My Washington Square Park Memories

It looks a lot different now. I guess a lot nicer. Some things are the same- the arch of course, and the basic layout of the pathways, and the fountain in the middle. In the 1960’s it was at the center of the Village and therefore the center of the counter-culture movement, if you want to call it that. Hippies, bums, children, cops on their beat all mingled together each day, most times in large crowds; it always seemed to be crowded.

The family would sometimes take a walk there after church, stopping first at Sutters, another New York institution on Sixth Avenue, for a confection and cup of coffee. The days were always sunny and warm; funny how memory does that isn’t it? We would stroll through the crowds, Mom and Dad dressed in their Sunday best, Don and I trailing behind looking this way and that at the strange parade of characters that inhabited those few acres. There was one guy that always dressed like Shakespeare on acid, and indeed I am sure he was; and he did the whole thing – make up, flowing flowery pants, perfect goatee, beads hanging around his neck. Come to think of it he didn’t look like Shakespeare at all but everyone in the neighborhood would say “Here comes Shakespeare” when he made his grand entrance into the park so Shakespeare he became. There was the bible beater who stood on a wooden crate and told us we were all damned to hell, the old man who always dressed in purple and maintained a garden in an empty lot on the lower east side. He would take donations for its upkeep. There were the cross dressers who sashayed around the park enjoying the stares of folks like us. There were the young teenagers fresh off the Greyhound bus from some Midwestern city, come to the big town to …to do what I wondered? Find themselves? Find a job? Mostly what they found was good weed to get high on, and if they were really unlucky some pimp who hung out at the train station recruiting for his stable.

People came to New York for a lot of reasons, fame, fortune, just to start over or get lost. Most came looking for something, many settled for a Cappuccino at Café Borgia. And there we were…spectators to it all. I remember one particular Saturday afternoon, when Dad, being Dad, asked me if I wanted to take a walk. I get that question a lot today and my feeling is always the same…walk…you mean …get up from just laying around here and do some exercise?? But this time, because it was again one of those times when it was an opportunity for my Dad and I to be alone together, I said sure. And I am glad I did.

We walked to Washington Square Park and Dad was doing his best to engage my ten year old mind in some meaningful conversation; futile probably but he was a trouper. We got to the park and as usual it was crowded, but it even seemed more than usual. Plus there were balloons and ice cream vendors and I was like lucked out today. A big portion of the crowd was gathered around some people playing guitars, not unusual for that park. Dad said: “ Lets go see what is happening over there…OK?”. I nodded happily and we walked to join the group gathered. I couldn’t see much but heard a really pleasant sound. Dad said something like “I know that guy…saw him in the paper or something”. And I stretched up as far as I could to see a thin guy with bushy hair with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he strummed a guitar and sang a tune…..

“Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, Play a Song for Me….”

Dad, being the straightforward guy he was, went up to someone in the crowd and asked what was happening, and the guy said it was a birthday party for the singer’s child. Wow I thought, he can throw a birthday part in Washington Square Park? That is really cool. Chalk it up to one more amazing thing about growing up in New York City when we did. I didn’t understand the import until years later. And then I realized I had been at the public birthday party for Bob Dylan’s first child, Jesse.

Bob Dylan. Let me repeat that. Bob Dylan. Sitting there, strumming his guitar and singing his songs to the crowds around him.
For free.

For years afterward, I would doubt my own memory; surely I had made that up in my little kids mind. But then I thought: how and why would I? I had no idea who the nice man hosting the party was when I was there that day. Then one Sunday afternoon twenty some odd years later when we lived in Brooklyn, we were visiting Mom and Dad on 17 th Street, the radio was on and one of Dylan’s songs started to play. Dad looked over to me and asked: “You remember seeing him when you were small, when we went to Washington Square Park? Bet you didn’t know you were seeing someone who would become famous.”

So it was true. And Dad was right; at the time I didn’t know I was seeing someone who would become one of my favorite artists; someone I would wait in line for hours to see, and travel many miles to see. I have probably seen him in concert twenty times since then, but never like that. That day he was just a nice skinny man with a good voice who gave me a free ice cream cone one sunny Saturday afternoon.

One Saturday many years ago, when I was smart enough to say yes to Dad when he asked me if I wanted to go for a walk.

Only there. Only then.