The spectators piled up behind the stanchions in the hot sun, and waited for a glimpse of the Kennedys.
They wanted to see these people in mourning, to experience in person a small and ghastly slice of one family's tragic history. They said they were paying their respects, but some were just watching, just being part of the scene, emotionally browsing. There have been moments in this sad week when the offers of condolence have been hard to distinguish from a kind of parasitism.
A woman asked a cop to move his cruiser, so she could have a better line of sight.
"Lady, it's not a circus," he answered.
The Mass for John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, was a strictly private service, and yet extravagantly public. Much of the Upper East Side was shut down for hours. Every street corner was jammed with sympathizers, gawkers and news crews. People came with signs, flowers or original songs, like the trilling tune from the Sri Chinmoy singers, followers of a spiritual guru:
"Kennedy, John, John! America's Dream-Hope-Promise-Dawn."
A group of children dressed in white played mournful songs on violins. An angry woman shouted at police to let her into her bank ("I have a letter from the mayor!"), to no avail. A cancer activist known as Matuschka rolled up on her bike, declared the scene to be "over the top," but was still circling three hours later. Brenda DyGraf, of Orlando, Fla., a fitness products pitchwoman ("I'm the ab roller girl on the infomercial"), tried to explain the magnetic nature of the event:
"I wanted to come down here and be as close as possible. I guess just to see that last closure. Isn't that funny, how every day, you want to be a part of it a little bit more, a little bit more. Some people have to go through more than other people to get through it. I had my cry day a few days ago, and I'm about to cry again."
No one was more enthusiastic than Bridget McDonnell, of Queens, who, five years ago, spent two days and two nights outside the church when Jackie Onassis died, praying feverishly ("I was on every television station"), and who floated the theory that JFK Jr. was murdered for political reasons. "They were afraid that in another two years, Johnny would become president."
So the event, at the periphery at least, had elements of spectacle.
"This is human nature. This is why people are fascinated by the Christians fed to the lions," said Kathryn Gertz, a writer blockaded from her own home.
To the credit of the New Yorkers, they maintained a respectful silence as the families slowly walked from the Church of St. Thomas More to a reception in a nearby school. Sen. Edward Kennedy went by, and Arthur Schlesinger, and Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, and many people of unfamiliar visage, and finally there came a black limousine with a sign saying Guest 1, inside of which was Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the lone survivor of a legendary first family.
Overhead, the helicopters droned. One cable network began covering the day's developing story at 5 a.m. This was the kind of story that wouldn't go away until it had completely consumed itself, until every conceivable Kennedy acquaintance had been interviewed, until the last tear had been captured on video in slow-motion descent.
The past week saw an eruption of grief, nostalgia and 24-hour commentary not seen since the death of Princess Diana almost two years ago. Some observers found it excessive. One New York City free newspaper ran the headline "Leave the Kennedys Alone."
People asked: How much public grief and media attention is enough? When does it start to become weird and voyeuristic, a kind of feeding frenzy on the sorrow of others?
"John and Carolyn would have been absolutely appalled by that," said Beryl Henzy, manager of the Screening Room, a restaurant two blocks from their TriBeCa loft. They had wanted to be treated as ordinary people, she said. The Kennedys would never ask for a private room, but always sat at table 9, a booth in the back, not exposed, but also not hidden.
Henzy had no desire to visit the "shrine" two blocks away. The throng outside the North Moore Street loft owned by the Kennedys has actually grown in recent days. Several hundred people were lined up between police barricades shortly before midnight Thursday, many of them dropping off bouquets or notes, many just wanting to read what others had written.
Andrea Cappachione, a financial asset manager, said she'd always had an infatuation with JFK Jr. Once, two days after Jackie Onassis's death, she saw John Kennedy riding his bike in Central Park. She had always wanted to speak to him but chose not to, giving him his space in his time of mourning. Indeed, she said, "I protected him." She kept an eye out for anyone who might bother him. Maybe someday, she thought, she would meet him again and she could tell him about that special day, when she served as his guard. When the news broke last Saturday, all her friends called with condolences.
Maria Rojas, a Queens housewife, was weeping so hard she could barely speak. The tragedy of the Kennedy clan had overwhelmed her. "They all die somehow. One brother, another brother. It's one tragedy after another. It never stops. I hope it stops."
Someone drove by slowly in the back of a black stretch limo.
Over at the Tribeca Tavern, John Marinacci, who identified himself as a professional gambler, said that JFK Jr. deserves this kind of adulation. "Because he conducted himself in a proper manner. He was a gentleman. That's it. Life is about being a gentleman."
There must surely be no family in America so simultaneously private and public as the Kennedys. The private Kennedys are people who suffer and bleed and hurt like anyone else, with the proviso that their tragedies have been measured out disproportionately. But the public Kennedys are unofficial royalty, and as such when they scatter ashes at sea it is not from one of their own much-photographed yachts, but from a Navy destroyer. When they hold a private church service, the surrounding streets are shut down for blocks, and the president comes, and all the networks offer live coverage, and thousands of people, total strangers, mass behind the police lines and stare and weep and wonder where they can deposit their rose or lily or condolence card or poem.
A dyspeptic man named Stanley White, walking a bulldog near the memorial Mass, said of the Kennedys: "They're trying to have it both ways. It's private, but they're blocking off public streets." He had worse things to say about JFK Jr.--"dilettante" was one--which segued into a discussion of what's wrong with the media and America in general. It's New York, people have opinions.
It's not hard to see how the story fed on itself and reached critical mass. John F. Kennedy Jr. was a unique figure, a special man, a kind of national son, common emotional property. He was famous every minute of his life, going back to when he was in his mother's womb and his father was running for president. His salute of his father's casket is a seminal moment in an American nightmare. He had grown into a man of princely good looks, and through his own cheer and vigor and good humor had salved a bit of the old wound of 1963.
Which then reopened.
For days he was simply lost, with his wife and sister-in-law, somewhere in those murky waters off Martha's Vineyard. This could not have been anything but the story it was, a national emotional emergency.
Susan Richey of Hackensack, N.J., came to stand in the sun on the Upper East Side, and wait, and hope for a glimpse of the mourners, because she truly loved John F. Kennedy Jr.
"I loved him as a grandson," she said, her eyes fierce, tearing up.
Grandson, son, brother, icon, hero, Sexiest Man Alive, publisher, neighbor, ordinary citizen. Whoever and whatever he was, this was not something that happened to a stranger.