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Central Park: A green island in Manhattan

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The back of the volunteer badge dangling around my neck listed a number of instructions. It told me to wear closed-toe shoes and protective gloves, and avoid handling hazardous material, such as broken glass, needles and horse patties. I should complete my litter-picking route within an hour and return the equipment by 4:30 p.m. And I should never answer any questions from the public, but direct them instead to a park employee or a visitor center.

Abiding by the rules, I eventually stopped asking myself where I was. Because beyond the obvious — You Are Here in Central Park — my exact location among the 843 acres, dozens of statues and sculptures, seven bodies of water and seven meadows was elusive. But then again, the park's creators did intend for visitors to lose themselves in the inner-oasis. So I walked right past the man in the Central Park Conservancy T-shirt, my laminated card bouncing in defiance.

The iconic New York park is no mere green smudge on Manhattan's face. It's an island on an island, a self-sustaining microcosm with its own ecosystem and personality (multiple, in fact).

"It's so big, it scares me," said a staff member at the Kerbs Memorial Boathouse, which rents model sailboats. "I got lost on July Fourth and had to call a cab."

But that's an essential part of the anti-urban adventure: to get lost and see what you can find.

In May, I accepted the challenge and locked myself inside the park's borders. For nearly two days, I relied on it to fill my basic needs (food, drink, exercise, penguins) and more esoteric cravings (gondola ride, film sites). Not once did I look for an escape hatch, except at night — getting arrested for sleeping in the park would cut into my daytime exploration. If only the park had an on-site jail.

The Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park under a contract with the city, provides information on sights and daily events. The calendar listing for the last weekend in July, for example, includes a dozen activities, including a walk from Harlem Meer to the Pool, the Iconic Views of Central Park Tour and a performance by an eco-troupe.

The nonprofit group also offers downloadable maps for self-guided walking tours (North End, Mid-Park, South End, Woodland, Tree) and an audio guide featuring celebrity narrators: Whoopi Goldberg on the Alice in Wonderland statue, Jerry Seinfeld on the Mall, former mayor Michael Bloomberg on tree care.

Individual attractions, such as the Central Park Zoo and the Loeb Boathouse, also give a loud shout-out to their own diversions, including animal feedings and gondola rides. Finally, outside operators run theme tours, covering movie and TV sites and arts and architecture. The cresting river of options is exhilarating — and overwhelming.

At Belvedere Castle, I asked a visitor center volunteer whether someone with no dependents and no shares in Apple could engage in every activity. His one-word response: "Impossible."

And with that, I surrendered to the inevitable: I couldn't do it all, or even half. Maybe a sixteenth.

The main draws — the zoo, the nature sanctuary, the bandshell, the literary walk, etc. — congregate in the southern portion of the park. Most visitors barely tread beyond the castle, which perches nobly on a hill slightly above the 79th Street Traverse.

The visitor center also dispenses wildlife kits (I skipped the children's activity book but grabbed the binoculars and field guide on birds) and signs up volunteers for trash pickup. In 1980, the conservancy took over park maintenance, and it depends on donations (which make up 75 percent of the $58 million budget) and hundreds of volunteers to keep the bucolic retreat at its tidiest. The park needs me and you as much as we need it.

The "Pitch In, Pick Up" program requires little effort. I was already walking around the park and occasionally looking down to avoid tripping, so why not retrieve trash along the way?

I set out for the zoo to catch the afternoon sea lion and penguin feedings, my plastic gripper poised for duty.

Three sea lions streaked like dark lightning bolts underwater, then leapt onto a pile of boulders on the edge of the pool. They vogued for the spectators before splashing back into their micro-ocean.

I didn't have time to wait for an encore performance, because the penguin lunch bell was about to ring. I entered the chilly Arctic Polar chamber and pressed my face against the glass tank filled with Gentoo, chinstrap, rockhopper and king penguins. It was the ultimate penguin party, formal attire required.

The zookeeper appeared behind the misty glass, dressed as if she were going on an Arctic research expedition. She fed each bird, often shoving a fish twice the size of the bird's head into its mouth.

A few of the penguins didn't leave their nook for snack time. A volunteer explained that they were pregnant and bound to their nests. When I asked for suggestions on other calendar-cute baby animals, she recommended the red pandas, the cranes and the mongoose. Then she noticed my paraphernalia and said, "Thank you for conserving the park."

On the return walk to Belvedere Castle, I followed a corkscrew route through the densely forested and nobby Ramble. I popped out of the trees to discover a turtle, which I did not grab, and a cardboard box, which I did. Steps from the castle, a family waved me over to a stone wall and said, "There's a popsicle stick."

The rules did not prevent me from taking orders from visitors.

At the castle, I returned my gear and showed the volunteer my collection. He nodded his approval, then told me to go throw it away in the receptacles outside. My reward: two squirts from the bottle of antibacterial gel on the counter.

