Day One: Central Park
The grass pressing against the back of my neck is damp and scratchy, but I don’t care. How could I? It’s 2:48 in the morning, and here I am: lying down smack in the middle of Sheep Meadow, making snow angels in a snowless field, staring at a night sky that refuses to darken—it stops at gray-violet, some dim yellowy streaks that may be clouds, or maybe they’re pollution. Some version of nature losing the battle to a million lights and machines that are never turned off.
New Yorkers are prone to do ridiculous things, we all know this, and the other day I made a decision: to become an urban camper of sorts. I’d leave the cluttered, leaky, overpriced oasis of my apartment for . . . the wilds of the city. This is a town notorious for its ability to reinvent itself, constantly shaking off husks, and I was curious: How domesticated has New York City become in its cleaned-up, post-Giuliani incarnation?
The plan was simple: meander around, sleep in exotic places, see what hidden faces of the city revealed themselves. I fully realize there are people without homes for whom this kind of thing is not a mere adventure, and I wasn’t about to pretend that three days would give me a glimpse into their lives. Rather, I’d be like a cross between Marco Polo and that noble savage at NYU who spent a semester crashing in the school library. And what better place to begin this little sojourn than Central Park? So vast, so steeped in macabre, nocturnal lore. In 1999, the writer Bill Buford wandered in for the night, documenting the experience eloquently in The New Yorker. Buford, though, is of the generation schooled to equate “night in Central Park” with “certain death.” Me, I moved to New York seven years ago, and am, for better or worse, conditioned to think of it as a playland.
So here I am.
I entered at 9:45 p.m. by the Plaza entrance, the contents of my backpack as follows: a flannel sheet, two books (John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a thousand-page opus that I figure can double as a weapon), an inflatable Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, a pen, a notepad, $100 (to appease potential muggers), three T-shirts, an unfortunate Paul Bunyan–ish hunter’s jacket, a flashlight, an umbrella and a half-eaten Kit Kat. I strolled around aimlessly, circumnavigating the lake, skirting the reservoir, the backside of the Met, past the Alice in Wonderland sculpture and that funny pond where people sail remote-controlled boats. By 1 a.m., the park had become markedly less crowded: There went those two chess players hanging out in that East Side gazebo; there went that crew of high-school kids who’d been smoking pot on a granite bluff. Even the lunatic man sitting by Shakespeare’s bust in the Literary Walk—who hooted at me like an owl—decided he had somewhere better to be at about 2 a.m. That’s when I made my way to Sheep Meadow.
Fifteen freshly mowed acres to myself. Is it frightening? No, not really. I am filled with something far more complicated than fear: mischievousness. In the Maryland suburbs where I grew up, this was an easy psychological state to come by. We’d do shots of Triple Sec thinking it was rum, sneak out of the house, walk around the block, throw rocks at some girl’s window, and feel like wily little menaces. In the city, I’ve raced people across rooftops, climbed water towers, and woken up in strange apartments without ever feeling mischievous in the least.
But wait a second—what’s that in the distance? A shape! Yes, a shape that appears to be . . . moving. A person! In my park? I frantically grab my backpack and run, fast, throat twitching, eyes burning, out of the field. I leap the fence like an Olympic hurdler who has to use his hands to get over the hurdle. I sprint down a pitch-black path, as if this is somehow a safer, saner place to be.
Wait a second— what’s that in the distance? A shape! Yes, a shape that’s moving. A person! In my park?
Soon enough I’m on a dirt path in a region of the park known as Mineral Springs. I can hear traffic again. That’s comforting. And what’s that I see up ahead? A woman who looks like somebody you’d never expect to see in the park at three in the morning: prim and put-together, wearing black leggings and a powder-blue tank top. She has two sleek golden retrievers in tow. How sweet. Or maybe not: As I get closer I see that she appears to be doing some sort of arrhythmic rain dance while watching her golden retrievers . . . in the act. This is for real. I duck behind a tree and stare. For five minutes. Ten. Twenty-five. I am mesmerized and, oddly, comforted: Here we are, two freaks in a city of freaks. I wonder about her life. Maybe she’s a lawyer who lives in the Dakota, or someone going through a divorce and acting peculiar in ways that have lately started to concern her friends. Who knows? By the time she rounds up her randy pups, 45 minutes later, I have trouble deciding who’s stranger: she for being a prim woman dancing as her dogs do the deed, or me for crouching behind a tree, and watching?
One thing is for certain: I’m exhausted, ready for bed. I notice that the tree I’ve been hiding behind is Y-shaped, a crook that I can sit in comfortably. I climb up and, using the rolled-up Therm-a-Rest as a pillow, manage to drift off for at least an hour, not aware that something about this position—legs astride, feet dangling—causes your entire body to fall asleep. Not just your toes, or fingertips, mind you: everything. When I wake up, I truly believe I am paralyzed.
Feeling swiftly returns, but it’s still dark out—4:30 a.m., I’d guess—and I need to find a new place to doze. I walk deeper into the park, toward Bethesda Fountain. It’s a bit more unnerving here, so quiet, so still, so un–New York. I find a welcomingly dense pine tree, and crawl inside to that spot by the trunk where it opens up like a hidden fortress. No one can see me here, this I’m sure of. I used to play hide-and-seek in these kinds of places when I was a kid. I inflate the Therm-a-Rest, prop my head up on the backpack, and drift off as comfortably as I do in my own home. That is, until the shouting starts.
“Bad boy! Bad boy!”
This is later, a few minutes, a few hours—it’s hard to tell. I have no idea what’s happening.
“Who’s a bad boy?”
I feel something thick and wet lashing against my face.
“Bad dog! Get over here right now!”