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“How terribly strange to be seventy”

Ralph Gardner and Aris Dervis in Central Park
Maggi Pack
Ralph Gardner (left) and Aris Dervis in Central Park

Wednesday night was over fifty years in the making. It began in sophomore year at college while listening to Paul Simon’s song “Old Friends,” inevitably under the influence. Swept up in the tune’s pathos I felt compelled to analyze the lyrics for my forgiving and equally intoxicated classmates who’d managed to squeeze into one claustrophobic dorm room.

“Old friends sat on their park bench like bookends,” the song begins. I had special insight into that image, at least I thought I did, because I was familiar with the setting. I’d grown up playing in Central Park and could visualize those old men sitting on that bench as we played nearby.

But the song was written from the perspective of youth. “Can you imagine us years from today sharing a park bench quietly?” it goes on. “How terribly strange to be seventy.”

I can’t remember exactly when my high school friend Aris and I started sharing a park bench quietly, and have been ever since once every few weeks. We were probably in our late thirties. The evening venue – the benches opposite Tavern on the Green with the Sheep Meadow to our back – played to both our strengths. I’d drink and he’d smoke as we watched the joggers run by.

There was an element of gentle transgression to the enterprise because you’re neither allowed to smoke nor drink in the park and the drive in front of Tavern on the Green is heavily trafficked and policed.

Occasionally, there were even Secret Service agents buzzing about, as when Vice President and 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore attended a fundraiser at Tavern on the Green and we and our bench became part of a security frozen zone. Paranoia momentarily seized Aris; he thought all that security had come to confiscate my can of beer and his pipe. Fortunately, I managed to talk him down.

A couple of years later – Aris was in late in arriving, as he often is – I briefly abandoned our bench and meandered over to a gathering crowd to see what the commotion was. It turned out that Senator Chuck Schumer was giving an impromptu press conference before ducking into Tavern on the Green for a Democratic Party fundraiser.

I managed to ask him a question – I was a member of the press, after all, even if I happened to be in the park drinking while wearing shorts and a t-shirt – and after sizing me up cautiously, with a bevvy of aides trying to hustle him away, he answered my question.

It involved his thoughts on banning cars from Central Park, which would come to pass, but not for another sixteen years. “I guess you have to have a balance,” he responded politically.

By then Aris had arrived and the evening’s festivities began: him taking furtive tokes from his pipe and me taking equally furtive swigs of vodka from a flask chased by gulps of imported beer hidden in a brown paper bag. There are typically also hors d’oeuvres involved: a bag of peanuts or popcorn.

We maintained our practice this week as Aris celebrated his seventieth birthday. Mine occurred in June. For a while I thought I might be celebrating the anniversary alone. My friend has been battling cancer for several years but in recent months seems to have gained the upper hand.

Lately, we’ve been joined by our high school friend Maggi, who hasn’t hurt and may have even enlivened our dynamic. A scientist, she’s overseen Aris’s medical care, explained his treatment and test results to his friends and supporters in laymen’s terms in concise updates. Not much of a vodka drinker or smoker but impressively self-sufficient, she arrives in the park with a thermos containing red wine.

Aris’s health was precarious enough that I contemplated one day immortalizing our years of imbibing by joining the Adopt-a-Bench program where, for a not inconsiderable sum, the Central Park Conservancy will affix a plague with a sentiment of ones’ choice to a favorite bench.

The leading candidate, so far, comes not from Paul Simon’s canon but from One Fish Two Fish by Dr. Seuss. “Today is gone. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one. From there to here. From here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

Our friendship has always been rooted in shared humor, much of it dark and deeply politically incorrect, and the steadfast belief that salvation lies in comedy.

A park bench, with the world whizzing by, the sun setting against the city’s skyline, and with the able assistance of mood enhancers -- is as good a place to watch it unfold as anywhere.

“Old friends,” the Simon and Garfunkel song concludes, “memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears.”

What the song may have missed – though in Simon’s defense he was still in his twenties when he wrote it and displayed remarkable sympathy – was the subtle pleasures of advanced age. The joys of accumulated experience. The perspective of watching the skyline evolve around you while you stay the same, your mind as alive to amusement as ever. At least that’s the story you tell yourself.

Today is done. Today was fun. The Central Park bench season is coming to an end. By the time we departed for dinner at a favorite Japanese restaurant it was almost dark. But if all goes well we’ll be back next spring. And seventy will feel increasingly less strange as we press on to eighty.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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