Reading Riverside Park's benches.
By Will Lyman
On a meditative walk through Riverside Park, I came to the realization that a lot of people are dead. I was reading the small metal plaques that commemorate various West Side characters, performing a zigzag maneuver to examine each label on the facing benches. I felt the weight of the tributes—that everyone had someone to remember, everyone had things they wanted to say. As I read, I grew increasingly aware that the park was vacant, save for an idle car on Riverside Drive from which white vape clouds spouted.
While it might’ve been appropriate for me to feel some form of grief in response to these memorials, I was mostly left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The majority of the dedications merely listed names and broad explanations that the honorees enjoyed the park, and that others now missed them. Generic phrases we inherit and imitate abounded, commenting on courage or love in sweeping, even clichéd, terms. “We know you're looking down on us”; “we won’t be the same without you.”
But I struggled to come up with alternatives, for it is a difficult task to distill a life into four lines of text. Reading many of the dedications, I learned nothing about the person concerned. I clung to any plaque that was uniquely descriptive, that seemed to identify something about loved ones beyond the basic roles they occupied in another’s life: Aunt, Father, Lover.
On one bench I read and reread a beautiful, wrenching tribute to a deceased child. Other benches had plaques scratched with keys or otherwise vandalized. One bench had a paper that read “We’re Hiring!” stuck over a plaque. The ad had disintegrated in the rain, falling onto the ground in wet, white clumps. It reminded me that even memorials are commercial spaces. Later, on the Riverside Park Q&A page, I found that each plaque cost $7,500. With this information in mind, I reconsidered what I had read. Some benches were birthday presents, some were proposals, some were made out to dead pets. These memorials were qualified by money, made more visible, maybe even more memorable, than other forms of remembrance. I thought of everyone who didn’t have their own bench or other tangible claim on the city, of all the loved ones who had no place to visit.
The dedications noticeably lacked most people’s occupations. I wasn’t surprised that, in death, people didn’t find day jobs to be particularly personal. Artists were the exception. Such memorials cast the park as a place of inspiration, for creatives to sit and absorb the world around them. To seek out intensely personal moments in a public backdrop: park benches, rooftops, Low Steps at midnight. These places you go to be somewhere else.
I love Riverside in moments. On sunny Sunday afternoons—smiling at a dog, ignoring its owner. On a Saturday in April, when I came across a band playing jazz to a crowd of passersby. I sat on the stone wall and watched people dance. I like to think I have many such places—sunning at Silver Moon Bakery or stumbling into Suite on karaoke night and hearing a man in khakis belt “Lady Marmalade.” Times where it seemed that I had made a home out of the city.
Most often, the dedications ended with a mention of their authors, a sudden appearance of a “Melissa” or a “Conan.” I’m reminded that the memorial isn’t for the dead. It exists for the people of the park—for people to sit among while they feed squirrels, for pilgrimaging family to visit, or for college kids to write about in their notes apps.
Ultimately, it seems that the purpose of these dedications is to do exactly what they did to me—to give me pause, to make me feel both alone and surrounded in the park, to ask me how and where I’d like to be remembered. Above all, they exist to remind us of our shared experience—of gradually finding our places in this city, making connections to benches and asphalt pathways, and personalizing our experience of a place millions have passed through.
Here are the dedications that I’ll remember:
The man who loved mustard,
Who was married to the woman who always had to be right.”
“Little girl with blond curls holding my hand running on the wall,
Climbing rocks and monkey bars, teetering on a two-wheeler, sledding on fresh night snow, Teddy loping alongside.
Sweet unforgettable times.
In loving memory of Hallie Leland Leighton”
“In loving memory of
Here he sat and sunned and sketched
As buses and birds and birthdays flew by”
who enjoyed the sound of silence.
who loved to listen with him.”