When I was younger, growing up in Silverlake, I always wanted to move to New York City. It’s not that I didn’t love Los Angeles, but I was eager for change, to experience the beauty of the shifting colors of trees in the fall. I dreamed of wandering around the romantic streets of the West Village, and picnicking in Central Park.
The first time I visited New York was during spring break of my junior year of high school, while touring colleges with my mom. I spent hours walking around, from Soho up to the Flatiron District, from Chelsea to Time Square. But my most distinct memory of the trip is of sitting on the edge of a dry fountain in Washington Square Park.
I didn’t know, on that cold April day how much the park would come to mean to me. Instead, I sat there with my friend Julia, talking about college, boys, and graduation, and paying absolutely no attention to the short, thin homeless man wandering around with a large cardboard sign reading: “Free Hugs.”
“How are you ladies doin’?’” he asked with sincerity, as he came and stood in front of us, smiling.
Julia nudged me towards him. He cheerfully hugged me tight and then released his grasp ever so slightly. As I tried to break away from his embrace, he turned his head and yelled out to Julia, “Take a picture!” She obliged. But once again, he wouldn’t let me go.
“Pictures are a dollar,” he stated cheekishly. Now, that may sound a little creepy, but he was friendly, and I was comforted by knowing that no matter how isolating or cold New York could be, it also could produce warm moments like this one.
Two years later, I found myself at the exact same fountain in the exact same park.
I was an incoming freshman at New York University, and older students were parading my classmates in and out of the park on various campus and city tours. It didn’t take too long to get the hang of maneuvering around the city without getting lost. So the park became my central landmark.
For weeks, I spent hours sitting or wandering in the park, reading on the benches or waiting for friends before heading off towards NYU-sponsored events. In the middle of the park, I acclimatized to my new surroundings. One day a friend and I found ourselves sitting with environmentalists painting posters for the upcoming People’s Climate march. Another time, I watched as cosplay characters took over the lawns in the late summer, and I listened to a French blues musician competing with a bucket drummer a few benches over. From women in pearls eating lunch in the park to dormless NYU students sleeping on benches to couples participating in acroyoga, the park has it all. Even a man playing guitar wearing nothing but his underwear and cowboy boots
Even though I came from a city where you could see Batman and the Hulk walking down Hollywood Boulevard, or a leathery-looking roller skating man wearing a speedo and a top hat on the Venice boardwalk, the nonstop eccentricity of New York took me by surprise: some were willing to take more risks than Angelenos with their “performances” (like standing half naked in the street during winter) and no matter where you were in the city, there would always be some eccentric around you.
Why did I always come back to this small park teeming with Manhattanites? Why did I always subject myself to this chaotic assault on the senses? There were other places in New York to go and procrastinate and look around, but Washington Square Park was the simplest way to put myself in the center of the action. And I was endlessly curious about what I might see next there. I mean, when else would I be able to hear classical music played on a studio piano, and then participate in a protest about the 2014 Iguala, Mexico, mass kidnapping a few hours later? And the park never failed me—it was always full of people.
A few days before I left New York for the summer after my freshman year, I made one final pilgrimage to Washington Square Park. I set myself up on the grass with two new books and a bánh mì. Over the hours, people came and went. My roommates sat with me as they studied for a biology exam the next day. My floormate came with some friends from his Frisbee team to play on the lawn. A friend stopped by with his dad to say his final goodbye before he too returned to the West Coast. At some point, I ran into the Free Hugs man as he wandered around the park occasionally stopping in front of different groups lounging on the park. Eventually he made his way over to our patch of grass, but this time I was prepared—I wouldn’t be losing any more dollars to this man.
New York has many parks, but there’s nothing quite like the scenes that take place at Washington Square Park. The park forces New Yorkers together into a space small enough for even a transplant to get a handle on them.