These past few months I have been working in midtown Manhattan part of the week. When I can, I walk back to the Upper West Side through Central Park. I take different paths, sometimes getting momentarily turned around (which isn’t hard to do). Since my object—aside from making my way to my mother’s apartment—is exercise, I don’t mind the extra steps, and I have become reacquainted with the wonderful surprises Central Park holds.
Yesterday I went through one of the many underpasses and found myself at the carousel. It was closed for the night, but a flood of childhood memories came to me as I looked at the building. Growing up, my mother often took us on bike rides through the park, and sometimes the carousel was the destination. We loved riding on the beautiful carved horses, and I would happily have stayed on for hours (rides cost a quarter then). I practiced sitting correctly, my heels angled into the horse’s flank, the reins held the way I was taught in the occasional horseback riding lessons I loved. Some of the horses were stationary, but my sister and I always picked those that went up and down—and always the prettiest horses.
I know that continual maintenance and improvements keep the park looking so beautiful—but you still have the impression that nothing changes. The Sheep Meadow looks as I remember, with almost the same people playing Frisbee or stretched out on blankets in the sunshine. The baseball fields overflow with players and spectators. People still queue up to see Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater. I was one of them this year, where I saw a wonderful performance of As You Like It on a slightly chilly early summer night. The stage glowed as the sun set, with Belvedere Castle as a permanent and dramatic backdrop. A few ducks wheeled in the sky overhead, checking out the show. To spend an evening in the middle of the park, watching stellar actors perform in the open air at a free show is one of the many treasures New York has to offer.
The park itself is among the greatest. Its 843 acres sit in the middle of Manhattan, running from 59th street to 110th, and bridging the East and West sides. Huge expanses of open space host countless events and crowds of people. I remember watching Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic rehearsals on the Great Lawn, where Simon and Garfunkel also played. As a Girl Scout leader, my mother took our troop on a bike ride and cookout in the park. Next to the huge lake, where people drifted by in rented rowboats, we grilled hotdogs and hamburgers on our homemade grills—a 64-ounce juice can with the bottom removed and air holes punctured along the top rim. A tunafish can held a twist of cardboard and paraffin wax. This was lit and placed under the bigger can, turning the top into a griddle. I have no idea if it was legal to cook out in the park in this way, or if the meat we ate actually got cooked, but everyone had a great time and it was an adventure.
At the Central Park Zoo, bordering Fifth Avenue, we loved the Delacorte Music Clock which separated the main zoo from the Children’s Zoo. Every half hour the bronze animals rotated to various children’s songs, with each animal moving in its own way. Sliding on the huge mushrooms in the bronze sculpture of Alice and Wonderland was another favorite stop—much of the sculpture was worn smooth from generations of children.
In the spring, picnics under the flowering magnolias by Cleopatra’s Needle—the ancient Obelisk sitting behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art—were yet another regular activity. Everywhere trees and flowers abound, often surrounding giant rock formations which become mountains to scale, or slides to descend. Two rinks accommodate ice skaters. We went to the less crowded Lasker Rink near 110th Street, where my sister and I enjoyed many a reckless after-school skate racing with the guards, weaving around the more cautious, like my mother.
These are some of my happy memories, and yet they only scratch the surface of this spectacular park.