The man on the park bench looked strangely out of place and completely at home. As crowds of tourists in shorts and sunglasses rotated around the Strawberry Fields monument, meters away from the apartment building where John Lennon was assassinated, he reclined on the bench, gnarled hair touching the shoulders of his tie-died shirt. His khaki vest sagged, lopsided under the weight of plastic pins with peace signs and clichéd catchphrases like, “Make love, not war” and “Stop harassing artists.” “The Mayor” was scrawled in uneven, black script – probably with a sharpie – under his front breast pocket.
“Is he a retired hippie?” Pavel whispered in my ear.
“I guess a memorial to John Lennon still draws people who lived by that generation’s philosophy,” I replied.
The memorial , a simple, tiled mosaic on the pavement near Central Park’s edge, was outlined in wilted flowers and Beatles’ trinkets, artfully arranged in a peace sign. Two tourists laid their NYC subway map on the bench while they squatted in front of a faded montage of John Lennon photos, freeing their hands to make peace Vs for the camera.
“Someone should tell that dude that ‘Nam is over,” a teenager jeered to his group of classmates, pointing his chin at the man on the bench.
The man didn’t seem to overhear. “I’m telling you, man, the speakers that Jimi Hendrix used really made those shows.” His bench companion nodded in agreement, toeing an empty soda cup on the ground with his worn and holey shoe. He continued his analysis of Hendrix’s speakers, absently petting the black lab lying on the bench beside him and focusing his attention on the mosaic, craning his neck to accommodate the ebb and flow of the crowd around it.
During a moment of slow traffic, he stood up, kneeled down in front of the mosaic, and gently righted a flower stem that had been knocked out of alignment.
As he stood, surveying the rest of the memorabilia, a tour group crowded onto the sidewalk, the guide ushering dozens of people around the mosaic. He made eye contact with the man, nodded, and reached for his microphone. “Folks, I’m going to turn it over now to someone else for a moment. I’d like to introduce you to the Mayor of Strawberry Fields.”
The Mayor of Strawberry Fields, also known as Gary, is a fixture in Central Park, and the peace sign-shaped memorabilia is his creation. It’s no coincidence that Gary was there on the same day I visited Central Park. He’s there almost every day. And every day he creates a new design over the mosaic, gathering day-old flowers from vendors and arranging them into one or more peace signs.
I’d later learn, upon doing more research, that he’s also homeless.
Gary stood in front of the crowd, giving a quick spiel about John Lennon’s connection to the park (“That building, across the street, that’s where he was shot”) and the memorial’s history (“It was created by Italian mosaic makers”). His speech was rapid-fire, a sense of urgency punctuating his rough New Yorker inflection.
Gary has been decorating the memorial for nearly 15 years. Some, like the filmmakers behind the documentary The Mayor of Strawberry Fields, label his work as art and his life as that of an artist; others, like NYTimes columnists, interpret his behavior as quirky and his tip jar – the equivalent of a street musician’s open guitar case – as shaded by the same questionable motives that guide other New York beggars in search of enough spare change to fund the next meal, the next drink, or the next hit.
“I’ve gotta end my speech quickly, folks, the rain’s moving in.” Gary wrapped up his spiel mid-sentence, stooping to pick up his laminated newspaper clippings from December 1980. Someone dropped a few coins into an American flag bandana lying next to the mosaic.
As he picked up his wilted flowers and gingerly layered them in his bag, I asked him why he decorates the mosaic every day.
“I can’t guarantee peace in the world, man, but you know what? I can guarantee you peace right here. I do this for the brother. For John.”
He spoke quickly and evenly, as if he’d given the answer hundreds of times (he probably has). But beneath what a newspaper columnist might interpret as a canned response, I sensed a hint of conviction. Conviction justified in 15 years of commitment to an ideal and an artistic means of expressing it.
“Now I’ve gotta run, I’ve been here long enough to know this wind here is bringing on a storm.” He jammed the bandana and the few coins and bills into his bag. Then he picked up the strawberries and the plastic walrus and the ratty stuffed bears and, one by one, placed them carefully on top, turning them sideways to ensure a snug fit.
The mosaic looked empty without the stark contrast of the flowers.
“Come on, girl,” he whistled, the lab jumping off the bench. “We gotta go!”
A sudden gust of wind whistled in my ears and lightening lit the sky as Gary hustled out of the park.
Do you think Gary is an artist? What qualities of his work could lend themselves to being described as artistic? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.