Many years ago — not too many to count, but let’s call it that, it sounds more romantic that way — Bryant Park was known for its heroin addicts and violent crime. But, in one of New York’s greatest stories of urban renewal, it bounced back. Now it’s a gorgeous green lawn, lovingly tended, surrounded by peculiar amenities such as a bocce court, a carousel where you ride on frogs and rabbits rather than horses, and an open air “reading room” filled with free books and magazines donated by the city’s various publishing concerns.
So when we went to Bryant Park this past week only to discover that the lawn we’d planned to sunbathe on was in the process of being lovingly tended (pesticide had just been applied, so no sunbathing!), we knew which part of the periphery we wanted to head toward. That’s right: the bocce court.
Just kidding. We headed for the Reading Room, with its plethora of folding chairs and books and book lovers, and even an author seated behind a microphone discussing at length the films of Alfred Hitchcock and his encyclopedic new book about same. We commandeered a pair of tables within earshot of the presentation (Cary Grant…Grace Kelly…Psycho…McGuffin…), unpacked our own books (we’d brought extras so we could leave a donation of our own),
took off our shirts and bras,
and had one of the most pleasant and relaxing afternoons of our long and distinguished career as an outdoor literary society.
What made it so? Well, first of all, the multiple women who stopped by to say they supported what we were doing, including the one who said she’d join us if she weren’t on her way back to the office from her lunch break, the one who called herself an old hippie and recommended some nude beaches for us to visit, and the one who took our info so she could join next time.
But second of all the men, who for once startled us by having something to say about books, such as this fellow who started with “Are you the outdoor topless pulp book club?” and then followed that not with questions about our choice to be bare-chested but rather, having seen a copy of Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon on the table, a comment about Novik’s recent win over N.K. Jemisin in the Nebula Awards (he originally supported Jemisin, but after seeing one of her tweets about how great Novik is, he tried one of her books and had to admit he agreed, she’s pretty great too).
All in all, an encouragingly positive day, full of sunshine and breezes and occasional surprised glances, but nothing worse than that. If only every afternoon could be like this!
Alas, they aren’t: just two days earlier, in the very same park, two of our members — one with her three-year-old daughter in tow — came to sunbathe and were approached for it by a park official and a pair of cops. They’d gotten several complaints, they said, and while they knew they couldn’t do anything about it, they wondered if our friends would put their shirts back on.
No, our friends said. Not least of all because one of them happened to be nursing her daughter at the time. How old is she? one of the men asked. Does that matter? our friend replied. Well, no, the man conceded. When you’re finished, though, will you cover up?
Um, our friend said. No?
To which the official had no comment, and in the end he had no choice but to leave her alone. But what an awful, awkward, needlessly embarrassing experience it was. And why? Why were two women, one nursing, approached and bothered, while just a few days later something like nine of us could sit happily topless just a few yards away, in the very same park, and not be pestered?
Ah — of course.
Applied only a few days too late.