Even by today’s lackadaisical standards of what constitutes news, the Parks Department is pushing the limits of the envelope. One recent message left on my answering machine invited me to join Parks Commissioner Henry Stern at East River Park on the Lower East Side to celebrate the installation of seven emergency call boxes. While I’d be the first to admit that anything that enhances public safety is a good thing, I was somewhat skeptical of press officer Suzanne Presto’s description of the event as “really significant”-particularly when they’re in the middle of a war against dog owners who violate the leash laws.
Other news flashes have concerned the pruning of a weeping beech tree in Queens, a birthday party for Boomer, Commissioner Stern’s golden retriever (whose name the commissioner invokes whenever possible as proof of his pet-loving credentials), and the ceremonial carving of the world’s largest jack-o’-lantern in Central Park on Halloween. Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the press office’s productivity and, in particular, Ms. Presto’s unfaltering vigilance about contacting me, even though I rarely returned her phone calls.
Perhaps I should mention that I have a soft spot for government public information officers, having been one myself. During Mayor Edward Koch’s administration, I worked in the Department of Correction’s press office, though my responsibilities were dramatically different from Ms. Presto’s, as I pointed out to her when we got together at her office at the Arsenal. The only time the media showed any interest in Rikers Island was when prisoners took hostages or hanged themselves in their cells. So no news was good news in our case.
Ms. Presto, a tall, guilelessly attractive, 22-year-old recent Tulane University graduate explained that oversight of her agency is a bit more strenuous. “I’ll get calls like, ‘What happened to the baby duck I saw Tuesday and don’t see today?'” she said. In fact, her boss, press secretary Edward Skyler, seemed to think that the department enjoys something of a reputation as a laboratory for future leaders. “If you want to work in New York City government, you either work for the Mayor or Henry Stern,” said Mr. Skyler, who’s all of 25 himself. “Only here can you come in and two hours later be told you’re coordinating a summer environmental program for 60 children.”
Apparently to encourage both informality and collegiality, the Commissioner gives almost everybody he encounters a nickname, which they wear on gold-plated name tags. Ms. Presto is “Magic”; she vetoed “Change-O,” the Commissioner’s first choice. Her colleague in the press office, James Warner, is nicknamed “Hamish.” “He went to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for three years and he’s Jewish,” Ms. Presto explained. And the Commissioner is “Star Quest,” because Stern means “star” in German and he’s a guy who asks a lot of questions.
“I walked in here and four days later I was at a pooper-scooper event in Tompkins Square Park,” Ms. Presto recalled. That would have been Boomer’s birthday party, the one where the “Wonder Dog,” as he’s known around the Arsenal, and Commissioner Stern led neighborhood pets and their owners in a parade around the park to remind people that cleaning up after your pet doesn’t depend on your mood, it’s the law.
Ms. Presto checked her pager. There was a message coming over the department’s internal communications network informing her that a seagull with an injured wing was being transported to the Center for Animal Care and Control. I wondered whether I might be on hand for the birth of the Parks Department’s next photo op. But Ms. Presto said No. “Perhaps, say it was something larger than a seagull,” she offered.
Such as …?
She mentioned a swan that was shot in Alley Pond Park in Queens last year. “There was a big event about rehabilitating the swan so it could go back to its mate,” she said. “James covered that event. He could tell you more about the swan.” Mr. Warner (a.k.a. Hamish) recalled the swan’s return to Alley Pond Park “in full ardent glory,” to quote the press release created for the occasion. Unfortunately, the fowl’s triumph was short-lived. “The swan later died from internal infection,” Mr. Warner explained softly. “His mate flew away. Two other swans were chasing it around the lake. That was sad.”
I recalled the chilly reception I used to receive at the hands of the city’s surly assignment desk editors when I worked for the Correction Department and called them with anything that smelled of good news. I wondered how Mr. Warner’s self-esteem was faring under what I suspected was rather frequent rejection. “People appreciate the fact that we’re constantly giving them material to turn down,” he said sincerely. “Three weeks later, they’ll be in your pocket about an event or wanting an interview.”
He was referring, of course, to the occasions when the Parks Department makes real news, like when someone goes on a mugging spree in Central Park or when Parks Enforcement Patrol officers evict street vendors from the sidewalk in front of the Metropolitan Museum or, most recently, when the city cracks down on dog owners.
Mr. Warner confessed that sarcastic reporters sometimes make fun of his boss when he calls, asking, “Is Henry going to dress up in anything today?” They’re referring to incidents like the time Commissioner Stern was decorated as a tree and planted himself, or when he popped out of a prairie-dog hole to celebrate Groundhog Day. (“He tried to see his shadow,” Ms. Presto explained.) But the press officers hold the Commissioner in the highest regard. “He can assume the full dignity of being commissioner at the drop of a hat,” Mr. Warner insisted.
Even though Ms. Presto described her brief career in government P.R. as hard-working fun, she confessed that October’s Halloween Extravaganza in Central Park was something of a bummer, at least in terms of the lack of media coverage. One wonders how even New York’s jaded press corps could have resisted a party that featured a carved 907-pound pumpkin, a costumed pet parade, the Fox Family Channel-sponsored New Addams Family Haunted House, and 150,000 pieces of free Farley’s candy.
Perhaps it was the Parks Department’s effort to stretch the event across two news cycles by inviting the media to seven hours of watching the pumpkin being carved the previous day. “There was something big going on at the time,” Suzanne Presto said, trying to remember what it was. “I don’t know if it was the Presidential scandal … Oh, the Yankees had just won the World Series!”
Fortunately, such setbacks hardly seem to affect the enthusiasm of these young professionals. As I was writing this column, Ms. Presto called to invite me to a Fitness magazine-sponsored art show at the Arsenal, marking Women’s History Month. The show features women skating and swimming in Central Park from 1860 to the present. “It seems the Commissioner’s going to be wearing a swim cap and possibly a swim robe,” she reported. “But no Speedos, we’re praying.”