My relationship with the park had limits, though. I had never slept there. No one I knew had. Although the park has made a gleaming comeback from its days of neglect in the ’70s and ’80s–when, according to the Central Park Conservatory, whole swaths resembled “dilapidated ruins”–spending the night there still carries a whiff of the reckless and forbidden. (Officially, it is forbidden; the park closes at 1 a.m.) Come sunset, when the Frisbee players and practitioners of tai chi depart, the park’s manicured lawns and lush, fabricated ravines are widely thought to become an underworld den, the haunt of drug addicts, prostitutes, marauders, and other people that go bump in the night. When I told my friends that I was planning to pitch a tent there and not leave until the sun rose, the responses I received blended envy with incredulity. Camping out in the park seemed to be a particularly cool New York thing that no one would be stupid enough to try. I imagined writing a story that would be quirky and ironic and would chronicle the strange varieties of nightlife that populate the dark center of a slumbering city. Certainly, sleeping outdoors–in the wilderness, or an urban park, or even your own backyard–is about the best way I know to be awakened to the thoughts you most need to be thinking. When I say you, I mean me. That night, in Central Park, my thoughts kept returning to the town I had left earlier in the day.
I had awakened that morning in a motel room. For a moment I forgot where I was or why I was there. The sun was blinding. A highway ran outside the room, dotted with fast-food restaurants and gas stations. I made my way to a Unitarian church in a slightly run-down part of town. Nearby streets were blocked for a road race; runners streamed past the entrance to the church. I went in. I picked up a program bearing the photo of a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. Her name was Victoria. She had died a few weeks earlier, on her birthday, at an age when most of us are still starting families, careers, still starting to figure out our lives.