The Scene at Strawberry Fields

by

12/12/2001

1 West 72nd Street ny 10023

Neighborhood: Central Park

A little before 2 a.m. on Saturday, December 1, 2001, I decided to check out the George Harrison memorial that fans were spontaneously holding at Strawberry Fields in Central Park. On my way I stopped by a deli on the southwest corner of 72nd and Broadway first for a coffee.

Chun Kim, 43, a friendly balding man who’d emigrated from Korea 25 years earlier, was working behind the counter. I asked if he liked the Beatles. “Oh yeah, one of my favorites,” he said. Was he sad about George? “Everybody has to die eventually. At least he died of natural causes. Not like the other one, who was shot.”

I left and walked past the Dakota, the place where John Lennon, the “other one,” was murdered, on the northwest corner of Central Park West and 72nd. A group had gathered around the benches immediately east of the Park’s entranc, and a guitarist was playing “America,” by Paul Simon. (Maybe he’d played all the Beatles songs he knew.) Just past that cluster, I bumped into two New York City Park Enforcement patrol officers, 29-year-old Domingo Sanchez and 36-year-old Robin Teasley. Domingo said that though the park was usually closed at that hour, the Parks Commissioner always keeps it open for things like death-day commemorations.

“It was beautiful earlier this afternoon,” said Robin, a Beatles fan who’d been on the scene since a little after 3 p.m. “So many people dressed up like 70’s people.” Like hippies? “Yeah, right, and doing their little hippie dances,” she said. “People were crying like they knew him personally. I didn’t know George Harrison was touching people’s hearts like that.” A few feet east, a tape with the Beatles version of “Ticket to Ride” started to play, and Robin turned to listen. “That’s the fourth time today I’ve heard that song,” she said.

It was coming from a hand-held juke box, around which about 40 people were gathered, some sitting, others dancing, still others standing and talking. A smell of marijuana drifted by. More males than females, the attendees ranged in age from about 17 or 18 to a few people in their 50’s and 60’s. The majority seemed to be either in their 40’s or in their 20’s.

A skinny kid with long bleached-blonde dreads, khaki pants and tie-died shirt walked past, saying to a new friend, “Yeah, it’s cool to hang out on the Haight. Usually you can make some money.”

A middle-aged black man named Merrill, short, with an afro and a huge silver peace symbol earring, hugged a young blonde woman named Jessica.

“Will you be here on December 8?” he asked he–the anniversary of Lennon’s death.

“I guess so, will you?” she said.

I looked up and saw the clouds blowing quickly past the full moon. I sat down in front of a wreath of red and white carnations, next to a sweaty man wearing a brown leather bomber jacket and a denim baseball hat backwards. “You want beer?” he said to a boy passing by, who was wearing a Doors shirt and looked about 18. The kid took a sip and thanked him. “Peace and love,” the man said eagerly in a thick accent. “Peace and love!”

His name was Gary Kadalova, 41-year-old Russian who now works as a cook at Russian Samovar, a restaurant on 52nd. Another man, very drunk looking and short with a black moustache and yellow ski jacket, stumbled up and stopped in front of Gary, who wordlessly thrust his enormous bottle of beer-in-a-bag (its mouth was bigger than that of a 40-ounce) at the stranger. “I am listening to the Beatles since I am 17 years old and all my life I love it,” Gary told me. We chatted for a while about his favorite songs, St. Petersberg, and the enormous coffee pot at Samovar. (“It go like this: Puck, puck, puck,” Gary said, miming with his hands as if he were pouring a cup from a huge vat with a spigot.) A few minutes had passed when Gary remembered the moustached man, who was still drinking his beer, so he asked for it back. “Sorry about that, man,” the guy said. “George forever!” Gary said cheerfully. He sipped his beer. “Peace and love.”

I moved on farther into the park, joining a circle of people both sitting and standing around the Imagine mosaic there, which was completely covered with candles, flowers and posters. “We never forget George Harrison for his great contribution in our liberation war 1971. Gazi E. Huq, Bangladesh,” one sign said.

A young man in jeans was playing “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on his guitar, and people were singing along. A man moved through the crowd with two large deli bags. “Ice cold beers here, ice cold beers,” he kept saying. “Three dollars.” On the grass behind the circle, two smaller groups were gathered around two other guitar players.

I found myself next to a dark-haired male in a blue blazer, khakis and a tie. “I am Ian Downey and I’m going to be famous some day like Zsa Zsa Gabor,” he told me. “She’s my hero.” which seemed like a very strange thing for a seemingly heterosexual 25-year-old male to say. “And like her, I will be famous primarily for being a celebrity, not for doing anything. But actually that’s not really true, because I play in the back-up band for a singer named Annika Bentley.”

Turns out that Ian is indeed in the band (you can find his name on annikab.com), that he plays the cello, and that he was visiting Manhattan from Rochester, where he lives with his parents, because his cousin was getting married Saturday afternoon. He was at the park with his 17-year-old baby-faced brother, who pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his khaki blazer pocket and casually popping one in his mouth as if he’d been doing it all his life. Ian’s 33-year-old sister was also there, with her husband. “George is the most underrated Beatle,” Ian said. “Even at his memorial service, they sing the Lennon-McCartney songs, not the Harrison songs, like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps‚ and “Something‚” and “I am the Walrus.” It was true. It’s also true that no one was playing, “I Got My Mind Set On You.” As if one cue, the kid in jeans started in with “While My Guitar,” and Ian’s huge smile got even bigger. The two of us started singing.

At about 3:30, a kid in Carhart overalls and a green t-shirt pulled all the different groups together to play and sing Imagine. Only two guitarists who wanted to play were left, but they did a great job for the crowd, about 100 people. The words seemed especially poignant, and everyone cheered when they finished. Merrill then quieted the circle. “That song was dedicated not just to John Lennon and George Harrison, but also to everybody that died at the World Trade Center.” Another cheer went up. “And the Pentagon! And the U.S.S. Cole!” shouted a 20-something kid dressed all in tie-dye with a bead hanging in the center of his forehead. A middle-aged man who looked like Bruno Kirby leaned over and patted him on the back. “That goes without saying,” he said gently. “That goes without saying.”

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