The Commissioner



1 e 64th st ny ny 10021

Neighborhood: Manhattan

“Have you thought about what your Parks nickname should be?” Parks Commissioner Henry Stern asks me.

He sits hunched over on a couch at his office inside a turret at the Arsenal, a red brick castle overlooking Central Park that for years was a military base and now serves as headquarters for the New York City Parks Dept. Dressed in slacks, dress shirt and a Parks Dept. fleece, Stern speaks slowly, in a grave tone I haven’t heard since meeting with my high school guidance counselor when college applications were due.

Two assistants sit on either side of him, one eyeing me closely, the other taking notes every time Stern picks up the phone or answers a question from any of the other half-dozen people fluttering in and out of the room. Everyone except Stern, who is white-haired with droopy jowls, is under the age of 30. “No, I haven’t actually,” I say with a slight chuckle, squirming on a park bench across from him. The woman who had hired me, a 24-year-old librarian sitting next to me, cringes and exhales deeply. Stern and his assistants exchange silent glances, then return their gazes to me.

I had heard a bit about the Parks nicknames before I took the job as an editor for the historical signs project, a Stern initiative aimed at placing 2001 descriptive historical signs in parks by the end of 2001, when a new administration will likely take over. Stern, or “StarQuest,” as he nicknamed himself, gives everyone involved with Parks a nickname. Since the start of the Giuliani administration, when Stern was appointed as commissioner for the second time (he was also head of Parks under Mayor Koch), he has given out almost 3000 nicknames. Employees all wear badges with their nicknames on them, and are encouraged to call each other by their Parks names. In newspaper stories about the Parks Dept., which usually rehash the Commissioner’s more bizarre publicity stunts like dressing up as Gen. Patton at a military memorial or crawling out of a hole and looking for his own shadow on Groundhog Day, Stern is alternately described with adjectives like “eccentric” and “nutty.” These descriptors usually precede the word “genius” however, which is one of the reasons I took the job.

I was unsure how the nicknames were doled out, but one thing I knew was that I wasn’t going to give myself one. Anyone who has ever played in Little League or attended summer camp knows you don’t give yourself a nickname. Among my friends in college, the only nicknames that stuck summed up something about the person’s essence. Also, it was important the person hated his nickname. That’s how nicknames worked. You just don’t nickname yourself. Two more assistants stroll into the room, each with papers for Stern’s approval, perusal or signature, but the Commissioner does not notice them.

Adjusting his jaw like he’s trying to dislodge a caramel stuck to his back teeth, Stern stares at the wall, at the ceiling, at his 12-line phone, with a mixture of deep contemplation and annoyance. The assistants do the same.

This was my second day as an employee of the New York City Parks Dept. Earlier, I was given a 6-inch-high stack of paperwork to fill out–several tax forms, sexual harassment policies, anti-discrimination pamphlets, school and employment histories to complete. On a green card, I had to select one of three boxes as reason for being fingerprinted–”new employee,” “arrested” or “dead.”

At the end of this nearly two-hour process, I handed over a $50 postal money order made out to the Parks Dept., as instructed, shaking my head and feeling like a Midwest rube. Later, I found out an additional $30 “processing charge” was to be deducted from my first paycheck. Everyone working for Parks, including $10-an-hour interns, has to pay a total of $80 to get on the payroll. I have yet to find out what all this money is for.

The previous day, I had met a few dozen Parks workers, almost everyone less than five years out of college, and everyone sporting badges with nicknames. Many of them had animal names–”Toad,” “Gray Wolf,” “Bullfrog”–but others came from a variety of inspirations: “Ground Zero,” “Yolo,” “Dancer.” One employee, I found out, wanted the name “Butthole,” but had to settle for “Butthead.”

“What about Butter?” one assistant suggests to me. “You know, like a combination of your name. Butter or Butler or something?”

“Butter?” I say to Stern.

Stern remains silent. The assistant turns redder than I am. After a few moments, Stern declares, “We need something here with a certain amount of, ummm, gravitas.”

Everyone looks at the wall, the ceiling, the phone. A secretary walks in, and Stern answers the phone in hushed voice. Whispering without moving her lips, my supervisor says to me, “What about that movie with your name in it? “Brazil”? There’s a Tuttle in that right? Why don’t you say that?”

“I don’t care,” I mouth to her.

