Redbrick and gingko

(Rachel Packer)

At the foot of Lexington Avenue, exactly 23 steps away from the entrance to my Manhattan apartment building, sits Gramercy Park. Though it covers only one measly block, that park was a jungle to me as a child. It was the stage set of my imagination, a patch of luscious green in a city of gray. Saturday afternoons were spent chasing squirrels up and down the park’s walkways and digging little holes in the dirt beneath its hot gray gravel. I can see my six-year-old hands carefully stacking sticks and twigs into square houses for some lucky bugs; I can feel my scraped knee lightly stinging; I can tilt back my head and watch the white sun speckling through a mess of leaves. A taxicab honks. I’m here; I’m back.

September had been a draining month. But the first month at college always is, my mom told me. It was a writing assignment that brought me back, a re-exploration of a place from your past. Finally, a reason to come home—a reason to get that dose of family, sleep, and city that I’d been craving so badly.

The train drops me at Grand Central Station at ten o’clock in the morning, and I decide to hop right on the subway to my stop without even coming up from underground. The first swipe of my Metro-Card yields an “INSUFFICIENT FARE” notice, so for the first time ever, I buy a single-ride ticket.

Emerging from the 22nd Street 6 train stop, I squint my eyes in the mid-morning sun and catch the glimpse I knew I’d catch of Emma’s Dilemma, the ridiculously overpriced deli that specializes in make-your-own salads and delectable saran-wrapped peanut butter cookies. Resisting the same urge that I resisted on so many afternoons with a leaden backpack of schoolbooks, I keep walking down 22nd Street and see my green awning approaching. “One,” it reads, in curly white script. These sidewalks are alive at 10:30 on a Saturday morning; glistening with the passing of every car, gray, but alive with sunlight, so sparkly I feel I can’t quite see them fully. I look up—does my building look different? The stone was washed, maybe. My parents are expecting me, right? They’ll be home.

My arms and legs know where they are. They have a life of their own at this point; at a rate of two concrete sidewalk slabs per stride, the “One” is so close I can already see corner of the “e” where the white paint is chipping. The gentle burning in my thighs is sweet and familiar. I hear the thuds of my sneakers on the sidewalk radiate through my entire body. Black wads of old gum freckle the concrete sidewalk. And suddenly I feel like I’ve felt before on some late evening on my way home from school or rehearsal or a friend’s house: there it is, almost there. The homestretch is a place where nothing else seems to matter but the home you’re headed to.

My apartment building’s super, Charlie, is standing stiffly over a bed of orangey red begonias, staring at the water streaming from his hose. I wonder if I’ll get the usual “How ya doin’?” when he sees I’m back. As a family of tourists emerges from the café across the street, I am overcome with a feeling of anonymity that all at once makes me lonely, yet fills me with a sense of home. Charlie looks up from his watering and squints at my sweatshirt. “Yale!” he says, nodding, “How ya doin’?”

As I turn the corner, the shady scaffolding of 22nd Street gives way to the sunlit green of Gramercy Park. See, the funny thing about this park is that there are never more than six people in it at once. True, it is a private park, but you’d think that all the homes surrounding it would have a few more people to spare on a Saturday like today; in my memory it’s the field of an ongoing game of tag, and my neighbor Cooper is sitting on the hot gravel reading Amelia Bedelia.

The truth though, is that this park is more an ornament than anything else—a visual breather from the bustling avenues around it. It’s a hole in the grid of Manhattan where, for two square acres, big tall things no longer block the light or the wind or the snow. In place of blocky buildings is a square of skinny old redbrick townhouses (and that one painted pale yellow). They remind me of little kids dutifully lining up for a class photo–charmingly wobbly and uneven, leaning on each other’s shoulders, just orderly enough to look neat. To write this, to try and articulate the feeling of such a familiar place is odd to me; before today, this redbrick was simply the backdrop of my daily routine. But now, it is suddenly the focal point of observation, of reflection. These trees, these bricks, this crack in the sidewalk–they’re nothing new, but today I’m making it all seem more profound. Nostalgia can do that, I suppose.

