In what I like to think of as a more civilized alternative to running around the reservoir in 90-degree heat, come summertime I head to the model boat pond in Central Park for breakfast with the newspaper and a danish. After picking up one powdered and one apricot-filled croissant at the bakery Sant Ambroeus, I try to reach my bench around 9:30-by which time the dog people and their aggressively self-assertive pets have hopefully left the area.
The dog owners apparently feel not only that it’s their God-given right to let their hounds off the leash, but also that it’s cute to have them wander over to hit me up for breakfast.
I was recently trying to deconstruct what it is that I find so pleasant about my morning ritual, the canines notwithstanding-and which seems to transcend even the quiet of the park at that hour and the play of morning light on the water-when a young woman walked by pushing a baby in a stroller. I’d been pushed through this same park in an earlier era-legend has it that a sick pigeon christened the canopy of my baby carriage on my inaugural outing-and something of those carefree days seems to rise from my subconscious as I take my first bite of danish and launch into the paper.
The real world intrudes only occasionally-as when the young mothers of Strollercize, accompanied by their personal trainer, skip by at around 10 pushing their babies ahead of them while doing deep knee bends. I sometimes wonder whether I’d have turned out differently if my earliest experience of the park was being propelled forward in bursts rather than at the lazy pace employed by my nanny.
The closest thing I have to a companion on my morning outings is a gentleman who sits along my route and who’s hard to miss since, weather permitting, he wears just enough clothes to avoid arrest. While we’d never spoken, I felt a certain amount of respect for him, and not just because he couldn’t seem to care less that passers-by might consider him something of an eyesore. There was something about the meticulous way he folded The New York Times when he did the crossword puzzle that suggested a degree of refinement that belied the way he dressed, or didn’t.
When I considered writing about my morning breakfast ritual, I thought of introducing myself since he was part of the experience. But as soon as I did, I stopped seeing him and became concerned that something might have happened to him. He appeared to be in his 70′s, an age when the body’s “Check Engine” light starts flashing with regularity and I was afraid he might have gotten sick or even passed away.
After failing to spot him for a couple of weeks, I approached a man of approximately the naturalist’s age, who was sitting on the same bench, and was also stripped down to his undies. I thought they might know each other and, indeed, the fellow knew exactly who I was talking about, though he couldn’t remember his name. He reported that he’d seen him within the previous few days and that he appeared robust.
I gave him my phone number and asked him to pass it along to the gentleman if he ran into him again. Sure enough, the next day the sunbather called. He assured me he was feeling fine and attributed his absence to a succession of routine doctors appointments and Princeton Club meetings.
When I told him I was thinking of writing something about mornings in the park, he agreed to speak with me on the condition that I not use his name and, even more importantly, that I promise not to reveal where he sits. “I wouldn’t want people to say it would be fun to see that guy and gawk at him,” he explained. “One of the nice things about New York is you can live an anonymous life.”
When we met on his bench the next day, Walter, as I’ll call him, and who didn’t know me from a hole in the wall even though I’ve been passing him for years, acknowledged that people sometimes think he’s in need of a handout. “A very nice couple came along,” he remembered of an encounter that occurred one morning as he was heading home from the park to his apartment on Madison in the East 60′s. “They said, ‘We’re from Operation Outreach. Can we help you?’”
Walter told me that he started visiting the park regularly-rain and shine and in every season, though he’s more fully dressed during the winter months-shortly after he turned 65, almost a decade ago. He was working as a stockbroker at the time.
“The managing partner called me in and said, ‘Have you ever thought about retiring?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘No, I plan to work forever.’ He said, ‘Well, you better think about it. We need the space.’”
Walter, who never married, found the adjustment painful-for about one day. “I thought, What do I do with myself?” he said. “Then I came out to the park. I wonder how I ever found the time to work.”
Most mornings, he’s joined by Bob Crosby, a retired banker and a crossword puzzle virtuoso who comes to Walter’s rescue when he gets stumped. Unlike Walter, Bob doesn’t remove his clothes. “I’m a Yale man,” he explained when he joined us on a recent morning. “I have been known to come here without a tie on.”
The pair, who bear more than a passing resemblance to Sesame Street ‘s Bert and Ernie-Bob is tall and fastidious; Walter is shorter, bulletheaded, and obviously significantly redder thanks to his exposure to the elements-met one day when Bob walked by on his four-mile constitutional and predicted Walter would find that morning’s puzzle amusing. When Bob passed the next morning, Walter told him he was right.
“We found we had a lot in common even though we didn’t go to the same school,” said Bob, who runs a foundation that
gives financial aid to young opera singers.
The men don’t socialize outside their mornings spent together in the park. Their relationship centers around the crossword, the length of Bob’s stay determined by the difficulty of that day’s puzzle. On Mondays, the easiest day of the week, Bob makes but a cameo appearance. But toward the end of the week, he’ll hang around as long as necessary to get the job done-and to lord his knowledge over Walter.
“Walter’s input into contemporary activity stopped in 1962,” Bob sniffed. “When they talk about Bon Jovi he’s like, ‘Who’s this?’ Most of the time he doesn’t believe me. He thinks I’m making up names. Uma Thurman’s in there all the time. Uma is a wonderful filler.”
The puzzle done, the two men go their separate ways-Bob to his foundation, Walter home to shower and then off to lunch at one of his clubs, where he spends most of the afternoon. Appropriately attired, of course.
“Quite often, some guy will come up to me and say, ‘I know you from the park,’” Walter said. “‘You look quite different.’”