We’re Not Health Freaks: The Park Is Our Mental Valhalla

Unlike those New Yorkers who are fully invested in self-improvement, I start my days-at least warm spring days-not at the gym lifting weights, running around the reservoir or even bird-watching, but buying a couple of Danishes and a cup of coffee, and heading to the park to eat breakfast and read the paper.

While I’m aware this does little, if anything, to improve my cholesterol count, I’m persuaded it enhances my mental health. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m communing with nature. As wonderful as the park is-and this spring it’s looking especially lovely-it ain’t Yosemite. Civilization nips at the edges like a rabid dog. Where I sit, at the model-boat pond, they’re now ripping up the earth in front of the boathouse (after having replaced the pond’s granite border just last year), so the sounds floating through the air aren’t those of blue jays and bumblebees, but of jackhammers and backhoes.

Nonetheless, the park still functions as a place where one can briefly hold one’s obligations at bay, where the simple act of admiring the lively hue of the spring leaves has a therapeutic effect.

And the denizens of the park at that hour-at least some of them-further enhance the experience. I arrive shortly after 9. By that time, most of the dog walkers (who believe their pets can do no wrong, even when they’re sniffing and nibbling my pastry) have left. And the tourists and crying children being pushed along in their strollers have yet to arrive. Most of the parkgoers are individuals like myself who like to be alone.

Among my neighbors, so to speak, on these morning visits is a friend whom I’ll call Walter. I wrote about him in this space a couple of years back; the piece had to do with the reassurance one can draw from seeing the same people over and over again, even if you never exchange words.

Even among the colorful creatures to be found in the park at that hour, Walter always stood, or rather sat, alone. For one thing, he was about as close to a naturalist as the law allows in a populated urban area: He’d strip down to his shorts (sauntering towards 80, he was no Brad Pitt) and worship the sun god, the opinions of passers-by be damned.

Despite his homeless appearance, there was something about his demeanor, the amiable, intelligent tilt of his head as he did the Times crossword puzzle each morning, that suggested his appearance might not tell the whole story.

When I finally spoke to him, it turned out that he wasn’t homeless at all; he just dressed that way to go to the park. He was a retired stockbroker who’d attended Princeton and was a member of several of the city’s finest clubs.

Unfortunately, last spring Walter was diagnosed with throat cancer. His vocal cords were removed and replaced with a prosthesis, as he calls it, that allows him to speak through a hole in his neck, though his voice sounds disconcertingly robotic.

After the operation Walter ceased coming to the park, and I learned from his friend Bob-who’d also met him in the park and who helped him with the daily crossword (Bob attended Yale and claims to be better educated)-that he wasn’t doing well. The procedure had been successful, but Walter’s mental state was bad. And the best proof of this was that he could no longer rouse himself to visit his beloved spot near the Alice in Wonderland statue.

So on my own first morning back in the park this spring, I sat there eating my Danish, shooing away the birds and dogs, and lamenting the absence of Walter’s ennobling presence, fearing I’d never see him again. But just as I got up to go to work, who should I see but the man himself, walking towards his bench with a rather purposeful gait.

And as he did, every few feet or so, someone would stop to welcome him back and wish him well: a nattily attired younger gentleman, who I learned was a member of one of Walter’s clubs; a middle-aged woman who clasped her hands at the sight of him and then smothered him in a hug.

As it turned out, I was far from the only one who’d noted his absence. “People would stop and say, ‘What’s the latest report? How’s he doing?'” Bob recalled when I joined them on their bench. “It was kind of a theme song. They know he sits out here in 110 degrees in the sun. Barry Diller”-who walks to work through the park in the morning-“gave me a look as if to say, ‘Where’s your other half?'”

Walter, who I discovered had started returning to the park during that freaky April hot spell, admitted he hasn’t fully recovered. “I’d hoped I would be feeling better than I do,” he confessed quietly.

“I don’t think that you ever lost your wryness,” Bob reassured him. “You have a kind of elfin attitude.” Then he turned to me and said, “There’s always been an ironic remark or comeback. I’ve never seen him so morose he’s mute.”

Walter wouldn’t consider taking a cab to the park from his apartment in the East 60’s. The rumor is that he’s rather cautious with his bankroll-“He still has the first nickel he made,” Bob claimed. But Walter insists it’s a matter of exercise rather than financial prudence.

“It seems to me,” Waltersaid, “everybody I know in life who takes a taxi is in lousy shape.”

Not that Walter’s a poster boy for clean living. He smoked until 1982, when a previous bout with cancer convinced him to drop the habit. And he’s (sort of) given up drinking, his favorite and perhaps only hobby, since his operation. He’s switched to beverages that, while not exactly alcohol-free, studies suggest have redeeming qualities, at least if consumed in moderation. “I have three glasses of wine between 5 and 7 p.m.,” Walter explained.

“It’s a matter of having that period of relaxation,” Bob added softly. “He tried Coke and non-alcoholic beer, and it just didn’t work.”

“I finally decided, to hell with it,” Walter reported. “I’m going to start drinking some wine.”

I suppose one reason I get along with Walter is that we share similar values-among them the belief that a brisk walk in the park is all the exercise one needs and that, in the infinite scheme of things, those who drink are God’s children. A testament of our commitment to our beliefs are the park’s early-morning legions of shockingly fit, earnest-looking young women who run by, inevitably when I seem to be raising a Danish to my lips; if we didn’t know ourselves so well, it could make us feel insecure.

“Let’s face it,” Bob said to Walter, without a hint of criticism, “you were a civilized drunk.” He was referring to the way Walter “held up the bar” at his favorite club for years (the staff even sent flowers to his hospital bed, though Walter admits that he’s far from the club’s best tipper).

Walter grinned as a breeze blew through the trees. “Don’t knock it,” he growled.

We’re Not Health Freaks: The Park Is Our Mental Valhalla