Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Scenes from Central Park

By Rosemary Mahoney, MA '85
Travel Writer

At this moment I bear wounds which, if you could see me, would serve as evidence of the particular change I have recently observed and shall presently explain. I have a large black and blue knob on my forehead just above my right eye that shrieks in throbbing protest whenever I stand. My two wrists are so stiff I cannot turn a doorknob, screw in a light bulb, lift a cast iron skillet, carry heavy bags, or easily type this article. Suppurating sores on both knees and their accompanying bruises force me to sit with my legs utterly straightened under my desk like two bowsprits jutting out from my chair. I have been rollerblading in city streets for eight years and though I have had a rich variety of falls, I have never had a fall like the one that caused these wounds. I have certainly never hit a pavement with my face. There is a first time for everything, they say. I am certain there should not have been a time for this.

Often when I skate in the streets of New York, cab drivers annoyed by my presence (but more probably by the fact that like the steady tortoise surpassing the giddy hare I nearly always travel faster through the traffic than they) shout after me, "Why you are not skate in Central Park? Is dangerous in street!" For one thing I am not skating in the park for the same reason they're not driving in it: the route to my destination doesn't include it. If you are on your way to the Battery from East 52nd Street, as most days I am, you do not usually go through Central Park unless you are possessed of an intelligence so obstructed it cannot grasp the geometric axiom that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. But for another thing, if the street is dangerous, which I would agree it is, then the park is twice as dangerous.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: New York's Central Park has changed. (In truth, having lived in New York only two years and therefore not knowing how the park used to be, I should say I guess Central Park has changed. It must have changed. Edith Wharton, for example, never saw what I have seen this summer in Central Park; if she had, she would have written about it, knowing her.1 The park has been dangerous for years, of course, a place famously dominated by criminals, perverts, drug artists, and sodomites, the sort of place young women and sometimes young men have trouble coming out of alive. Now, however, there is an added danger related to overcrowding and people on wheels. On weekends, most parts of the park are like Penn Station on a Friday evening. If you stay long enough, someone will come hurtling out of nowhere and slam into you. Last week as I was making a rare and reluctant three-minute shortcut through the park on my skates, an amateur skater careered out of control across my path and knocked my feet from under me. I was so unprepared, so unused to the sensation, that I had no time to put out my hands and stopped myself instead with my forehead.

Yesterday, having sufficiently recovered and hoping to better understand the so-called recreation in the park, I limped back there on foot to have another look. I entered at 83rd Street, alongside the Metropolitan Museum, and had trouble getting up the path against the powerful tide of skaters flowing along it. I moved off the path, tripped on a large family's smoking hibachi, and stepped on a sleeping dog's tail. Picking my way over the legs of numerous sunbathers, I cut across to Cleopatra's Needle, that Washington Monument prototype that has stood unchanged behind the museum since 1881. Several enormous bronze lobster claws peep oddly out from the bottom of the needle like weird props from a horror movie. They are the same old claws that have been there since 1600 BC. The used condom dangling from the tip of one of the claws, however, is new. It is definitely new. Edith Wharton never saw it. At the top of his voice a man beside me read the translation of the needle's hieroglyphics for his girlfriend who was cooking chicken on a nearby hibachi; another hibachi, not the one aforementioned. "Hi-ho, Delores," he yelled, "know what this Greek shit on here says? 'Ramesses Beloved-of-Amun,' Is that a man or a girl? a valiant king, active with his arms in every land, which I guess says he was like a general or something. 'Thutmose the son of Ramesses and Heliopolis,' which I figure is an Egyptian lady, 'Whom they created in the temple in the beauty of their members,' which I don't know what that means, but it sounds a little sexy to me."

At this, the 40 or 50 people sitting around on blankets among the trees turned and looked with interest at the shouting man. I moved farther into the park and found the main road. Very many people--thousands, I think--traveled counter-clockwise along this road with all the unity of bacteria in a petri dish. Bicyclists and skaters--the good ones who skate fast and the bad ones who also skate fast but in the erratic patterns of forked lightning--and runners, who once owned the park but who these days look as uncertain and defensive as immigrants, and people going to cookouts or baseball games or folk dances and people proselytizing and walking their dogs. They roiled and teemed. The park was not big enough for all of them. I saw scores of people getting the skin grated off their thighs by the pavement, or going head-first into signposts, or colliding dramatically with other moving objects, or getting a soccer ball in the hibachi.

