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The Artful Voyager, 12-27: Winter Wonderland
Playland in the park

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Anyone who still thinks New Yorkers are hard, rude, complaining, obnoxious, sour, argumentative, difficult, depressed, combative, angry or just plain terminally unhappy has obviously never been in New York during a snowstorm, when hard exteriors melt into general bonhomie, doing a sort of Frosty in reverse.

I had the good timing (I know, some might call it the reverse) to head out across Central Park, east to west, late Sunday morning, just as the snowflakes were starting to fall. In fact, snow-baby that I am -- the Californian in me never ceases to marvel and wonder at it -- that morning's forecasts of the coming storm actually enhanced my desire for the walk, whose excuse was bringing some baggage from the Upper East Side brownstone house where I've been cat-sitting to the semi-permanent ground-level Upper West Side studio that becomes home in two weeks, after an interlude in Chinatown. Among the things I had to tote over was the '60s vintage green electric Christmas tree with the illuminated birds I'd found cast-away outside a hotel on W. 57th Street a decade ago and had retrieved from a friend when I returned from France this fall. Even though it was December 26, I thought of donning the red felt Santa cap again, just for the picture I might make if I took a coffee pause mid-park, Santa and his kitschy electric tree, but didn't want to risk shorting the tree. No sooner had I entered the park at 78 Street, though, I saw a crazy jogger running towards me, with the same cap. "Looking good, Santa!" I cheered him on. "Thank you," he panted, in what sounded like a French accent. A few yards further on I came across the hawk man, a serious-looking individual with an even more serious NASA-strength telescope, with which he follows the Central Park hawk (formerly the Central Park hawks, an avion pair which took up residence here in the '90s; the remaining male is apparently known as Pale Male), uprooting his tripod every time the owl-like hawk lumbers aloft to another perch. I looked up, following the trajectory of his scope, but if the hawk was there, somewhere among the branches, it had turned chameleon.

At the upper west side pad, the accumulating snow did not stop the resident cat, Paris, from darting in and out of her cat-door. I thought of my Alaska kitty Mesha, who had the same black-and-white coloring, and the little kitty-prints he used to leave in the Anchorage snow after insisting on going out. After depositing the electric Christmas tree, I headed down the two blocks to Riverside Drive and the park, just to get some more ye ole New York flavor in, and was not disappointed as I plopped down on a bench to take my hot thermos cider while looking out at a landscape of barren trees, old-fashioned lamps and hills; the river was a wash of white and indistinguishable. On the way back, I paused again at the Bethesda Fountain to sip more cider. A far voice remembering a winter wonderland wafted up from somewhere; at first I thought it was a very delayed echo of the opera singer in top hat and coat who'd been out here Christmas Day reciting holiday tones in a perfect baritone, but didn't see him anywhere. When I descended to the fountain to walk over to lake's edge -- so I could view another ye ole New York passage -- I realized that the singer was in fact present, only this time chanting from the protection of the tunnel that the two sets of stairs make. Having refrained the day before even though he was looking right at me as he delivered his serenade, this time I gave him a buck just after he'd finished, and he was very grateful.

As I gazed down one of the roads leading towards Central Park South, I thought the couples receding into the white mist, losing their features in its haze as they did and blending into the landscape, were timeless images; this could be 1865 or even 1765. Later, at Dog Hill, near the 78th Street exit across from the French Embassy's ornate cultural services building, I looked at the excited kids tobogganing down a slope at the opposite end and thought: This is one of the things I love about New York. Here we are in the biggest city in the world and kids can still go sledding in a park surrounded by nature. (Btw: Even though it now has a more lofty name -- Pine Cone Manor or something -- I know this is Dog Hill from one of the regulars who descends on the benches there of a late winter afternoon; one day he remembered, with regret, walking into an empty apartment building -- now a mansion -- in the 'hood one day in 1968, mounting to the top floor unit, and discovering he could rent it for just $686; "My dog looked at me and said, 'This is the one.'")

