Sunday, March 2, 2014

Prospect Park, Mid-Eighties--Memorial Day and Other Adventures by William Lannigan -2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist


                       "Prospect Park, Mid-Eighties--Memorial Day and Other Adventures"


William Lannigan          

I don’t remember when it was that I saved the black guy from the pack of white teenagers who were chasing him down. That happened one night outside Prospect Park. Another time inside the park, I saved an Hispanic kid with a filet knife from a circle of white kids who were ready to stone him. I’m pretty sure both incidents occurred before Memorial Day took on some extra meaning for me.

Some background first…. Prospect Park, completed in 1873, is a large, very beautiful park designed by Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux who had first designed Central Park in Manhattan. The topography is similar-----wooded areas, hills, meadows, a lake and a pond, pathways designed to curve into the topography. Some of us native Brooklynites like to think that Olmstead apprenticed developing Central Park and created his masterpiece with Prospect Park. Olmstead created walkways that curve under other walkways supported by stone bridges and tunnels. Walking out of each of these tunnels, one views an artfully designed vista of sky, tree and meadow. Currently, that vista is interrupted because when modern city workers, oblivious to Olmstead’s artistic expression, installed lights near the entrances, they stuck them so the black stanchions intrude on each view.

Olmstead decided against interior lighting. He thought no one would go into the park at night due to the “footpads”. “Muggers” we would call them today. I like to remember that in Olmstead’s day most of the footpads were probably Irish. Although, I went into the park, many, many times after dark, I believe Olmstead made the right call. There is always danger in the solitary, the dark and a mismatch of income.

I had lived across the street from Prospect Park since December, 1976. Three or four times a week, I ran its 3.3 mile circular interior road past the lake, the gazebo, up the steep hill to the Grand Army Plaza Monument, past the long meadow bordering increasingly upscale Park Slope, round the turn by the horse corral to the ballfields and the gate across the street from my rent-stabilized apartment in blue-collar Windsor Terrace.

In ’76, the Bronx and the boombox clamor of Fordham Road had become too much for me in my first year of not drinking. The apparent peacefulness of Windsor Terrace and the relief promised by easy access to the park made moving an easy choice. It was a promise generally kept, but stuff would happen and, by 1991, it would be time to move on. My car would be stolen three times, my apartment broken into. Two women I had lived with there moved out, my best friend died upstairs in his apartment, my dog was killed by a pack of wild dogs who lived in the hilltop Quaker Cemetery in the park. Neighborhood kids, Irish and Italian, from the local parish, set fire to a homeless man sleeping in the park.

I capped a brief return to drinking in early ’77 by sharing a case of beer with neighborhood teenagers in the park’s horse corral. After that, I re-focused on staying sober and despite or because of everything, I continued to run through the beauty of the park and haven’t had a drink since. Not too many knew the park as I did--- knew of the pipe used as a den for wild dog pups, knew the park during snowfalls at 2:00 am on Prospect Hill. Not too many watched it all, saw the swans move in, watched Catholic school little league games and volleyball games played by very short South Americans with ancient Mayan faces. I sought and found serenity and more in that park. In a way it seemed to be mine.

One Memorial Day morning, I went walking as usual and found a number of black families picnicking in the hills and in the meadow just beyond the outfield grass. More coming, lugging coolers, bags of food and blankets, tape players. Fine by me. Something new to me. Interesting people-watching. Something about African-American culture I hadn’t known.

Guess I must’ve seemed to be staring. Got challenged by a big, thick, tough-looking, dark-skinned guy with an attitude brought from somewhere else, somewhere violent. “Hey! You! Whachu lookin’ at!” Loudly. Angrily. Not a question. A real threat. The attention of other black men close by now shifted toward me. Just all of them and one of me and the park had become a dark alley I had to walk out of. I didn’t answer. Just walked, not responding to the taunts and threats delivered to my back.

Never went into the park again on Memorial Day. Observed the park filling up with large black family groups in subsequent years. Felt like it was mine all the other days, theirs Memorial Day. Brooklyn was changing, the old boundaries I had grown up with in the fifties and sixties no longer held and unsafe feelings from such conflicts lasted for years.

