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I stopped at a New York City monument for lunch. Although thousands of people visit it every day, it was never a popular attraction. Near the northwest corner of Madison Square Park, in an concrete traffic triangle bordered by Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street, a squat obelisk is encircled by an iron fence.
It was built in 1857 as the central feature of one of the city’s most important intersections. Today, everyone who rides the N train slides right under it. Every tourist who photographs the Flatiron Building would be staring at it if only they’d turn around. Around back is a hatch.
Inside, General William Jenkins Worth’s corpse rests quietly in the middle of one of the busiest traffic interchanges in Manhattan.
Worth, who is depicted on his 51-foot-tall obelisk astride a horse in stirring bronze relief, grew up a short ways up the Hudson River, where he rejected his pacifist Quaker upbringing — and how — to perfect the art of war at West Point. He was a handsome guy who crushed the Seminoles during the Seminole War in Florida and followed that up by crushing the Mexicans in the Mexican War, turning Texas into a slave state and setting the stage for the American Civil War.
This charmer was the first American to storm into Mexico City where, it’s said, he personally cut down the Mexican flag from the National Palace. He died of cholera in San Antonio before any further international vandalism.
His body may be hemmed in by Manhattan traffic, but in a way he never left Texas: They named Fort Worth after him. It was a beautiful afternoon. New Yorkers in business casual bought food from gourmet food trucks and sat under pretty blue umbrellas, perfectly oblivious that they were dining at a grave.
When I took a closer look at their meals, I giggled the knowing giggle of nerd triumph. Here on the grave of the American who conquered Mexico, everyone was eating gourmet Mexican.
In the same way we all feel we must shout out the questions when we watch Jeopardy!, I just had to let someone know what I knew. I walked up to the food truck, by a restaurant called Mexicue, and ordered an “Arnold Palmero,” something I didn’t recall from my visit to Acapulco. The menu board described it as an iced tea with limeaid.
I pointed to the obelisk standing just 20 feet away. “I’m laughing a little. Isn’t it funny and kind of weird that we’re having lunch at a guy’s tomb?”
The guy in the food truck, a hipster with beard hair like alfalfa in drought, paused at the cash register and his eyes went wide. “That’s a tomb?” And then, slightly horrified: “It’s not intentional!”
I laughed. “I’m sure. But it gets even funnier. It’s the guy who killed Mexicans and took Texas away from them. And you’re selling Americanized Mexican food.”
He stared at me as if he thought I expected him to do something about it.
“Does that mean the Mexicans actually won?” I asked, hoping for a flicker.
This, however, was apparently too much historical irony for a guy who pays his rent selling meat-drizzled Fritos. He shrugged. “I thought it was a bathroom.”
I took my Arnold Palmero and walked away chuckling, leaving him to hawk his Green Chili Mac and Cheese on Worth’s grave.
A modern sign placed by the City of New York Parks & Recreation on the Worth Monument calls it “one of only two New York monuments that also serves as a mausoleum. The other is Grant’s Tomb in Harlem.”
But it’s wrong. There’s another city park that New York City itself apparently forgot, and serves as a mausoleum for nearly 4,000 times as many people as the two it remembers. That’s a lot of tomb to fall off the radar. And for the story on that, you should click here to watch this awesome video I’m in.
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