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.

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.

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

*          *          *

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.

I never felt closer to my family than I did in those moments, even in the throes of inebriation. I thought we would last forever. In a way I cannot quite explain, I felt a sense of immortality because Central Park was immortal, that everything would always stay the same.

*          *          *

Sometime in the spring of 2001, my mother’s physical and mental health, which had been on a descending slope for several years, took a radical turn for the worse. She had mysterious fainting spells, one time falling off the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue into the street before a Good Samaritan saved her. She was hospitalized at Lenox Hill, where neurologists pecked and pawed and knew something was severely wrong but could not pinpoint the cause. Maybe it was Parkinson’s. Maybe it was Alzheimer’s. Seventy-four years old, she became increasingly disoriented and unable to process. For every day of the two weeks she was there, my father kept vigil. He arrived at 9 in the morning and left at 8 at night, only exiting the room to go out for lunch. He was 75 and his protectiveness of her was not only touching; it reinforced in a more powerful way than ever before how deeply they were in love, 50-plus years of marriage sealed into an unbreakable companionship.

Map of Central Park, showing the major features and streets
Map of Central Park, showing the major features and streets

From MapMaster.

She came home more disoriented than ever. Her acuity had been the best part of her but now the world seemed fuzzy and foggy. She began to lose her ability to walk and spent most of her days in bed reading the same article in Time magazine over and over again. She became more dependent on my father than ever. He was a man prone to frustration, and he was frustrated by what was happening to her, but he worried constantly.

Until June of 2001 when I received my weekly call from him. “Just checking in” was the way he always started the conversation in an upbeat lilt, to which I generally responded with some bitch and moan about work until he finally decreed that I would have exactly five minutes to bitch and moan about work until I was required to turn to something else. But this call was different.

He had just been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and was subsequently hospitalized. On the taxi ride to Mount Sinai he let out a wail and said he was scared. It was the first time he had ever shown such vulnerability. I took his hand and tried to console him but I was utterly unprepared for the role reversal that inevitably takes place when your father becomes sick and you the son become the caregiver.  

My mother did not understand what was going on. She had no clue that he had cancer, in all likelihood fatal. But one day we did take her to see him. She was in a wheelchair. My valiant sister pushed her the whole way and we went through the park, transversing the Great Lawn from west to east. The park was in its glory thanks to the work of the Central Park Conservancy, lush and green, trees spreading their wings with proud majesty. Even though this was a walk I had made a thousand times, everything felt fresh and alive. Until we reached the entrance of Mount Sinai and I felt the dread of knowing my father was dying and the inability of my mother to comprehend it.

After being filled with chemotherapy through a port that had been placed just below the shoulder, he came home. He fought valiantly. He refused to accept that he even had leukemia, until there was a recurrence. He went back into the hospital. He knew it was over. We both knew it was over. I could offer no reassurance now, only the silence of fate.

He died in October of 2001.

My mother had collapsed mentally and physically. She could not walk. She was incontinent. She often called out to my father, thinking he was coming home at any second or that he was still there in the apartment.

My sister and I groped for ways to connect her with the things about New York she had loved. So almost every day we took her to Central Park in her wheelchair. We parked it near a bench. We always picked a spot in walking distance of a hot dog stand. She still loved to eat so we all got hot dogs and sodas. The sun fell on her face and she felt tranquil in those moments, the place of New York she loved the best among so many.

We took her to a neurologist at Columbia Presbyterian. He believed she might be suffering from hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of fluid in the brain. A shunt was put in to relieve the pressure. It worked momentarily—she was even able to walk a little bit—but then she lapsed and had to be hospitalized. The shunt became infected. Sepsis set in, leading to liver failure.

Four months after my father, my mother died in March.

The apartment was rent-stabilized. My parents were paying $2,700 a month, an obscene deal in New York given the location. The landlord immediately raised it to $7,000, then $10,000. My sister and I could not keep it. The hideous process of emptying out took place—years and years of the accumulation of furniture and clothing and knickknacks and family papers.

I was the only one there when the apartment had been finally swept clean. I puttered about, going into each of the rooms before ending up in the living room. I stared out the picture window. Central Park unfolded like a magic carpet. I could see the joggers and the dog walkers. I could see the Guggenheim and the spires of Fifth Avenue.

Looking north at the Great Lawn on a sunny late afternoon, the Eldorado in background left.
Looking north at the Great Lawn on a sunny late afternoon

Photograph by Jim Henderson.

I lingered for another second or two. Then I went to the front door and opened it and heard the click of the lock for the final time. Central Park beckoned. It always beckoned. But like so much else, the loss of my parents, the childhood so distant, the memories now nostalgic, it would never be mine again.

Correction, April 24, 2012: The photo originally appearing at the top of this article was mistakenly identified as the Great Lawn. It was the Sheep Meadow.

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