Would you like to join me for a stroll in Central Park today? Let’s back up a little first though; this morning I am sitting at my desk with a roaring ear infection and wifi that keeps going out and disconnecting me from the servers at work. It’s vexing and more than a little painful, and I smell like rice because of the homemade compress I’m using. I complain to my friends, as one does, and shortly a DoorDash order arrives at my door from Pollo Campero, courtesy of their kindness.
I have so much nostalgic fondness for Pollo Campero, because back in the day when we had to go to Guatemala every three months to renew our visas, we would splurge and eat out at Pollo Campero while we spent the night in Esquipulas. Not only did they have french fries and delicious chicken, but they had American ketchup, a rare treat in our missionary diet. One particular meal stands out in my memory, in which two siblings and I finished off nearly a whole bottle of ketchup- just the three of us! Anyhow, it turns out I have one in my own Queens neighborhood, and it’s just as good as I remembered, although I might go a little lighter on the ketchup now. And what an array these girls sent me- fried chicken and grilled chicken and plantains and slaw and juice and flan- definitely more than I could eat at once.
As I go to take my lunch break, my boss tells me that’s all the work for today, so I clock out instead, and decide to go see Central Park while it’s still daylight, because I’ve been afraid I would not manage to relish the autumn leaves sufficiently before they all fall. With my stomach full of chicken, and my sore ear tucked into a warm hat I crocheted, I pop down to the post office to mail a package before I set out (Pop Down: a NYC term meaning walk a mere 0.6 miles to the nearest one).
I take the R train to the 5th Avenue/59th Street station, and wend past the empty horses and carriages, declining their offers of rides through the park. My favorite kind of walks are when I don’t really know or care where I’m going, so I just follow my feet wherever they want to take me. At 840 acres, Central Park is huge, so there’s plenty room to get comfortably lost. I wander up and down trails, through the Literary Walk and Mall, and end up at Bethesda Terrace, one of my favorite places in the park.
The golden arches of the Terrace are lit inside as the daylight is already waning, and there is a man sitting in the middle playing classical guitar. It’s been a little trek already and his music is nice, so I sit down on the cold stone ledge and let the music soak into my soul. He plays hauntingly beautiful love songs, until I’m not sure if my heart is breaking or being healed from the beauty of it. Not that there’s much of a difference between the two. I sit there, song after song, watching his back and watching the people pass by admire his music too. At one point a relaxed father strolls through, accompanied by his blonde little boy who looks about two years old. The child runs over and plants himself directly in front of the musician, listening intently and staring straight at him, with the intensity we adults feel embarrassed to display. The musician finishes his song, then launches into the prettiest, tinkly version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, just for his audience of one. The solemn little boy begins to sway ever so slightly, dancing in time with the music. The song finishes, the child and father amble onward, and the musician returns to songs like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. I’m smitten by the interaction.
When my soul has absorbed all the beauty of the music that it can hold, and the cold stone is getting hard, I continue my walk. I head toward The Lake, crossing the darling Bow Bridge on my way. There is a bridal couple there, just finishing up a photoshoot. As they leave, I start to pass, then realize the photographer is posing for a timed picture. I catch myself from photobombing just in time, but he’s looked my way, and chuckles rather abashedly and abandons his pose. I chuckle also; I love those moments when two strangers make eye contact and wordlessly enjoy the same joke together.
I continue onward up the trail into the gloaming forest. The trail winds around the edge of the lake, and I have trouble believing how beautiful the reflection of the dying sunset is on the water, framed by skyscrapers peeking out over the trees. I take pictures, but of course, they capture about twenty percent of the beauty that actually exists. On a second bridge, I pass a gentleman fly fishing into the leaf-filled water. I can’t imagine he’ll catch anything there, but it looks kind of fun.
I leave the lake behind, and shortly I’m at another body of water, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. This one has a running trail around it, and even though it’s practically dark now, people are still out in flocks, making room for their cocktails later on. I hope nobody sprains an ankle. The Upper East Side’s buildings reflect on the still water, and although I’d rather “walk the Paris runway dressed in nothing but a Spongebob towel” than take up running again, if anything was to induce me, this trail would. Just not today. I head west and north, away from the lake.
At one point, right beside the path, I see seven raccoons jostling about with fat, furry bellies, and when I stop, they look expectantly up at me. What in the world. They’re so close I could pet them if I was so inclined, but of course I’m not. I’m taking photos and wondering at this when a woman comes up beside me and whips a container of cat food out of her purse. She throws its contents into their midsts and tucks the container away again. “Nobody know,” she tells me. “Some people afraid they attack people sometime, but they don’t know. So I bring cat food in own container then nobody know where it come from. But raccoons know I come bring food.” We silently enjoy her little rebellion a minute, and I chuckle inside when a newcomer to the scene thinks there must be lots of garbage in that spot to bring all those coons. Soon, the benefactress leaves, with a goodnight thrown my direction.
I leave too, and decide it’s time to part ways with the park. I head toward the looming buildings, and when I reach the street, I check to see how far north I’ve come. From 59th Street to 90th, not a bad walk. But I’m not done just yet, and I still feel very full of chicken, so I decide to continue up the Upper West Side, because I love the old brownstones and the vibe of this neighborhood. A guy passes me on a bicycle, singing loudly to himself, and I feel a kind of kinship with him, because I, too, spend an inordinate amount of time on the streets singing under my breath, or let’s be real, sometimes belting out loud if the mood and the environment allows.
I walk, and I walk, and I walk. The street numbers climb, and the neighborhood changes. Spanish restaurants and salsa music pop up, and I know I’m getting close to Harlem. The buildings aren’t as tall anymore, and I pass by some of my favorite places- Columbia University, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine– but I keep walking. I feel like maybe I could go forever, only, the terrain has become rather hilly, and when I stop for a minute, I realize I’m rather tired. Besides, the streets are strangely empty, and after being followed by a creepy guy in a dark street yesterday, I don’t really feel like repeating that just now. I encounter yet another raccoon, making a total of eight tonight. What is with them?!
I pass a building that looks like a giant Christmas gift, with every square of it lit up with identical lights. Then I realize the building is wrapped in scaffolding and netting, and there are construction workers noisily working on it, but isn’t it neat how night covers the ugliness we create and turns it into something pretty? I walk through the City College campus, which truly has some of the loveliest buildings in the whole city, and I stroll by Alexander Hamilton’s house too, mostly because I like dropping sentences such as, “I stroll by Alexander Hamilton’s house”. It reminds me of when I was in Paris and just accidentally happened upon Victor Hugo’s house. Such fun.
Suddenly I’m rawther hungry after all and could eat a cow, or perhaps another chicken, as the case may be. At 145th Street I call it a day and head underground to take the train back home, back to reality, back to my dinner, and here to you. It’s been lovely, and I’ve covered almost eight miles- not too bad for an afternoon’s stroll, yeah?
Thanks for coming along.