Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Mayor of Central Park

Elizabeth Zelvin

One of my favorite real life characters is Alberto Arroyo, a 91-year-old Puerto Rican American known to New Yorkers as the Mayor of Central Park. I didn’t know he was legendary and beloved when I first encountered him. I had recently started running around the Central Park reservoir for daily exercise. I run very, very slowly. A power walker can leave me in the dust. I’ve never succeeded in passing another runner, not even the octogenarian lady in the purple track suit I tried to catch up with for over a mile one time. So it was heartening when I began meeting the elderly gentleman who always greeted me as he passed. Each time he had a smile for me and a few words of encouragement.

Rain or shine, I’d see him making his way slowly along the track toward his favorite bench on the south side of the reservoir, unmistakable with his white hair, bushy white mustache, and cane. “Looking good!” he would call to me. Sometimes he would raise his face and both arms to the sky and say, “Beautiful day!” The first time I described him to someone who ran in the park, they said, “Oh, everybody knows him. That’s the Mayor of Central Park.” After that, I saw that many people, men and women of all ages, stopped to talk with him. He knew hundreds by name. “In my simple way,” he told me once, “I make a lot of people happy.”

After I got to know him, I heard Alberto’s stories. One woman stops by his bench periodically to give him a haircut. He is especially proud of his friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom he courteously pretended not to recognize for years until the day she invited him to run with her. The stone Parks Department building near Alberto’s bench displays pictures and articles about him. Alberto came from Puerto Rico at the age of 21. Before settling in New York, he traveled in Europe, where the misery he saw prompted him to take a vow of poverty. He was the first person to use the path around the reservoir as a running track. From 1935 on, he ran there every single day. Only in the past few years have health problems kept him home now and then. I first introduced myself after writing a song about Alberto. He was delighted when I brought my guitar to the park and sang it for him. The very next day, I ran past him as he chatted with a couple of tourists. “That’s the woman who wrote a song about me,” I heard him say. I had become one of his stories.

Alberto uses a walker now. He gets to the park in early afternoon, and it sometimes takes him till after dark to get home. But he still makes his way around the track to his bench, which now bears a plaque honoring him. You can still occasionally see him standing on his head, a feat he used to perform daily. It still puts a big smile on my face to hear him call my name as I jog by. And sunshine or downpour or blizzard, he still says, “Beautiful day!”

Who's your favorite real life character?


Judy Clemens said...

What a beautiful post, Liz. I can almost see him myself. The first person I think of as a great real-life character is my grandma. She was one of those older ladies who would volunteer at the retirement home, reading to the older people. (as if she wasn't old herself!) She hugged and kissed everyone, and made every encounter a joy. I still miss her, but cherish every memory I have of my time with her.

L.L. Bartlett said...

I'm a regular mall walker (I love knowing it'll be warm on a cold day and cool on a hot day). There are some wonderful characters who are there every day. Like "Roots" who runs the carousel (she only colors her very long hair 3-4 times a year); there's the "Caregiver" who sits in the food court and reads all day while his "special" son walks the mall with earbuds and his Ipod. Then there's "shopping cart lady," who walks the mall all day long pushing a Sears cart. Doesn't matter what time of day it is, she's there. I often wonder if her family dumps her in the morning and picks her up late at night. There's also macho cop wanna-be, who struts around with his rent-a-copy uniform.

If someone isn't around, we worry about them.

Anonymous said...

As writers we are sometimes too quick to jump upon a wonderful bit of real life. "That would make a wonderful story. You must use that." This time, I don't think so. This man is such a terrific person, that I think he deserves to remain in real life. I know I couldn't do justice to hiim in fiction

Lonnie Cruse said...

Wow, what a beatiful man! I'd love to meet him. Thanks for the post, Liz. I sometimes walk at Massac Park, which is situated on the Ohio River. Lovely view for walkers/runners.