Back in my starving and suffering days in New York, I was always happiest in Central Park.
Between 1975 and 1977, we had double-digit unemployment and inflation. New York City went bankrupt. I had no job, no prospects, an apartment I could not sell or afford, and my health was dangerously poor.
I always found relief, and often joy, in Central Park.
So did the entire city. On spring weekends, all the cliff dwellers came out of their caves to recreate in their own ways.
You can run, walk, ride a bike, or a horse, or a horse and carriage. You can row a boat on a pond, play bocce, tennis, soccer, or softball. You can picnic on the grass in the Sheep Meadow.
You could buy joints at the Delacourt Fountain until Giuliani chased the dealers out. You can go to the zoo or ride the Carousel, on huge wooden horses of many colors, all carved into action poses. You can sit and think or read or keep company on benches in dozens of different environments. But you can’t drive a car.
You can buy ice cream, Italian ices, good hot dogs with sauerkraut, hot pretzels, chestnuts, peanuts, and popcorn from street vendors or refreshment stands. There’s a half-decent inexpensive cafeteria in the zoo, and fine dining at the Tavern on the Green, by the pond.
There are even places in the Park where you can’t tell you’re in the middle of a giant, overcrowded city. You can experience what the city was like before they built the city.
The genius who folded all these wonderful environments into a rectangle five miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide was Frederick Law Olmsted.
But the people make Central Park a wonder of the world. There’s every kind of people in New York, and they all come to the park on spring weekend afternoons: black, white, yellow, brown, red, filthy rich, dirt poor, Yuppies, artists, musicians, show people, doctors and lawyers, advertising people, film makers, corporate executives, bankers, children, grandparents, great grandparents, and out-of-towners.
I saw Carol Burnette walking, folded up into herself, Ethel Kennedy sitting in the sun with a body guard nearby, Bill Moyers and Tony Randall, who lived on Central Park West. The Park was lousy with soap opera stars before they started making them in California.
Central Park West is high rise apartment buildings for people with a lot of money and good taste. Central Park South is expensive, commercial hotels and apartment buildings for people with money and little or no taste. Along the east side of the park is Fifth Avenue, where filthy rich people live.
One Fifth Avenue building rejected Barbra Streisand, either because she was Jewish or in show business. Co-op apartments are different from condos. They’re allowed to discriminate, and reject potential buyers without giving a reason.
Jackie Kennedy lived at 5th and 86th, right across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I doubt her co-op board said anything about her Jewish companion, Francis Templesman, or her Jewish son-in-law.
Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon both lived in the same Fifth Avenue high rise when Nixon was practicing law. They never visited each other, even for coffee or a cocktail.
People play music with their instrument cases open for gratuities. Last time, I heard a black family sing choral music, not professional but very sincere, good enough to keep me listening.
But the best musical experience I had in the Park was stopping to listen to two enthusiastic acoustic guitar players. An old African American man, in an old sport coat and fedora, stopped to listen. Then, he started to groove. Then he started to move. He conducted them with his body, hands, and vocalese, pointing at one or the other for solos.
As the boys played, they began rolling their eyes at each other because they were playing way beyond their ability. They didn’t know where all that music was coming from, or how it was getting through their fingers.
The music drew a crowd, and the old man fascinated everyone. All the music was coming from inside him, and he did not have an instrument. We wondered who he was and where he came from.
When he and the boys wound down, he acknowledged the crowd, hugged each boy, and said he would not say his name because people would know it. Then he moved on toward the fountain.
Not long after that, I gave up on New York City. I sold my apartment for what I paid for it, and drove a cab all night, sleeping on people’s couches during the day. Before I was forced to sleep on the subway, my parents brought me to New Hampshire, where they had lived for the past four years. I thought my life was over. I was one of those New York snobs who thought civilization ended at the Hudson and East Rivers
My folks got me medical attention, and let me stay in their house for as long as it took to get healthy. I got on my feet in due time, and took a wrong turn. I lost a year going to North Carolina to study broadcasting. I wanted to be a reporter, and TV was where the action was, I thought. I was wrong. TV did not value what I was good at, and I could not wear a 40-regular suit.
I was best at getting close to people with a pencil and paper, finding out what they were about, or explaining concepts and ideas so people could understand them.
When I came back to New Hampshire for Christmas that year, people treated me like I was home. “Where have you been, what were you doing, how long are you staying?” Nobody ever treated me like I was home before. I finished my year in North Carolina, and came back to New Hampshire to live.
I got a Masters in non-fiction writing and started writing for newspapers. I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up. In New York, I was occasionally brilliant. As I got older and sicker, the brilliant spurts got farther apart, and harder to psych myself into. I wanted to stop being occasionally brilliant, and become the kind of craftsman who did solid professional work every day.
When my colleagues in the newsroom called me a “word smith” (high praise from peers), they meant I’d become the kind of writer I wanted to be.