Profiles Quotes

Ed McCormack revisits Central Park NYC 1970

It’s a brilliant, whacked-out watercolor Sunday in July and the conga drums that are the pulsebeat of Central Park are coming in loud and clear over the swaying treetops, chanting, “Western Civilization is crumbling, Western Civilization is crumbling…”

Two Chinese Buddhist monks are crossing the bicycle path in their stately grey robes just as a muscular black man in a red tank top and leather shorts comes peddling by on a nine-foot-high unicycle.

The spectacle freaks the two monks out. They stop right there in the middle of the bicycle path, gesticulating with bemused excitement. Hardly anyone besides the two Chinese monks pays much attention to the man on the unicycle, though his skill equals that of a circus performer. New Yorkers have come to regard the most surreal spectacles as commonplace on a Sunday in Central Park. Indeed, it often seems that every eccentric exhibitionist in the city is out vying in a marathon pastoral freakarama…

Almost as soon as the unicyclist is out of sight, another man passes, leading a caravan comprised of several toy wagons, a German Shepherd, two Siamese cats, and a baby on a tricycle, all pulled by a single rope. Keeping the caravan together is a formidable task, but somehow to do so seems very important to this man. Every couple of steps he must stop to adjust something. The dog is barking, the cats meowing, the baby starts bawling. The caravan master, a middle-aged man in a powder blue golf shirt and Air Force sunglasses, is not distracted by the occasional passers-by who stop to watch his strange procession. He apparently has a mission and a destination; most of the strollers in the park pay little attention as he goes on his way…

Then, along comes a pale young man in Bermuda shorts on roller skates, his spindly knock-kneed legs wobbling as he goes. This young man is wearing the most incredible headgear: a pagoda-shaped umbrella suspended like a shot-off pith-helmet several inches above his head on the end of one of those pole-beanies that used to have a propeller on top completed by oversized rose-colored glasses. This curious young man looks like a giant insect in a low budget Japanese horror film or perhaps the first primitive airplane ever attempted by some mad inventor. But there is something almost heroic about the getup and the deadpan manner in which the pale young man inhabits it that makes him look as though he is about to set out on some great adventure. It would seem only fitting for a military band to be playing as this comic heroic figure passes; there should be a reviewing stand instead of a hotdog stand over there, and confetti rather than frisbees whirling in the air…Somehow no one seems to notice.

On some of these surreal Sundays in the Park, New York seems a city of compulsive fixations as its citizens take their weekend respite from reality—so elaborate seems the care lavished on every costume and act. Take, for example, the former prize fighter known around the East Village as Big Brown, who often shows up in the park all done up as an African King… Not the kind of African king you might see in Newsweek wearing a three-piece suit from J. Press, steel rimmed spectacles and spats—but the real downhome-style African monarch you might see in some painting by the French primitive painter Rousseau—the kind who brandishes a spear with much pomp and circumstance, and wears a leopard skin loincloth and regal ceremonial robes… Even in a blasé seen-it-all city like New York, Big Brown is someone it is almost impossible to ignore. He cuts a royal figure prowling the park in his proud finery or standing before a large outdoor birdcage in the zoo brandishing his ceremonial tree branch about his head and chanting an African song of his own invention as the exotic rainbow birds shriek and freak in a fine feathered frenzy as though he is playing their very own tune.

Despite the crazy blatancy of the 1970’s bright summer Sundays such as this, there are some sun-flecked slow motion parts of the park that put you right in the middle of a French Impressionist painting: squint your eyes and the Sunday strollers in sports clothes become the formal pointillist promenaders of Seurat strolling under parasols, in cravats, morning coats, bustles and bonnets through some Parisian park of the past… There are parts where people are picnicking and watching sailboats on the shimmering waters of the pond; out of the way James Fenimore Cooper paths where city kids in the microcosmic blade-of-glass world of the imagination are exploring the great outdoors and shady paths where lovers stroll while others live passionate Splendor in The Grass scenes; little necking-dramas are enacted under Eden-trees; old people sitting on Simon & Garfunkel benches, transistors blaring fragments of beer advertising, barking fiery Irish setters flashing in the sunlight, the slow slap, slap, slap of oars on the lake, the creak of rowboats, someone calling a child and the tinkle of a Good Humor bell blending with the bastard Malagueña of a Spanish guitar strummed softly somewhere distant and pulsebeat congas, bongos counterpointing the clunking cacophony of a cooking Trinidadian steel band; the roar of a caged lion yawning into the languor of the day… a balloon escapes high above the treetops…

