The Dancing Man

ghost_hands_old_chair

(Photo: Pexels)

Remember, My Dear Readers, when I told you a couple of months ago that I was doing a series on cemeteries? Well, I’m mostly going there for the history. I can see who died in the Influenza Outbreak of 1917, or who was a Civil War hero, where the slaves were regulated to, etc…I can see what battles stirred up among family members, political figures, and nations when I wander around certain graveyards. They all speak to me. Not literally, but historically. Still, there’s this haunting notion in the back of mind whenever I climb through their neglected rows of tipping tombstones, or when I stroll their manicured lawns and mausoleums–what about ghosts?

Recently, I posted a question on Facebook, asking my friends and family if they believe in ghosts. Most said they did. Some said they believed in spirits–like the spirits of loved ones coming back to bless them during a time of trial–or they believed in demons oppressing and terrorizing people. More than a couple of Catholic friends suggested that ghosts are just the “poor lost souls of purgatory”.

Whatever everyone’s belief, while I dug up information (no pun intended) on the history of the East Coast’s aged cemeteries, I have also simultaneously begun to dig up ghost stories. Some are from friends. Others are from strangers. They’re so interesting that I’ve decided to do a series of these stories as well. Because from these supernatural tales comes a lot of history, the kind that most people don’t want to talk about. The kind that is supposed to remain buried. Perhaps, this is the true value of a good ghost story–that we can talk about how a seemingly normal person flipped and killed his family or that someone was left heartbroken by a son’s death to Yellow Fever. We learn what plagued our great grandparents and the people who settled the places where we now live. We often learn how the common folk lived through ghost stories, because they allow us a sense of fantasy, a stepping away from the actual tragedy at hand. We can look at the story as a story and not a grisly newsreel.

This first story is a local one, one that I found coincided with the history of a neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for progress. I hope you enjoy it. I hope, more importantly, that it inspires you to seek out the history of your own local cemeteries and to give voice to the people and places that can no longer speak. Cemeteries, ghost stories…they’re the places and realms where lives ended and like Hemingway said, “You learn everything you need to know about a man by the way he died.”

 

pexels-photo-67603-large

(Photo: Siobhan Dolezal)

The Dancing Man

by Tiffani Burnett-Velez

It was an unsually warm spring night in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and David was walking home from his long shift at a local restaurant. It was near midnight, when he began the three mile walk. Allentown is a grand city in the daytime, bustling with the energy of the newly built hockey arena, the many cafe’s and restaurants, the boutique shops, the bodegas, the Jamaican and Dominican stores. But at night, the place, like most cities, is a little more sinister and one should be careful walking home alone in the darkness of a city street in America.

The familiar crack dealer was standing on the corner, begging for David to buy. He politely declined. The drug dealer went away dejected. I can’t sell anything in this economy, he lamented. A drunk was arguing with a slab of concrete at the corner. The police were patrolling up and down the street, looking out for people other than the drug dealer. A group of Hispanic young men were sitting on the front porch of their three story brick row home, smoking weed and telling stories. They invited David to join them, and when he again refused, they wished him a beautiful night, because it was a beautiful night. The stars were out, poking through the clear black sky. There was a breeze, a gentle cool one, that wafted over David as he made his way beyond the old Civil War monument on Hamilton Street, past the pizza places and the court house, past the old closed-down Social Security office. Finally, he made his way to the Eighth Street Bridge, also known as the Albertus L. Meyers Bridge, where more than 80 people have jumped to their deaths in the past 100 years.It’s loaded with local lore, but few Lehigh Valley residents actually know just how deadly this bridge, once the highest bridge of its kind in the world, has been.The bridge was under heavy construction during David’s walk, but it was still passable to foot traffic.

“I saw this figure in the distance. It was a man dancing.

“I got to the front of the bridge,” David said, “I saw this figure in the distance. It was a man dancing. Doing something like the Lindy Hop, and this was strange because that dance was popular during the 1930’s or 40’s. Now, I don’t know if I was doing it this particular night, but most nights that I walked home, I sang 1930’s and 40’s jazz songs to myself, the kind you would have danced to with the Lindy Hop.”

David goes on to describe how he tested the figure, to see if his eyes were playing tricks on him. He moved right and left, up and down, seeing if it was his own shadow playing against the street light, but it never moved with him. It never moved in response to him.

“The other weird thing,” he said, “was that when I got closer to it, it didn’t shrink in size. It stayed exactly the same. Shadows don’t do that. Eventually, as I approached it, it disappeared into the cemetery behind the bridge. I never saw it again after that.”

lights-night-romantic-full-moon-large(Photo: Pexels)

I was curious about David’s report and did some research. It seems that the neighborhood surrounding the Eighth Street Bridge used to be a vibrant African-American community, which emerged out of the sewing and textile mills of the Industrial Revolution. By the early part of the last century, it was a thriving community, one that was lit up with dance halls on Friday and Saturday nights, where the locals would dance to the latest Big Bands hits.

