While roaming the city’s backyard wilderness, the author crossed paths with predator fish, an English fugitive, and a pack of wild Spence moms.
“I gotta show you something,” says Richard Kruzansky, bounding to the water’s edge. He reaches in, comes up with a handful of pale-green algae, squeezes it dry, and holds it up for me. “I like to see algae,” he says. “It may not look nice, but it’s food for the birds, the fish, the frogs, the turtles.”
We are at the Harlem Meer, at the north end of Central Park. Several black-crowned night herons line the shore like sentries. Kruzansky, director of soil-and-water conservation for the Central Park Conservancy, has been in the park for nearly two hours. A thoughtful man in work boots and khakis, Kruzansky thinks often of algae. “Algae blooms, and as it dies it decomposes rapidly and competes with the fish for oxygen,” he says. “These things happen quite quickly in the summertime. And I have problems sleeping at night, wondering if I’m going to wake up to a fish kill.” You get the feeling that for Richard Kruzansky, there is algae, and then there is everything else.
The Meer is stocked with bass, bluegills, and black crappies, and it attracts serious anglers, not just kids with bent pins and paper cups containing worms. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed, and poles are available free right there at the Dana Center. “Unfortunately, people take home the bass,” Kruzansky says. “So we had to come up with another predator fish to keep the population of sunnies in check.”What they came up with was the chain pickerel. “It looks like an eel. Big teeth. It works great – when people catch it, it’s such a scary thing they throw it back.”
On weekends, the Conservatory Garden, at East 106th Street, is wedding-photo central, but this morning it’s an Eden of serenity. A couple walks by, hand in hand; one or two people sit on benches. At the side entrance, John Griffith, supervisor of some 150 acres at the north end of the park, meets me with a golf cart for a tour of the territory. “Up here, we concentrate on native plantings in our perennial beds,” he shouts over the engine. “It’s a bit different from down south, where you see more formal plantings. We try for more of a woodland condition. All the park can’t be formal.” Among his plantings: wild raspberries, wood asters, whitesnake root, Virginia smartweed.
Griffith, who emigrated from Guyana, shows me Nutter’s Battery, a circular stone fortification left over from the Revolutionary War. We tool over to the site of Fort Clinton, high up and affording a sweeping view of the Meer. Griffith stretches his arms wide. “I am monarch of all I survey – my right there is none to dispute,” he declaims with a laugh. (It’s Cowper, not Shakespeare – I had to look it up later.) Back at the Garden, we run into two very excited middle-aged volunteers.
“Go take a whiff of the lilacs!” says Paul Lenner.
“You’ll get drunk!” says Andrea Raskin.
The two seem almost deliriously happy – they are park buffs and, they point out, “college graduates.”
A few minutes later, it’s Diane Schaub, the curator of the Conservatory Garden, who shows me the Japanese tree lilacs, and they are wonderful – creamy blooms, sweet scent. There’s a “tremendous amount of preparation for summer,” she tells me. And for the months beyond: “Yesterday, we planted 2,000 Korean chrysanthemums, which are at their peak around Halloween.” We stroll through this splendid section of Central Park, which she says still suffers from “that above–96th Street prejudice.” Schaub describes or points out arctotis, agastache, verbena, crocosmia, ruellia, coleus, zinnia, day lilies, foxglove, and Rose of Sharon. A gardener pulls up in a cart. “Trowels now you want?” she teases, and goes off to find some.
I’m late for an Explorers program given by the Urban Park Rangers at Belvedere Castle, about a mile away. Yikes. The bridle path, the park drive (“And he wanted that bagel toasted,” one multitasking power-walker is shouting into her cell phone), the squeaking playground swings, the reservoir – all a blur, though that might have been the humidity.
At Belvedere, a couple dozen 6-year-olds are arrayed around some outdoor steps, staring intently at the compasses in their hands. But ranger Perry Wargo soon senses that the concept of degrees is a little too tricky. “Maybe we’d better stick with north, south, east, and west,” he says.
They move off. I duck around the corner of the castle to talk to Sergeant Kimberly Wilkins and Corporal Lori Trocola of the PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol). They’re mounted on Ben and Jerry, respectively, two enormous Clydesdales. I stare up at the women at a severe angle as they tell me about their work.
“There’s no typical day,” says Wilkins, and the two proceed to list the most common problems they face: “vendor issues,” “dogs off leash,” “dogs in the water,” “permit disputes with ball fields,” and “accidents with bikers, runners, rollerbladers – they all hate each other.”
Any problems with belligerent birders, I wonder – telescope scuffles, impromptu tripod fencing, angrily flung copies of Peterson or Sibley?
“The birdwatchers actually help us,” says Trocola. “If there are sexual-lewdness problems in the woods, they let us know. Same with the dog walkers.”
PEP officer David Evangelista joins us, on foot. He has already been in the park since 4 a.m. (“homeless detail”) and has just come from a small commotion on the Great Lawn. “A vendor lost control of his cart and hit a small tree – uprooted it,” he says. “That’s a $1,000 summons.”
Around the Great Lawn, the sun is peeking through, and the ball fields are filling up. A bare-chested senior hits towering fungoes to a young man. Two distinguished-looking silver-haired gentlemen in shorts glide by on Razors, conversing in Spanish. At the north end, there’s a large gathering, perhaps a couple hundred children and adults. I join them and introduce myself to three women, clearly parents. What is all this?