Late Sunday night I realized that the snow might actually obligate me to do some work, mainly shoveling it to keep the sidewalk clear. I found the shovel in the basement and made a go of it, but without salt -- which my neighbor was liberally sprinkling on his side -- it was kind of a Sisyphusian endeavor. No sooner had I cleared a patch of sidewalk than it would be covered with a soft glaze of new snow. So I gave up, resolving to do the whole thing the next morning. Fortunately I thought to check the back door, that opens from the rumpus room onto the deck; it was already nearly blocked closed by a mound of 18 inches, which I hurriedly cleared. The snow descended steadily the whole night and into the morning, and it even had an atypically loud sound-track, the soft feathering sound being spiked by occasional -- bet you didn't know these existed -- 'thunder snow' and even 'lightning snow.'

Monday morning the bonhomie had become contagious. As I made my feeble effort to clear the snow, now up to two feet at some points, enough of that New York paranoia filtering into my snow-bound bliss to worry, "Don't people get heart attacks doing this?," just about everyone who passed by me smiled -- still enthralled by the snow as I was -- as I paused to let them slip and slide their way by, as if we were fellow travelers on an unexpected amusement ride. And we were so amused! And maybe that's why snowstorms feel like such a relief to New Yorkers: We are typically such workers, we are compelled to charge forward, so a catastrophe over which we have no control -- at least if it has no long-term catastrophic effects -- feels like a release, a sort of furlough, a Roman Holiday. We can't say "I don't have time to waste playing" because we have no choice. Nature has said "Stop" and, "Enjoy!"

Play in the snow is what I finally decided to do, ripping myself away from the computer and the shoveling to slog down E. 78 towards the park. The first shock was at the corner of Third where, in contrast to the now mostly cleared sidewalks in front of the houses on our street, there was a veritable dike to scale. Looking down the avenue, I saw that traffic had basically stopped -- here the cliche 'ground to a halt' really does apply -- chiefly the traffic of a snow-plow truck that seemed in need of a snow-plow. Lex was similarly arrested, although a salt-jetter seemed to be making its way up the street. Entering the park, I saw that Dog Hill had basically been turned into the largest ski slope this side of Vail. I even thought I saw a line and was already thinking, What is it with New Yorkers' reflective need to form lines whenever there are more than two people?, when I realized these were probably parents waiting for their kids to descend from the top of the hill on their toboggans and saucer-shaped sleds. As my preferred bench was no longer there, being submerged, I took a seat on another where the sunlight glinting off the snow seemed the brightest, and took my thermos coffee as I basked in it, taking in the postcard Christmas country panorama, a mini-valley surrounded by snow-dusted trees, even a bridge in the near distance. The sounds of the children's glee were everywhere -- the snow subduing the volume just enough to keep it from reaching shriek level -- and I thought, how wonderful and encouraging to see them -- in a season where television has been brainwashing us for the past month that expensive stuff = kiddy Christmas joy -- so exulted over something that is free. How wonderful that they still have that sense of primal pre-video play in them, where the only stimulus they need is a garbage can lid and a snow-covered incline. I started regretting that I had not thought to forage the house for my own garbage can lid.

A little girl in a purple snow-suit was so proud to be hoisting her own sled, laughing as she trundled along. One boy, ignoring an older sister's cajoling to follow her and use a path which had already been forged to reach the summit, insisted on scaling the short fence that surrounds the lower part of the hill, just so he could slog his way through the almost knee-deep snow, kicking up snow-dust as he trudged along, sled in hand. This seemed like fun to me so I followed suit, immediately following him back into childhood. Amazingly, no one looked at me like I was crazy.

Making my way under the bridge towards the Bethesda Fountain, still cleaving to the east side of the park, I was relieved to see that Alice and her friends the Rabbit and Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum -- were hardly covered, except with kids clamoring up the statue (dedicated to Margaret Delacourt) to have their pictures taken. Walking along the lake, I came upon another sculpture of a man, circa the late 18th century, reading a book, while a (stone) duck's head peaked up out of the snow at him. "Who's that?" I asked. "Some writer," said the guy walking ahead of me. "Well," I said, "Let's see who!," again tromping through the knee-deep snow up the mini-hill to reach him. Dusting the snow off the book, I saw "The Ugly Du--" and knew it was Hans Christian Andersen. There was too much snow for me to clear it from him, so I decided instead to dig it away from the duck. I'd just finished clearing the snow from its breast when he pecked my knee, so I decided to move on.

