Tuesday, June 28, 2005

From Olmsted to Caulfield

Aerial shots of rapid motion intersections at night, where car lights become incandescent crayons, drawing insane paths. I see sudden sunrises and sunsets, helicopter views of the dizzying edges of high rises where my eyes are in danger of scraping the proverbial sky. TV shows seem to be in the business of capturing the visual clich├ęs of what New York is supposed to be: tall buildings, traffic, the impersonality of concrete and glass. It works on me; whenever I see the city, I feel like a rube fresh off the bus from Podunk, rubbing my eyes and saying well, goooolllleee…All that concrete feels dignified, important, and I am insignificant. Yet whenever I see New York, I feel like I own it, that it is in some odd way my city.

Big cities—especially Manhattan—are criticized for loud crowds, the roar of traffic that cancels out sunsets, skyscrapers that erase trees, anonymous people whose shoulders touch, yet never speak, but for me those same qualities give the city its sense of place, and those same qualities give us our sense of belonging there as well, whether we’re visitors or residents. Even if we condemn the City (just capitalize it…there’s only one) for these faults, people are awed at the same time, every time they look up towards the sky, or just turn their heads and glance up and down Broadway. Those who really want to identify New York, though, lift it up by its handle, there in the middle in the green part, Central Park.

Central Park is infamous; people who have never set foot east of Indiana’s Wabash, the Missouri, even Utah’s Green River know about Central Park. Maybe you read A Catcher in the Rye and met protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Holden has, undeservedly in my mind, earned a bad reputation for inspiring madmen like Mark David Chapman to assassinate John Lennon in front of the Dakota back in 1980. Holden should more be remembered as a 1950s anti-hero who mythicized Central Park for literary audiences worldwide.

Holden’s anti-hero status has caused the novel to be banned in any number of North American school systems. The story begins when Holden runs away from Pencey Prep a few days before Christmas break, when he learns he’s failing out. But we know from his unreliable first-person narration that his grasp on the world is shaky; we infer that at the time of the story, he has been taken away to a sanitarium of sorts in California to recover from a number of difficulties, including his brother’s death and issues he glosses over in the story, and which are easy to miss if we in the audience are not paying attention.

One element of the story that is repeated—with humorous results—is Holden’s obsession with the lagoon at Central Park South. Whenever Caulfield gets in a cab, he asks the cab driver about it:
“That little lake, like, there. Where the ducks are. You know.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well, you know the ducks that swim around in it? In the springtime and all? Do you happen to know where they go in the wintertime, by any chance? […] I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something […]” (81-82)
None of the cabdrivers are willing to ponder the answer to his question, though Horwitz does consider what he thinks are related factors:
“The fish don’t go no place. They stay right where they are, the fish. Right in the goddam lake.”
But Holden insists:
“[…] The fish is different, I’m talking about the ducks.”
Horwitz finally argues:
“[…] It’s tougher for the fish, the winter and all, than it is for the ducks, for Chrissake. Use your head, for Chrissake.”
“They can’t just ignore the ice. They just can’t ignore it.”
Horwitz argues some more:
“[…] They live right in the goddam ice. It’s their nature, for Chrissake. They get frozen right in one position […]” (82).

Holden’s remarks about the ducks (and the fish) are funny: He tells us, the readers, when the conversation is over “He didn’t answer me, though. I guess he was still thinking. I asked him again, though. He was a pretty good guy. Quite amusing and all” (83). Holden the character is what he would call “horsing around.” But we can’t rely on Holden’s judgment as a first-person narrator. We have to arrive at our own conclusions and think of those helpless ducks a little bit like the way think about our helpless friend, Holden. Holden wonders what the ducks do when it gets cold, whether someone will come to take them away when it is no longer safe for them just as Holden doesn’t know what to do with himself now that it’s “winter” for him and things are no longer “safe” for him. Holden wants to know how “ducks” know when it’s the right time to “take off” because he’s just about ready to do it. When we have insight into Holden’s truth about the Central Park lagoon, then the Park becomes Holden’s source of truth for a moment.

The lagoon—and the Park—belongs to Holden, but at the same time it belongs to hundreds and millions of us. I too can say, “I own that lagoon,” because I assign it my unique narrative. It will forever hold the story of the day of the toy boat regatta in 1983. Even at this moment I can see the brilliant East-side button-down blue sky when I walked up the hill from Central Park South, down by the Plaza Hotel and came upon the lagoon on my right and saw the boats in the water there, as though I were suddenly able at great distance to see Lake Michigan being invaded by an armada of clipper ships. The illusion paled, though, with the sound of the tinny model motors—not to mention the sight of the many enthusiast operators lined up around the lagoon, black aerialed boxes in hand furiously racing the ships, big enough maybe to give a ride to the Chihuahua puppy I saw on a leash in the grass off to the left. Big or small, boat races have never made much sense to me, and they seemed even sillier on the precious real estate of the pond. It was an exquisite puzzle to think about, I reasoned, stretching out with my lunch near the big rock on the right as one approaches the pond. The day stayed impossibly blue and sunny as long as I wanted it to, though I never did figure out the rules of the race. All I did and all I know is forever more Central Park will be my park, at least for that day. Even though I never spoke to another soul the whole day, it would be wrong to call the city anonymous.

Though I didn’t know who he was at the time, I realize now that the park’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, would have approved of my day at the races, since, according to his biographer, Witold Rybczynski, “he considered […] boating […] [an] integral part of the park experience” (“Olmsted vs. Christo”). Olmstead wanted nature to be available to city dwellers (though he could not have imagined the concrete jungles we have created in the present day). His design was meant “to foster a single ideal—the democratic use of public space,” which if you think about it is an extraordinary plan for a city (Ginsburg). As a result of this democracy, Holden Caulfield, Fred Olmstead, Heidi Moore, even the kids from Hair—all of us experienced the lagoon and the Park itself individually; it is ours. The point is that because the place is there in the center for all to enjoy, it somehow becomes universal. We have a collective experience, because it’s “our” Park, “our” lagoon, even though our feelings occurred asynchronously: “Oh, the lagoon! Yes! I’ve been there!” But then our memories part. We are the same as Holden Caulfield for a tiny moment, and different all at once, blending back into the high rises, the dizzying incandescence and neon. It belongs to all of us.

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