My wife’s childhood friend, Netty, from North Carolina, came through town the other day with her two sons, and we all had a picnic in Sheep Meadow in Central Park. It was a gorgeous evening. Her boys are 8 and 11 — young enough to play with my kids, but old enough to be objects of fascination for them. We all played Monkey in the Middle in teams. By ‘we’ I mean all the kids and me. The ladies sat on the blanket and talked. I held my two-year-old boy on my hip while I rushed around. Evangeline tackled the eight-year-old.
When we collapsed onto the blanket to join them and eat, I began to ask Netty, who I had never met, about what my wife was like back when they were fifteen years old.
“Smart, beautiful, interesting,” said Netty. “Just like now.”
We all laughed. Elizabeth looked genuinely pleased.
“She was writing even then,” Netty added.
The sun slanted gorgeously across Sheep Meadow, which was bisected in shadow and light. We were on the West side, in shade. The East side of the lawn was still in sunshine.
I pressed Netty for details. She took the fifth amendment of not recalling. But she did offer: “We were wild.” After which she paused to look across the lawn as though surveying a memory. “We were wild,” she repeated. A suggestive moment.
A little later in the conversation I gestured to the space around us and, thinking of my own activities at the age of fifteen and sixteen on the East side of this same lawn, said, “This was my childhood.”
“What was it like growing up in New York?” she asked.
“Hard to say. Great. Not great. I think childhood has no sense of its circumstances. You just are where you are.”
After we ate, I wandered out into the sunshine with the boy on my hip. We walked past cannoodling couples, solitary readers, and a guy who lay on his back with his bike on its side next to him in a manner I recognized from personal experience.
“Fall down?” said my boy.
“No, he just leaned his bike on its side and is taking a rest,” I said.
“Bike fall down?”
Up ahead was a circle of very old hippies with guitars. They weren’t old, and they weren’t all hippies, but they were all men, scraggly, shirtless, and with a lot of facial hair. One had an electric bass. Another had a mustache connected to his sideburns he must have started growing three decades ago, it was that impressive. They were singing rather tunelessly but happily. The music drifted over to us.
Alexander, who likes music very much, insisted we go over there. I didn’t want to. He said, “Go ovah dere!” about four times in a row. So I braved it.
We stood at the edge of the circle. I nodded hello to the aging hippies. Having a little kid on your hip is like having an all access passport to the world, sometimes, and you do things you would not otherwise do, like stand at the edge of a circle of odd looking guys playing guitar, aborbing their weirdness and staring at them like they were a diorama at the Museum of Natural History.
“Vi-lin!” said Alexander. He has recently discovered the old violin at our place and is obsessed.
“It’s a guitar,” I said. I explained to him about the difference between guitars and bass.
(Pop Quiz: If you have ever been in a rock band beyond high school, one that actually played gigs, would you want your kid to have that experience? Yes or no?)
The singing was not very good, though one guy was good at the guitar. No one seemed to want to offer advice on parenting styles, which apparently happens. At the end of the song, Alexander clapped.
Then Evangeline, on an expedition with the boys, joined us. Evangeline, six, did not seem to feel the need to be inconspicuous. It occurred to me that even though she was much younger, she was the local here, the tour guide. The boys stayed a few feet behind her as she approached. They seemed a bit freaked out, understandably, though I am sure they have hippies in Raleigh, North Carolina. But there is something about the Central Park hippies that is its own thing; some ungoverned kind of volatility. An old guy with a white beard and no shirt joined the circle. “Hey Cosmic Gary,” someone said.
I exchanged nods with Cosmic Gary. White beard, white fro coming out of the side of his head, bald and shiny on top, it occurred to me that his nod to me was not one of subtle encouragement or of recognition: you are a man with kid, I am/was/will be, too. No, this was two species sniffing one another to detect hostility, the interest being one of pure voyerism.
Half of the circle were hippies and the other half seemed like guys who had a straight job fairly recently, before it all went to hell. There were pot bellies and no shirts. It was weird and nice. They all seemed happy to see my little boy but also a little creeped out by the bourgeois intrusion represented by me and the older kids, who at any rate soon scampered off leaving me to join in with the chorus of a nice song whose name escapes me. The words were, “la la la la la la la la la-la.”
They finished the second song. Alexander, his fascination level undiminished, clapped. Then we said goodbye, and walked back across the lawn to join the ladies while Alexander said, “vi-lin! vi-lin!”
“No,” I said, “those were guitars.”
“Gi-tar!” he said, still clapping. “Gi-tar!”
If you are interested in Central Park, and personal writing about it in particular, I recomend the following book, cleverly titled: Central Park.