They’re behaving like animals



10 Madison Ave, NY, NY 10010

Neighborhood: Gramercy Park

Madison Square Park confirms New York as civilized city. The park is a cultured green in Manhattan’s punishing grid: the Flatiron Building to its southwest, Broadway to the west, the century-old architecture, the clock tower to the east, buildings that house Credit Suisse First Boston and some of the globe’s most powerful corporations, America’s wealth, New York’s wealth, and the apparent egalitarianism of a public park below.

A sunny Wednesday in early May: I sit on a bench on the western edge of the park, my back to a dog run, and note the time on the clock above. I’ll allow myself one hour to eat my lunch and do some reading.

I hear dogs and their owners in the dog-run pen behind a low hedgerow. I also see them in front of me, walking by, coming and going, in and out of the pen: small, large, mid-sized, recognizable breeds, mutts.

Also in front of me a throng of office workers. Women in the casual revealing dresses of mid-spring and newly-warm weather. Men in blue oxford shirts, khaki pants, ID cards on lanyards around their necks. In altogether different work uniforms, a group of nurses on the bench opposite me. Next to them: a man and woman too old to cuddle and make out like teenagers cuddle and make out like teenagers. A homeless man sits quietly next to a metal garbage can. A man in a suit napping presumably, head back, sunglasses on. An actor studying two pages of a script: an audition nearby, and soon?

I eat my lunch and look at a new sculpture standing on the park’s main lawn. I overhear an office worker telling another that the sculpture was installed a few weeks ago. It’s a very large stainless steel work. Two full-size trees, inexplicably windblown toward one another, limbs joining. It’s interesting to look at, as are the real sycamores and maple trees around us. Office workers talk about the silver trees, as they circle the park and sit on benches, smoking, eating, drinking, looking furtively or not at one another. As they get the fresh air and exercise necessary for people whose days are spent sitting at desks in surrounding buildings.

Behind me, suddenly, an argument. There is shouting. There is an indeterminate accent. I also cannot determine exactly what the argument is about. It has something to do with one man not controlling his dog or dogs, to the consternation of another man. I try to ignore it and read. But a young woman in sleeveless business attire and sporting a tattoo on her right bicep is walking directly toward me. She’s pulling a friend along, and two other women in her group follow.

“Oh,” she says. “I’ve got to see this.”

Instantly, there is a crowd directly in front of me, a group of rubbernecks staring over the hedgerow and into the dog pen, where there is potential human violence. With timeless morbid curiosity, they are hoping to witness its manifestation. I’m hemmed in now by the onlookers. And so I rise and walk away. I turn and look behind me. I can see at last what’s going on inside the pen. Two large middle-aged men, face to face and vexed and swearing at one another, dressed identically in t-shirts, shorts, and cheap white sneakers with high tube socks. Yet another uniform of sorts.

Like most of us in the park, the two men and their pets have come here from quite a distance, I surmise, from another dissimilar part of the city, though I might be wrong. Nevertheless, on the surface, they do not fit in among tame office workers and struggling actors and the other dog owners.

Nor does their behavior.

I realize: this public space is irrefutably civilized, but what occurs in it not necessarily.

The potential combatants are being kept apart by a very small woman with a gray crew cut, wearing a shirt with cut-off sleeves. She’s the only peacemaker. Only she, apparently, is willing to get involved. No one else. She’s overmatched and the men could easily get at one another, but it’s obvious they don’t really want to. This argument is for show. The men don’t mind making a scene; in fact, they seem to enjoy the attention. This is theatre. They are acting and acting out. It’s not unlike the barking and chasing and mounting and nipping going on elsewhere in the pen.

I look for a cop who might pretend to restore order and put an end to this performance. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen one in Madison Square Park. And these days, why would I? I can’t help but wonder where this argument would have led had it occurred elsewhere in the city.

I’m near an exit. I hear people joking about the argument, which has now moved outside the dog run, apparently, to die. There will be no street fight today. Not here at least, in Madison Square Park. Yet a few young men on a bench enjoyed the spectacle.

“They’re behaving like animals,” one man says, for all to hear, laughing.

³Better than a dogfight,” his friend adds.

I look at the clock once again. Some lunchtime still left, but it’s time to go.

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