Buzz Bissinger on Growing Up in Central Park

Snapshots of life at home.
April 24 2012 6:15 AM

The Goodbye

An apartment, Central Park, a father, a mother, a son.

(Continued from Page 1)

 It was only later, on the cusp of my 50s, I learned there was something even Central Park could not overcome.

*          *          *

Advertisement

From the age of 5 on I remember going into the park almost every weekend, taking the entrance across the street and going down the ramp holding the hand of my father or my mother. I remember the bridle path where you could ride horses. I remember moving through clumps of trees and little hillocks of rocks, my only real interaction with nature in an urban environment until I was a Boy Scout and went camping in the great wilds of north Jersey. I remember the reservoir, which always made me a little nervous because this was the drinking water for at least part of the city and God knows what was in it.

There were very few joggers then in the 1960s because there mercifully was no concept of health. Maybe it was just my parents’ friends, but everybody ate blood-red roast beef sandwiches with the works from one of the plethora of local delis. Everybody smoked and drank, laughter rolling from glasses filled with scotch instead of Crate and Barrel goblets of white wine and disgusting crudités of broccoli and carrots and cauliflower.

People gather before a free concert in Central Park by the New York Philharmonic
People gather before a free concert in Central Park by the New York Philharmonic

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Most of all I remember the annual Sunday ritual of the Great Lawn, occupying the park between 79th and 85th streets. There was a paved circle on the perimeter, lined with benches where people read the Sunday Times or Herald Tribune, or sunned themselves with eyes closed in the mirth of the sun. It was the baseball diamonds edging into the lawn that mesmerized me the most, émigrés from Puerto Rico who when they weren’t arguing, threatening to kill each other with a baseball bat, played a mean game of softball. The grass had been rubbed out long ago and was dirt, so fielding a grounder always carried the risk of death because of a bad hop. Then there was the crack of ball against bat and a laser shot over the left fielder’s head and the left fielder chasing in pursuit and the ensuing chaos of players from another game across the way screaming at the left fielder to get the hell off their field. The hitter meanwhile rounded first and second and third in a tight pattern and then went for home to bugles of noise from his teammates telling him to slide and bugles of noise from opponents telling the relay man to make the throw home. The play was always close even if it wasn’t. One side said the batter was safe. The other side said the runner was out, which then led to a loud argument in Spanish that usually took as long as the game itself.

I could have stayed for hours watching the operatic ritual unfold. But then my father and mother took my hand again. We made our way to the greater tranquillity of the east side. We went by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My mother always wanted to go inside. My father and I outnumbered her, so sometimes we would go to the old movie theater on Madison to catch a film. Or the opposite direction to the Madison Deli on 86th where the sandwiches were as big as my head and the Russian dressing and cole slaw dripped down my chin in joyous piggery.

*          *          *

In 1972 I left New York to go to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I became a newspaper reporter after that and then a nonfiction author and writer for Vanity Fair. I moved about the country—Norfolk, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Texas, back to Philadelphia—but Central Park never left me. My parents still lived in the same apartment, so I always felt I had New York bragging rights. I still considered it my home and whenever I was there, now a father with three children and sometimes a wife depending on which marriage, we always made the loop of the Great Lawn.

I could not imagine life without Central Park. I could not imagine not waking up and making a cup of coffee and going into the living room and just staring out the window into that panorama. It was just as spectacular at night, the twinkling lights of the grand concrete dowagers of Fifth Avenue across the way. I spent hours wondering what went on inside those windows. I imagined fanciful and perfect lives—girls from Brearley and Spence in cotton nightgowns having pillow fights before dropping acid and parents instructing the maid to give them all a kiss goodnight as they went off to Swifty’s or Lutece and the girls now smoking grass.

Often at night, my father and I would sit in soft-backed chairs opposite each other in the living room flanked by the picture window of the park. We talked about our lives; the glasses of scotch came closer and closer to the brim with each iteration until we both agreed we were too drunk to make any coherent sense and needed to sleep it off.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?