I can never get enough of Central Park. While I’ve only been to New York twice, both times I found myself spending the majority of my time in or near the park – and loving every minute of it.
My first visit was on a quiet weekday. I walked myself silly up and down the length of the park and from east and west, and still there was more to see. For the second trip, the park was the setting of an informal IgoUgo member get-together set up by Jose Kevo.
After a hearty breakfast at The Red Flame with members Jose Kevo, zabelle and her husband Al, Ishtar, and Chuckk, Kevo and I took the subway up to Spanish Harlem, his old stomping grounds but a whole new world to me. He steered me to a corner eatery featuring all sorts of mouthwatering concoctions (too bad I’d just eaten), and we bought humongous take-away drinks, both of us opting for tamarind juice.
Thus equipped with something to sip on our perambulations, we headed toward the park. En route, Kevo pointed out the Graffiti Hall of Fame. On the corner of 105th and Park Avenue, the walls surrounding a junior high school serve as a display space for murals done by young local artists as well as well-known graffiti artists from around the world. Some have called this unpretentious open-air gallery the "Metropolitan Museum of Art" for graffiti aficionados. During our visit, the murals were providing a backdrop for a group of teens playing pick-up basketball, seeming oblivious to the eye-popping colors and larger-than-life stylings just yards away.
Then we strolled over a few blocks to Central Park, entering at the Conservatory Garden, one of my favorite areas in the park. This formal European-style garden is made up of several large "rooms" done in the English, French, and Italian manners. Here, pastel pinks, blues, and violets prevail, set against countless shades of green.
On a previous visit, I’d entered through the imposing wrought iron gates originally built for the Vanderbilt mansion at 58th and Fifth Avenue. Just through the gates, a large fountain is set on a pristine lawn, while behind it rises a great pergola built in a semi-circle, supporting luxuriously growing wisteria. But my favorite part of the garden is a circular area planted in tulips in the spring and formal bedding plants the rest of the year. In the center is a bronze fountain of three maidens dancing in a circle, each captured in a moment of carefree abandon. Water cascades down upon the trio in droplets catching the sun’s rays. I strain to hear faint echoes of girlish laughter but only detect distant traffic and the odd songbird nearby.
After strolling through the English-style Secret Garden, we made our way over to the benches in a shady alleé formed by two rows of venerable crabapple trees, their branches forming an arch above us. We sat on a bench and chatted, and all too soon it was time to make our way south a mile or so to the Conservatory Water (not to be confused with the Conservatory Garden). It was there, just outside the Boat House, that we were to meet up with other IgoUgo members for an afternoon get-together.
As we made our way along the paths leading southward, I couldn’t help but remark what a different place Central Park was on a weekend than a weekday. The park was filled – though not unpleasantly so. Everywhere there were people out biking, roller-blading, sunbathing, playing baseball, pushing baby strollers, walking dogs, tossing Frisbees, and generally enjoying the fine day. The Conservatory Water was a lively scene, with model boat enthusiasts plying their miniature craft by remote control across the great pond. We had some trouble spotting our fellow IgoUgo-ers among the throng – in fact, Brian Spencer spotted us first - but soon we were ranged along a low wall chatting with him and ssullivan, who had come up all the way from Houston for the weekend. Not long after, zabelle and Al arrived, and I lobbied vigorously for us to find a place to go sit on the grass. (My feet were killing me!)
Boats on the Conservatory Water
Once again, the time flew all too quickly, and people began drifting off in their separate ways. I rendezvoused with Jack and Greg, who, it turned out, had been right there among the crowd of people around the pond. Greg had been sailing one of the rental remote-control boats for well over an hour while Jack sat reading at a table at the boathouse café. Though the afternoon was getting on, I still wanted to explore Central Park a bit more. Kevo had mentioned something that sounded quite appealing – a gathering of roller-skaters and roller-bladers that met every Saturday and Sunday afternoon nearby. "You’ve got to see it to believe it," is basically how he described it. Well, how could I resist?
Hosted by the Central Park Dance Skaters Association, a Skate Circle is set up in the middle of the park near the bandshell, not far from the 72nd Street transverse of the park. Before we got to the Skate Circle, we could hear it – a persistent beat pulsing in disco tempo. And then we saw the skaters.
If ever I’d seen people enjoying themselves more, or in a more high-profile style, I’d be hard pressed to name it. The Skater Circle attracts all types, but mostly it attracts what I quickly identified as "rink rats" – people who live to skate. I’d been a rink rat myself, back in the days when I lived in Chicago and iceskated four, five, even six days a week. Being a rink rat is not just about skating; it’s about hanging out with other rink rats and strutting your stuff. And right there in Central Park, a congregation of rink rats was taking it to the limit. Decked out in every conceivable type of garb (though designer jeans and muscle shirts prevailed), the skaters were in a communal groove. There were people of every age, race, and skating ability, plus a few non-skaters dancing near the center of the rink. Ranged around the Skate Circle there were even more onlookers than skaters, and it was clear that the skaters were enjoying (and accustomed to) the attention.
We edged closer to a spot just across from the center and Kevo pointed out the skaters that he was familiar with from the days he’d lived in New York. Perhaps the most striking were two men I mentally dubbed "Mr. Clean" and "Rastaman." Mr. Clean had to be six-foot-eight, easy, and had a hairless bare chest with six-pack abs. He sported wraparound sunglasses and a gleaming shaved pate. He was wearing what looked like saffron-colored harem pants, sports gloves, and long sweat bands up both wrists. Skating along with a nonchalance that went way beyond cool, he had the bearing of a man who knew that no matter what he was going to be as inconspicuous as a rhinoceros in a rose garden, so he might as well go for it, playing it for all it was worth. He skated effortlessly, balancing a water bottle on his head or gliding backwards into smooth arcs that bespoke countless hours skating.
He was joined by a fellow I mentally dubbed 'Rastaman,' sporting lavish dreadlocks and outsized sunglasses. Like his friend, Rastaman wore billowing harem-style pants, but topped them with a bright marigold yellow caftan. His headgear was similar to an 18th-century woman’s nightcap, and, like his friend, he had multiple sweat bands up both forearms and fingerless sport gloves on his hands.
Rastaman had a signature style which involved skating in slow motion. He and Mr. Clean did a routine moving in synchronization v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. This may sound easy, but actually, slowing down like that while skating is quite difficult – forward momentum helps maintain balance.
I could easily have stayed at the Skate Circle for hours, listening to the hypnotic rhythms of the music and watching the antics of the skaters. But Kevo had a train to catch and we were headed south to Chinatown, so off we set again, through the Sheep Meadow filled with sunbathers and guitar players, past the twinkling lights of the Tavern on the Green, and finally exiting at the southwest corner near the Metro stop. I looked back and made myself a promise: I’d be back. Soon.