By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Outside an exhibit of the dead, a ticket for which is $24.50, you will encounter the following: The Gap, a Baby Gap, a Guess store, Brookstones, The Body Shop, J. Crew, and a boldly-lettered sandwich board for the Buskers Hall of Fame. There is one entry on that board.
The attraction, "Bodies: The Exhibition," takes up the corner of a downtown shopping plaza, a museum in a mall across from the South Street Seaport. Posters promise real human bodies.
On the corner of the building, there's a brass fish bolted to the fresh concrete and brick. The fish feels like a committee decision, bearing all the signs of "fish-ness" but lacking any likeness to famous fish, like cod or striped bass.
"They say this is Christmas," that song where all the Western musicians wonder if Africans know about Santa, is playing on outdoor speakers. There's a flabby, 100-foot holiday tree mounted in the mall's square.
Before I brave the exhibit, I stop to observe other attempts at the human form. These are headless, wrapped in pink cotton and denim imported from Hong Kong or India. It's the Gap, and even without the heads, they still capture an athleticism that I understand is also a goal for "Bodies"what we look like, want to look like, should look like.
I enter the store and start taking notes. This act catches the attention of three employees, who triangulate. "Do you need help?" a manager asks, and I nod my head no, scribbling.
The exhibit takes up a series of darkened rooms filled with cadavers. "I'm a little nervous," I admit to the ticket-taker. "Don't be," he says, "it's really quite clinical."
He tells me it'll take me a half-hour if I hate it, two to three hours if I love it.
The first room gives off a vague, waxy smell. The first skeleton with tissue preserved is giving a thumbs-up. There are real eyeballs and ears. This is a real human body. I'm standing six inches from a dead man's nose. I could lick his lips. I really want to leave.
The body never lies, a sign says.
The eyebrows of the dead man are arranged as if he were calmly taking a football for some extra yards. A strip of black tape is a half-hearted effort to mask the brand of the ball, Nike.
My intention to eavesdrop on the other museum-goers seems like it will be derailed by the German and French speakers, who seem to dominate the audience for the exhibit.
Dust or sweater fluff dances in the warmed, track-lighted air, the weightless, visible stuff nearing the flattened, dead lips of the preserved man in front of me. I stare at the toe nails and nuggets of each toe's joints.
The heat blower disturbs the fat of one cadaver, who has been flayed in such a way as to reveal his muscles. He's setting up for a jump shot. I pause to stare, my stomach tightening, and I notice that, barely perceivable, the entire dead body is listing back and forth in the hot breeze, the dead tissues warming in the bright glare, giving off the sweet smell of dead meat, fat, and bone.
Is this OK?
A blind man sits next to a gentle-looking older woman, who is describing the exhibit in tender Spanish. They sit with their hands folded in their laps, resting in these chairs in the shadows, talking in a room filled with almost 600 pounds of dead meat.
Near one of the dead men, a live one from one of the outer Boroughs is describing an injury he suffered to his Achilles tendon. His companions, three small women with dark hair and bright lips, all listen as he gestures at the dead foot. "I was walking on the beach and it snapped," he said. "It hurts to this day."
In a glass case the size of a dinner table, one dead man's spinal and nervous system has been completely ripped from its natural moorings and is spread out under the harsh glow. It's repulsive, resembling a giant, goose-grey 100-legged waterbug. This lies deep within all of us, but just this once, we're witness to it naked and pinned.
Soon I enter a darkened room, where dozens of cases filled with fluid hold entire sections of the body's arterial system. They resemble sea creatures, or jungle blooms, these iridescent red structures. Close up, you can see many of the systems are deteriorating. The glass cases bear the weight of no tide, but the liquid seems to move, and at the bottom are the light dustings and more significant chunks of dead veins and arterial connections. A fresh bit drifts down, glittering and fluttering.
Where is the puke bucket? It's nearing 7 p.m., and guests are using cell phones to secure dinner reservations. One couple in neat, matching windbreakers bicker over which restaurant to visit. He resolves to leave, saying he'll meet her at the bar. She stares at a cancerous thyroid in a glass case, nearly three times the size of the healthy organ to its rear.