16 October 2023

Central Park in My Life and Stories

Like many New Yorkers, I have a lifelong love affair with Central Park. I've been watching, fascinated, as its iridescent pigeons court, its sleek sea lions leap for fish, and riding its classic merry-go-round since childhood. I pushed my son, now in his fifties, in a stroller many miles along its walking paths and now walk or run myself around the Great Lawn or the Reservoir almost daily. I may take a break to sit on a park bench reading while watching ducks and rowers on the Lake, listening to jazz, or enjoying the sound of birdsong, the drift of cherry and apple blossoms in spring, or the changing color of autumn leaves.

Writers of fiction have found Central Park an irresistible setting. Among the best known are J.D. Salinger, whose Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, meditates on where the ducks in the Pond go in the winter; and E.B. White, whose Stuart Little in the eponymous book wins a race on the model sailboat pond, formally known as the Conservatory Water.

Crime fiction writers have also used Central Park as a setting. Anne Perry's A New York Christmas gives readers a glimpse of the Park in 1904. In Linda Fairstein's Death Angel, the victim of a serial killer is found at the foot of the Bethesda Fountain, one of the Park's best known landmarks.

I’ve strewn a few dead bodies in Central Park myself. In the short story, “Death Will Help You Imagine,” Bruce Kohler and his friend Barbara, finishing an early morning run in Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial, find a corpse flung across the Imagine mosaic, the Park’s most beloved tourist attraction. In “Death Will Finish Your Marathon,” the winning runner stumbles across the finish line and trips over the body of a New York character known as the Ancient Marathoner. In “Death Will Give You A Reason,” Bruce’s girlfriend, NYPD detective Cindy, and her partner fish a body out of Harlem Meer, the artificial lake at the north end of the Park.

“The witnesses know nothing,” Natali said. “Coupla dog walkers. The dogs all started barking when the body bumped up against the bank.”

“Photos?” Cindy asked. Some bystander always had an iPhone.

“Professional dog walkers,” Natali snarled. “Six leashes in each hand. Labs, beagles, terriers, dachshunds. Two dozen witnesses. If we had someone who spoke Bark, we might have eyewitnesses instead of shit. By the time anyone else realized the circus had come to town, the leashes were all tangled up in each other and doggy legs and corpse’s arms.”

“What did you do, arrest the dogs?”

“I was tempted,” Natali said. “The idiots tried to pull him out—without letting go of the leashes. They seemed to think I’d give them a medal for obeying the leash law. By the time the uniforms arrived, the scene was already compromised.”

“Let’s see the deceased,” Cindy said.

“Go ahead. I already looked. I sniffed him up and down too. The pooches inspired me.”

“Anything of interest?”

“Alcohol and weed.”

“Lake or marijuana?”


The aroma of marijuana in the Park has increased from occasional to omnipresent since legalization. The dogs have always been there. I read recently that there are more dogs in New York City than there are people in Cleveland, and I believe it. Even though most people obey the leash law except in designated areas, the Park’s a paradise for dogs and a perfect meeting place for dog lovers. It also allows drop-in admirers like me to learn, for example, that Australian shepherds are In this year. I see a dozen of them within a week tugging different people along. Maybe one of those shaggy, alert gray-and-black-spotted dogs with brown legs will participate in an investigation one day.

Central Park is only half a mile across, and New York is a walking city. Since Bruce lives on the East Side and Barbara and Jimmy on the Upper West Side, they are constantly crossing the Park to visit each other. Bruce and Barbara run around the upper and lower loops formed by the East and West Park Drives and the 79th Street Transverse and around the Reservoir track. In the novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, Bruce’s early love interest Luz was almost run down by a bicycle crossing the Park West Drive. This could still happen, and the offender doesn’t have to be a possible murder suspect. Cyclists—not the tourists on Citi Bikes, which didn’t exist back then, but the experts on fancy bikes with fancy gear—have a great sense of entitlement. On the other hand, today I couldn’t write the scene in which the horses that had shed their riders came galloping along the bridle path and out of the Park, where they stopped for the light at Central Park West and trotted with docility back to the Claremont Stable on West 93rd near Amsterdam. Only occasional mounted police now ride the bridle path, and the Claremont is no longer a stable—but it still was when I saw that happen in real life.

My biggest set piece in the Park was Barbara and Jimmy’s wedding near the end of Death Will Pay Your Debts, which I wrote as “under the gazebo near the lake.” I was thinking of a cross between the Ladies Pavilion, very popular for weddings, and the Hernshead Boat Landing, where a jazz band often plays, both on the west side of the Lake, south of the Ramble. So I didn’t want to be tied down to real-life details, although the “big rock” that Bruce and Cindy sit and talk on at the end of the party is the real-life Hernshead Rock. That’s the beauty of writing fiction about a real-life magical place you’ve known forever.


  1. A great tribute to a wonderful park. I've never lived in NYC, but I have visited a lot (we had friends who lived in Astoria), and I always loved to go on a weekday to Central Park and just enjoy it.

  2. Eve, let me know next time you visit so we can take a walk in the Park together!

  3. Setting is such an important part of any novel. Always best when you know that setting first-hand as you do with Central Park.

  4. Works for short stories too, Jacqueline. Going there now while the sun is shining. :)

  5. Your descriptions of the story settings brought the park alive to me. I've only seen it a couple of times, but now it seems more alive, more real. Thank you. Susan Oleksiw

  6. What beautiful pix! Like Susan, I've been there, but long ago. Lovely. Melodie

    1. Thanks, Melodie. Some of the pix come from the Central Park Conservancy website, but some, like the cherry blossom photo, are mine. Taking photos in the park is one of my great pleasures.

  7. You speak Bark! Nice accent too. Yours is a lovely lover letter.

    Liz, if I remember correctly, SS Van Dine included a sketch of Central Park in one of his Silver Age novels. He was big on illustrating layouts.

    I agree Central Park is a jewel in a sometimes tarnished setting. I used to take visitors for carriage rides. When the driver invariably quoted an outrageous ‘standard’ price, I’d flip up the horse blanket used to cover the city-regulated fees. Sneaky, sneaky.

    When my youngest brother visited, his go-to goal was Central Park to tap into the many concerts. I advised him not to accept tokes or wine passed around out of concern they’d be laced with mescaline or LSD. “Really?” he said, his eyes lighting up. I had made a serious mistake.

    1. Leigh, today I see families in those carriages in which the teenage kids are looking at their phones instead of at the sights around them. Ouch!


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