A Walk in the Park

The thought occurs to me that if the park were to be sealed off with everyone inside, it could develop its own political and social system. It would be an opportunity to completely remake society, refashion a kinder, more equitable way of life. But then the subcultures would form alliances and rivalries. Perhaps the cyclists would go to war with the joggers over control of the roadway.

A memento mori at the heart of the leisure zone

Vaux and Olmstead Map of Prospect Park.

It’s Whateverday, the 99th of Monthcember—who knows at this point—and there’s heavy traffic on East Drive in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Joggers in the hundreds. Young, old, fast, slow. When the sun’s out during lockdown it’s busier than a charity race out here. You can tell the quarantine newbies. They jog like I do. A pained shuffle. Their exercise clothes appear to be whatever they could find in the back of the closet. T-shirts stained with dried paint, sneakers dirty with car grease or a kid’s crayon scribble. They are outpaced by gazelles wearing aerodynamic lycra, zero-drop running shoes and monitoring tech strapped to their arms. Now the Olympics have been postponed, presumably they are training to join an elite military unit following the breakdown of society. Doubtless irritated by so many amateurs crowding the East Drive to peak fitness.

East Drive runs north-south, part of a circular roadway that lassoes the entire park perimeter. I’ve been waiting for a couple of minutes to cross it west from the Lincoln Road entrance side, onto the path where I like to begin my daily walk into the heart of the park. But the joggers keep on coming. The fun-runners, the serious athletes, the serious-athlete-parents running at high speed pushing strollers in which their offspring are pulling two or three Gs. Just when I think I spy a gap in the parade, it’s filled by a cyclist out for a leisurely ride. Hot on their tail are the scooterists and rollerbladers and children veering this way and that on their training wheels. Here come the gear-heads pedaling custom-built recumbent trikes and—GETOUTTATHEWAYFUCKOUTTATHEWAY!—the professionals competing in their own personal Tour de France. Slowing for crossing pedestrians can shave as much as 1/125th of a second from their circuit time, which undoubtedly justifies their fury. I give up trying to dart over the road and instead merge into the pedestrian lane to follow the caravan of health enthusiasts north.

I wouldn’t be the first to reach for movie metaphors to describe the athletes of The Pause, who are now zooming past me like jet skis overtaking a waste-disposal barge. All following the same anti-clockwise route around the park’s edge, perhaps hoping to turn back time to the pre-pandemic age if they do it hard enough. Zombies are the go-to. Night of the Living Dead, if it were an allegory for personal fitness as well as race and power. The dutiful runners remind me more of Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Depression-era contestants in nonstop dance marathons, spinning round cheap ballrooms hoping to lindy-hop their way out of poverty. But under the sweaty hoodies, behind the masks, people are pursuing mental well-being rather than hoping to come out of quarantine with great-looking glutes. Better a person screams OUTTATHEWAYBEHINDYOUTOYOURRIGHT! as they lap some poor slowcoach than take their aggression out on a partner or kid at home.

To the right of East Drive, if you’re jogging north, is the zoo. It’s closed, but you can hear sheep bleating like nagging children. Quarantine coincided with lambing. Peacocks are loudly squawking, showing off behind the fence. Lockdown is an annual event for some species. If you walk to the park’s lake, along a narrow stretch called the Lullwater, you can see the turtles coming out of winter brumation to bask on logs and rocks. The air has become clearer over the past few weeks, and birdsong is high in the park’s audio mix, no longer drowned out by the city hum or the LaGuardia Airport flight path. These atmospheric conditions are all the better for hearing the nightly 7 PM cheer for the frontline workers as it reverberates around the meadow. All the better for hearing the ceaseless ambulance sirens wailing from all directions.

