I remember a time, back in the 1970’s and ’80’s when Bryant Park was a certain kind of place for a certain kind of person.
I was not one of those people.
There was a public restroom…a small stone building on 42nd Street. If you entered to use the urinal, in the day, in the afternoon and especially after dark, it could cost you your wallet, or worse. Anywhere around the park, if you were so inclined, you could purchase a vial of crack, a needle, a joint, smack, coke or a woman. All very affordable.
It was a creepy place and when I needed to get to nearby Grand Central Station to catch a late train back to Connecticut, I usually crossed the street. But there were temptations there as well. The girlie-peep shows weren’t limited to Times Square. There were a few scattered along 42nd St. all the way to the dismal dark and dangerous lower levels of the train station.
I took an afternoon stroll through the park a week ago on a warm Saturday afternoon. The atmosphere and the park had done a complete 180 degree turn. The lawn was full of people soaking up the sun. A nearby carousel, with twelve animals to ride. It was tucked off to the side near 40th St. The kids clung to their parents as the ride rotated to the music of an organ, up and down, sitting on such creatures as horses, a rabbit, and a rather creepy frog.
A walk across the lawn was hot and very humid. Thick grass puts out a great amount of moisture. I rested at one of the plentiful small metal chairs. I thought how much better the entire place seemed. On Monday nights they show free movies on the lawn. (In the winter, the lawn is a skating rink).
I looked at the sycamore trees. Strange trees with bark that was mottled and patchy. The rows of planted trees seemed to all lean toward the lawn, toward the people, protective and guarding us from the riot of the city just outside the green boundaries.
Sitting in the middle (actually, off to one side where the shade was dense), I thought of how Bryant Park stood up against the other Manhattan parks. Central Park is huge, complex and has as many micro-environments as small country. Bryant was small, concise, intense, crowded and yet, still a haven. Union Square Park had little grass, as did Madison Square. Washington Square had fenced off mini-lawns that grew short grass just five feet above hundreds of decaying bodies that are still buried there…Yellow Fever victims…all wrapped in a particular colored shroud. I forgot the color but I always think of the dead beneath the Great Arch.
From the 50th floor of the Grace Building on 42nd St., looking down at Bryant Park would be like examining a rare postage stamp. At one end, on 5th Ave. was the bulk of the N. Y. Public Library where I can sometimes be found on rainy days, writing stuff like this or working on the Great American Novel. It’s a great place to dream. Behind the library is a comfortable place to have cold glass of white wine or a chilled beer.
It all reminded me of the Garden of Luxemburg in Paris, only much smaller. But the spirit was there. Large vases of flowers and places to sit and write, read or think.
As I sat and sipped my drink, I looked across the park toward Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.).
I sit and look at the people around me. I can’t just sneak a photo and move on…it’s not my nature. I have to know their life story, their pains and sorrows and reasons to laugh. I need to invent a life for the human being I’m looking at. I’m not invading their privacy. All this happens in my mind only…and then shared in places like this post. It’s fiction…probably.
I see a woman intently reading a book. Is she reading Proust? Grisham? Me? Perhaps she’s found a leaked copy of “50 Shades”, Part XII. It doesn’t matter. Maybe its the Bible or the Book of Mormon? It doesn’t matter. She’s absorbed in someones world, maybe escaping her own.
Near me is an old woman knitting. She’s bent and aged. I imagine that her hand has the muscle memory to flick and work the needles without a thought of a knit or purl or a dropped stitch. Is she thinking of her sister, back in the apartment, and is she wondering when the fever will break? Is she think about dinner tonight? Or, is she think about how she broke a heart in 1951? Maybe her will to be happy left her after what happened in 1962? Maybe she’s praying for the lost soul of her daughter? Granddaughter? Is she still missing her father who never came home from a war? She looks lonely among the crowds. She seems oblivious to the crowds.
I can create an entire life for any individual I find myself sitting next to. But, I know that whatever worlds I build for a person, their own reality, their own life is infinitely more interesting. Because it’s real.
I recalled a time when I sat at the far corner of Bryant Park with a high school friend of mine. We were talking of the years gone by. Then, without warning, she turned to me and told me that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
I think she cried on my shoulder.
I was a man without words. What do you do? You say how sorry you are? You hug? You hope?
That was almost fifteen years ago. She’s a survivor.
Aren’t we all survivors, to a point? Don’t green spaces of all sizes refuel our needs?
I felt the urge to use the restroom. This time, I had to edge my way past a large vase of fresh flowers as I made my way to the squeaky clean urinal. Years ago, I would have tried to do the deed with one hand on my wallet.
This time, I just relieved myself to piped-in music coming from small speakers in the corners.
I think it was Vivaldi or maybe Scarlatti.