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Central Park was the Yosemite of my childhood. Climbing its black rocks flecked with silver mica was akin to scaling Half Dome. Sledding hills were mountainsides, Stuart Little’s sailboat pond vast as a glacial lake.
To my child’s eye it exuded the tension of a tangled Black Forest, full of dark woods and unexplored corners. Like the Badlands, Central Park was somewhere you entered at your own risk. Hide and seek held out the mystery of Hansel and Gretel, regardless that home base might be the statue of Daniel Webster. Its own horses galloped through, even if they did bed down for the night in Claremont Stables instead of at a hitching post in Nevada.
Central Park had the big brassy quality Carl Sandburg extolled in Chicago. It wasn’t prissy. It didn’t have park benches named after millionaires. Its old wrought iron bridge looked rickety. Like traversing a precarious suspension bridge over a Colorado gorge, crossing it took guts. The park maintenance men in their visored caps doggedly spearing candy wrappers with pointed sticks were heroes waging a battle lost from the start.
Unlike aristocratic ice-skating in Rockefeller Center, the Wollman rink in Central Park was of the people. Hot chocolate cost a quarter, and the ice looked as crowded as Weegee’s photos of Coney Island in July. Walking back home across the park, ice skates slung over our shoulders, wet socks freezing our feet, my friend and I pooled our cash for rides on the deserted wintertime carousel. With cold red hands the operator turned on the music for two lone little girls.
Yet to a city child, Central Park still offers the Wild West a stone’s throw away from the Essex House. Thirsty from an afternoon of running, a concession stand beckons like a little house on the prairie, and on the first sparkling morning after a snowstorm the virgin drifts come waist high on a child.
It is populated by the creatures of the wild. Pigeons are its eagles. Squirrels divide the turf and reign as uncrowned kings. Holden Caulfield’s ducks circle its ponds; a bronze dog stands watch. On an unseasonably warm morning in January the seals in the zoo sunbathe, lolling in nirvana atop rocks thoughtfully provided by the zookeepers.
If winds in Central Park are never as piercing as the blasts howling off the Hudson onto Riverside, when the sign over Columbus Circle lights up nineteen degrees, the only people who feel warm are toddlers in quilted snowsuits begging to climb the jungle gym just one last time.
But no matter how low the thermometer, there is one secret protected spot where the sunbeams hit with an intensity reminiscent of the Caribbean. No winds reach the bench facing south which hugs the outer wall of the tennis house beside the public courts on 94th Street Taking fifteen minutes shelter there at noon on a winter solstice warms up enough to unbutton a coat and walk on feeling sun kissed.
Forsythia bushes anticipating spring are so hardy they need no trimming courtesy of the New York Conservancy. Minuscule buds start appearing in February. Magnolia trees inside the park wall are busy dreaming up the white blooms of April even as their branches are laden with winter snow. At their pinnacle in May, legions of blossoming cherry trees rival the magic of Pissarro or Van Gogh.
And for Big Sky country in the middle of Manhattan, urban children have only to travel as far as Sheep Meadow, two thousand two hundred miles east of the Rockies.
Helen Schary Motro
Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and writer living in Israel and New York. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and opinion columns have appeared in the leading international press, magazines, web sites, and anthologies. She is the author of Maneuvering Between the Headlines (Other Press).
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