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Paradise in the City
Why you could have a fine vacation without leaving New York's Central Park.

My day started in the urban wasteland of Jersey City. I got a donut and coffee at a dingy, crowded train station and spent the next 30 minutes in various bouncing, swaying metal boxes filled with people not speaking. I got out at the Museum of Natural History, where I caught the space show in a planetarium, surrounded by squirming schoolkids. It was now almost noon. I could feel the tourist blues setting in, and the last breath I had drawn out of doors was behind a bus in New Jersey. I decided I would head for the park and stretch my legs.

Five minutes later, I was sitting under a shade tree, watching an egret skim the placid waters of a small pond. A mother and child slowly paddled a boat along the green shore. A fisherman cast his fly amid stumps in the shallows. Sparrows chirped in the bushes. I couldn't hear a single car. I took a breath, closed my eyes, and for a fine, long moment forgot I was in a city with seven million people.

Years ago I met a typical arrogant New Yorker, a woman who asked me if Memphis had an airport, and I told her that I could never live in New York because there was no nature. "We've got Central Park," she said. "What else do you want?"

I had thought it a ridiculous statement at first, but about six hours after I left the museum I was ready to spend the rest of my vacation exploring the nooks and crannies of one incredible piece of nature.

Sure, it's a designed piece of nature. New Yorkers decided, in the mid-19th century, that they needed a grand park like London and Paris had, so they ran off a bunch of Irish pig farmers and German gardeners, destroyed a thriving African-American neighborhood, hired 20,000 workers, used more gunpowder than was fired at Gettysburg, and created an 834-acre landscaping project in the middle of what they all call simply the City.

And what a hell of a job they did. They created a place where you can get lost on wooded trails, see Shakespeare in the summer, ride a horse, swim, row a boat, or just sit and be quiet. This is of immense social value and is taken advantage of by people of all races and economic levels. I had spent less than two days in the City and was worn out; I can't imagine what it must be like to live here. I'd hang out in the park all the time.

Leaving the lake, I got myself a pretzel and sat down to watch the people go by: corporate guys on jogging lunches, young couples holding hands, tourists with maps, birdwatchers with binoculars, homeless people with carts. Poet-O was not around. He's a homeless man, who looks like Ed Koch, was born in the park's Sheep Meadow, carries poetry in his cart, and offers everyone a wishing bell in an orange bowl. You ring his bell and make a wish. Woody Allen rang his bell one time.

It's little jewels like these that make the park special, the little moments like watching a heron land in a tree within sight of the Chrysler Building. Or sipping a lemonade at the bandshell behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art and watching in-line skating artists perform their magic. There was one guy, shirtless and so muscular he looked like he was chiseled out of black marble, doing loops and leaps and spins while weaving through the crowd. Another guy was skating around with a water bottle balanced on his head. Behind me, bicyclists worked on various jump moves.

I wandered on, looking for the Great Lawn. I went past the sunbather-filled Sheep Meadow, through a statue garden, past the zoo and the Chess and Checkers House and the Lily Pond, and into the Ramble. As I write this, I'm looking at and reading about all the things that I missed: Dramatic Rock Outcrops, the Nature Sanctuary, the Rhododendron Mile, the Belvedere Castle.

I think, in short, that you could probably have a vacation of several fine days in Central Park alone. Venture about a block outside it in any direction, and you could spend another week.

My day ended on the Great Lawn. The sun was setting, baseballs were popping into gloves, the imposing buildings of Midtown Manhattan looked like the peaks of a far-off mountain range. I was in a Norman Rockwell painting. I had found my paradise in the City.