Now hands-free, I headed straight for the Conservatory Water and Kerbs Memorial Boathouse, which rents out toy sloops. The bean-shaped pond was full of sailboats zigzagging across the water, the late afternoon wind blowing breezy kisses into the white sails.

The concessionaire added my name to a short waiting list, and I took a seat at the adjoining cafe and ordered an iced coffee. A jazz trio performed for a small crowd. I imagined that if the boats were about 80 feet longer and the coffee stronger, I could have been on the French Riviera.

I had some flashes of America's Cup glory, and some boat-in-a-draining-bathtub flubs. A couple who own a real boat quit, frustrated by the fluky winds. "This isn't fun," the female crewmember grouched to her male mate.

I sailed my ship until the boathouse closed, at 7 p.m., abandoning it in the middle of the sea after the wind died out. A staff member gave me a hint for next time. "The best winds are between 12 and 3 in the afternoon," he said.

Option B: Rent a rowboat — no wind required. Even better: I slid into a Venetian gondola and let the gondolier muscle his way across the lake.

With more than 300 films and television shows on its résumé, Central Park is the most filmed location in the world, said Sami Horneff, our purebred New Yorker tour guide. And over the next two hours, she was going to show us as many cinematic sites as possible in a two-mile stretch.

But first, a bit of documentary footage.

William Bryant, editor of the New York Post, was the progenitor of the idea to create a bucolic retreat from the city heat. Thirty landscape designers submitted proposals; Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won the peerless prize. The park, which opened in 1847 on 778 acres, sits on real estate worth $560 billion. "That's billion, with a 'B,' " said Sami, clearing up any confusion with the M-word. They built the park below street level, to erase the cityscape and allow visitors to escape in the sunken greenscape.

"Everything in Central Park was man-made," Sami added. "All of the lakes have bubbles. The rocks are original, but they didn't naturally occur in those spots."

At the duck pond, we were suddenly walking in Russell Brand's footsteps, Sami told us, referring to the star of the "Arthur" remake. The Smurfs also "sat" here for their eponymous film. She next directed our gaze to the Solow Building, a skyscraper poking at the blue sky. "Chandler's office is behind us," she said of the "Friends" character. "But they lied to you, you guys. 'Friends' is totally fake. They shot it in Los Angeles."

Some kind of "Friends" they are.

Sami covered a wide spectrum of movies and shows, from classic mainstays ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Love Story") to TBS reruns ("Maid in Manhattan," "Vanilla Sky"). For those of us who might have missed a scene while letting the dog out, she presented still images on her iPad. "Enchanted," "Glee" and "Gossip Girls" made several appearances, and all three received fandom squeals from the girls in the group.

The tour finished at Tavern on the Green, opposite Sheep Meadow, which Sami called "New York City's beach." (After its own melodrama, including filing for bankruptcy and closing in 2009, the restaurant reopened in April under new management.) She left us with a fitting image of New York: The "Ghostbusters" scene in which restaurant diners ignore Rick Moranis's plea for help, caring more about their meals than the ravenous beast outside.

Since entering the Republic of Central Park, I'd mainly stayed below the 79th Street divide. I'd tiptoed over the line for the marionette show at the Swedish Cottage and Belvedere Castle but hadn't ventured any higher. The moment had arrived.

I chose the Conservatory Garden as my northern destination. I would enter through the ornate Vanderbilt Gate, which once graced the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue. The quickest and most direct route would have been to walk up Fifth Avenue and turn left at 104th Street. But that strategy would defile the spirit of the park — getting lost. Instead, I pursued the loopy paths that unspooled like tangled yarn.

After Delacorte Theater, the summer home of the Public Theater and its free Shakespeare performances, the park opened up and simplified: grass, water, woodlands. Few buildings encroached upon the scene. Nature staved off the city's sharp angles.

At the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, joggers hugged the iron fence that encircles the 1.58-mile running track. To my right, I heard the thwack of tennis balls. Up ahead, a couple read quietly beneath a tree, their dog napping at their feet.

I rounded the reservoir to the soccer fields of North Meadow. Feet kicked balls, the orbs arcing over the grass like low rainbows. I passed East Meadow and a gaggle of friends horsing around with a football. It was like Sports Illustrated, the Young and Comely Edition.

About an hour later, I arrived, hot and parched after covering 45 blocks with little shade and no food carts. At the gate, I heard the angels sing. Well, not really. It was just the burble of a 12-foot-high jet fountain, but after listening to only my thoughts, it sounded heavenly.

The six-acre plot is the only formal garden in Central Park. It's divided into three styles — Italianate, French and English — and feels very proper and aristocratic. I entered the elliptical Italianate garden on cat's paws, mindful of its tranquility, and inspected the vibrant flower beds of tulips, grape hyacinth, irises and daffodils. Then I spotted a feature previously undiscovered during my wanderings.

I stepped closer, rolling up my sleeves and preparing to plunge in. I quickly stuck one arm in and then another, and then my head. The sprinkler spritzed my hair and my sun-baked skin. Sufficiently cooled and composed, I was now ready to return to the wilds of Central Park.

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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