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.

The Great Lawn, Central Park
The Great Lawn

Photo by Ivy O. Lam/iStockphoto

The anthology Central Park, edited by Andrew Blauner, is a tribute to New York’s most famous public space, with contributions by Jonathan Safran Foer, Francine Prose, Colson Whitehead, and more. Buzz Bissinger’s essay is reprinted in full from the book, which is out this week from Bloomsbury. Also see our Magnum Photos gallery on Central Park.

In the late 1950s my parents, escaping the Upper East Side of New York that was the de rigueur repository of virtually all their friends, made their move to Central Park West and 88th Street. The rent was about $200 a month for a seven-room apartment overlooking the park with four bedrooms and four baths. My father, who was in advertising and much like Don Draper wore a soft-brimmed brown hat and smoked like a chimney and wasn’t above a few drinks at lunch and came home each night whipsawed by control freak clients, thought the rent was reasonable. So did my mother, who sold bras at Macy’s, a labor-intensive act with far too many anatomical requirements, before moving to Chiquita where bananas were far less prickly.

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I was close to 3 at the time, so my knowledge of the move was quite scant, particularly since I had taken a vow of silence on the basis that there was not nearly as much to say in life as most people thought. My sister was 5. She talked incessantly, and it is safe to say her ambivalence about me was abundant when she tried to drown me in the bathtub.

My parents moved to the ninth floor apartment because it had more space than the cramped east side digs. My mother really chose it for the view. The living room and my sister’s and parents’ bedrooms all had picture window views of Central Park. My room was on the other side of the apartment. It was so dark you could watch a movie in daylight without pulling down the shades. My view was the abyss of a courtyard where it was always entertaining to throw wet toilet paper bombs out the window and hear them splat until the superintendent said he was going to come upstairs and kick my ass if I did it again. As I got older, my eye was naturally drawn to the charred outline of a window across the way where a tenant had allegedly set herself on fire. For some reason, I turned out to be quite morose and melancholic.

Central Park book cover

I was however allowed free visiting privileges into the other rooms. I cannot say with certainty when I became fully conscious of the park, but my initial interaction with it was from the living room. There was a white couch next to the picture window of a very strange and slippery texture. If you did not sit the right way you were liable to slip off, so I clung to the corner with my feet up for extra balance.

Looking down into Central Park was like inserting yourself into the best soul of the city that in the ‘60s was convulsing then with garbage strikes and teacher strikes and race riots. My mother loved John Lindsay. I think every woman over the age of 5 loved John Lindsay. Come to think of it so did every man. He was handsome and passionate and articulate but as a mayor the city simply swallowed him and sank further and further into decline. Maybe in retrospect he should have been a porn star.

The Great Lawn, a barren dust bowl before renovations
The Great Lawn, a barren dust bowl before renovations

Photograph from the Central Park Conservancy.

For much of that period, Central Park seemed to be the only place that held hope, however wobbly because of its dilapidation. Buildings rose and fell and rose again in the ever-shifting city, even during the difficult times. Mayors came and went, the great disappointment of Lindsay giving way to the oddly enduring impishness of Abe Beane in the 1970s as the city teetered on bankruptcy to the infectiousness of Ed Koch in the 1980s. There was little sustained consistency, this sense that the city could still explode at any second. But Central Park stayed as it was, or mostly as it was. It was badly in need of a haircut and a shave, garbage cans needed to be emptied more than once a year and the dangers of the park at night became manna for the New York Daily News and New York Post.

Central Park was still the single greatest city-planning feat of New York and perhaps any city in the world. It also became the one egalitarian place in Manhattan, young next to old, aimless next to ambitious, homeless wearing the Sunday New York Times next to the nobility of Fifth Avenue reading the New York Times. I often wondered what it would be like if they switched.

The Great Lawn, vibrant and filled with visitors after renovations
The Great Lawn, vibrant and filled with visitors after renovations

Photograph from the Central Park Conservancy.

Central Park was where I played baseball and football. It brought me peace and pride. It brought me wonder and conjured up dreams. All that I wanted in life, all that anybody could want in life, was somehow there, sight, sense, smell, sensation. Every step I took always felt new, yet carried the shadow of memory and irreplaceable youth, my mother and my father, the great wars of Sunday softball games, the endless people-watching, the food stands where hot dogs drowned in what looked like dishwater that only made them taste better, the fine art of dodging dog shit.

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