I have an appointment scheduled this morning with the mayor of Gramercy Park, Arlene Harrison. If you want to know about Gramercy Park, my mom reminded me when I told her about the assignment, Arlene is your woman. I knew she’d say that. And yes, indeed, Arlene is the self-appointed mayor of Gramercy, and residents of the park are happy to support her reign. Arlene Harrison is a tiny, gutsy, middle-aged woman who has a clipboard as a right hand and a walkie-talkie permanently clipped to her black slacks. Her dyed blond hair falls stick-like on her pearls and teal cashmere sweater. She knows the name, age, and primary hobby of every child who lives on Gramercy Park, and she absolutely cannot wait to talk to me about the park to which she dedicates her heart and soul, and every waking minute.

While I wait for Arlene, I walk around the park, peering in through the wrought-iron gates, feeling oddly like an outsider. The manicured beds of red tulips catch my eye; and I’ve always loved the towering sycamores with that army camouflage bark. And there’s that dogwood tree whose pinky white blossoms always tell me when it’s spring. I spot my favorite trunk in the corner of the park that once acted as home base in many a game of tree tag. I remember slapping its ridged bark in relief after being chased by whoever was “it”. I guess I could stroll around inside, but the view from outside feels right; I haven’t walked through the gates of Gramercy Park in four or five years. Throughout high school, I knew it as an emblem of my neighborhood and of my home, and was happy just to enjoy it as the view from the kitchen counter. I suppose one day I must have just stopped going.

There was a time, though, when I was a loyal frequenter—one of those little kids who liked to bring their play-dates to the park and make houses for the squirrels in hollowed-out trees. But it’s a sunny September morning and the turnout is just four: a gardener in a green jumpsuit named Basil (really), a white-haired jogger, and a young mother gently pushing her baby back and forth.

It’s the gray slate sidewalk around the park that gets most of the action. Despite being saturated with dog urine, it somehow maintains a weathered antique charm. Ever since Arlene Harrison instated the “No Dogs Allowed rule,” the park’s perimeter has been on the receiving end of pretty much every ounce of resident pet waste. After a few years of owning a dog on the park, you get to know when the crowds will be out: there’s the 7 p.m. post-dinner rush (12-year-olds still in school uniform doing their family chores), and then the 11 p.m. pre-bedtime rush (a mixture of moms in yoga pants and shuffling old men in moccasin slippers). And then, I feel a squeeze on my shoulder.

“Hi, Sweethawht! How’s school? Alright, I want to help you. Ask me questions. Oh, let me tell you about the new holly bushes.”

Here was Arlene. And, again, I was reminded that she could only grab a quick coffee because she had to run and meet with the 2011 trick-or-treating board across the street at 60 Gramercy. We strolled around the park to Irving Coffee, where the outdoor terrace was bustling with babysitters and models sipping iced coffees. So, the holly bushes. They’re a part of an effort to boost the “quality of life” factor; they help block out the traffic of Lexington Avenue, Arlene tells me. No soccer balls, no baseballs, and no squirrel feeding either. I am again assured that it’s all in the name of making Gramercy Park a nicer place to be. I nod and play along, whipping out my notepad and scribbling something down.

Here we are, little Arlene Harrison and I, strolling around my childhood park, and the gods of nostalgia decide to throw in all the main characters. Here on the sidewalk are the 30-something mothers, toting toddlers by their side, cellphones sandwiched between their shoulder and ear, babies squirming in the stroller. There goes the super fit bald man walking his droopy pair of St. Bernards. And here’s the little old Asian woman who collects fallen Gingko berries off of the street. This morning is especially fecund in the Gingko department; the wrinkly pink berries form a skin on the sidewalk after countless shoes squish them as they dash on by. Arlene tells me that she’s asked, and it turns out the lady uses them to make soup. Apparently gingko gives her good luck for a year, says Arlene. All right, she’s gotta run now to talk trick-or-treating, so I get a squeeze goodbye and a “bring some friends home to visit soon.”

Once I’m alone again, I walk on my tippy-toes atop the stone ledge around the park and watch the gingkos plop to the sidewalk. I feel distinctly that I am visitor in my own neighborhood. And then, it’s funny: walking around Gramercy Park that September morning, for the first time ever, I read the sign tacked to that mysterious trunk that once acted as “home base” in many a game of tree tag. It’s an American elm. I look both ways before I cross the street, and walk towards my apartment building.

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