It’s an August weekend and I’m in Washington Square Park. I rarely come here and I’m not exactly sure why. I tell myself that it’s a pain in the butt to get from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live, to this part of Greenwich Village, but that’s not really true. Laziness? Yeah, that sounds more like it.
The park’s nine acres are packed with people. It’s a family crowd but with an edge. There are tourists (of course), mixed with purple-haired locals with sleeve tattoos, hipsters, and the sort that spend an enormous amount of money on their clothes but like to pretend they don’t. There’s even a Hello Kitty draped mom with her matching mini-me taking in the sights. I have no words.
It’s hot and sticky and the water in the park’s ginormous fountain has become the center of the universe. Children skip and splash and scream in that high-pitched, this-is-way-too-fun-to-contain-myself way they get when playing has reached epic proportions. With their street clothes sopping wet, they giggle until they can hardly breath.
Nearby, a woman is making bubbles—huge bubbles that float in the air like small blimps. In the sunlight they sparkle with tiny rainbows. A flaxen-haired cutie about 3 feet tall wearing purple sandals squeals, hands raised high, and chases after the flying suds. “Again!” She says to the bubble lady “Again!”
Near the famous Washington Arch, the remnants of a chalk artist’s work adorns the sidewalk. I think it’s a scene of Ocean Drive in South Beach with its pastel hotels and palm trees that look out over the water, but I can’t be sure.
An artist in the flesh, pony-tailed and wearing knee guards, is on all fours working on a sand painting of a Day-Glo snowflake that’s 20 feet across. Methodically, he digs his hands into various zip lock bags containing colored grains and slowly releases them in a steady stream onto the cement. People film him with their camera phones while he works. I watch and dread a strong gust of wind.
I wander over to a pigeon handler sitting on a bench; his name is Larry. He’s too skinny and his hair is a mess as if he just emerged from a lifetime in the wild. He has a bag of seeds and dozens of birds at his feet. Two sit on his shoulders and when I approach, another two jump on his head. He grabs one close to his mouth and nuzzles it. “They have a body temperature of 107 degrees, you can’t catch anything,” he says with a toothless grin and kisses the top of its head. I don’t argue, germs aren’t what concern me. I’m thinking about the lice that live on pigeon feathers and inwardly I gag.
Bug lips aside, he’s a very sweet man and this is his moment. He shares “his” pigeons with the people and the people love it. A blind teenager lets Larry drop a handful of seeds in his palms and instantly a few pigeons land on the boy’s arms. He squeals with delight. His father is flummoxed. “He’s always been afraid of birds. I can’t believe it.” We both look at his son and enjoy the show. He stands like this for over 20 minutes and is beside himself every time they perch on his forearms. When I say my goodbyes, Larry calls after me “Don’t forget to check me out on Instagram, hashtag LarrythePigeonMan.”
Fifty feet away, a jazz band, Rasheed and the Jazz Collective, are playing on one of four walkways that lead to and from the center of the park. “It’s their spot,” I’m told by a regular. They’ve played there every summer for 16 years. A musician blows two trumpets at once and his cheeks puff out like Dizzy Gillespie. I’m not a fan of modern jazz—to me it sounds like the soundtrack from a fever-induced nightmare—but I watch and listen for a while and then make a b-line towards the rat-a-tat-tat of drums near the fountain.
I’m just in time to see Tic & Tac, twin brothers and two of their friends, finish their show. They mix dancing, acrobatics and comedy into a high-energy extravaganza that has crowds watching three people deep. They rake in the “donations.”
The park is a circus without the three rings and the big top. I don’t like the real deal with the not funny clown gags and stupid animal tricks, but this circus is different. This I like. Everyone is enjoying life. There’s fun and music and art all mixed together and everything that’s wrong in the world is forgotten.
At least for a little while.
I really have to visit more often.