Central Park Saves the Day, Again



Neighborhood: Central Park

I’ve been spending some jobless time in Central Park during the pandemic with other New Yorkers, where we are, seemingly, at times–aimless–roaming the park’s eight hundred and forty-three acres.

What are we doing here, I often want to blurt out. We should be in our offices, attending boring meetings, typing away at our computers, picking up our kids from flute practice, shopping for a new wallet. I should be teaching conversational French to a young mother of two who will be going to Bordeaux in June. Yet, here we are, here I am, wandering these meandering back trails, sitting in the Ladies Pavilion, feeling all wrong about it and then wandering some more.

I never knew these trails existed. Back in 1967 when I was six years old, my parents and I, as well as aunts and uncles, who all had emigrated from Brittany, France, came to Central Park every single Sunday afternoon. We lived in the tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, which were the jumping points to the start of the American dream (i.e., a split level on the Nassau/Suffolk line).

My mother called Central Park, her bol d’air, her bowl of fresh air. It was a happy respite from the apartments she cleaned during the week, a break from her new land of skyscrapers, the fast-paced life, and the language she didn’t understand.

My thirty-year-old father and uncles toiled in kitchens as dishwashers, line cooks, sauciers, sous-chefs, and chefs, in some of New York’s two hundred and sixty-six French restaurants. Le Chambertain, La Potinière, Le Valois, and others lined Theatre Row. They made $55 a week, serving Babe Paley, Lee Radziwill, C.Z.Guest, Jacqueline Kennedy (later Jackie O), the Beatles, the Kissingers, and the other upper echelons of the glamorous 1970s. They worked six days a week, ten hours a day. But Sunday—Sunday was their day off. It was Central Park day where they met other French-Breton young men like themselves, in shirts and ties, and played “boules”/petanque, holding Pall Mall cigarettes between their clenched teeth as they delicately threw colorful balls down handmade lanes in Sheep’s Meadow.

On those lazy Sunday afternoons, the mothers, in their 1960s shift dresses and beehive hairdos, laid out plaid blankets in La Grand Plaine, as they referred to the Sheep Meadow, while I ran with my cousins, laughing through Central Park’s Technicolor brightness, my sensations heightened by the taste still in my mouth of a homemade lunch of warm artichokes, salami-cornichon sandwiches, and crème brûlée. Now, standing in the same Meadow, I still remember that taste in my mouth and for a second, I forget the suffering of the pandemic, the statistical measuring of the dead, the possibly dead, the almost recovered. Central Park has become that same comforting place. That respite that my mother felt has been passed on to me. I get it.

And in that understanding, the park reverts to my 1970’s park and the way I knew it, my vintage hometown living on in those background movie scenes of The French Connection, Rosemary’s Baby, The Seven-Ups, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Kramer vs. Kramer, Marathon Man. It is again the New York of graffiti-laden subways and storefront metal grates, and disco roller skating near Sheep’s Meadow to the sound track of “Brick House,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “YMCA,” and “Rapper’s Delight.”

Central Park holds the touchstones of my youth. Near the zoo, there’s Balto, the bronze statue of a 1925 rescue dog who carried medicine to the diphtheria-stricken people of Alaska, on whose back I sat many times, as my mother in her medium high heels held me up. There’s the Wollman skating rink where my father took me every Saturday for two years in the 1970s when they had free skating sessions in the morning. The carousel, nestled in between, is where I rode up and down on my favorite horse. Sometimes I sat in the chariot, and my mother would wave at me, thinking she had finally made it into America’s shining light, and in that moment, we had.

Now I stand with the other New Yorkers, like myself, meandering, wandering. For a moment a group of us silently look at the turtles in the lake at Hernshead, near the Ladies Pavilion. It is an achingly beautiful spring afternoon. We stare at those turtles, some sunbathing on rocks, others swimming, alone or coupled with their necks straining out, looking like mini Loch Ness monsters, and I feel Central Park’s bol d’air swirl around me.


Christine Shaffer has been published in The Rockaway Times, We’ll Never Have Paris, Remedy, and You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person.  She writes about assimilation, immigration, identity, home vs. country of origin, and her French childhood in America and is currently working on her memoir. She lives in New York City.



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