Random Encounters in Central Park at Night

You can go into Central Park at night with your “rucksack” like a literary gentleman and slumber in a hidden bower, the way Bill Buford did for The New Yorker recently, or you can do what I did and talk to the people you come across.

Real estate developer Abe Hirschfeld, who has lived on Fifth Avenue for 20 years, took his first-ever nighttime stroll in the park the other night.

“It’s so gorgeous at night,” Mr. Hirschfeld said at the railing overlooking Wollman Rink. “Nobody here on a cool evening. Why should people come here, why should I come here? Nothing is open, there’s nothing to do here, I can’t sit down for a cup of coffee, I can’t get a hot dog–so what am I going to eat, the birds? Or the birds’ shit?”

He continued: “Everything is incredible here. Look at those huge trees and the hills and the granite.” He paused. “Everything should be active , we should get an interest here, this should be booming and zooming! You can have people playing violins and pianos and playing cards, tables with chairs–right at night, every inch of it! I tell you, I feel it! If there would be some kiosks, some hot dogs, some ice cream, some things!”

At 11:45 P.M., Clifton Reck, 18, and Fatima Bazzy, 22, drama students at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy who are both new in town, were walking along.

“I actually prefer staying here at night, just ’cause there’s not as many people,” said Mr. Reck, who is from Belmont, Tex. “For me, it reminds me more of home without the skyline, and it’s a nice place to get away from everybody else.”

“I just went fishing in the center of the park somewhere,” said Ms. Bazzy, who is from Detroit, “where I noticed a lot of sexual things going down. I saw a man going down on his lover, basically.”

We started walking in the direction of the Naumburg Bandshell.

“The cool breeze is sweeping up against our skin as we enter a very dark alcove where, hee-hee ha-ha ! A ghostly eeriness,” said Ms. Bazzy. “Doo-dee-doo-doo, doo-dee-doo-doo.”

A large man on Rollerblades appeared. “Oh, my God, he’s got a hockey puck! ” said Mr. Reck. They laughed. But soon the man took Mr. Reck aside and told him to get out of the park if he knew what was good for him.

On another night, the horse carriage drivers on Central Park South were recounting some of the crazy stuff they’d seen driving through the park at night. Bert Dunne, a 36-year-old from Ireland, started off: “I was going to the park one night about two years ago, maybe–this guy with his girlfriend–and the guy asked me to stop around East 72nd Street, so I stopped. And he said, instead of tipping me in cash, my tip was waiting for me in the back of the carriage.” Mr. Dunne said he didn’t take him up on it and continued: “This guy had his video camera with him, and he wanted me to video him doing the wild thing in the back. I video-ed for the guy. Of course I did. Part of the service. Regular sex, oral sex.”

Another Irishman, Dermod McDermott, 34, said he’d been driving the carriage through the park for 10 years. “Two years ago,” he began, “there was these two guys, they got in the carriage and one of them was kind of queen gay and the other guy was more subdued, you know? So they get in and one said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna do this?’ and the other guy said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’re gonna do this.’ They said, ‘What can we do in the carriage?’ I said, ‘You can do anything you want on the carriage, I don’t care what you do.’ So they’re going around, they have sex in the carriage, the guy lost his shoe and all kinds of things, the carriage was shaking, but I didn’t look back. I thought it was quite funny. I knew this was a very unusual situation I was going through, so I was getting a kick out of it. So we’re coming back along Tavern on the Green and the other guy is saying, ‘Should I tell him?’ And the other guy says, ‘Yeah, yeah, tell him, tell him.’ He says, ‘You know the last time I did this?’ And I was saying, ‘No, obviously, I don’t know the last time you did this.’ He said, ‘It was when I took a carriage ride with my wife!’”

“So has Giuliani made the park safer?” I asked them.

“Oh, yeah, but it’s not as much fun anymore,” Mr. McDermott said.

“There was always loads of lunatics in the park,” said another driver, Leah Tagliaferi. “Where did all those people go?”

Near Sheep Meadow, at around midnight on another night, I found a friend: William (Wolf) Burke. He was strumming his guitar.

“I seen a real good girl tonight,” he said.

“Do you have a gun?” I asked.

“No! Like I’m gonna shoot you in the head! I don’t even fucking know you, man!”

I asked for a highlight from his life.

“I met a girl back in 1990. Scandinavian. Jewish. She had blue eyes and long brown hair. I met her at guess what? A Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Yonkers. Yonkers, man! Son of Sam used to live next door to me! I’m serious. Dog sacrifices. He used to live there on the Aqueduct. Scary as hell, ha, ha, ha !”

Nearby, Harry Frank, a real estate developer, and his date Shari Traub, a physical therapist, were cutting through the park after catching The Thomas Crown Affair .

On the way over, Ms. Traub said how romantic it was in the park. Mr. Frank wondered aloud if she’d ever had sex in it. She said No. Besides, it was her first night in Central Park, ever.

“On the East Side I said, ‘So, Harry, O.K., we’re going into a cab now, right?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re going to walk through the Park!’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Are you serious? This isn’t safe, this is dangerous. I’ve never done this!’ So he said to me, ‘No, I’ve done it before. There are policemen all over.’ I haven’t seen one yet. But I told Harry I trust him. I trust Harry!”

It was a quarter to one. The two had almost made it across.

“I remember that jogger who worked at Salomon Brothers,” Ms. Traub said. “Her head was–that’s what stands out in my head. The park isn’t safe, the park isn’t safe, you can never walk through the park alone. Who does that? What moron does that? Well, here we are!”

In the middle of the park, close to midnight on another night, in the Mall, there was Susanne Hunter. She had close-cropped blond hair and a taut body. She said she lived rent-free on Madison Avenue.

“I’ve been here for 17 years in the park every day,” she said. “I skate and I dance. Dogs, come!” A pit bull, a Rottweiler and a Labrador came over. Her friend Paulie was Rollerblading closer and closer. “It’s like, you can come here at night, and you can hang out and have a drink or whatever, and everything’s cool.”

“Is it safer now?”

“Yes, because I throw all the guys in jail. I put ‘em all in jail. I have four guys in jail, beaters, people who wanted to get drunk and beat people up. I’m a warrior, I’m not afraid of anything. My boyfriend fuckin’ killed my head. He punched me out, so whatever, whatever. That’s the one thing. But it doesn’t matter, because now it’s changing, because everything’s getting more spiritual. We used to have to be the warriors ourselves. We used to have kill motherfuckers. We used to have to beat them up ourself, because the cops weren’t even here–’93, ’94, ’95, bad years, violence!”

“Ever spent the night in the park?”

“Oh, yes. Oh, at the gazebo. With Easy. I fucked him over there. He’s been living in the park for five years. He’s in my house right now, but he lives in the park, actually.”

Paulie came over. He was wearing a Tasmanian devil T-shirt. “Who is he?” said Paulie, with an Eastern European accent.

I said I was a reporter who had been talking to people in the park at night for the last four nights. He was not impressed.

“He’s been here for four days and now he’s writing an article and he’s going to be a big boy? You are not qualified! You are not qualified! I don’t want to give you the platform, because you don’t deserve it!”

Soon, Ms. Hunter turned on me as well. “Fuck you!” she yelled. “Get the fuck out of here! You’re not part of this family!”