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