At the end of the powerfully violent film of the vibrant life of the Gangs of New York, two survivors of the brutal bloodletting of the Civil War draft riots, Amsterdam Vallon and his girl Jenny Everdeane, stand in a small cemetery looking across the river at New York City, and Amsterdam, played by Leonardo di Caprio, says in voiceover, “And no matter what they did to build this city up again, for the rest of time, it will be like no-one even knew we was ever here.”
I admit to never seeing the movie entire, having watched bits of it now and then, and being put off by its garish ambience, but the other day I did see a fair bit of it, right through to the last scene.
The view across the river shows the city growing and changing from 1860 to the advent of the World Trade Center, while the little cemetery where lie buried the characters of the story overgrows with weed and flower, the named stones rotting away until little is left but a patch of weedblown ground.
Vallon’s last words saddened me beyond measure, and have resonated every day since. They feel like a haunt that is beyond redemption and will forever hang around, lurking in the dark corners of my rooms, staring at me with doomed eyes. When I look in those eyes (I think they are brown and dull) I see, what else, myself, and everyone I know.
I don’t know anyone whose name and deeds will live on in history books or stories or even in government archives. I know no one famous, though I can claim to have worked a stage with a couple of actors who have gone on to work regularly in Hollywood films, whose images and voices will carry on until the last film is dust.
I know only people who live a life, who go to the bathroom, who brush their teeth, eat too much or not enough, work forty more or less hours a week, hope to get laid, love their pets and get annoyed at them, sometimes get drunk, sometimes say stupid things, sometimes say and do wonderful and unexpected things, but who will never do great things, will never have their names carved in other than tombstone marble, will never speak great words that move a nation, or a city, or a town, or a village.
I know no one whom the future will even know they was ever here.
I live one of those lives, not terribly different from those others in some respects, vastly different in others and cursed by a mind that sees darkly. Many of them will live on in their family’s memories, until they are no more than a name on a rumpled piece of paper tracing a family genealogy. That’s not my likely fate, since I am the end of my line. Hundreds of years in Sicily and Italy end with me, probably here on Cape Cod. My name might be the one up in the corner of the paper, barely legible, with no descendants, of whom someone might say, “And who was that?”, to be answered by, “Nobody really knows. He’s just a dead twig on the tree.”
No one will even know I was ever here.
Franz Wright catches the scent of such melancholy in his line ”Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.”
It’s not that I feel sorry for myself, at least not for my present self. I’m alive. I’ll die, probably alone, though I’d like to think that I’ll be struggling to read one of the classics through dimming vision when I go. I’ll have regrets at the end. Along the way I’ll try to do things I enjoy, though at times I despair of discovering what those things may be. Death is a pragmatic matter. I’m afraid, yes, but I’m not there yet, and when it’s done there won’t be an I to care or regret or despair.
But the thought now that in time no one will even know I was ever here still manages to claw into my heart and tear at the fabric of my mind. There won’t be an I to care, but I care.
I want to be remembered, godammit. I want not to have passed by this earth with so light a tread that I might as well have been a bit of breeze, unseen, barely felt, and then gone.
I want to scream at the night sky, “Remember me. Mark me. Don’t leave me alone.” Once, in a younger body, I did that, or something akin to it, on a frozen field in midwinter in Rhode Island. What stars weren’t blinded from existence by the lights of civilization gave me no sign.
The stars have remained silent all that time. I still look at them, in awe and despair, but it’s not their fault. Few people know the stars’ names, fewer still their ancient names, but everyone can still see the stars, whatever their names.
Not so with us. We will not go on, not in flesh, not in memory, not in time, no matter how loudly or silently we cry out to live longer than the memory of stars.
For the rest of time, it will be like no-one even knew we was ever here.
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