The fool of Abingdon Square Park entered the park in a huff. He marched up to the person speaking at the microphone, and tapped her on the shoulder with a rolled up newspaper. She was in the middle of reading from a work about being the mother of an adopted Ethiopian girl, and all the ways that this complicated the already complicated experience of being a single mother in New York. She had been glancing up nervously at the people sitting in fold out chairs in front of her which tapered to the park’s point of entry, beyond which, across Hudson street, her daughter was playing in the Bleeker Street Playground, presumably on the cusp of experiencing one of the indignities she was now recounting.
The Fool of Abingdon Square tapped her on the shoulder with a rolled up newspaper—it was a gesture of barely suppressed irritation, almost comical, except here we were in a public park, vulnerable to the crazies.
Was this man a crazy?
He was a burly man wearing a blue polo shirt and black shorts. He was bald, with a black baseball cap on. He had a considerable paunch. Finally, and incriminatingly, he wore white socks, and black sneakers, which meant that he was either a cop or some city official, or that he was crazy. Neither would be good.
Between the outfit and his body language, he looked like a gym teacher who had stepped out of the gym for just a moment while the second grade played dodge ball, and on his return discovered mayhem.
He asked his question of the reader, Betsy Berne. The people gathered in the chairs and arrayed on the benches, and the few people out on the sidewalk who had paused to lean on the elegant black metal fence to see what this little gathering was about, all wondered what this man was asking.
It took a moment for the woman at the microphone to realize someone was talking to her, and another moment for her to absorb the man’s question. Then, when she did, she pointed to me.
The evening’s reading was part of a series called Park-Lit, now in its third season. Every week for part of the summer, a different literary magazine based in New York stages a reading in different city park. The Abingdon Square Park reading was the first one this summer.
I am the director of Park-Lit and this evening was the vanity event in which my own publication sponsored the reading. The day had been overcast, it had been touch and go with rain, and discussions of canceling. Outdoor events in the summer are exhausting when it comes to weather. At the last moment the sky had cleared and the sun bathed Abingdon Square Park in gold.
I was excited about the evening’s event. I felt would be a contribution to the civic fabric, the municipal drama of the city—it was co-sponsored by the Parks Department after all. My thoughts were swimming with municipal matters because I had just read, “The Powerbroker,” Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses.
“The Power Broker” is many things – a history of New York City’s urban planning and politics, a look at the behind the scenes machinations of government and finance, and the milieu in which all these things played out over nearly five decades. Its subject, Robert Moses, is directly responsible for most of the highways and bridges in New York City, but he began his career as an advocate for and builder of parks. You could say the story of Moses encapsulates the most extreme ends of the spectrum for what government can do for people—in building his many parks Moses was a champion of public space; on the other end of the spectrum, in both his methods by which he got things done (“In order to make an omelet you have to crack a few eggs,” was a favorite motto), and the ends to which he put those means–parks, initially, and then highways, bridges, traffic solutions that caused more traffic. He became an emblem of government as autocratic planner, trampling the well-being of a city, its neighborhoods, and its people.
And what does “its people” mean anyway, when applied to a city like New York? Does it apply to “the people” who own property and pay property taxes? To the people who live here as renters, as subletters, as house guests? How about those tourists staying in a hotel? Where do you draw the line? If you include people from out of town on a day trip, you may as well include the whole wide world, which in many ways is the ethos on which New York – its culture, its prosperity, its physical mass, and its money – was built. And yet has there ever been a time when public space seemed so important in New York? As the value of private space increases to the same surreal heights as the proliferating new glass structures rise all over the city, has there been a time when public space seemed more strange? I’m still haunted by a remark Mayor Bloomberg made a while ago: “New York is a luxury, and people have to pay a premium to be here.”
There was one passage of “The Power Broker” that seemed particularly relevant to the evening’s event—the part dealing with then nascent idea a certain Joseph Papirovsky had for staging productions of Shakespeare in public parks. Moses was an early supporter, but then the two clashed. After the first two successful seasons, it looked like there might not be a third. The battle played out in the city’s newspapers and, unusually for Moses, it was a battle he did not in the end win, as everyone who has been to the Delacourt theater to see a magnificent (and free) Shakespeare production well knows.
There are some conspicuous differences in the conception of Park-Lit and that of Shakespeare in the Park and the public theater. For one thing, actors are performers in a way most writers are not. For another a play is meant to be performed, and what most of the fiction writers, essayists, and poets are reading is meant to be read. Finally, and probably most significantly, Park-Lit draws on work by the well-known and up-and-coming literary talents of New York. Shakespeare in the Park draws on work by William Shakespeare.
Abingdon Square Park is one of many pocket parks that the Parks department has renovated and revitalized in the last few years. Under a project named Greenstreets, they have been taking slivers of public space so small it would hardly occur to you to think of them as a park, and sprucing, planting, renovating. Abingdon Square Park is much more than a sliver. Founded in 1836, re-opened in 2004, it is a tiny, luscious triangle within which, gated off and ringed with flowers, is a mound of grass so green and luscious that in the summertime it seems almost holy, like a sacrament. The park is dominated by the bronze statue of a soldier holding a flag, the Abingdon “Doughboy,” mounted on an imposing block of granite which explains that it purpose is to “honor the brave men who went forth from this neighborhood to join the armed forces of the United States during the World War.”
