I was a New York City Urban Park Ranger usually stationed in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, but for this day I was detailed out to Central Park, the park of my childhood.
In Van Cortlandt Park I knew where the hophornbeam trees lived in a valley of white oaks and tulip poplars. I knew where the skunks made their home underneath a cluster of glacial rocks. I knew my way through a thicket of tangled grasses and muddy soils to the spot where the marsh marigolds flowered. I loved looking up at the night sky over the park, feeling remote, a white astral quietude drawing me closer to tranquility.
In Central Park, I was to help keep order at a Corporate Challenge, a track race around the park to raise money for cancer or some other corporate charity, the rich feeding each other. As an Urban Park Ranger I was a deputized peace officer, uniformed in Smokey-the-Bear hat, gray shirt, green pants, and badge, and was paid to enforce the laws in the parks.
It was a warm spring day, the locust and linden trees in flower, the leaves a rich lustrous green, little moisture in the air, and the sun shone on my cheeks like a beam of resurrection. I hitched up my pants, heavy with walkie-talkie, mace, handcuffs, book of summons, notebook, field guide to Eastern Forests, a pouch with first aid materials, and mini-flashlight, and began my tour of duty.
I was stationed on the drive in the West 80s to require, as best I could, compliance to the narrow margins set by the French barricades, funneling people crossing the drive into this tunnel, herding those who strayed, retrieving those who got overwhelmed or misplaced. Within no time, my feet began to swell and throb and my lower back became enflamed. My walkie-talkie garbled informational nonsense. The runners were grunting and heaving like wildebeest, hot and pale with determination. Occasionally, a supervisor would stop by and check on me, and I would smile at him as if everything was fine; but I longed to be back in Van Cortlandt Park, lost in its forest. The pedestrians—thousands going back and forth, on errands, to softball games, to bird watch, to picnic—resented the barricades and resented my controlling presence. And I wavered between professional politeness (“This way, Ms.”) and irritation (“If you cross over there and get trampled there is nothing I can do for you.”).
The uniform vexed me: I shied away from its real power, suspicious of the rigidity and shallowness of laws, but I also wanted to use it to get people to act in accord; a civil necessity in such a populated dwelling, and I had a dictatorial inclination, my desire for people to see things my way. In fact, I hated these events, feeling like hired help for the cause of globalization, the cheery pastel corporate advertisements lining the drive and pronouncing the goodness of consumerism, everyone so smug and comfortable. I strove to be a good civil servant, helpful and courteous; but I was secretly arrogant and complacent too, as only a native can be: Manhattan was my home, and I felt safe and in-the-know within its shores.
In the afternoon, the sun slanting down from the west, I let my body for the first time slump to decrease the pain in my joints. A woman and her dog then showed up next to me, as they waited to cross the drive. She was lean, taut, with a nose that was slightly crooked, and she wore a blue suede Adidas tracksuit. Her dog was a jack terrier, and he was off the leash.
“You’ll have to put your dog on the leash,” I said.
In city parks, dogs off their leashes was illegal because they could be dangerous to other animals.
“What?” She began to play with the zipper on the shirt of her tracksuit, pulling it down just a bit and then zipping it back up.
“Put your dog on the leash, please.”
“But why? He’s fine.”
She knew the law, but didn’t care.
“Because he’s not under control.”
“Sure he is, he’s under my complete control.”
Again, she pulled her zipper down and then back up. It was very sexy.
“Most of the time, probably,” I said, “but not all the time. Each animal has its moments of independence.”
“What’s your name?”
I pointed to my name-plate, aware that underneath my uniform and behind my badge was the soul and body of a skinny and cerebral individual.
“My dog needs the exercise.”
She had subtle lines under her eyes that revealed the edge point of youth and the beginning of middle age.
“So does everyone else’s,” I said. “You know how many dogs come to visit the park each day? Thousands, probably more, I don’t know for sure. But it’s a recipe for chaos.”
I could write her a summons for $100. “Unleashed or uncontrolled animals in the park.” But it was a time consuming and cumbersome process, and, I felt, a defeat of the moral power I wanted to exert by articulation.
“My dog listens to me,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of dogs that are poorly behaved and can’t be controlled, but my dog doesn’t fall into that category. He obeys, and he has earned this moment of freedom.”
“He needs to seek out prey, to live like his grandfathers, and he will do that here in the park. At any moment, the sight of a squirrel will liberate his domesticity, and he will run wild. In the city, I hate to remind you, we live with our discontents. No running wild, ma’am, for you and the dog.”
“What are you talking about? My dog has the right to be unleashed. Don’t give me an environmental lecture.”
“It’s not a lecture. It’s logic. It’s a question of space. There is too little here. When space gets small and everyone is crawling on top of each other someone is forced down to the bottom of the ladder of respect. For everyone to live unrestrained you need lots of space. The dogs must be restrained!”
“My dog off the leash does not disturb this balance.”
