Bottle in a Bag Is My Idea Of Park Recreation

Central Park is great for lots of things-taking a stroll, riding a bike, rollerblading and, especially, drinking. I’m not talking about having an iced tea or a cappuccino at the café by the model-boat pond. I’m talking about doing shots while watching the sun set. I realize that when he designed the park, Frederick Law Olmsted may not have intended it to be enjoyed through the prism of 80-proof vodka with a beer chaser. But one of my favorite things to do with this greensward is to meet friends on spring and summer evenings and have a cocktail or two while the sun sinks behind the buildings, and runners and rollerbladers streak by in pursuit of personal perfection.

I’ve had a variety of companions on these outings, but the most persistent is my friend Aris, whom I’ve known since grammar school. We meet once a month or so on the benches opposite Tavern on the Green to discuss the news, wonder what became of people we haven’t seen in a quarter-century, and address our thirst.

Since Aris isn’t really a drinker-though invariably he rises admirably to the occasion-I feel it my responsibility to provide the refreshments. These include the vodka, at least one bottle of premium imported beer, and an hors d’oeuvre, such as cashews, macadamia nuts or popcorn.

Because it’s illegal, last time I checked, to have liquor in the park, and since it could prove awkward to have to refer to myself as a “perp” in The Crime Blotter, I carry our entertainment in an athletic squirt bottle to confound the cops. It would be foolhardy to decant the beer; however, I do hide it in a brown paper bag. The cashews are legal, of course.

Come to think of it, from a law-enforcement perspective, we couldn’t pick a worse place to drink. Tavern on the Green hosts a good number of events involving politicians or celebrities, and so much of the time the place is swimming in security.

On one occasion, during the 2000 Presidential campaign, Aris and I were sitting on our bench, watching young female joggers run by and discussing their relative merits, when I realized that the area had become an NYPD “frozen zone.” There was a squadron of motorcycle cops, guys in suits wearing sunglasses and whispering into their sleeves, and police helicopters overhead. Aris got paranoid that the cops had somehow figured out that the liquid in my thermos wasn’t spring water and were about to bust us for our cavalier attitude toward the age-old open-container law. Fortunately, the whole thing turned out to be a false alarm. The security wasn’t for us, but for Al Gore, who was attending a fund-raiser at Tavern on the Green.

The scene was hardly less busy on our most recent outing. A few feet from where I sat awaiting Aris’ arrival, a bunch of guys were trying to get passers-by to sign a petition. There also appeared to be some sort of political rally in front of the restaurant, complete with TV satellite trucks and supporters holding up pictures of their favorite gubernatorial candidates.

Since Aris invariably shows up late and I hate to drink alone, I meandered over to the petitioners to learn the nature of their cause. Their group is called Transportation Alternatives, they explained, and they were trying to get cars banned from Central Park.

I asked the bearded fellow who seemed to be in charge how long they’d been pursuing this noble goal. “Thirty-seven years,” he answered cheerfully. His name was Ken Coughlin. As the cabs zoomed by, I wondered what kept him and the two energetic colleagues going after nearly four decades. I consider myself something of a student of the park, and I hadn’t noticed that motor vehicles were any less a presence than they were back in ’73, when the group started and Watergate monopolized the news.

But Ken insisted that they’d made progress. They’d succeeded, he claimed, in expanding the park’s car-free hours, and had also managed to get several entrances permanently closed to traffic, including the one at Columbus Circle.

Certainly the pedestrians, bikers and rollerbladers that Ken and his committed co-workers approached with their petitions seemed in favor of the idea. At least most of them did -one jogger got into an argument with his girlfriend when he signed and she refused. “I have a car,” she explained. “I have mixed feelings about it.”

There still was no sign of Aris, so I meandered over to Tavern on the Green to see what the commotion was about. On the way there, I encountered Senator Chuck Schumer, who was standing in front of a TV camera doing a live remote with New York 1’s Dominick Carter. The event turned out to be a Democratic Party “unity dinner.”

When the interview was over, I buttonholed Senator Schumer and asked him what he thought of banning cars from the park. Now on his way into the restaurant, and surrounded by a bevy of earnest young aides, he sized me up cautiously. I can’t say I blamed him: I was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and pastel yellow socks with black Converse sneakers (not to mention carrying a bar in my knapsack). I looked more like a balding 8-year-old than a reporter.

But to his credit, the Senator-looking tan and elegant in a navy Armani-type suit-paused to consider the question. The responsibilities of representative democracy seemed to rest easily on his shoulders.

“I guess you have to have a balance,” he told me before ducking into therestaurant-by which he meant a balance between motorists and the park’s recreational users. It was a perfectly statesmanlike response, and nothing less than I’d expect from a politician of Mr. Schumer’s stature.

I returned to the Transportation Alternatives guys, still furiously collecting signatures, and ran the Senator’s response by them. “Balance?” sniffed Albert Ahronheim, one of the petition-gatherers.

“He has a very personal connection to this controversy,” Mr. Coughlin noted. “His wife, Iris Weinshall, is the Commissioner of Transportation in this city. She currently favors cars in the park.”

While Mr. Coughlin was unencouraged by Senator Schumer’s answer, he was impressed that I’d had the balls to approach the man. “That was very enterprising of you,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get his opinion for years. I’d love to have a sit-down meeting with him to talk about this idea.”

I felt like saying that instead of gathering signatures-the group currently has approximately 35,000, but wants to get 65,000 more before they submit them to Mayor Bloomberg (who, Mr. Coughlin claims, evinced an utter lack of understanding of the issue during the Mayoral campaign by suggesting the park’s loop drive be submerged)-Transportation Alternatives might achieve their goals faster by accosting politicians going into Tavern on the Green.

However, I kept my thoughts to myself. Aris had arrived and taken his place on our bench. It was time to start drinking.