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  • A Doorstep Memorial

    Kelly Weiss of Brooklyn, N.Y., lights a candle at a makeshift memorial outside the residence of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy on Sunday. (AP)
    By Alona Wartofsky and Hannah Allam
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, July 19, 1999; Page C1

    A heartbreaking image, rendered heartbreaking again: Affixed to the wall of the building where John F. Kennedy Jr. lived in Manhattan was a drawing of a little boy, too small to be lifting his arm in such a sober salute. Next to the drawing, someone had scrawled the words "Has anyone seen my old friend John John?"

    Yesterday afternoon, the front steps of a nondescript building at 20 N. Moore St. in the TriBeCa district were transformed into a makeshift memorial of piles and piles of flower bouquets, candles and handwritten notes.

    "Thanks for the inspiration from someone who also passed the bar on the third try," read one note. "We will miss you at the Knicks games." On another was inscribed "John F. Kennedy Jr. Rest in Peace."

    But the scene was anything but peaceful. Dozens of people gathered in front of the steps. Some wiped away tears, but more of them were journalists holding note pads and video cameras. In this media age, in a celebrity-crazed city, public tragedy inevitably takes a strange spin. When a heavyset man awkwardly set down a bouquet sheathed in crinkly plastic, he was set upon by reporters.

    While some came to mourn, other visitors came to be part of an event. Michelle Newman, 18, and visiting from Orlando, craned her neck to get a good look at the heap of flowers. "This makes me sad," she said. And then, without missing a beat, she turned to her companion. "See? These are nice apartments."

    Newman was traveling with her best friend and both of their mothers. The mothers brought them down to see the memorial. "I didn't even know who he was before this happened," said Newman. "Then my mom told me, and I was like, 'Oh, so he's like a Princess Diana for you guys.'"

    Vicki Meyer, also from Orlando and the mother of Newman's best friend, contemplated the memorial and cried silently. "The girls asked why we were so upset," she said. "I said, 'If you just knew the family, you would understand.'"

    Tears streamed down her cheeks. "I feel bad for the women at Hyannis Port, that they would have to have their grief under a microscope. I can't imagine losing a child, let alone under all that scrutiny."

    But not everyone was so moved. Robert Diamant, who lives several blocks away, watched the crowd and insisted that he was not upset. "I'm a native New Yorker," he said by way of explanation.

    "It's tragic," said Diamant. "But look he had a few things going against him. For one, he had a busted ankle. For another, he was not experienced enough as a pilot, considering those flying conditions. So literally and figuratively, he was flying too high hubris. His ego got the best of him."

    In Washington, Arlington National Cemetery officials said they had noticed a slight increase in the number of pilgrims to the grave of John F. Kennedy, the most visited on the 612-acre site.

    Seoyoung Kim, 20, strode up the steps to the Kennedy graves yesterday afternoon to add a bouquet of yellow carnations to the several bundles already placed in front of the site.

    "I just wanted to pay my respects to the Kennedy family," said Kim, a California native in Washington for a summer internship. "Ever since I was a little girl I knew who JFK Jr. was. They're America's family and I just really wanted them to know that ordinary people are affected."

    Cemetery guide Keith Burnes said about 10 people had asked him questions about John F. Kennedy Jr.'s apparent death; usually, flowers are almost never presented at the gravesite, he said.

    Salvador Villasenor, from Mexico, was vacationing with his family in Georgia on Saturday when he heard about the plane crash. It had been a longtime dream of his to visit John F. Kennedy's grave, but the tragic news of the former president's son made the visit imperative.

    "I called my wife and said, 'I want to go now,'" Villasenor said. "In Mexico, we love the Kennedys. Maybe [JFK Jr.] was the last Kennedy with such a personality."

    A father and son peered at the Eternal Flame that marks the Kennedy site. They leaned in together, reading the sympathy notes and looking at the rosaries and crucifixes that well-wishers had left behind.

    "You'll be able to tell your grandkids about this one day," David Moreton, from Cincinnati, whispered to his young son. The family was vacationing but had no plans to visit Arlington until news of Kennedy's disappearance broke. The sightseeing agenda was changed and they ended up in the oppressive heat with hundreds of others.

    "The outpouring is amazing," Moreton said, wiping sweat off his forehead. "I guess Camelot never dies as long as people still come up here."

    Back at 20 N. Moore St., police were herding mourners away, explaining that they had been ordered to clear the street. Undaunted, Yolanda Laboy, 35, waited for a friend to arrive before she took her turn in front of the TriBeCa memorial.

    "I knew them," she said. Then she corrected herself: "I knew of them. They were the closest thing we have to a royal family, but he was a very down-to-earth guy. I work part time in a movie theater and he would come by and he just struck me as so friendly and down to earth."

    And so she waited to pay her respects, wiping away sweat rather than tears. And in the center of the steps, amid the flowers wilting in the heat, someone had placed a small paper cutout of a woman, looking crisp and eternal in a smart purple suit. It was Princess Diana.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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