On the day in question, the skies had been cloudy until evening, when the sun began streaming west across the Hudson, up the side streets of lower Manhattan, illuminating the park’s trees and flowers. Luc Sante read first—a long homage to cigarette smoking; among the people leaning on the park’s black fence, pausing to see what was going on, was a black guy with an unlit cigarette, riding a tiny bmx bicycle; he stayed for almost the whole length of Santa’s essay. Then at the end the essay turned to the erotic significance of a cigarette in your mouth, and the guy bikes away, his cigarette still unlit. There is an nursing home nearby, and some of its residents moved from one end of the park to sit in the chairs and listen. As with any gathering in public, particularly one with a microphone, the air was slightly electric with the possibility that some crazy might storm in and disrupt the proceedings.
And that is what happened. The Fool of Abingdon Square Park marched up to the microphone, tapped Betsy on the shoulder, and then marched up to me.
“Do you have a permit for this event?” He asked.
I said we did. And that the Parks Department was a sponsor.
“Let me see it,” he snapped.
Maybe it was the black baseball cap, the white socks and black sneakers, or maybe the officious, belligerent gym teacher tone, or maybe it was just that when challenged on one’s documents, it is almost a matter of pride to produce them to prove they are in order. At any rate, I directed him to the person who stood with a folder with all the permits inside. He announced he was from the Abingdon Square Conservation Society and made a big stink about looking at all the permits, protesting loudly the whole time that this event was stupid and that we had no right to use the park. People were turning their heads. I was standing there holding my five month old baby, which was probably just as well, because I really wanted to bodily remove the fool from the park. But he was one of these figures who is surrounded by a force field of agitated litigious energy, and if I had so much as touched him I would probably have to see him for years in court.
In the end he stood in the back of the park and loudly complained to the Parks representative and my assistant about how dumb this all was and made a nuisance of himself. The event suffered a bit but more and more people gathered, and in the end there was a lovely glow around the whole thing, everyone wandering off with the small sense of gain as though they had found a dollar bill, though in today’s city, what can you get for a dollar?
This positive feeling was only somewhat dampened by the fool’s behavior, and by the letter that arrived at my office the next day via fax and Fedex. The letter was also sent to the Parks commissioner, the mayor, and a remarkably long list of other city officials. I looked him up on Google (no need to name names) and the one mention of him involved his solitary campaign e of stripping illegal flyers off city lamp posts. Well ok, I thought, he’s crazy. This did not stop me from loathing him.
Then a remarkable thing happened–It turns out I knew someone who lives in his building, who told me all about him. The Fool of Abingdon Square Park, it turns out, is a member of his co-op board. No surprise there, the co-op board is a famous haven of the insanely officious and small minded (along with, yes, the good citizens). The Fool attends all the neighborhood community meeting held at the local police precinct. Nothing shocking there, he looked like a cop. What did shock me was that my source told me that the Fool is very socially ungraceful and seems to lament this–he wishes he could have better manners and fit in.
This made me reconsider that letter, which had initially annoyed me to no end. Although it was a bit over the top, it was also somewhat touching, listing in detail a huge catalog of instances in which people used the park in ways they were not licensed to, that somehow denigrating the park’s quality of life. All sorts of performers were setting up shop in Abingdon Square, apparently; he was especially indignant about a wedding that he had to break up.
I will always loathe this guy, but I have to confess that I have slowly come to terrible realization that we have some things in common. I have my excited but somewhat deluded dreams about what Park Lit could be; the Fool has his vigilance on behalf of his little park and its quality of life, and his misplaced rightousness.
Perhaps my excitement about Park-Lit was simply an extension of the feelings one associates with getting a parking space on the right side of the street—the elation of legally taking possession, however briefly, of physical space that is in the public domain. Perhaps it was simply a way to take ownership, for an hour an a half, and with the aid of various permits from the Parks Department and the local police station, of a space that is meant for everyone?
This town is made of people of spectacular accomplishment and people who dream of those accomplishments. Delusions are the soul of creativity, and one should never denigrate the dreamers. So, though it is hard to let go of my anger at the fool, I will try to make peace with him, or at least his spirit, which is surely driven half-mad by this prosperous New York moment. It has driven him to stake his small claim to the public space of the city and call it, against all reason or law, his own. Unfortunately he staked it right next to the banner that read “Park-Lit.”
The irony of it all is that the reading this guy so objected to, which he found so offensive that he had to huff and puff as disruptively as possible, was of material culled from this website, which in many ways is a collection tool for expressions or rage, indignation, and delight that New Yorkers feel in instances of extreme friction. Sometimes this friction produces comic results, sometimes it’s tragic, often a bit of both. But what all the contributor’s share is, on some level, an addiction to the friction.
The Fool of Abingdon Square Park, C’est Moi.