“I used to sing old jazz and blues songs from the 1930’s and 40’s,” he’d said. Count Basie stuff.”

In the 1970’s, the neighborhood was mostly bulldozed to make way for, ironically, Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Much of the area disappeared and the residents moved to other parts of the city, the Lehigh Valley, or left the area all together. It was part of the late 20th century efforts to “clean up the inner city” and, as a consequence of this “clean-up”, this vibrant African-American neighborhood disappeared into history.

After David told me this story, I did some investigation on the cemetery next to the bridge. It’s called the Fairview Cemetery and it was designed by one of the two designers of Central Park in New York City. Though mostly derelict and neglected now, with sinkholes, broken tombstones, and litter sprinkled about, it’s easy to see how Fairview–the city’s cemetery–was once a stunning park like complex. Victorian era locals would flock to the place to have picnics near their loved one’s graves. I can’t imagine anyone doing that now. They’d fall 30 feet down onto 150 year old bones.

Was the Dancing Man a ghost? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that a person was out on the bridge that night. Was he possibly the spirit of one of the residents who danced in the halls to Count Basie or Cole Porter at night? That’s a question that can probably never be definitively answered, but other locals have claimed to have seen people jumping from the bridge at night, and when terrified onlookers ran to find them below, no one was there. It was as though the fall never happened. Search the Eight Street Bridge and you’ll find countless stories like this. Are they true? There’s probably a good explanation for all of them. It’s just that no one has figured out what that is yet. One thing we do know is that the neighborhood around the bridge was wiped clean of its houses and dance halls, of its restaurants and cafe’s, almost overnight. We don’t know if this ghost was telling us this, but we do know that just the story of the Dancing Man led us to this whole section of Lehigh Valley history that hasn’t yet made it into the history books. There’s value in that.

Next time you’re on the Eighth Street Bridge, locals, and if you ever happen upon there, non-locals, nod in respect for a moment for all the jumpers, the dancers, and the neighbors who once were.

eigth street bridge

Eighth Street Bridge in Allentown, PA

(Photo: Discovery Lehigh Valley/Pinterest)

 

I’m working on a series about cemeteries and the stories they tell. There’s something fascinating about them and about all the stories hidden under the ground, etched in their stones. Most of the places I will be visiting and writing about will be here, in the Northeast, but when I venture South or West, I might see a war memorial that speaks to me, or a grave at the side of the road, and I might investigate and write about it. The care that some organizations, townships, or religious institutions give to their dead is honorable and touching, but the neglect that happens to others is appalling. As an artist, I’m compelled to explore things that touch me, and cemeteries move me in some way. Perhaps, it’s because I recently lost someone I love–my grandmother, or maybe the recurring discussion (by others) of the loss of my unborn daughter, Olivia Grace, 13 years ago, has prompted me to follow this vein of interest. I thought I had moved past that, but people keep wanting me to talk about it. I don’t want to. But I don’t have a grave for her either. The Commonwealth of PA would not allow it. I have to wander about the Rose Garden to seek out flowers that have grown up out of her ashes, spread there by strangers on a hot summer day.

Or maybe, I’m just seeking the tangible history that moves all around me–veterans of the American Revolution, women memorialized for dedicating their lives to equality, or the nameless and faceless lives of slaves, who lived even in the North before the mid-19th century. Every soul has a story, and I’m a writer, so I’m urged to seek those stories out and share them with the world.

20160420_192323

Child Grave, Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

James Joyce, The Dead

 

Walking through a cemetery is like reading a long Russian novel. You see whole families who’ve died within a week of each other when the Great Influenza Outbreak of 1917 spread throughout the eastern half of the country. You learn who was clergy, who was a milkman, who was loved by his friends and coworkers, who’s been forgotten, and whose branch was broken too soon, symbolized by a broken poppy flower emblem or a snapped cord.

Yesterday, I walked through the old German churchyard near my house, idling through the names etched in old High German, wrangling through my early college language classes to decipher the bits and pieces of scripture and poetry. The Germans were big on symbols. They used tulips to show blessing–the cupped flowers perfectly shaped for receiving gifts from heaven. They used angels to show holiness and the flight to heaven, hearts connected by ivy to show friendship and love within a long lasting marriage, and heavy draping willows to show mourning.

‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees
we hung up our harps.’

Psalm 137

20160420_194042

Willow Tree Grave

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

It was clear that these graves were cared for, that their descendants and loved ones came by often to care for their graves.

13055193_10209604364609577_6406532955011618173_o

Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

13063105_10209604367249643_1686374271367530576_o

Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

Only the graves of servants and slaves seemed less tended to, but none of them were tossed aside. None of them were lost to age or neglect. These were the people of one of Pennsylvania’s tiniest communities, where families have lived for three hundred years, burgeoning with the growth of the British commonwealth and rising with the birth of a new nation in the late 18th century. Even graves so old and weathered that their faces are smoothed down like river stones, have been given attention and care. Even if no one can read their names, they’re still remembered.