“It’s a field day,” they say.
“How great. For?”
Silence – long silence. I have evidently slipped into Urdu (I hate it when that happens), and so rendered myself incomprehensible to them. Or maybe not. Eventually, one replies.
“We’re not trying to be vague; we’re just trying to send you to the right person.”
They indicate a woman organizing some sort of relay race involving hula hoops. I introduce myself.
“So, can you tell me what’s going on here?”
“Yes!” she says sunnily. “This is the lower- and middle-school field day.”
“For what school?”
Pause. “I don’t know if I can mention that.” She refers me to the head of the school: “You’ll find her under that tree over there.”
Just how disheveled was I after five hours in the park? I notice some Spence T-shirts as I walk over, and the administrator confirms (if a little warily) that my deduction is correct.
The top-secrecy is a little odd in a public space, but at least the children are enjoying themselves. Although maybe I shouldn’t mention that. I’m not trying to be vague; I’m just trying to send you to the right person. Better check with the Spence School.
Michael Hurst, managing director of the Public Theater, meets me at the Delacorte Theater. Because of budget cuts, there will only be one Shakespeare in the Park production this summer, instead of two. Twelfth Night, directed by Brian Kulick and starring Julia Stiles, Jimmy Smits, Oliver Platt, Kristen Johnston, and Zach Braff, begins a seven-week run on June 25. It typically costs between $2.5 million and $3 million to mount these free performances. “A crazy undertaking,” says Hurst. “But it’s a New York City tradition.”
The stage crew is on lunch break. Hugh Morris-Stan, a painter, comes over to say hello. He tells us that the other day, a snapping turtle the circumference of a pizza wandered through; it was returned to the pond. Anyone who attends these productions has seen great blue herons and other nonprofessionals join the cast for uncredited cameos. “A raccoon onstage is the funniest thing,” says Morris-Stan. “Particularly when the actors don’t see it.”
I skirt the Ramble, the beautiful tangle that, like so much of the park, has historically done double duty – in this case, as both a gay cruising area and a warbler mecca. I head across the 72nd Street transverse to the Boat House Café for some nourishment. A Korean bride and groom are being photographed near Bethesda Fountain. “Happy!” shouts the photographer. They grin obediently. “Good!” shouts the photographer.
At the model-sailboat pond, a lone birder trains his field glasses on the Fifth Avenue building that is home to the nesting red-tails, but there is no sign of them. Presumably the hawks, who are the stars of an upcoming Nora Ephron movie (Red-Tails in Love), missed the red-eye from L.A. and will not be in until later.
A quick loop through the south end brings me back to the park’s west side, where a hotly contested croquet match is being played out by two men in whites in the tournament-quality lawn-bowling area just north of Sheep Meadow. The Meadow’s citizens are at once more horizontal (yo, pass the tanning lotion) and more upright (yo, no drug deals) than in years gone by, and on this day they’re sprinkled appealingly around the green. As for the joggers, they are, of course, everywhere, always: a steady, daylong park presence, seemingly time-released at intervals onto the roadway.
Each day on the benches at the park’s West 72nd Street entrance, the world’s problems are neatly resolved by neighborhood retirees. In a concession to the heat, today’s high-level discussion has relocated to the shady area around the imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields.
“Let me ask you something,” a senior citizen with a cane is saying to a senior citizen with a dog, just along the bench from me. “If you had a .45 pistol that the Army gave you, say, and a guy comes up and says ‘I don’t like your face’ and pulls out a knife, what are you gonna do? Tell him ‘Please don’t cut me’? ‘Just cut me right over there’?”
“I would shoot him.”
“Hopefully, you’d shoot him. Why would you shoot him?”
“Because he attacked me.”
“Because you had a gun. What’s the sense of having power if you don’t use it?”
“If I had a baseball bat … “
“You don’t have a baseball bat. Forget all that Confucius and Mahatma bullshit. Should we in America give up all our nuclear weapons?”
An acquaintance of theirs approaches, wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
“Another set of ears!” the two cry out joyfully.
On another bench, a younger man in a dark suit and tie, sandals, a long white frilly dress worn loose over his trousers, and an enormous white hat shaped like a cake sits alone. What is he doing? He’s eating. And, it turns out, reading back issues of Architectural Digest. “I was lucky enough to find these,” he says genially when I walk over. “I can copy them and make my own designs.” Okay. Meanwhile, the global summit is still in progress. “I have trouble with Spanish,” the man in the Hawaiian shirt is saying. “I’m gonna learn Pashtun?”
My day in the park ends, a dozen hours after it began, with Taste of Summer, an annual fund-raiser for the Central Park Conservancy at Bethesda Terrace. The party features food stalls from the city’s finest restaurants, but the best parts involve wandering out, away from the tents and the dance floor and the silent auction, to the edge of the boating lake. It’s twilight, a breeze is coming from the east, and the predicted rains haven’t arrived – perfect.
I run into the new parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, and Ian Smith, the Conservancy’s chairman. They tell me that Richard Markham, the man wanted by the British authorities for disassembling and redistributing a friend of his in small boxes around England, has just been arrested in the park – apparently around the time I was at the Delacorte. The British legal system will have something to say about Markham’s behavior in England, but few would fault his conduct in New York. When he was detected, he was reading a newspaper on a bench in Central Park on a summery afternoon. For that, who could possibly blame him?