THE VANISHING CITY
A boy’s place in the world during those few years before he can drive a car was likely defined by his bicycle. At least it was in the 1960’s Bronx. For me, being 14 or 15 and owning a bike meant that my world was as big as my legs could take me. I peddled through the north Bronx and, at times, through southern Westchester County on my twelve-speed racer. It was gold and burgundy and it was beyond cool. At least I thought so. I treated it well, and in turn it allowed me to stretch the boundaries of my world.
An outing with the guys from the block after school or on a summer day was not unusual. Sometimes the destination was the goal: a ride to a nearby park or playground for a ballgame, a trip to a local candy store for a sugar fix. But sometimes the ride itself was the thing. We’d just peddle down a street no one had been on before, or we’d devise some new “shortcut” to some destination we’d visited a million times in the past instead of using some route we knew as well as each scratch in our bicycle’s paint. And sometimes I would ride alone for an adventure. A dollar or two stuffed into my dungarees was all I needed for any day trip. There was plenty to do for free if one only knew how to appreciate the variety all around and if one only knew where to find it. I knew a place.
The New York Botanical Gardens is still today a lush, 250-acre jewel that sits in the middle of the Bronx. It wasn’t even half an hour from my house on Tenbroeck Avenue if you knew the quick way there by bike. And, of course, I did. Over to Pelham Parkway then up toward Fordham Road. There it was, unmistakable. It was huge! Iron fencing, imposing gates, and green upon green. Through the fence’s iron bars you could see green trees growing tall and green grass cut neatly short. And flowers and paths and gardens. It helped to know that on some days admission to all this…this nature…was free. And, of course, I did.
Bikes were allowed in the park on those free days and from time to time I would glide onto the grounds. And before me, down the main path, was a most incongruous site to see in the middle of the Bronx—a fabulously huge great glass conservatory! Bigger than most regular buildings, this gloriously designed place sat as the solitaire diamond in an emerald setting. Within here grew palm trees—live in New York City!—and desert plants, rainforest canopies and scrub brush. And the flowers! Every color, every kind, every description! But as grand as this place was, it was not my special place.
On the outer fringes of the park lay a more undeveloped section. A three foot wide asphalt path snaked through overgrowth, rough-cut lawns, hilly patches and large boulders. And there was one huge outcropping of stone that, if you climbed upon it, revealed a flat top. Twenty feet, or so, in the air above the bike path I would climb, my parked bicycle below not far from my sight. The top of that rock was my reward. In the summer, the sun in the sky warmed that rock sometimes too hot for bare skin. But I would sit cross-legged at the top and tilt my face to the sunshine and smell that summer smell that comes from all the surrounding green. It was here, on that rock, where I could stand and turn and look out in all directions. And I could see no trace of anything man made. No buildings in the distance, no glass conservatory, no roads, no cars, no telephone poles or wires, not even the asphalt path that held my bike. Just green trees and a sunlit blue sky. It was here that New York City magically vanished for as long as I wished it to without closing my eyes, but, rather, by opening them wide. This was my special place where I could be alone in a city of millions, if only for a little while. And when I wanted the city to return I knew that all I had to do was to climb down from that rock.