Thursday, April 8, 2010

“You have to be happy with nothing.”

Elizabeth Zelvin

The Mayor of Central Park, Alberto Arroyo, died on Thursday March 25 at the age of 94. The pioneer jogger and friend and inspiration to thousands of New York runners took a vow of poverty in his youth as a way of acknowledging human misery and lived a simple, even austere life. It came as a surprise to almost all of his many friends that he left, apparently, significant assets. I attended the convivial post-burial dinner at a local restaurant, his estate’s treat. But of course Alberto’s real legacy was the love he gave unstintingly to so many people and the positive, even joyous attitude he had toward life and the world around him.

All of us at the funeral service and the dinner remembered how he would lift his face and hands to the sky, open his mouth wide, and say, “It’s a beautiful day!” whether the sun was shining or a storm howling through Central Park. We all agreed that as we ran past the bench where he held court at the South Gatehouse of the reservoir, he would wave and nod and say, “Looking good!” whether you were flashing by at a champion sprinter's pace, or, like me, always chasing that elusive 15-minute mile.

“He was a babe magnet,” one of the guys at my table said to another, and then looked guiltily at me as if I might attack him for being non-PC. But it was true. On Alberto’s 93rd birthday, he paid me a compliment that I’m still smiling about more than a year later. “Did you ever get one of his foot massages?” one of the women asked. I hadn’t. “When he was younger,” she said, “some of the women were wary, but as he got older, they all realized they could trust him.”

I’ve written about Alberto before. What I really wanted to talk about today is the power of simplicity he embodied. It was mentioned at the funeral service that in a documentary film about him, The Mayor of Central Park, there’s a wonderful moment when Alberto says, “You have to be happy with nothing.” He certainly practiced what he preached. Until the last few years, he spent his days in Central Park from morning to night. His bench near the South Gatehouse was his court room (both regal and judicial), his living room, and his therapy office. His shared room at the residence where he spent his final years held the bare minimum of clothing, no chachkes or memorabilia, not even a framed photograph or greeting card. What made him happy was being outdoors and seeing his friends. Those of us who took turns wheeling him to the park that last year agreed that the second he was out the door he started nodding, waving, and greeting everyone who passed—long-time friends, acquaintances, and strangers, especially those in running clothes. That’s all he needed.

How many of us are happy with nothing? How much of our lives do we spend bargaining with destiny, totting up what it will take to make us happy? Some of it is material (the house, the car, the investments), sometimes it’s prestige or fame or power. For writers, it’s getting published—until that happens. Then it’s a better deal, a better agent, laudatory reviews, impressive sales, and the next contract. After that, movie options, bestseller lists, awards. Blaming stress or hard times or the general unfairness of life, we excuse ourselves from the joy of the journey. Alberto was happy with nothing because he lived steeped in the joy of the journey—running the Marathon in his prime, making his way around the reservoir with a cane, as he did when I first met him, then a walker, then in a wheelchair, dependent on others to reach his beloved park. But getting there—even to that bench by the South Gatehouse—was not the point. I hope I never forget Alberto and stay focused on the journey all my life.


Allene Reynolds said...

What a beautiful post!

Anita Page said...

I wish I'd known Alberto, and now, thanks to this post, I feel I do a little. Beautifully done.

Kaye Barley said...

you've made me cry.

What a wonderful, inspirational post about a lovely, inspirational man. Wish I had had an opportunity to meet your friend Alberto, Liz.

thank you.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

This coming Monday, April 13 at 6:30 pm, the track around the Central Park reservoir will be dedicated to Alberto. A lot of his friends will be on hand at the South Gatehouse for the putting up of a placque provided by the Central Park Conservancy.

Sandra Parshall said...

A beautiful tribute to a special man, Liz. I'm glad he's being honored in the park.

Julia Buckley said...

The power of blogs--that you can spread the news of Alberto's wonderful philosophy to even more people. Thanks for sharing this great story.

I'm guessing that he'll still be there for people whenever they jog past his space.