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Good Times in NYC: A Great Parking Spot, Then Rapture in Central Park

by on September 03, 2014 6:15 AM

New York empties out over Labor Day Weekend. This makes it a great time to drive in, if you're brave enough, which I am, since the mean streets of NYC were my driving school. (I'm still one of the great parallel parkers of our time.)

Arriving Saturday afternoon, we had our choice of five parking spots on the street where we were staying. This is unheard of. I was ecstatic. Sometimes when I visit this same neighborhood, I drive around for a half-hour or more before I give up and pay for a garage.

So that was a good day.

On Sunday we went to see the exhibition of photos by Garry Winogrand at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here is where everyone in New York was on a warm, humid, thunderstormy day. The place was packed.

I often feel trapped and suffocated in museums. Not this time, though. I love Winogrand. He's known as a street photographer, which is just what it sounds like: Most of his photos are faces in the crowd. Some scowl, some smile, some look like they're a million miles away. We rarely know whether they're reacting to something that's happening around them, just out of view, or to a memory, or an ache or a bit of news.

Some of the images are delightfully odd, like the boy and the sheep who look like twins, or the underwater shot of a woman and a pig swimming side by side.

Some are fraught with vague menace: A child in a diaper stands at the top of a driveway where a tricycle lies on its side. An older sibling is coming out of the garage. A dark cloud looms behind the house. The children look abandoned, as if their parents have fled and, in their haste, forgot their family.

Part of the reason I like Winogrand's photos so much is that most of them were taken in New York in the '60s and '70s. They remind me of what the world looked like when I was growing up.

But the best thing about looking at Winogrand's photos was what happened to me after, when I went outside. The promised thunderstorm had just ended. We ducked into Central Park and headed vaguely southwest, arriving at Bethesda Fountain, familiar from countless movie scenes. The opening sequence of "Angels in America," for example, flies us from west to east, offering gorgeous views of the Golden Gate, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Chicago and New York, before homing in on Central Park, the fountain and its presiding angel, whose face and eyes, startlingly, come to life.

I came to life in the presence of the angel. In sports we say of a player on a hot streak that he's "locked in" or that he's "in the zone" or that the "game is slowing down for him." Of a hitter on a rampage we say that he's "seeing the ball well." All those clichés apply to my experience at Bethesda.

I began seeing everything with a photographer's eye: a couple posing under a tree, children splashing in a small lake left by the storm, a lanky vendor in a fuzzy pink bucket-shaped hat.

Every face became a portrait. Trees and meadows became landscapes. Whatever I focused on felt framed, sharply set off from its surroundings.

This is what artists do for us. They're seers in the most literal sense. They see and by sharing their vision with us, they remind us to see. We are awakened to the beauty of the world.

When I sat down on the rim of the fountain it began to rain again, lightly. No one fled. The droplets made bubbles on the surface of the water. A young woman sat under a wine-dark umbrella, reading a book. Two young guys with dark, slicked-back hair and bright plaid shorts competed to see who could throw a penny closest to the angel. A black-haired woman sat in a wheelchair by the lake, waiting for someone. When he appeared, she lit up.

Then there was the parkscape: the green banner hanging from the light standard, the birds and deer carved into the stonework of the grand staircase, the dripping trees and glistening rocks.

A ray of light found my wife and her niece, talking animatedly under a black umbrella. I couldn't resist. I became one of the many fountain visitors who had to capture some part of the scene in a photograph. I'm glad I have the picture but I'm no Winogrand. Photographers see with their cameras. I see better without one. When I look at a tableau through a viewfinder or on the tiny screen of my phone, it breaks the spell. No longer is it enough just to look, to see.

The living angel turned back into stone. The Bethesda Fountain accordionist packed up his instrument and rode away on a child's scooter.


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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