New Yorkers uncorrupted by nostalgia will tell you that at one time a walk in the park in this city was a great way to get mugged. But the earliest known usage of the phrase “a walk in the park,” to describe an easy task, comes from golf caddies of the 1930s who would use it, tongue-in-cheek, when working a short nine-hole course for their bosses rather than the full eighteen. The epidemic has given back the phrase some New York edge. Note the litter on the ground. Discarded masks and clear vinyl gloves speckle the lawns and paths. Masks strike me as odd items to drop absentmindedly when they are fitted tightly around the face, when it is increasingly the social norm to keep them on, when their shortage is a daily news item. Like noticing that your shoe has come off, but not being bothered to put it back on.

The park encourages preventive psychology. Running and cycling is a way to remind yourself that you’ve not been infected and that your lungs still work to capacity. Sunshine and exercise at least make you feel you’re doing something for your health which might indirectly help strengthen your system should you get sick. And it’s not just the runners and cyclists. It’s those out kicking a soccer ball or throwing a frisbee. (If either comes flying my way, instinct now tells me to duck-and-cover rather than throw it back, although I’d probably do that under normal circumstances too.) Also the yoga practitioners and the personal trainers working with their clients along the wide-open lawns of the Long Meadow, which covers a one-mile stretch of the park. Small groups following aerobics videos on a laptop propped against a pile of folded sweaters. Lone boxers sparring with shadows. Bodybuilders doing pull-ups on anything that will support their weight. Even the acrobats balancing along a slackline ratcheted between two trees—a meditation, of sorts. Every one of them anxious that this space might get closed off by the city administration.

This worry doesn’t stop a Pro Runner from letting fly a stringy arc of spit as he passes me. Tragically, assholism is an untreatable condition. During the Victorian era, municipal parks were intended to help alleviate public health issues in overcrowded, disease-ridden cities. A place beyond the range of a street spitter’s tuberculosis. The metaphor of the park as “the lungs of the city”—somewhere to breathe, a space for mitigating air pollution—dates back over 200 years. But life and death have long split the difference in urban green spaces. Prospect Park’s designers, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted (building on initial plans by Egbert Viele), entered the open competition to landscape Central Park in the 1850s because they had been inspired by visiting Green-Wood Cemetery in southwest Brooklyn. In New York City, parks did time as burial sites. Bryant Park and Madison Square Park were potter’s fields. Wards Island, run by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, still is. Twenty thousand bodies are buried under Washington Square Park, victims of the yellow fever outbreaks that occurred frequently from the 1790s through the early 1800s. Now a controversial field hospital run by Christian evangelicals treats virus patients in Central Park. Dotted across Prospect Park are sapling trees surrounded by little wooden stockades. Each one has a small laminated sign zip-tied to it, memorializing the dead. One says “Thanks for the electricity, Dad.” Another remembers a one-year-old with photos of a smiling baby. At the intersection of West and Center Drives, the jogging circuit hugs Quaker Hill on top of which is hidden the private Friends Cemetery, which pre-dates the park itself. A memento mori at the heart of the leisure zone. Like the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, you just need to run from the right angle in order to see it.

I swerve off East Drive by a small memorial to Battle Pass, site of a major confrontation during the Revolutionary War. Politicians have enjoyed the cloak of cheap heroism that war metaphors have given them during this pandemic. Other conflicts exist in this park. I follow a steep path that crests at the top of The Vale of Cashmere. This name was bestowed by Grace Chapin, wife to the mayor of Brooklyn in the 1890s, after a line from a Thomas Moore poem. These days Vale of Cashmere could be an expensive lifestyle knitwear store in adjacent Park Slope. The Vale is a hidden gully between the northeastern ridge of the Long Meadow on one side and the park’s border with Flatbush Avenue, just over the railings. There is a Rose Garden here too, with pools empty of water, occupied by gnarled lattices of tree branch and root. At the deepest point in the Vale is a pond overrun with wild plants and algae blooms. Half close your eyes, block out the sound of the sirens and you could be in an Arcadian ruin. 

