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May 17th, 2009

Grand Central Park

Last week, on my way to a doctor's appointment, I walked through Central Park.

The Park is particularly beautiful at this time of year--just as spring turns into summer. The daffs and tulips and flowering trees have gone by, and the summer flowers haven't been put in yet, for the most part, so it's a green sort of beauty. The leaves are all bright and tender and fresh, like 5th graders. It was a beautiful day, too, warm but not hot, bright and blue and soft. Even though it was in the middle of the week and not lunch-time, the park was full to overflowing: tourists and students, the retired, the self-and-unemployed, parents and nannies pushing Graeco strollers and herding toddlers, the occasional business-suited stray dangling his/her suit jacket over his/her shoulder and making no haste to a cross-town appointment. On the benches and lawns and paved paths, people were writing in notebooks, taking pictures of their girlfriends, making out, power-walking, bicycling, bird watching, learning to walk, napping, conversing, playing checkers, texting, holding hands, giving babies their bottles and toddlers their Cheerios, a whole universe of strangers indulging happily in parallel play.

It made me happy and nostalgic.

I grew up in Central Park. My father taught me to row on the Lake on Sunday afternoons. We'd scarf hot dogs and vanilla frozen custard cones (Mama's opinion of such fare: "They're nothing but sugar and air. They'll make you fat. And you don't know what's in those hot dogs.") from the fast food stand outside the Boat House, then I'd splash around in circles until I got tired, when he'd take over and row us all right under the bridge and across to our favorite little cove, where we'd sit under a willow and look at the leaves and forget we were in a city.

He built model boats for us, too--a big, sleek one for him and a smaller one for me, with a lavender grosgrain ribbon pennant flying from the mast because that was my favorite color. We sailed those on the Boat Pond, of Stuart Little fame. Sometimes, in the spring, tadpoles came through the inlet pipe, millions of them, and my friend Edith and I would catch them with our hands and put them in waxed-paper cups to take home--with predictably tragic results. Sometimes I'd sit on the lap of the Hans Christian Andersen statue--I never had the nerve to sit on his shoulders or his head. In 1960 or thereabouts, Alice showed up, giving me a new, and much more interesting place to climb. I never had the nerve to sit on her head, either.

I made up plays in the park, squatting in the bushes behind the Boat Pond, mostly alone, but sometimes with Edith or Denny or Adelaide. "Here's the castle, and there's a dragon, and I'll be the princess and you can rescue me," with Russian spies (Edith's obsession) or gangsters (Denny's) or Greek warriors (Adelaide's) playing pivotal roles, and often derailing the plot altogether. Which was fine. The point wasn't the plot, anyway. The point was (for me) the characters and conversations and (for Edith and Adelaide) the intrigue and (for Denny) the running up and down boulders waving a branch and yelling.

I spent a lot of time there when I was an adolescent, too, and in the summers after I went away to college. I've laughed in the Park and cried there, behind a rock in the Ramble, hoping nobody would see. I've kissed lovers and told secrets and listened to them, and never told. I learned to ride a bike there (badly) and bird-watched (I didn't see much). I've waited on line for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, and seen Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara in The Taming of the Shrew and Timon of Athens (it was excruciatingly boring) and Raul Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona (I totally crushed out). More recently, I've seen Romeo and Juliet and Hair, just last summer.

Most important, given my subsequent career-path, I've sat on rocks and under trees and on benches and scribbled in notebooks: poems, English papers, beginnings of stories, notes for my as-yet-unwritten (and totally unwritable) High Fantasy Trilogy Blockbuster, with 2 made-up languages and a magic system of Byzantine complexity. I wrote the first draft of a short story that revealed my heart to me, although it took me a little time to recognize it.

I've lived in New York for 3 years now, and I haven't spent as much time in the park as I thought I would. I live by Riverside Park, which has its own beauties, and I don't go east as often as I go downtown, and I'm usually in a hurry. And and and. I've missed it. I shall have to go more often.

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