Needle Park/Verdi Square

by

09/18/2022

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

72nd Street subway station 2001

How many years since “needle park”?

In the late 60’s, in the evening on the way to the 72nd St and Broadway subway station, I would make my pass through the park and see junkies nodding out and discarded needles on the pavement. The underbelly of con artists, thieves, prostitutes, and addicts, all lurking in the shadows, looking for a mark or to make a connection; truly a raunchy, sad world.

Until recently, I never knew the real name of this tiny universe; then Sherman Park, now Verdi Square. Transformation. It is now a lovely, tiny alcove of the city on Broadway; reclaimed for mothers with baby carriages, youth nibbling on baguettes, hipsters with their cell phones and computers, etc. “Gentrified,” as the saying goes.

Seemingly all to the good except the “subway” world below has not changed. The often filthy platforms are scorching in the summer and on the train, the denizens are, to say the least, motley.  

As for me, over fifty years have squeezed by. But in a light corner of consciousness, there still exists in my mind a vibrant, young man at ease with that quirky and sometimes sinister world of “needle park.”  

We recently made our way into the crowded subway, my partner and myself.  Rushing for a seat, then and now the process of quick eye and body movement is the same. Lurching forward, a skinhead, mid-twenties, stepped ahead and, as if entitled, grabbed one of the seats. Then he commenced to berate me. I was stunned. Then as a retired “shrink,” I tried to use my “non-violent” communication skills (“you seem angry today”). It was useless; he probably thought I was some kind of doddering schmuck.  

There was a more typical New York solution. A young muscular, African-American man protectively intervened, “faced off” and challenged the skinhead “to pick on someone his own age, instead of this old man.” This basic message from the “street” quickly shut up my antagonist, and he skulked off at the next station. As for my reaction, on one level I appreciated the offer of protection. But in truth I had been unafraid, having years back grew accustomed to the threatening world of “needle park.”

Still I was mortified. In that 72nd St. subway station, a fantasy bubble burst and the designation of “old man” echoed in my mind for months.

A Riverside Park Sojourn

Late afternoon exercise in Riverside Park.

I am a “ demi-extrovert” and socialize along the way.

My hundred-year-old therapist friend is depressed today: “Nobody is left except for the pretty home health aide.”

I jokingly remind him to be grateful that his long- term patients are still out there, giving him something to look forward to during the day. Maybe he should pay them for their sessions.

The homeless young man looks a bit like Jesus with his long hair, gathering up the branches; he is there to protect nature. 

Not sure how he manages or whether he is schizophrenic, but he has good intentions. Today I brought along chain locks for his bike, which carries all his belongings, and I try to explain the dangers of our “good” city. He seems like a “hick” but really doesn’t need my advice. He has by now survived for several years outside and in the fresh air.

Facing the river, it’s time to do my miniature version of Tai chi, but I am humbled by the practice of the Chinese Shaolin aficionado. Not even Chinese, she’s from Indonesia, but with her long hair flowing, carrying stick swords, she “flies through the air with the greatest of ease.” A true exotic: seventy-two-years old, flying tiger, rising dragon.

It is not all peaches and cream but in these rare moments in this park, everything is possible.

***

Eugene Barron has a doctorate in Human Relations, and is a psychotherapist, documentary film maker, and author of the book, Hungry Ghosts: Voices of Prostitutes, Addicts, Murderers. He resides on the Upper West Side

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