I started practicing law, fresh out of N.Y.U. Law School, in 1974. I worked representing indigent criminal defendants for the next 33 years, both at the trial and the appellate level. I enjoyed that work very much–I have always been a fan of the underdog, and little is more underdog that someone arrested and accused of a serious crime who has no money to hire a lawyer. I liked the preparation, the strategy, the cross-examination, the argument.
And, while I was working as a lawyer, I was also indulging my interest in collecting. I started early; as a boy I collected post cards, match books, and baseball cards. In 1980, I graduated up to stereoscopic views. In the 1860s and thereafter, these photographs, looked at through a viewer, allowed people to tour the world in 3D. I concentrated on views of New York City. And a few of Paris, some other places, and the Civil War. As I did so, I began to notice views of some place called Green-Wood Cemetery. New York City was a hotbed of stereoscopic views in the second half of the 19th century–hundreds were taken of just the omnibuses, carts, and pedestrians along Broadway in Manhattan. But it seems that the photographers reveled in an occasional break from urban work–and went out to photograph Green-Wood as a quiet break in their routine.
So, I started to buy views of this Green-Wood Cemetery place. At the time, I knew nothing about Green-Wood–but the photographs looked interesting. Then, in 1987, I saw an ad for a photographic tour of Green-Wood. Back then Green-Wood had a policy against photography of the grounds without prior permission. So, this was a rare opportunity to come in and photograph the place–and I was (and still am) an enthusiastic photographer. But, beyond that, I wanted to come to Green-Wood to see the places I knew from the photographs of the 1860s–and note how the place had (or had not) changed. So, I went on that tour. And it changed my life.
The tour was amazing. The professional photographer who led it was good. But Green-Wood was even better. I was in love! What an amazing place!!! It was apparent, even on a first visit, that this place would bring together so many of my interests: 19th century photography, taking photographs, cemeteries, sculpture, landscape design, and much more. So, on the very next day, I went back to Green-Wood and spoke with Nicholas Vislocky, Green-Wood’s superintendent back then. I expressed my enthusiasm for the place–and got him to issue a written “COURTESY PASS” with “PHOTOS ALLOWED” typed on it.
I remember leaving Nick’s office, pass in hand, and thinking that something important had just happened to me. Many fascinating visits to Green-Wood followed.
In 1989, I transferred from the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division in Brooklyn (where I had been for 10 years) to its Criminal Appeals Bureau in Manhattan. I would no longer be addressing juries–and wanted some substitute for that. I decided tours of Green-Wood would be the answer. So I contacted the now defunct Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, was trained as a tour guide, and began giving tours of Green-Wood in 1990. I then went out on my own as a tour guide–Green-Wood at the time had no tour guides of its own–and printed my own schedules and did my own publicity.
The more I saw of Green-Wood, the more I was fascinated by it. So I started working on a book. And Green-Wood agreed, in 1997, to publish that book: “Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure” is the result. In 2000, I started working part-time for the cemetery as its historian. By 2007, I was ready to try a new fulltime career: cemetery historian. Nehemiah Cleaveland had been Green-Wood’s first historian about 150 years earlier. I would be its second. I doubt there were many people with the title of cemetery historian in America–but it intrigued me, and I decided to go for it. And it has been great!
So, I have “escaped the cube.” “Power Lunch” on CNBC has an ongoing feature on that program, describing career changes, called “Escaping the Cube.” The CNBC producers there were intrigued by my career change, and here’s the video that ran on CNBC this past Friday (if you’re reading via email, you may have to click here to watch the video in the post):
Here’s the story up on the CNBC website: “Lawyer leaves career to become cemetery historian.”
And here’s the Storify: “Lawyer Digs Up New Job at the Graveyard.” Nice title!
Hopefully this video will get you interested in exploring Green-Wood’s 478 acres, its tens of thousands of memorials, its ponds, its sculpture, and its stories. Just remember what we say about Green-Wood, one of world’s great cemeteries and one of Brooklyn’s leading tourist attractions: “Come visit while you still can leave.”
Thanks to Mary Hanan, who produced this piece. It was a pleasure working with her on it.