But that was yesterday in a small section of neatly cultivated Pennsylvania farmland. Today, I went to another local graveyard, and this one was municipal, laid out adjacent to the 8th Street Bridge in Allentown, the largest concrete bridge of its time when it was first constructed at the turn of the last century. Fairview Cemetery was designed by the same man who designed Central Park in New York City, back when Allentown was bustling with trolley cars and canal boats that moved up and down the Lehigh River.

20160422_120103

Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

Fairview must have been a grand place at one time, the kind of place where mourners could go to talk to their beloveds passed on, because it’s laid out beautifully in grand sweeping hills and valleys. And just as you feel you’ve finally reached the end of it, it leads on to another place. Behind it, the industrial hub of Allentown, a city that has been reinventing itself since the steel and iron industry fell away.

20160422_114019

Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

But, as with most municipal cemeteries, you can see the disparagement between rich and poor, between the upper crust and the middle class. General Harry Trexler has a tall, clean column leading straight to the sky, while the gravestone of ordinary citizen, Lydia Campbell, is being overgrown with weeds and dandelion grass.

20160422_115552

General Trexler’s Memorial Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

20160422_113748

Grave of Lydia Campbell, Born 1827. Death, illegible. Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

And this unknown person’s resting place has been vandalized or just damaged by one of Pennsylvania’s many hurricanes or some other natural event.

IMG_20160422_124243

Headless Woman Among Fallen Tombstones, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

There are many like this in the most populated part of Fairview, and their deaths were so numerous, that sinkholes have begun to form under graves, some dipping down 30 feet and more. Stones have been toppled, piling on top of each other like Legos, and the ground is spongy and bounces like a trampoline in parts.

“The current generation now sees everything clearly, it marvels at the errors of its ancestors…but the current generation proudly…begins a set of new errors, at which their descendants will also laugh afterwards.” Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

The poorest of souls don’t even have stones, just crosses staked to the ground with index card notations of name, birth and death dates.

20160422_115453

Simple Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

20160422_115814

Child’s Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

While walking around, I momentarily lost my father who had stopped to right a torn American flag on the grave of a veteran.

IMG_20160422_130544

Mike Burnett Tending to Veteran’s Grave at Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

It was a sobering moment, noting all the graves that had been abandoned, that were no longer cared for. I know that I have a great great grandfather who’s buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, and his grave is overgrown and has been forgotten for decades. I only recently discovered where he was buried, though I’d known of him for a while.He was a gilder in the Point Breeze section for most of his life and, later, he worked as confectioner in Brooklyn. I plan to visit soon and clean up his gravesite. His father is buried in the Knights of Prometheus Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey with other decorated German immigrant veterans of the Union Army. But that cemetery has warnings to remain in a moving car while passing through, because the neighborhood surrounding it has become too dangerous for honoring loved one’s graves while standing still.

20160422_120712

The Mourning Dove, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

This mourning dove followed me from grave to grave. The Holy Spirit, the symbol of peace, the Companion of those  who wake and those who sleep eternal. It filled the faithful parts of my heart with great joy and sudden rest. He is always with us, no matter how completely our mortal bodies betray us.

The whole experience made me think that I’d like to gather some volunteers to clean up local cemeteries that have been abandoned, ones that don’t have the care and attention that the old German churchyard does. Discussing this with my brother prompted him to share a story.

“I was walking home from work one night, about midnight, and I was passing over the 8th Street Bridge. I saw a silhouette at the end of the bridge, and someone was dancing there, like the Charleston or salsa, maybe. A dance that doesn’t require a partner. I moved around a bit to see if the shadow would move with me. I wondered if it was my eyes playing tricks on me, or some sort of illusion, but there were no lights at that end of the bridge, no cars driving down that side of the street, no houses with their porch lights one, no way for a sillouette to be made against anything. It didn’t grow or shrink, but when I got within a few feet of it, it slipped off into the cemetery, near that torn part in the chain link fence.”

This was the first thing we saw when we got into the cemetery.

20160422_113856

Nothing but a simple cross that stands, despite the fallen tree at its side. I did some research, and I found only the briefest of obituaries about Mr. Figueroa. I don’t know if he spoke with the same Puerto Rican accent of my inlaws, if he liked living here where it snowed and there were no palm trees, or if he liked to dance, but since he was the first to introduce us to the souls at Fairview, I stood and made the Sign of the Cross at his grave, and offered a Fatima Prayer in his honor.

Abraham Figueroa, 49, of Bethlehem died Thursday, August 26, 2010 at VNA Hospice at St. Lukes. Born in Corozal, Puerto Rico on November 18, 1960, he was a son of Angela Rivas Figueroa and the late Abraham Figueroa. He worked as a Pallet Assembler at Ratt Pallet Co., Easton, PA. He was a member of Smyrna Church of the Lord, 1537 E 6th St., Bethlehem, PA.

I think Boyko Funeral Home, who was said to have handled the arrangements for this, should clean up Abraham’s resting place a bit more. They could take some lessons from the Germans of Dutch Country.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