“How can you not agree with me? There are too many of us. It’s too obvious. We’re pounding the planet down into ash. Your dog is us now, a sub-species of human, and he is governed by our rules. He’s no longer in the wild. Leash him up.”
I felt like Clint Eastwood mixed with Edward Abbey.
“It’s the law.”
“You, Officer.” And for emphasis she pulled her zipper down a little further, just above her cleavage. “Will never get my dog on the leash.”
A little spittle leaped out of my mouth from shock. I took out my summons book, eager to hand her the $100 ticket, to send her on her way with further debt. But as I was looking at the blank summons I realized that I didn’t know how to fill it out. I had been taught, sure, but I rarely wrote tickets, perhaps twice in my career (as a Ranger, most of my time was spent teaching about the environment), and would have fumbled searching for codes, revealing my ineptness instead of my power.
In the midst of my indecision, she walked away.
“Have a nice night, Adidas Lady,” I screamed at her.
I rankled for an hour.
Dismissed finally, I walked through the Park south, restless, still in my uniform, past the Reservoir and the Great Lawn, through the Ramble and its woody charms, down to the Lake, where the water was unusually clear from spring’s cleansing rains and the turtles basked anxiously in the sun. I walked to a point on the southern end of the Lake, which was shaded by a weeping willow, and I recalled that this was the spot, one of many as a junior high schooler, that I had gotten mugged.
Two black guys, the thing I feared most, had screeched their bikes threateningly to a halt in front of me. They shoved me under the cover of the hanging limbs and leaves, just out of sight, and with their hands stuck in their pants’ pockets and their faces so close to mine I could have stuck my tongue out and licked their noses, said, “You know what to do.”
For a moment I didn’t, scared, helpless, waiting for the first clenched fist to hit my face, the blood rushing to my head, my legs weak. I smelled their potent odors, hot with criminality, hot with the anger of injustice. But they just stood there, like benevolent leopards to my frightened mouse, and as I thought it through, let my senses flow, I emptied my pockets and gave them all my money, maybe about three dollars.
“And,” they continued.
I took my bus pass out from my jacket pocket—the bus pass that let me ride for free and wouldn’t be replaced until the beginning of the next month—and handed it to the bigger of the two.
He smiled, and so did his partner. And then they raised their fists into the air and over my head: big teenage black fists, with rings glimmering on their fingers. I closed my eyes, waiting, then felt a fraternal smack on the cheek.
“Thanks for the business.” And off they rode.
I stared at the willow tree as if it were a dangerous Madeleine cookie, and as I walked out from under its canopy, the memory faded away, back into the residual ether of my childhood.
I continued on to Sheep’s Meadow, and walked around its periphery to a trail that hugged the field’s southern end.
The path was shaded and muted (although I could still hear the whissh of the cars down below on the transverse) by a row of well-grown trees and a patchwork of thick shrubs. I was happy, alone in my own head, on a childhood trail that made me feel extremely comfortable, almost as if back at that point in life where my mother’s presence around the bend was pure sanctuary and connectedness.
Just before I got to the west drive, across from Tavern on the Green, I looked left, and behind a widely spreading dogwood shrub, in a semi-concealed pocket, was a man, fully dressed in a black suit, sitting on a rock getting a blow job.
The woman’s head was bobbing quickly, rapidly. She too was fully dressed, but had a beige cape spread behind her, giving her a shadowy Victorian air. She was on her knees and her hands gripped the sides of the rock for leverage. The man’s back was arched, his arms planted behind him.
I watched, both anxious and aroused. Rarely outside of my own sexuality and allowed to glimpse someone else’s, they looked weird, irregular, intimidating to me. But this of course was how it was, contorted, inflamed, elemental, and dangerous. I admired them, so free to do this outdoors, an act of ancestral rebellion. This sex play was far more necessary for our collective urban health than dogs given an instant of spurious freedom. That was country freedom (my world in the Bronx and Van Cortlandt Park), so take your animal there. Here the freedom was cornered, albeit soft and yielding, alive with slight acts of misbehavior.
Hiding behind the dogwood shrub, I inched closer for a better look, an officer of the law sneaking behind the plants to watch illicit acts. My Smokey-the-Bear hat caught on a limb and was dragged off my head, creating a slight but audible scrape. The man grunted and choked, brushed his long hair from his sweaty face, and looked around. He then saw me, exposed behind the branches, and we caught each other’s eyes. His were like fire. I would have thought he wanted to be watched. The woman lifted her mouth, wiped away some spittle, and gathered her cape around her waist. He then sheathed his penis, and they walked past me, pushing aside the branches. She said, “You twerp.”
I laughed out loud and looked out over Sheep’s Meadow at all the people—my native island people—and felt gleeful, in tune with the world, sole witness to a private act in one of the few concealed open spaces left in the abounding city. I walked to the subway and took it north, and soon landed back in my lonely topography in the far west Bronx.