bench, garbage bags camping around us, Femur hummed when stroked by my toes. Watching the trees turn black, watching uniformed police locking the gates, watching buildings bleed together, the sole of my foot warmed the bare bone until blue suits ambled over to start their questioning. Disinterested in this century’s utterances, the bone continued singing, moonstruck as earth’s last gasp.
Author’s Note: From 1797—1825, what is now Washington Square Park was the City’s Potter’s Field, where thousands of people including the unidentified, the indigent, and those who died of yellow fever were buried.
Native New Yorker LindaAnn LoSchiavo, recently Poetry Super Highway’s Poet of the Week, is a member of SFPA and The Dramatists Guild. Elgin Award winner “A Route Obscure and Lonely” and “Concupiscent Consumption” are her latest poetry titles. Forthcoming is Dark and Airy Spirits (a paranormal collection of ghost poems), Messengers of the Macabre (a collaborative chapbook), and an Italian-centric book, Flirting with the Fire Gods, inspired by her Aeolian Island heritage. She has been leading an SFPA poetry critique group for two years. Find her at: https://linktr.ee/LindaAnn.LoSchiavo, https://paranormal-poetry.carrd.co/, Twitter: @Mae_Westside, and YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHm1NZIlTZybLTFA44wwdfg
Backstory: During the 1840s-1850s, Greenwich Village was home to New York’s upper crust, the society depicted in “Washington Square,” a novel by Henry James, who was born in 1843 to a wealthy family who lived adjacent to the park at 21 Washington Place. This stately one-acre park, whose Fifth Avenue side was beautified by Stanford White’s memorial arch depicting George Washington, was created from humble origins: a potter’s field. Between 1797 and 1825, approximately 20,000 indigent anonymous city dwellers were interred here. Several church burial grounds had also been located along the northeastern portion of this greensward.
From 2007-2017, an interval when the park was undergoing major renovations and its borders were being excavated for sewer maintenance, newly rediscovered burial vaults were almost a daily occurrence along with the accidental dislodging of skeletal remains. Since I live nearby and am often there, one evening I noticed ancient bones protruding from the soil and took them into protective custody (temporarily).
Lately I’ve been working on a poetry collection focused on death, dying, and the afterlife. Many of the poems are based on true events, for instance, my father’s courtship of a mortician, my uncle’s weekly poker game held in a haunted house disrupted by poltergeists, and my secret life as a ghost whisperer. Writing about baby-sitting a pile of bones in a former potter’s field fit my theme.
Note: Reburial of all these orphaned bones was done by the Parks Department in March 2021, https://www.6sqft.com/nyc-reburies-remains-of-early-new-yorkers-in-washington-square-park/
Image credit:Photograph of second unearthed chamber showing wooden coffins (New York Times/https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/07/nyregion/beneath-washington-square-forgotten-tombs-begin-to-yield-their-secrets.html)