If Central Park were a woman and had just one beau, he would be a hunched, shiny-scalped man named Isidore Block. When Isidore Block dies, which could be soon, a bereft Central Park will surely mourn his loss. Mr. Block, 82, is a man you probably saw. He shuffled around the park with a bell he’d ask you to ring. His shoes spliced open for comfort, pushing an old stroller, he made the park his salon. He reminded you of Ed Koch, with the same wispy white side-hairs, door-knocker nose and nasal yet soothing voice.
He wandered everywhere in the green rectangle from the zoo to the Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields, where he’d feed his favorite squirrels-he named them George and Gracie-and ask passersby to ring his brass bell (with a unicorn-shaped handle), which he said would bring luck. He told people that when he was a young man begging, a boy suggested that he give something to people in order to receive. What he gave was wishes.
“He’d say, ‘Hold it up to your ear, listen to the echo and make a wish. But don’t tell mama!’ That was his gag,” recalled Lenny Maurer, 78, a retired teacher who’s been a friend of Mr. Block’s since the 1970′s. He was sitting at one of Mr. Block’s favorite spots in the park, the “Imagine” mosaic near 72nd Street. “Once you made a wish, you sort of had to reach into your pocket and put something in the basket where he kept the bell.”
“You couldn’t not like him,” Mr. Maurer continued, “even though he was an absolutely oversolicitous beggar-the kind of guy everyone in the city is always trying to get away from. He was like a little Santa Claus who would come around and put some joy in your life.” Mr. Block claimed Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen and even the Dalai Lama as veteran ringers of his bell. Yoko Ono rang for luck in 1980, but John Lennon refused, saying, “I’m part of the musicians’ union, not the bell-ringers’ union.” He did offer Mr. Block a toke, however.
“Three days later, John Lennon died,” Mr. Block would say ominously.
Park habitués knew him as Izzy or Poet-O, a pseudonym he picked up from the novel The Story of O . Through the years, he wrote thousands of poems, mostly about nature and its beauty. He’d carry photocopies of them to sell for a dollar.
“His poetry was so natural and would come from a joyful heart,” said Mr. Maurer, who published much of Mr. Block’s work on the Web. “He sees everything as flowers and beautiful, like the park, which was his home and his paradise-the only place in New York to live. ‘If I didn’t have Central Park, I’d die,’ he’d say.”
“He writes on anything he can find-a napkin, a tablecloth. He maintains a depth of spirit and a childlike innocence,” said Elizabeth McNulty, a documentary filmmaker who’s been shooting Mr. Block off and on since 1999.
According to Mr. Block, he was born to destitute Eastern European Jewish parents in a shack in the Sheep Meadow on Halloween 1920, the youngest of four children.
When Mr. Block was a boy, his father, a gambler, left for Arizona, and his mother had a breakdown and was institutionalized. In a 2001 documentary about him, Life Is a Dream , Mr. Block said that, deserted by his siblings, he went to various foster homes but was never adopted because he was epileptic and “tongue-tied” (he had difficulty speaking).
“When he was 15, someone used him as a runner to deliver some pot in Times Square,” said Mr. Maurer, and Mr. Block ended up in reform school, where he learned to read. But when he was let out, he was homeless.
At 17, Mr. Maurer said, Mr. Block was “sleeping on a bench in Washington Square Park, and an old man comes up to him and says, ‘You’re not supposed to sleep here. Young boys like you shouldn’t be staying here. You should have milk. Come with me.’
“Izzy said, ‘Go away!’ He thought the old man was a bum. Well, the old man turned out to be Albert Einstein. He was living at the Mews by Fifth Avenue, and he took Izzy in to stay with him for three weeks. He just had one bed in the place, so they slept in the same bed.”
“More often than not,” said Ms. McNulty, “there were things that he would say that I would lean towards dismissing, but then I would get information that would verify what he had said.” Mr. Block also told of working in Key West on a crocodile farm, serving in the Merchant Marines, and having an untouchable $300,000 in stocks from a member of the wealthy Lowenstein textile family, for whom he said he was once a wheelchair attendant and aide.
Mr. Block, who never married or had children and alluded to being a celibate homosexual, started making his regular rounds in the park in the mid-1900′s. In recent years, he’d get up early, leave his S.R.O. home-wallpapered with poems and the caricatures park artists had done of him, at the Woodstock House on West 43rd Street-and, by 10 a.m., he’d be on the bus to Central Park.
At soup kitchens, Mr. Block was something of a poet laureate, always dragging his left hand across the tablecloth to create, in neat script, little prose poems.
“He’d invent words like ‘protaganoid,’” said Mr. Maurer. “He’d invent phrases like ‘It’s too late to relate!’”
“He defied a lot of convention, just in the way he survived and conducted himself,” said Ben Gioia, a 31-year-old Brooklynite who befriended Mr. Block last year as his health began to fail and he became partially blind. Nevertheless, he still enjoyed occasional joints, Mr. Gioia said, and would attempt his park rounds. “He made me evaluate my own life differently,” Mr. Gioia added. “He loved the array of people that were out there, and how concentrated that array was in Central Park.”
Yet like so many celebrities, at the end of the day, when all was quiet, Mr. Block felt forsaken. “He would say he was the loneliest man in the world, even though he meets everyone,” said Mr. Maurer. “He was always sad about the loneliness.”
“I would say, ‘Oh, your friend so-and-so,’ and he would say, ‘I don’t have any friends,’” Ms. McNulty said. At present, Mr. Block lies comatose under a white blanket in a poorly lit room at Bellevue Hospital, where he was brought from the Woodstock in mid-March, following a stroke. On a recent afternoon, while his suitemate watched Married with Children , a nurse came to look in on him. “It’s almost over for him,” she mumbled to herself. Mr. Block’s eyelids fluttered. A single get-well card-from the Church of the Epiphany-sat on the windowsill, beside copies of his poems.
His bell was out of sight, and Central Park-some four miles away-was being dusted with April snow without him.
By his head, someone had tacked up one of his poems, “Red Rose”:
A rose is surrounded by thorns. Tall and beautiful am I. The morning dew wets my cute lips of blooming red. Fragrant supreme is my natural perfume. Praise galore greets me at every turn. The knowledge that I find most endearing Is that all other flowers notice my rare beauty.
I am far too delicate to wilt and die. Adieu, Poet-O.
Adieu, Mr. Block.
Follow Anna Jane Grossman via RSS.