“Where did you go to school?” StarQuest blurts out, and the two of us whip our faces back in his direction. My answer brings no inspiration, and the room returns to a tense brainstorming session.

“What’s that whale’s name?” Stern asks suddenly, to no one and everyone.

“Shamu?” an assistant says timidly, after a long pause.

“How about Shamu?” Stern says. “We like animals here.”

Unsure of whether he’s talking to me, I hesitate and finally say, “Okay.”

“Shamu, you like it?” he asks.

“Yeah. It’s fine.”

“What’s your date of birth?” Stern asks. I give it to him, and, scribbling in a notebook, he mutters, “Okay, Shamu. If you ever want a new name, bring it to my attention. Thank you for being here. Welcome aboard.”

The Commissioner puts down the notebook and picks up the phone as we walk out the door. “Shamu, huh?” I say to my supervisor.

“Yeah. He called me Shamu for my first couple months before he figured out it wasn’t my name,” my supervisor, or “Chama,” a Spanish slang word for “friend,” says. “Better get used to it. You’re going to be hearing it a lot.”

It is the next day, and suddenly it is my responsibility to present StarQuest with three historical park signs for his approval. After I wait 10 minutes outside his office, he strolls out with a broad grin, hands me a badge emblazoned “Shamu” and keeps walking. Another 10 minutes pass and he returns.

As he walks past me, an assistant deftly tugs at the Commissioner’s tie, which was tucked inside his pants.

A few minutes later, I¹m inside the office, gripping three 500-word descriptions that he requested to read. I listen as Stern replies to his assistants¹ questions. They call him “Star” and “SQ.” They tell him: “Turtle is on line five;” “Castro is still waiting for you;” “Call Igor back;” and ask, “What color do you want the handball courts to be?”

On one phone call, he speaks in a hushed voice and makes subtle changes to a letter being read to him. “No, no, strike that ‘very.’ We’ve got to be careful. Don’t want to offend.”

Then he leaves again, and I’m inside the room alone. A half-dozen stuffed animals, most of them ducks, stare at me from the couch. A large toy tiger sits in attack mode next to me on the bench. Pictures of Stern and Giuliani, Stern and Koch, Stern and his family line the walls. Row of books, a television, piles of newspapers and sculptures of birds fill the rest of the room.

I think about leaving, but Stern returns a few minutes later. The thought occurs to me that I have been waiting almost an hour to get the Commissioner to read approximately 1500 words. He sits and motions me over to the couch. “Councilman Quinn is on line three,” an assistant calls out. “Mighty? How are you?” Stern says after picking up the phone. After hanging up, he smirks and asks if anyone knows the roots of Quinn’s nickname. One assistant, a young Asian woman wearing what looks like her mother’s business suit, gazes up from her notebook and shakes her head. Her job, I find out later, is to account for every minute of the Commissioner’s time–-every phone call, every answer he offers to staff questions and, of course, every time he christens a new employee with a nickname.

“Did you get Quinn there?” Stern asks her.

“Yes,” she replies. “I have 5:37 p.m. Is that right?”

“From the Bob Dylan song,” I interrupt. “Mighty Quinn, right?”

Smiling broadly, Stern turns to me and nods. He picks up a pencil and begins reading the signs I hand him. He exhales a lot; I’m not sure whether out of exhaustion or boredom. He tilts his head back in a pose that says, “It never stops.” Then he looks me square in the eye, peppering me with comments and questions: “Was this park named by local law?… Double-check that councilmember. I doubt that was the source of funding… No! No! No! Three major avenues in Coney Island, not two.” While the Commissioner is on another phone call, I glance at the changes he’s made. They are minor–-reversing a clause, changing a verb tense, removing a comma–-but they all make sense, make the copy flow, more clear and concise. “The car is outside, SQ,” an assistant says. “Dinner is at 7.”

“We’ve got some time,” SQ says.

“Wanna do one more?” I ask.

“Okay. Here we go. Neptune Playground… Nicely done, nicely done,” he murmurs.

“Are you done here?” I ask when he gets off yet another phone call.

“No, no,” Stern says, and then changes the last line of the Neptune sign from “for children” to “for the people.”

“Okay. Thank you,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say.

“Oh yeah. One thing,” he says. “Put your Parks name on these signs.”

“You mean you want them to say, ‘Edited by Shamu’?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Edited by Shamu.”

October, 2000

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