Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cat-like Coordination in the Pocket Park

It’s been said that the truth is stranger than fiction. And I would add that the quintessential reality show—truly unscripted and unpredictable—plays out on Main Street, Broadway, and at One Penn Plaza, too.

A stone’s throw away from the entrance to Penn Station, there is what is known as a New York City pocket park. This little snippet of real estate is not much to look at, but it’s a place to rest one’s weary bones in what otherwise is a heavily trafficked and rather grubby area of midtown Manhattan.

Grubville notwithstanding, the reality show on display on this day at One Penn Plaza was worth the price of admission. It seems a diverse group of drug-addled and miscellaneous mentally ill men and women gather, kibitz, and commiserate in this little park. There is very probably a shelter nearby that bids them adieu until the dinner bell and lights out. It’s sad, yes, but sometimes the surreal quality transcends all else.

The scene: Enter a straggly foursome. The leader of the pack—by default—is the oldest and sports a scary-looking skull tattoo on one of her arms. She looks like Rhea Perlman and is drinking something masked in a paper bag. And I don’t think it is Hawaiian Punch. Rhea is quite loquacious and doing a lot of sermonizing to her brethren of the streets. The closest in age to her is a Susan Sarandon look alike—had things gone really bad for her. Susan doesn’t appreciate Rhea’s perpetual lecturing of her and the others. She is especially miffed when Rhea unilaterally chooses to grant a little privacy to the youngest members of their ensemble. They need “time to work out their romantic problems,” Rhea says, without the two maternal figures on the scene butting in.

In the midst of this ongoing drama are two teenagers on bicycles performing all kinds of tricks on the various walls, steps, and metal banisters in the pocket park. Rhea is dutifully impressed and asks, “How many Red Bulls did you have to drink to get all that energy?” Self-deprecatingly, she adds how she is “too old and too fat” to ride a bicycle anymore, let alone perform acts of derring-do.

As if this One Penn Plaza reality show isn’t interesting enough, along comes a multiple bag-carrying fellow who kind of resembles the late Larry Hogue, the “Wild Man of 96th Street,” as the New York Daily News dubbed him. This notorious bipolar crack-addict terrorized a Manhattan neighborhood a couple of decades ago. When today’s Larry enters the pocket park, he is in the bicycle-riding youths’ way and taking his sweet time in getting to where he is going. They ask him politely to move and he beams a combination of hate and befuddlement.

When Larry is in earshot of me, I realize he isn’t angry at all, but mesmerized by the youth and what they are doing. He refers to their “cat-like coordination,” which I think is a nice turn of phrase from, if you will, a deranged individual in a truly unscripted reality show on the streets of Manhattan. After expressing some concern for the kids not wearing helmets, and possibly “landing on their balls” as many of their bicycle stunts involve coming down atop metal railings and such, Larry walks off and finds a little chair with a table in front of it—not too far away from where I am sitting—and promptly begins thumbing through his myriad accouterments.

The wind blows some of his trappings away and I watch as Larry scampers after them—very slowly, I might add. Larry has only one speed and it is not fast forward. At long last, with his table properly set, he begins pulling out bottles and mixing them together like a chemist in a laboratory. I can’t say for certain what is in any of them, but I’d wager Milk of Magnesia isn’t among them.

It is Rhea, Susan, and Larry’s turf that I am on. That much I know. They don’t say goodbye to me when I exit the drama and excitement of the pocket park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in spring. But that is okay. They have left their mark on me with this bona fide New York Experience in the perfect setting. What will tomorrow bring them? God only knows.

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