Washington Square Park Alive

With the transition from a harsh winter to a reluctant spring still in the works, I felt the need to visit Washington Square Park. The park is the Village’s historic frame of reference, a tourist Mecca, a place of encounter for lovers, musicians, theater enthusiasts, and gymnasts.

In the center of the square, around the water fountain, a group of energetic African-American men are performing. They are not only excellent gymnasts but first class showmen. For a little less than a half -hour the onlookers are glued to their movements and sounds. They mimic, tease each other and toss puns to the spectators while preparing the public for the grand finale. Their timing combined with their physical dexterity is exceptional. At the appropriate moment, one of them jumps over several people who are bent over in expectation.

Sitting next to me is a middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter. Eyeing the great number of dogs in the park, the woman says to her daughter, “We humans are outnumbered by dogs today.” As soon as she finishes saying that, two very young, very tall, very strong men walk by, each one holding a little dog in his arms.

I hear the sounds of a piano and am directed to a young man playing Mozart on an upright piano. He is part of a city program to encourage piano playing in public spaces. I then witness an unusual sight. A middle-aged man, tall and slightly overweight, is seated on a bench with a bag at his side full of pigeon food. He is completely covered by pigeons and, as he feeds them, he talks to them and pats them on the wings. His face is covered with patches of dry skin probably a left-over from eczema, all contributing to his unusual looks. What makes the sight truly strange, though, is that his body is almost completely covered in pigeon’s feces, and he doesn’t seem to mind.

I move away from him and come upon a quintet of wonderful jazz musicians. On the right is an Asian-looking man playing the trumpet. He is short and thin and is wearing a boater hat, the trademark of the famous French singer Maurice Chevalier. Behind him, on the base, is a very earnest young man. A thin Vietnamese woman is on the drums and a short stocky man with a beard is playing the saxophone. Next to him a tall Black man in a rumpled suit and a hat that is too small for his head is also playing the trumpet.

I am sitting next to a Japanese woman with a pleasant smile. I learn from her that the African-American man is not part of the group; he was just walking by and joined in. She is talking to a 7-year-old child, a beautiful girl with curly hair who moves in sync with the music, totally absorbed by it. Her father, the African-American trumpet player, looks at her lovingly, and while playing makes faces at her. He seems to be playing for his daughter alone, who obviously enjoys the music. “She loves to play the piano,” he tells me later.

It is a typical day in the world’s most cosmopolitan city, in the city’s most myriad park. Although I listen with interest to the music, my attention is drawn to the “pigeon man.” I cannot understand how he can stand the dozens of pigeons perched on top of his head, on his arms and legs. He just sits and continues feeding them. He is a bit unkempt, totally unconcerned with his surroundings and the people near him.

The girl continues moving to the rhythm of the music; at times the Japanese woman says something to her. The girl reminds me of so many girls I see in my travels in Africa, full of vitality and charm. She is smartly dressed in a dark blue skirt with broad suspenders and a beautiful white blouse. Her sights are fixed on her father.

Although spring began officially several weeks ago, it is still cold in the late afternoon. I look over at the pigeon man, who has eyes only for his pigeons and continues feeding them. In the meantime, the musicians have decided to call it a day and are packing up, so I leave, too. Just as I am getting up, though, a passing pigeon (one of the pigeon man’s pigeons, I suspect) leaves a present on my pants. Delicately, without a word, the Japanese woman hands me a tissue.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”