When I first visited New York, about a dozen years ago, it was the tail end of a hot summer, and the city was different. This is a boring thing to say, because New York becomes a different city every day.
But it was also a city transformed by my own naïveté. When you are a rube and a rookie in town, as my girlfriend and I were, and when you are sweating and tired and far from your hotel, the city offers kindnesses it later withholds from those who know it well, because they stop asking. If you lie down, for example, on the blissful cool periphery of the fountain at Lincoln Center, a police officer will kindly tell you that it is acceptable to sit but not recline. If you go to Tavern on the Green with sweat stains on your T-shirt and ask to use the bathroom, they will say, “Right this way.” And if you fall asleep in the middle of Central Park with all your cash and cameras and love letters, holding hands, you will not be killed.
And so we napped in the grass with the straps of our backpacks wrapped around our arms, which to us spelled safety. We did not nap in a bad neighborhood of the park by any means. But bear in mind that this was 1991, not long after the Central Park–jogger rape, a pre-dot-com (hell, pre-Rollerblade) time when even this part of the park teemed with freelance beer salesmen and needle enthusiasts and people who apparently didn’t know that Tavern on the Green offers port-a-potty services on demand, and thus, sir, hiding (poorly) behind that bush is really not necessary. Please.
And bear in mind that asleep means unconscious, and in a public place that means at the mercy of . . . in a city we did not know at the time, in a city I rarely feel comfortable even closing my eyes in today. Never mind worries of robbery, molestation, or simple lascivious staring. If I were to observe two young tourists engaged in such a blind act of trust today, I would think it deserved at least a sharp spite kick. But we slept hard and undisturbed. I wish I could tell you what we dreamed about. I suspect they were vivid, exciting dreams of the having-sex-while-flying kind I had when I used to wear a nicotine patch to bed. Because as we slept, a stronger stimulant was seeping into our skins: of summer sun and naïve faith.
During the nineties, we forgot to be afraid all the time. And yet I did not ever sleep in the park during the new-media/law-and-order boom. I suppose I didn’t need to. But as I said, New York becomes a different city every day, and now that things are decidedly more scary, more than ever, we all need a nap. So I urge you to go out to the park this summer and go to sleep. Surrender to the city, and you will awaken to a new one. If you have forgotten, you will remember that it is surprisingly merciful.
Yes, it is possible that someone will pee on you. But it will be worth it.