Usually at the Bethesda I take my coffee while leaning on the balustrade on top of the stairs above her (her being the angel that towers over the fountain and bestows good health on visiting pilgrims, particularly if they dip their hands in her water), but the basin filled with snow -- on the base of the statue, some wag had scrawled in it "I love NYC" -- was too tempting so, afraid of slipping on the icy stairs, I finally gave in and just slid down. I climbed over the edge of the basin into the 'fountain,' waded through the ice to the other side looking towards the lake, and then, looking at the clean untrodden powder at my feet, shrugged my shoulders, scooped some ice into a palm and started munching (the fountain had been empty prior to the snowfall, so this really was pure -- it might even have a double-potency.)

I'd already decided that the prudent thing would be to stick strictly to the partly paved road for the return, but the winding path that leads away from the fountain along the lake looked even more rustic than usual, with the snow under the old-fashioned lanterns that lined it, that I started up it, getting only a few feet before spying at the right side of the path a mini-hill that led up to a sunlit summit surrounded by trees. Once again I plunged in and up to my knees. (Have I mentioned that my shoes were not even snow shoes, but semi-dressy fake-leather calf-length boots bought for 4 Euros at a Salvation Army in Southwest France?) At the top I discovered a circle of log benches, the seats still evident just a few inches above the snow level. So I plopped my butt down and tried to rest my legs on the semi-hard cushion of snow before the bench without them sinking in, semi-succeeding (it was at this point I started thinking nervously of "To Light a Fire"), and opened up the thermos to finish the rest of the coffee there. This being New York, it wasn't long before I was mugged by what seemed like a hundred of those pesky little brown birds. I tried shooing them away, but only succeeded in spilling coffee on my new brown cargo pants; even that mishap turned into frolic, as I realized I could clean up the spot by rubbing snow on it.

Finally, after sipping a little snow, the birds flew off, and I, after promising myself to return to this nook for summertime reading, my pant cuffs now weighed down by snow, decided at last to find the clearest path for the exit -- even more prudent, to leave the park and walk back along the Avenue. It -- the Avenue -- was clear, but 72nd Street was not so lucky, bottled up by three stalled busses and three cars, only an impatient taxi managing to maneuver through them. At 78th, the steps of the French embassy's ornate cultural services building were not only clear of salt but decorated with meticulous swathes of salt -- no doubt from the Il de Re -- a miracle considering that most of the other buildings which are closed weekends had piles of undisturbed snow on their stairs, notably the NYU Arts Institute around the corner. Right next to the French cultural services, the snow on the steps of the Ukrainian Institute was creeping up the Christmas wreaths on the entrance doors.

Already planning my expected move downtown to Chinatown this evening, ahead of the return of the cats' and house's owner, on my return from the park I tried to reconnoiter to find the most snow-free path for lugging a heavy if wheeled suitcase, stopping at 77th and Lex to gingerly descend the subway station stairs and check a map for the shortest route, realizing that my pre-storm plan of walking from 78th to 63rd and the F train might not be a smart idea. Seeing someone else already asking a helpful subway agent which trains were running and not, I followed by asking her, "And the F...?" "Iffy," she answered. "But the 6" -- the train at this station "is more or less okay?" She nodded, "Absolutely, it's running." I decided I could take the 6 to Spring and then walk down to Broom and Grande and my next digs.

Still, this left me with just a couple of hours to write this piece before heading out. So -- I'm embarrassed to say because who wants to profit from someone else's bad luck, especially when the person's been so kind? -- I was relieved to get a reprieve when I got back to a mail from the owner saying her flight from the Coast had been cancelled, and the soonest she could get out was Friday, and would I mind staying in the four-story brownstone and minding the cats? Four more days in the Old New York wonderland of the Upper East Side, four blocks from the now timeless winter wonderland of Central Park? No problem! After I return the shovel to the basement, I just might scrounge around to see if there's a stray toboggan.

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