On the stone rim of the pond someone has sprayed COVID-19, a kind of deadpan caption to everything going on in the park. The Vale is a serene spot in which to sit, although today it is busy with park employees clearing brush and repairing the terraced stairways. An electrical contractor is measuring the path. Yellow caution tape winds around the trees like a cat’s cradle. The noise of power tools can be heard from restoration on the historic Endale Arch at the northernmost tip of the Vale. This work is part of a long-planned scheme to prettify this section of the park, because it had become “dangerous” and “neglected.” Words which euphemistically camouflage another agenda, social engineering through conservation. For decades this was a cruising spot for gay men of color from the surrounding neighborhoods, activity now pushed back over the other side of East Drive into the area called Midwood. There, among the oldest woodland in Brooklyn, social distancing cannot cool people’s need for intimacy. An official parks sign naming part of the grove Rick’s Place has been rechristened in spray paint as Dick’s Place.

I reach the top end of Prospect Park, where the East Drive joggers arch round into West Drive. The Long Meadow is broad at this point, framed on three sides by a gently sloping ridge and tall trees. Only a couple of apartment blocks crowned with scaffolding and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch on Grand Army Plaza are visible over the treetops. Springtime explosions of pink and white blossom keep your eyes distracted inside the park. Beyond the trees are wealthy Prospect Heights and Park Slope. It looks manicured and feels sheltered here, like an English country estate, a landscape garden that could have been designed by Olmsted’s hero Capability Brown to mimic nature and blot out the peasants.

Looking south from the top of the meadow, the sightlines allow a long view down the park. When it rains, all the dog-walking, lounging, reading, and game-playing I can now see vanishes, as if nobody has walked the park in weeks. Patches of glade become middens full of dark brown water and broken tree limbs. Wet leaves and lichen turn electric green against sodden tree bark. But today, with the sun shining, it’s almost as busy as a Memorial Day or Fourth of July holiday. The red KEEP THIS FAR APART signs that dot the park are difficult to obey but people are reading, laughing, chatting, trying to gamely give strangers a wide berth under the new rules of courtesy. A world without work, like a drawing from a 1970s hippie-modernist vision of utopia. Only minus the utopia. I think back to when I worked in an office in Manhattan. In the middle of the afternoon I would take a coffee break and go for a short stroll. I’d see people seated at outdoor restaurant tables, enjoying a glass of wine, reaching the end of long, leisurely lunches, and wonder who could afford to spend their afternoons like this. The same question applies to everyone out on the meadow, but it has a different valence: how can you afford it, meaning, how are you getting by? How are you surviving?

People say that lockdown New York City makes them think of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps that’s because Rod Serling, who created the show, was preoccupied with what he called “the barrier of loneliness,” and “an enemy, known as isolation.” The flip-side of isolation, which involves an awareness of separation, is solipsism. I walk south along a narrow path decorated with the park’s prettiest run of blossoming magnolia and dogwood trees. The walkway is kept in check by short, steep grass banks on either side. Ahead, there is a bicycle propped on its kickstand in the middle of the path. It’s a perfect duck-blue color, and has a vintage step-through frame. A young couple are photographing the bicycle against the blossom cloud. He wears a black T-shirt and shorts and looks as if he works out. She is wearing jeans which are perfectly-not-quite the same shade of blue as the bike, plain white sneakers and a crisp white T-shirt. Others on the path wait politely for them to finish taking the photograph. But now he’s photographing her stood next to the bike, now sat on it, now posing under the blossom with the bike in the foreground. Now they’re doing couple selfies. Eight, maybe ten, passersby including dog walkers and a woman with a stroller—all trying to KEEP THIS FAR APART—are climbing up and down the grass banks beside the path to get past the couple, who seem not to have noticed.