A few years later, on another Memorial Day, I was walking on Prospect Park Southwest, the street I lived on which borders the park. The park was on my right across the street and I was one block from my building walking past private homes with hedges bordering small front yards. I was just about where the street curved slightly to parallel the curve of the park and a large tree narrowed the sidewalk. Two black teenagers approached me. Lanky kids, shorter than my 6’ 2”, lighter than my 195. I kept to the right on the sidewalk keeping the open street available. Made eye contact with each and held it as we passed. Stayed alert, feeling them as we passed each other. Took a few steps and then turned to make sure they were moving on.

In the seconds since they passed me, they had reached the narrow spot and were punching a much shorter white guy who they had pinned against the hedges. He was punching up at them as he sagged into the hedge. It was a strangely, silent scene.

I yelled, very deeply, very loudly---a short, aggressive, “HEY!” and charged them with my fists up. They stopped punching, turned to look at me and ran away fast. The short dude was thankful. They hadn’t gotten anything from him.

Within a year or so, another adventure. Walked into the park on an afternoon with lots of afterschool activity, ballfields full, kids in carriages, on tricycles, runners and bikers sharing the road before rush hour car traffic was let in. Crossed the road and under the trees near the horsepath came upon about eight neighborhood kids, Irish and Italian, forming a semi-circle around a somewhat dazed looking Hispanic kid, He held a filet knife, they all had large stones in their fists. There were no words being spoken. It seemed to be the time just before the stones would fly.

I found myself walking through the circle up to the Hispanic and telling him, “Give me the knife. I’m taking you out of here.” It was a time when I looked like what many cops looked like then and I tried my best to act like an off-duty cop. He handed me the knife and I took his left arm just above the elbow and told the stoneholders, “I’m taking him with me.” We walked through the crowd together, me holding him by the arm, over to the road, across and out the gate where I let him go, wished him well, crossed the street and went into my building. No stones flew; no other words were spoken. Whole thing lasted less than a minute. I kept the knife, a very good, very sharp fishing knife.

Any rescues or interventions I’ve done have always begun without premeditation. I’ve found myself in the middle of situations clear about what to do and say with no memory of deciding to physically move from where I was when I first saw the conflict.

Such was the case one clear fall night around10 pm when I walked along Prospect Park West toward 9th Street with the park a few steps to my right. Between 11th and 12th, a black guy, about 19 or 20, came running from the park. He was being chased. He jumped from the wall that girdles the park from the sidewalk, and ran across the sidewalk into the middle of the street. Behind him, a half dozen or so paces was the leader of the pack, an Italian about the same age and--- still in the park, but coming strong were the rest of the whiteboy pack-----at least six more. The wolfpack image flashed. The leader of the pack, the strongest and swiftest, the rest following to be in on the kill.

The black guy turned to look behind him as he hit the middle of the strangely empty street and as he turned, he fell. The Italian was on him immediately kicking him.

Somehow, I was there also. Right there. Calm. Didn’t interfere with the kicking. “Don’t get yourself locked up because of this nigger”, I said. “The cops are cooping just around the corner.” [ Why did I say, “cooping”, I thought. “That’s a cop word. “]

“Ok. Thanks,” said the leader. He kicked the black guy once more and said to the pack which had now arrived, “Let’s go.”

They took off, trotting toward 9th Street. The black guy looked at me. “Deeply” is the only word that comes to mind to describe the look. “Let’s get out of here”, I said. We jogged in the other direction. My normal thinking was returning. “Sorry I called you that,” I told him. “Don’t worry about it.” he said. I then thought that maybe the pack would come back and I didn’t want to be found with him. “You go that way, I told him and pointed down 12th Street. He did and I went into the park figuring if the pack came back, they wouldn’t look for me or come across me there. I cut through the park staying in the tree line straight to the gate across from my building on Prospect Park Southwest. I went in to my apartment sat down and entertained a high opinion of myself. This was a feat that would equal one of my brother’s cop stories.

Sometime later, I told the story to a black colleague at work who had grown up in the hood. “Maybe he deserved it,” he said. “He must’ve done something wrong.”

Street wisdom. What had seemed easy to categorize wasn’t really so simple anymore. I had never known more than a part of the story.
When I look back on those years and recall these interventions, I am in the park once more, quietly happy, feeling again the unplanned Zen perfection of my actions and I wonder if it was only there, in and around the power of the park and its always appealing beauty, that I could have been the instrument of such improbable peacemaking,

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