May Say She’s A Dreamer, But Oma’s Not the Only One

The

budding cherry blossoms. The soft breeze fluttering the sails of the model

boats on Conservatory Pond. These aren’t the only signs of spring in Central

Park. There’s also the return on my 104-year-old grandmother and her cronies to

their respective benches at Strawberry Fields.

A lot of people stop making friends

by the time they turn 75. Or 50. Some people I know threw in the towel at 30.

But well into her third century (she was born in 1899), Grandma is still adding

names to her Rolodex, metaphorically speaking.

Among

her newer acquaintances, seated nearby when I visited her at her perch on a

recent warm afternoon, were Gary and Lisa. For those who don’t hang out at the

John Lennon memorial, Gary is the self-anointed “Mayor of Strawberry Fields.”

Lisa is his “wife,” and while their union has apparently yet to be officially

solemnized, no one else seems eager to challenge Lisa for the title of First

Lady of the “Imagine” mosaic. I don’t know their hours, but whenever I pass

Strawberry Fields, the couple is there keeping vigil.

The

rose petals artfully strewn around the mosaic’s perimeter (and freshened daily)

are Gary’s handiwork. So are the stuffed Beanie Babies-two baby seals, a koala

and a basset hound-who sit inside the circle.

I’d

be lying if I said I fully understand these relics’ relevance to John Lennon or

his legacy, even after Gary explained it to me as my grandmother dozed off. I’m

confused in particular by the dollar bills arrayed around the animals, as if

they were playing poker. The currency apparently serves as a gentle reminder to

the tourists who visit the place by the busload that Gary can’t subsist alone

on the ardent desire for world peace he shares with the former Beatle. Or, as

Gary put it to me: “Art ain’t cheap.”

The

flower petals and stuffed pets are doing double duty these days. They conceal a

block of missing tile filled in with cement.

A

note left by the Parks Department stated that devotional candles caused the

damage. But Gary says that’s untrue. “Somebody took a big rock and smashed it.”

He even knows the date of the occurrence, Dec. 10-not that he had anything to

do with it.

“I

just came out of jail that day,” he said, “and all my friends said, ‘You don’t

want to go to Strawberry Fields.’”

I

asked the Mayor how he came to be in prison. “For an assault I didn’t commit,”

he explained. “If I did, it was because the guy pepper-sprayed me in the face.”

For

its part, the Central Park Conservancy is sticking to its story. “Hot candle

wax against the cold of December made them crack,” said Jennifer Pucci, a

spokeswoman for the Conservancy. “They’ve been in touch with the artist who did

the mosaic. It should be fixed within the next month, month and a half.”

I

thought it impolite to quiz Gary further about the circumstances surrounding

his arrest, though it might have had something to do with the proprietary

attitude he displays toward those he suspects of cheapening John Lennon’s

legacy. For example, there’s the guy who plays Lennon songs for spare change.

“He opens with ‘Imagine’ all the time,” Gary fumed. “People are just tired of

him playing the same songs.”

Then

there’s the John Lennon look-alike who gets under his skin. “People give him

money just to take a picture with him,” Gary said.

Finally,

there’s Gary’s nemesis, another park denizen who shall go unnamed, except to

say that she committed perhaps the ultimate sin-placing the image of another

Beatle on the mosaic. “She doesn’t love John Lennon,” Gary claimed. “She’s

infatuated with Paul McCartney big time.”

While

there may be some who wonder who appointed Gary the intellectual-property cop

of Strawberry Fields, I was not about to criticize a friend of my grandma, who,

by the way, was still asleep.

Did

I mention that Gary calls her “Mom”? When I first heard him use the

appellation, I was slightly taken aback. Grandma, born and raised in Russia,

has never been called “Mom” in her life. My mother calls her “Mama.” Her

grandchildren call her “Oma Nadia.” On the other hand, it might seem even

weirder if Gary started calling her “Oma Nadia,” too.

I

wouldn’t take offense if he did, though. Gary and Lisa look out for my

grandmother, as they do for all beautiful things in Strawberry Fields. “She’s a

very lucky woman to have the care that she has,” Lisa observed. “That’s why I

don’t want to live that long.”

I

thought she was referring to the fact that my grandmother, frankly, isn’t the

life of the party that she was back in Romania, where she and my grandfather

fled after the Russian Revolution. But Lisa was actually alluding to her own

tenuous situation and her fears about the availability of health care when she

approaches that age.

Gary

and his bride spent the winter in Florida, at “a rainbow gathering in the woods

with a bunch of hippies,” Gary reported, followed by biker week in Daytona. But

their New York residence-once Central Park succumbs to curfew at 1 a.m.-is

Riverside Drive. The couple apparently bounces back and forth between Riverside

Park and the basements of buildings in the vicinity, depending on the whims of

the cops.

Gary’s

dream is to market the “Imagine” mosaic, creating a product line that would

promote world peace. He gave me the percentage breakdown. “Twenty-five percent

to Yoko,” he explained, “25 percent to Sean, 25 percent to Julian, because he’s

been fucked-that’s everybody’s opinion.”

The

remaining 25 percent is to be divided between Gary, the I.R.S. and promoting

world peace. He says he’s putting together a business plan that he hopes to

drop off across the street at the Dakota with Yoko Ono’s doorman.

“She

walks to the East Side and back with her bodyguard,” Gary said of Lennon’s

widow. He even engaged her in conversation, he added, when she visited

Strawberry Fields a few weeks back while filming some sort of documentary. “She

knows my name,” he said. “She said my name. She asked me how long I’ve been

doing this.” (Apparently Yoko was referring to garlanding the mosaic with

flowers, not to squatting in Strawberry Fields.) “I said three years.”

Lisa

seems a bit more realistic, a bit less of a dreamer, when it comes to Gary’s

profit-making plans regarding the Lennon shrine. “I don’t understand the

connection,” she said while rolling a cigarette. “You can’t buy world peace.

World peace isn’t about money.”

“Imagine

potpourri for the ladies,” Gary explained.

It

took me a minute to realize that he didn’t mean visualize potpourri for the ladies; he meant that the brand name

for the potpourri would be “Imagine.”

“Why

is it just for the ladies?” Lisa wondered.

“It’s

for everybody,” Gary sighed. “But it’s mainly just for the ladies.”

I

excused myself at the point. My grandmother seemed to be stirring. Her

caregiver, a pleasant Polish woman, shook her gently. Nadia opened her eyes and

smiled. I’m almost certain she recognized me.