I went still deeper into the park and found several makeshift roller rinks, tight little ovals mimicking racetracks. The most popular of these had in its middle an island of benches and a sound system with speakers as big as doors. Hundreds of people flew around and around in this tiny space to the frenetic beat of disco music, arms waving, heads bobbing, hair whipping around their faces, legs flying up into the air, slamming into each other, grinning maniacally and showing their teeth. The circle of people was so dense and tight and hysterical it was like a living entity, like a dog chasing its own tail. Most of the skaters dressed in dayglo spandex clothing, others dressed in variations of medieval religious habits, while others wore underwear. A mid- dle-aged woman whipped by me in pink bicycle pants and a black bra, her two long braids trailing out behind her like pennants. To the tune of an English marching song two pimply 10- year-old girls dressed in fashionable jeans eight sizes too big for them brayed this little ditty to each other in hellish harmony as they waited for an opportunity to jump into the fray:

(When I was 10, in the early '70s, we did not sing that. We did not sing anything remotely like it, but changes in childhood are not part of this essay.)

I retreated, hoping to find some quiet. I walked a long time. Finally I found an elderly French woman who was quietly feeding breadcrumbs to a lone duckling in a pond, which I imagine is what people used to do in parks. It was the first peaceful thing I had seen all day. The woman lamented the fact that the duckling's mother had deserted him, though who could blame the poor mother? The pond was veiled in scum and choked with trash and the pulse of the nearby music caused it to tremble. Now and then a stray baseball crashed suddenly into the water without warning. As the woman and I chatted we were interrupted three times by panhandlers, twice by errant Frisbees, and once by a large contingent of Crimean Tatars who strayed in from the Turkish parade coming to an end nearby on Fifth Avenue. The Tatars had faces straight off the evening news and some of them carried a banner that read: After the Jews, what nation has suffered most? Crimean Tatars!

And then a bomb went off behind us, not a political or terrorist sort of bomb, but a bomb nevertheless, a Fourth of July little prank sort of bomb, a homemade concoction of M-80s--harmless little trinkets, really--strung together into one big paramilitary package large enough to uproot the two saplings it was hidden under and maim a pigeon who limped for cover, large enough to pull the breath out of my lungs and push me slightly sideways in an oddly intimate way that I have never quite been pushed before except for the last time I was here in the park. When I looked around, I saw skaters and runners, Tatars and Little Leaguers, families and bicyclists, dogs and people and all manner of everything crouched in postures of fear or fleeing the scene with their hands held up to their faces. The orphaned duckling swam so fast for the far bank of the pond that his two-ounce body seemed to skate across the water. Nearby, two men responsible for the funny little bomb laughed so hard their sagging bellies jiggled like sacks of pudding over their belts. Hardy-har, they honked good naturedly. So funny! No harm intended, har.

I wanted to slap them. The French woman, whose eyes had gone positively Asian with irritation, wanted to slap them too.

I left her, looking for a way out of the park, and came upon a group of elderly people holding hands in an Israeli folk dance. They used a tiny pebbly patch of pavement as a dance floor and moved mercifully slowly. They looked depressed. I asked their leader how long the group had been meeting. He scratched his beard. "Twenty thirty years," he said.

"Already thirty years!" another man corrected him. "Mel has been conducting this thirty years already." The bearded leader said, "Get off it, Moe. Mel has been dead six years."

"OK," said Moe, "but if Mel would have been alive he would have been conducting, don't say he wouldn't." The man looked at me and said sadly, "We used to meet in other better parts of the park, but slowly by slowly they crowded us out."

Rosemary Mahoney is the author of The Early Arrival of Dreams (Ballantine, 1990) and Whoredom in Kimmage (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Mahoney was featured in the February 1994 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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