There is a path around 77th street or thereabouts on the east side of the Park that will take you past the boathouse, the refreshment stand and past the public lavatories and back into the jarring rhythms of the present. For if you follow it all the way it empties into a heavily populated public plaza teeming with energies peculiar to this age—although some equivalent must certainly have existed in Babylon or Ancient Rome. The spacious concrete plaza is bordered on one side by an outdoor café where some sip Sangria and watch the parade. On the other side is the lake, and between them is a large fountain in the bastardized architectural style that one often sees depicted in the Dufy-blue murals that grace the walls of some of the classier pizza parlors around town: two large bowls, piled like take-out pizzas one atop the other, with constantly recycled water dribbling down, topped by a pigeon splotched angel of green brass.

Absent here is the slow-motion spaciousness that exists in more pastoral parts of the park. Swarming with stoned-out humanity, Bethesda Fountain is one of those cross-roads like Times Square or 8th Street in the Village on a Saturday night, where all factions of freakdom meet. It seems to have grown out of the first tribal gatherings of the hippies in the mid-Sixties; the be-ins, the smoke-ins, the freak-ins, the fuck-ins; they would pour into the plaza around Bethesda Fountain after conducting their tribal rites in the nearby Sheep Meadow… There was this exhilarating sense of barbaric spectacle about the whole scene. Costumes had replaced clothing on every psychedelicized body whose metabolism boasted that affinity for fantasy which was the hip new knowledge of the day. People would dress up like Diana the Huntress or Mick Jagger and head for the Park to be part of the tribe that was becoming a weekly event. Whether drugs had truly expanded the mass consciousness or merely opened up darker avenues of the soul was not something to consider in a pre-Manson era. They would pour into the park every Sunday from all the surrounding boroughs of Manhattan, seeking friendship, a sense of community, sex, drugs, or some miraculous combination of them all…

By the Seventies, the Flower Children had all but vanished and now Prole-Chic casualties of Woodstock’s failed revolution remained around the fountain.
Sometimes there were sudden impromptu water wars around the fountain. Some people get carried with such sport and climb into one of the big pizza-bowls and start splashing around in the water. The uptight killjoy cops are roundly booed and hissed when they move in to order the drenched revelers out; but it rarely comes down to a confrontation, because even the cops, according to some of the kids, seem in a slightly more tolerant humor on a sunny Sunday in the park… Who really wants to bother arresting some stoned-out nut in rolled up jeans who merely feels like doing a bellywhomp into the shallow waters of Bethesda fountain?—or more awkward yet, some sixteen-year-old nymphet who has stripped down to bikini panties and a training bra and is dancing like a Botticelli Venus in one of the municipal fountain bowls?

Bethesda fountain, Central Park, 2023 Photograph by Smiljana Peros

Who would want to have to deal with this crazy glitter queen who calls himself Fantasia, who has climbed almost to the very top of the fountain and is now sitting astride the angel’s wings addressing the crowd. He’s wearing sparkles of glitter in his kinky Orphan Annie mop of hair and swaying back and forth with daredevil ease up there, purposely pretending to lose his balance to tease the crowd of laughing kids making the gesture of loco in the plaza below. Everyone is digging Fantasia because in a world full of crazies he is a super crazy who really has his insanity together. Fantasia is swaying up there making this great put-on speech about how his poor old mama got busted on a dope dealing charge and he needs to raise the bread to bail her out. Bombarded with coins from below he catches them all and the crowd cheers wildly.

“How much more am I bid if I climb all the way to the top and sit on the angel’s face?” he shouts down.

Every once in a while, those custodians of Western Civilization, the police, must interrupt their talk of retirement pensions and impending lay-offs and walk down into the plaza to make sure that the fountain is still there. The natives seem to be getting more restless every time they appear, but they always go away again, leaving anarchy to joyously prevail. And the drums, the pulsebeat drums, go on chanting their message through the brilliant trees. G&S

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