The Difference Between Knowing and Seeing

Early into the morning a few nights ago, I gathered together some recyclables in the kitchen, placed them in a plastic bag and walked out of the apartment and into the yard to dispose of the random collection of cans, bottles and plastics. The night was quiet save for a few unmarked vans double parked street side with the hazard lights on. As I reentered the building, an assortment of men traversed down the stairs, awkwardly gathered around a body bag which they carried through the front door. The men wore plain cloths; trench coats, sports jackets, ties. As they passed me in the hallway, one of the gentlemen looked at me, shrugged his shoulder and said, “Just taking care of the bad guys,” followed by a wink as to say, “Just kidding.” Before I could begin to worry about the possibilities of how one of our upstairs neighbors had died a “bad guy,” I realized who I was dealing with. Coroners. They see bodies everyday. They’re allowed to make these jokes and allowed to get away with them. Besides, there were no police to be found anywhere. If this was indeed a crime, I would’ve had some knocks on the door already about what I had heard. I wrote it off as a joke on the part of the coroner. I wasn’t in the least bit alarmed. I had seen my fair share of dead bodies, body bags and sarcastic coroners.

A few years ago, I lived above a funeral home. Upon moving in, the funeral director/landlord gave me a warning about to expect. Coffins, awful smelling chemicals, body bags, transportation boxes, all genuine parts of the funeral business and no reason to worry. “I wouldn’t worry about bodies either. It’s the grieving that might eventually get to you,” he said. In between parking my bike in the garage among coffins and airline transportation boxes for bodies from Iraq, I’d help unload chemicals off trucks for embalming, learn to impress friends with the casket show room in the basement and chat with the local coroner that seemed to know a thing or two about Volvos. Ultimately, living amongst the funeral business erased the unknown mystique of death that I had carried with me since the first time I had seen a dead body in a body bag. I was eight years old.

Hazlet, NJ, a suburb about 30 miles outside of Manhattan. The town I lived in for the first 10 or 11 years of my life. In the early ’80s, some of the Irish mob from New York City decided to get out of the city, so they took their lives, their families and their business to the suburbs. And so, Hazlet became prime real estate for the the mob’s planned immigration.

“Don’t go outside today, I don’t want you anywhere near there,” my mother told me one day near the end of the summer of 1982. The scene she alluded to was a taped off murder scene down the street from our house. As far as anyone could tell, a neighbor of ours had accrued some gambling debts that he couldn’t repay to the mob. In return, the debt collectors walked the man into his backyard, stabbed him to death and deposited the body behind their above ground pool. Following a cavalcade of police cars and ambulances racing up our side street, word spread pretty fast throughout the neighborhood. A nameless neighbor had been murdered. His body lay stabbed to death in the backyard behind the pool my brothers and I had once tossed rocks into. Out of morbid curiosity, I escaped the house unbeknownst to my mother, walked down Fleetwood Avenue and approached the police-taped perimeter lined with neighbors. After a few minutes of gazing, three coroners walked out of the backyard with the body in a body bag. They placed the body in an ambulance and drove away. I ran home.

That night, it was difficult for me to comprehend the fact that something so evil had transpired less than two blocks from where I had slept. Of the rash of emotions I was experiencing, the hardest to come to grips with was the visual recognition of death. Before that day, I knew that people died every day, I had just never seen it with my own eyes. And then I remember wondering what that person’s body was now doing. Where would they take it? What were they going to do with it? For the remainder of our time in Hazlet, I stayed far away from that murder scene, thinking it haunted ground, wishing I had listened to my mother on that fateful day.

So when I returned back to the apartment and Heather asked who I was talking to in the hallway, I said, “Don’t look out there. You don’t need to see this.” But like myself so many years ago, she looked anyway…

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