Supplies of sanctimony are never scarce during a crisis. It’s abundant among those of us who do not work essential jobs. A mean part of me wonders if the #blessed #blossom #bluebike photo shoot will be posted online with a homily acknowledging that having the time to visit the park during this crisis is a sign of privilege when so many people don’t have the option. It’s like saying ten Hail Marys to atone for your sins. An auto-absolving liturgy which allows you to then continue getting in people’s way. (“In Brooklyn, the haves and the ain’t-got-shit can be equally ignorant,” as New York historian Brian Berger put it.) The path takes me south down the edge of the meadow, passing conversations muffled by masks and bandanas, cutting between people trying to chat from opposite sides of the path to each other. I see normal sights that even outside an epidemic would still be signs of people coping and getting by in their own way. Birdwatchers peer up at trees through their binoculars. Two friends carry fishing rods down toward the lake. Smoke wafts from a designated barbecue zone. A child tries to convince his parents that the filthy twig he just picked up off the ground is bamboo. (“It’s not bamboo sweetie.” “IT IS BAMBOO!”) A yappy Jack Russell goes for a stranger’s carrier bag of food. (“No!” The stranger barks louder than the dog, embarrassing its owner.) A woman is seated on the grass knitting. Another naps in a hammock. Someone blasts Frank Ocean from a boombox.

From the opposite direction come six similarly dressed young men. Navy and white button-down shirts under grey gilets, khakis, loafers with ugly rubber grips. They look like finance guys separated from their tribe. At least two of them must be named Josh. Their faces are uncovered, and they move as a tight unit which forces others to give way. The men are walking at a brisk clip, which suggests they are eager to reopen the economy and wrestle their country from the Marxist agenda of the radical left. Their proximity to each other makes me wonder how many of the group are now in the ICU.

I make a detour onto Sullivan Hill, a wooded area in the center of the park criscrossed by dirt trails and a rustic stone bridge that spans a deep, narrow cut called The Ravine. Water flows down here from pools at the top of the hill, feeding the Lullwater, and beyond that the main lake. Along the edge of the hill I notice what look to be small forts made from fallen branches bivouacked against fat tree trunks. I climb over a fence and scramble down a steep incline to the bottom of the Ravine. All I can hear is the burble of water, and a musician practicing scales on a saxophone from somewhere up on Long Meadow. The Ravine brings me out onto another wide-open lawn called the Nethermead, a name that should be in a Geoffrey Chaucer poem, not a New York park. More musicians rehearsing outdoors. A barbershop quartet sings “The Days of Wine and Roses” by Henry Mancini. Through the meadow land toward a closing door, A door marked “nevermore” . . . It sounds like hymn for the dead.

Through Nethermead to Center Drive, which snakes between Lookout Hill and Quaker Hill, where the Friends Cemetery sits. The actor Montgomery Clift, whose 1956 car crash threw him into tragic depressive decline, is buried here. I reach the intersection with the jogging circuit on West Drive. A cyclist skids off his bike. He falls on his back, clutching one leg bent up in the air. People rush toward him then stop before they get too close, unsure what the first aid protocol is when trying to KEEP THIS FAR APART. From an over-cautious distance, which means he has to shout, a man asks if anyone has a medical background. A woman shrugs and says she’s a chiropractor. Another bike rider picks up the bent bicycle frame and carries it to the curb. The chiropractor decides the need to help overrides the mandate to distance and assists the cyclist to his feet.

West Drive curves around the large lake that covers much of the southernmost third of the park. At this end, the land flattens out. Buildings in Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Flatbush and Prospect Lefferts Gardens are clearly visible through the trees, giving a feeling of porosity between the park and these lower-income neighborhoods. I pass Vanderbilt Street Playground, under lock-and-key. Tall, black tusks arch out of the ground next to a steel geodesic frame. Without children to clamber over them they could be exhibits in a sculpture park or the kind of abstract blah that an investment firm would enjoy having outside its offices. Opposite, on the bridle trail which skirts the lake edge, is a horse-riding lesson in progress. The boy on horseback looks like a young prince inspecting his pox-ridden serfs and I wonder what category of essential service riding lessons falls under.

It is Passover and large groups of Hasidim are enjoying this corner of the park. News reports have described how the virus has ripped through Hasidic communities in the city, accelerated by fears and beliefs, fatally entangled in complex social and economic factors. It is strange to see so many people so close together, touching, brushing up against each other. A little like the small frisson of surprise I now get when I see people on a TV show shake hands or hug in a crowded public place.

