“Are you here with your child?”
It’s a Sunday and my daughter is visiting her mom. I’d spent the morning lugging my daughter’s old clothes and toys to a donation bin, where they’ll be given to some of New York’s neediest kids. Now I was on a photo walk, shooting places in my neighborhood along the East River.
At Saint Vartan Park, where I had gone to shoot the pink cherry blossoms, a large man walked up to me somewhat aggressively.
Saint Vartan is a pocket park near my home. It has a playground area where local families bring their kids. I took Ava there for hours every day until she was six or so. We practically lived there.
The cherry trees overhang a public space adjoining the playground area, and it was there I’d stopped to take photos when the big man put himself in my face.
“Are you here with your child?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“You have to leave,” the man said.
He wasn’t a cop, he just a big white man wearing tee shirt, shorts, and sneakers.
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” I said. “My daughter practically grew up in this park.”
“You said you didn’t have a daughter.”
“I said she isn’t here today. She’s thirteen. I’m a dad, like you. This is a public park. I’ve stopped in to take pictures of the cherry blossoms.”
“You can’t be here without your child,” he said again.
“Really. Is there a sign? I’ve come to this park for years, this is my neighborhood, there’s no rule about who can come to the park.”
“If you don’t have a child here, you have to leave,” he said.
He leaned down closer, emphasizing the difference in our heights.
I could see he was becoming angry. So was I. I had an irrational impulse to punch him in the face.
We were walking, now. He had moved closer to me and was escorting me out of the park. Like he was a cop and I was a criminal. No, not that. Like he was a decent, God-fearing parent, and I was some kind of pervert who got off taking pictures of kids.
Only I wasn’t photographing kids. I was photographing the cherry trees at the edge of the park. It’s the only place in the neighborhood where there are pink cherry blossoms.
He was much bigger than me, but we were both agitated, both ready to fight, both fighting our urge to fight.
We had moved in sync toward the exit, but now I walked past him, showing him that I did not need an escort.
“I’m going to photograph this tree,” I said. And stood with my back to him and took the shot. To prove a point, I guess.
And then I left.
Later, at home again, I saw things from his point of view. He didn’t know me. He saw a guy with a camera not far from where his kid was probably playing, and felt protective. I might have felt the same.
Maybe he wasn’t feeling anything, at first; maybe his partner was anxious and he was acting on their behalf. Maybe he and his partner had been annoying each other, and here was his opportunity to act the hero.
Maybe, as a longtime resident, on a sunny Sunday, I should have known not to enter my neighborhood park with a big honking camera around my neck.
I think of that park as my park. My daughter’s park. It’s as much a part of our family as our favorite neighborhood restaurant. I forgot that my daughter has long outgrown the place, that I don’t know the parents of young kids in my neighborhood as I did when my kid was young. I forgot to imagine how an anxious parent might view a stranger with a camera and no kid.
But when my kid was young and that was her park, if a stranger with a camera had triggered my parental anxiety, I would have walked gently up to the middle-aged photographer at the edge of the park and said hi. I would have asked questions, not assumed ill intent. Not taken the other man in hand, like he was a lesser being, an annoyance to be handled.
Maybe that’s because I’m short, but I prefer to think it’s because I’m kind.
My interaction with the big man took all of two minutes. And happened hours ago. I have done many things since then, most of them positive, some even joyous.
But I still want to punch that big fuck right in his big fucking face.