The Park’s hours officially extend to 11pm, but it may as well be closed by the time I turn onto the paved trail along its perimeter. It’s dark, and while the polar vortex has yet to reach this far south the 37 degree temperature has the same effect on Atlantans that -50 has on Minnesotans. I pass a few people walking dogs or using the pathway as a cut through on their walks home from work, but I know as I leave the perimeter and venture deeper into the Park, I will be alone. My pace quickens at the thought.
As the path winds its way into the Park’s interior, the noise of the city fades. I run along the edge of The Meadow, a wide grass field at the southeastern corner, and look west towards the Midtown skyline. There are few lights in the Park and a gust of cold wind has my eyes tearing just enough to make the bright windows of the high rises dot the black horizon like an earthbound star field. I know they are actually the offices of clients or colleagues and homes where people are enduring the mundanities of life: making dinner, paying bills, negotiating how many more bites of dinner are needed to earn dessert. But for now all that may as well be as distant as the stars. This is my time in the quiet darkness of the Park.
I make my way deeper into the Park, past the urban garden and near the dog runs, and the isolation becomes almost a physical sensation. The sudden absence of people, noise, light, and even somehow the cold wind leaves a palpable sort of empty white noise hanging in the air. It’s just me and the trail. I weave my way along the path and it suddenly smells like I’m in the middle of a pine forest. I decide if I’m having a stroke no one will find me until morning and at least I’ll be going out happy, but then I see the source of the smell. It dawns on me that the piles of fresh mulch were just a month ago Christmas trees, and images of revelry under colorful lights and tinsel and mistletoe flashed through my mind. What didn’t was the argument between the cousin who whipped out his red hat at dinner and sat next to the cousin who dressed up as Rachel Maddow for Halloween. Or the aunt who asked her gay nephew if the holy water burned his fingers as they walked into midnight mass. Or the arguments over money or not calling enough or when are you having kids. Those were all ground away by the wood chippers; the lingering scent was too light to carry the weight of those memories to these depths of the Park.
I looped around the Active Oval, the gravel 800 meter-ish track which rings the usually packed soccer and softball fields. By now my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and I could clearly see the freezing puddles which in the day I am too distracted to avoid. I listened to the rhythm of my breathing and the jazzy percussion of my footfalls crunching along the track and how it, instead of the din of the fields, echoed off the stone stairs as I ran by. It’s a strange feeling to be so isolated in such an expansive place. You expect there to be people, to feel the buzz of activity all around you. You expect to be surrounded by all those things that are part of modern life, and then feel liberated by what you can see and hear and think in their absence. Tonight it is my Park. All the noises, all the thoughts, all the actions that fill this vast place are mine and mine alone. By me, and for me.
The blaring horn of the car running the red light and barreling into the same crosswalk I was using to reenter the city shattered my peace so abruptly I thought I might get the bends. The driver had the gall to scream at me for flipping them off as I stood there blocking their transgression, my profane gesture apparently more offensive to them than vehicular manslaughter. But hey, the world is full of idiots and assholes. Sometimes I’m even one of them. Most days I can deal with it just fine. When I can’t, I know I have the Park.