Tuesday, November 6

Visiting the Dead: Oak Woods Cemetery Ride

Weather wise, the past weekend was spectacular! Temps in the mid 50s, insignificant winds, a beautiful azure sky with puffy white clouds --what more could a motorcyclist hope for? Feeling more than a little overwhelmed by work and other obligations, I decided to do something other than wallow in the abyss. For me a sure pick me up is a cemetery visit. Might sound a bit morbid to some, but to me, such visits evoke many reasons for living fully in the moment. Sometimes life makes you feel as if your grip is slipping.

When company arrives, I become an ambassador for my wonderful city. I tend not to take sufficient time to tour the city solo. With the motorcycle, I've been doing more local exploring and it's been mind expanding.

One would have to be dead, not to appreciate the beautiful fall weekend weather. As I peered from the window, I could feel a strong magnetic force urging me outside. By 10:00a.m., it was an undeniably urgent pull. Yet, I was feeling a counter need to go underground, to hunker down and tune out the world. Lounge around reading and just disappear for the weekend--no phone, no company... just inside with a bunch of reading materials.

By noon, the sun made abstract lines through the blinds I had closed to keep the sun out. Eventually, I felt forced to pay attention to my gut, which was telling me that winter would be here soon and I would regret wasting a day like Saturday. Feeling put upon by the great weather, I reluctantly geared up and headed out for a cemetery ride.
Not terribly far from me is Oak Woods Cemetery. Once a Jewish cemetery, Oak Woods is now a final resting place for many of Chicago's finest. Replete with local history, I decided to go there, learn a few things and hang out. I had called the cemetery office a week or so prior and learned that it would be okay to ride Queenie through the grounds. I had asked about parking, which I preferred to do rather than ride through. Something about feeling like I'd be disturbing the dead?--I know...it is senseless. Still, I prefer walking through cemeteries, exploring the history written on the headstones, speculating what's behind a headstone that covers a life and death that lasted only 6 years, or why a family all has the same death date.

I arrived fifteen minutes after the office closed so I didn't have the map to find all the plots I wanted to locate. I did not find Harold Washington (1922-1987), Chicago's first African American mayor; Ida B. Wells Barnett (1862-1931), African American journalist; Jesse Binga (1865-1950), founded and owned a African American bank in 1908 when banks discriminated against some American citizens. In addition, Oak Woods is the final resting place of many of Chicago's politicians, musicians, artists, athletes, along side regular folks. I did find Jesse Owens (1913-1980), famed Olympic Runner from the '40s.

Although my visit did not unearth, forgive the pun, the departed I wanted to find that's never was the ultimate goal, particularly once I arrived at the cemetery. Once there, I become quickly lost in process of location and exploration. Without a map, I parked the bike and wandered aimlessly taking photographs with the Yashica Mat and perusing the headstone stories.

By the time I finished, my gloom had lifted. As I packed my camera, a man in navy jacket and pants approached me. I could tell he was a security guard and I wondered if he were waiting for me to leave. He was an elderly black gent with a sweet smile who appeared to be around 75 years old. Instantly, I thought of my maternal grandfather--never has a sweeter and kinder man walked this earth! Motioning with a nod of his head to Queenie, he said, "That your bike?" I told him it was and he smiled. "I bet you sure love that bike." I don't know how he could tell, but I told him he was right. He went on to tell me how he wished he'd had a motorcycle but that when he was "back in Mississippi--back in them days...only ones had 'cycles then was the white fellas--you know...we didn't have 'em." I listened to him and for the first time at the cemetery, I was genuinely dispirited and sad; I couldn't help think how ironic it was that it wasn't really the dead that made me saddest, it was hearing a story from the living.

The security guard went on to tell me that when he was a young man in Mississippi he had a job in a story and used a motorized vehicle to make deliveries. I didn't want to interrupt his tale to ask about the vehicle but it sounded like it was a scooter of some sort. I just wanted to listen to his narrative. His job as a security guard couldn't possibly involve anything confrontational. This man didn't have an unkind bone in his body! And, I couldn't imagine him raising his voice to stop riff raff or moving faster than slow motion!

Before I left, he asked me if I'd enjoyed my visit. I told him I would return soon because I didn't see most of what I'd come for. When I explained I arrived fifteen minutes after the office closed and therefore didn't get a map, he reached inside his pocket and pulled out a chain of keys. He said he'd get some info for me. I watched him amble to the office and unlock the door. He returned with a map of the cemetery and a list of suggested places of interest. We said our goodbyes and I promised to visit again.

The ride home was joyous. The travel along Chicago's lakefront was cool, fast and picturesque. I felt reinvigorated and appreciative of being able to draw another breath. I don't know how many miles I did Saturday--doesn't matter one iota. I got out there and just had a nice, quiet time hanging out among the dearly departed. And all is well.