Halfway along the southernmost end of the park, where the path tracks Parkside Avenue, is the Peristyle, a neo-classical colonnade open to the air on all sides. Half a dozen men are resting along its low steps, catching the sunshine. Each guy has a bicycle in front of him. They wear bandana masks, baseball caps, and bomber jackets. A few have large square, insulated backpacks for delivering food and I would guess they have all clocked more miles today than any of the Tour de France fantasists on the East and West Drive touring circuit. Cycling means something different here. Cycling is no guarantee of staying healthy.

The path begins to bend back up the east side of the park toward my starting point. I skirt the lakeside. Where there is usually a drum circle is one lonely drummer, but a sound system that often runs near the southeast Parkside Avenue entrance is going at full pelt, dropping reggae classics and modern dancehall. Nothing looks different from their usual outings, until I notice that everyone gathered around it stands a good six feet apart. Sitting on a gnarled felled tree is a small group of men. Some have blankets and bags stuffed with possessions. Others carry nothing and their appearance suggests a great deal of time spent in the open. I remember the wooden bivouacs I had seen earlier, at the edge of Sullivan Hill, and wonder how many are shelters for those with nowhere else to go.

This is not the border of Park Slope. We are not near lifestyle knitwear stores called The Vale of Cashmere and photoshoots with vintage bicycles. A map published in late April by the City of New York, giving the total count of known Covid-19 cases in each zipcode, shows 640 cases in the neighborhoods to the north of the park, 1125 to the east, and 2946 across its southern flank. The thought occurs to me that if the park were to be sealed off with everyone inside, it could develop its own political and social system. It would be an opportunity to completely remake society, refashion a kinder, more equitable way of life. But then the subcultures would form alliances and rivalries. Perhaps the cyclists would go to war with the joggers over control of the roadway. A group of barbecuers might take over all the grilling spots and create a catering empire supplied with seafood by the fishing enthusiasts. The birdwatchers would form a spy agency and the boxers and bodybuilders would run a protection racket in return for keeping the park safe from invaders. At the north end, the restored Vale of Cashmere would be established as the seat of government, a natural amphitheater in which everyone would be promised a voice and yet still someone would be exploited. Someone would lose out to whatever system emerged. Some asshole would spit on someone who wasn’t racing fast enough. The inequities of the park are the inequities of the city.

I plan to end my walk at the Cleft Ridge Span, an ornamented cast-concrete archway just near the spot where I first tried to cross the fitness highway. On the way, I go through Concert Grove, where there is a closed-off, run-down pavilion and portrait busts of famous dead European composers. On most days small groups of Rastafarian men gather, chatting and smoking next to Beethoven and Mozart. I pass a man whom I sometimes see here crocheting rastacaps on a bench. There are large piles of hats in a variety of colors stacked next to him. He knits speedily. I hear him tell a friend “I don’t need presents, I need wages. We need wages.”

The Cleft Ridge Span funnels park visitors from the busy Lincoln Road entrance to the tranquil Boathouse on the Lullwater. It is a psychological gateway between the city and the park proper. East Drive is its border zone. People make different uses of the Cleft Ridge Span. One quiet, wet day I came across a man with a powerful singing voice enjoying the natural reverb of the tunnel. Beautiful, I said, before realizing that I had interrupted a recording session on his phone. Another time, a trio of activists wearing three varieties of mask—bandana, homemade, N95—were taping up posters that read TRUMP / PENCE BIOHAZARD. Well into the lockdown, people were still having their official staged wedding photographs taken here. Couples in full gear—white dress, tux—being photographed for their happiest who-knows-when. Today two small children were making monster sounds, thrilled as the tunnel acoustics amplified and expanded their squeaky little growls. Maybe it’s what the coronavirus would sound like if it could make a noise. But that would be a noise so loud, at such a horrifying frequency, that it that would cause the Long Meadow to split in two and the park to slide into a vast sinkhole. A shriek to pierce every street, home, and hospital in the world.

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