Everyday anthropology: Saturday in the park

Lately I’ve been feeling all kinds of melancholy. Two weeks of dreary gray skies and near social isolation in a city of 8.2 million people have gotten me down. But today I wake up resolute. Even alone in an alien culture, it’s a blue-skies-and-sunny Saturday.

Pulling on a sweatshirt and Nike Frees, I make a beeline straight across town to Central Park. What had started as a simple run veers off course. One people-watching opportunity after another presents itself. If you can’t join them, watch them.

Running around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, it is warm in the sun despite the crisp fall air. There’s a view of the metallic-looking Midtown skyline and the residential penthouses of the Upper East and West Sides. The shimmering water seemed nature’s imitation of the manmade towers in the distance. It wasn’t the embankments of the Ashokan Reservoir any more.

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Settling into a pace and listening to the crunch of the gravel, I am startled to find the sound duplicated one, two, now three times.

Three guys pass me. The competitive cross-country runner within can’t take this nonsense. As they pass, I speed up to keep pace with them.

This probably isn’t following runners’ etiquette. These guys will notice if suddenly their little runners’ pack grows. Guess it’s not the best way to make friends, even if runner culture tends to be friendly.

Craving less competition, I veer off. Another path leads me to the turtle pond and Belvedere Castle. After passing a family spread out together on a blanket, a young girl doing cartwheels, and a lone fisherman, I find myself amongst tourists taking in the view from Belvedere Castle. A girl with a green Central Park Conservancy shirt and a Caribbean accent asks if she can take my picture.

In the Castle, there’s a narrow set of stairs up to a viewing deck of sorts. Among the photo-snapping tourists, the view is increasingly familiar — skyscrapers and Central Park’s greenery.

How can this be growing more familiar yet still feel so strange? How come I still feel so out of place?

A lone traveler who doesn’t seem to speak English motions to his camera and himself. I say “one, two, three,” take his picture, and hand back his camera.

Around 72nd Street, the number of people in the park grows. Near Bethesda Fountain a crowd gathers. What is the fuss all about? Three guys, accompanied by a little boy from the audience, are speaking to the crowd as a group.

“Does anyone in the audience have a quarter?” one asks. “You don’t need to throw quarters, we’re not strippers,” another adds. One of the three does a running somersault in the air over the kid and gives him the quarter.

They ask for donations before their stunt of jumping over three adults. “Ladies and gentleman, we ask that you take out five or ten dollars, and then hand over your wallets. Obama wants change, we want dollars.”

There’s another spectacle, the tenth annual My Dog Loves Central Park Country Fair. New Yorkers and their best friends, from fluffy-haired Pomeranians and Chihuahuas in red sweaters to loping and slightly arthritic Bernese mountain dogs, have shown up in droves. Watching owners and their dogs play a reinvented game of musical chairs is amusing. “Dogs will be tested for performance-enhancing drugs after the competition,” jokes the host. “You’re good as long as I don’t see it.”

Beyond dogs and owners is the beautiful elm-grove promenade, where a group of guys blaring Top-40 songs playfully dance and joke around. A Japanese lady sells handcarved figures made out of some kind of straw. Among people selling street art a guy tries to blow gigantic bubbles. It doesn’t work, but there are still signs of feel-good camaraderie: “That’s okay, you’re still very talented,” the girl says to him.

Are the “positive poems” mobiles with sayings inscribed on them like “turn your face towards the sun and the shadows will fall behind you” omens of encouragement?

As I stretch on the grass, a man passes by and we make eye contact. “How are you doing today?” he asks with a smile. I smile back. “It’s a perfect day for a stretchhh,” he says languorously, laughs, and then adds, “Have a good day, darling.”

I’m appreciative of the small kindnesses of strangers I’ve witnessed: a suit-clad businessman give a particularly wretched beggar in the subway a few dollars; a car stops to let a kid who has dropped something in the street outside my apartment building retrieve it, though not without some enthusiastic NYC-style honking. New Yorkers have a gruff softer side of which outsiders aren’t always aware. I love when it reveals itself in its small moments.

The New York I’m finding in the park on Saturday is almost unrecognizable from mid-week Manhattan. It’s peaceful and leisurely, the remote-control sailboats sailing on a calm pond embody the atmosphere around me. I like this New York better. The din of the city is subdued to a calmer, more laid-back chatter. Tourists clad with cameras are interspersed with New York natives. It’s as though Manhattan has taken a moment to let out a long collective breath.

Broke and practically friendless, there’s more to New York than flashy Times Square or the glitzy Trump Towers. Don’t overlook the small details. Sunny Saturday afternoons in Central Park are one of my happy places. Meandering through the streets, there is a beautiful hush that falls on New York early on a Sunday morning.

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There’s small successes, too. I met a girl down the hall who just finished her Harvard master’s from down the hall and exchanged numbers in the laundry room. My roommate and I put on our nicer clothes and ventured out to a bar together to people-watch and talk.

Our conversations inevitably lead to the same theme: how to make a sense of place in this world, and the importance and difficulty of being in the world.

I’m not the only one grappling with this puzzle. I find it’s as much a riddle to my 73- year-old father as it is to me. No matter where we are, foreign elements alienate us, confound us, and shake up all that we think we know. A sense of place relies just as much if not more on our state of mind as our surroundings.

I’ll focus on that, and on being present and open in this New York world. Over an overpriced glass of Blue Moon, we hash out mini-goals: to find a bar that will be our go-to favorite spot, to throw a housewarming party and invite a few people we’ve met in our hall, to participate in the big New York City brunch thing on a few Sundays here and there.

Though turning my face towards the sun is more difficult now with winter coming, that does not mean I can’t take advantage of the sunlight I do have at hand.