Saturday on Park Avenue with Juan - My Family Travels

I’ve lived in New York City a long time and sometimes there are very cool things that happen.  Like last Saturday, when our Mayor, Mr. Bloomberg, decreed that all traffic should halt along Park Avenue between 72nd Street and City Hall so that cyclists, strollers, joggers, rollerbladers and jugglers could take back the streets from cars.

Despite having grown up in NYC, I had never been through the dark, scary tunnel under Grand Central Station without the protection of a car or taxi, and cruising through on a beautiful summer day on my bike was a wonder. Pausing in the middle of four lanes of traffic to admire the view uptown was a revelation.

Every 10 blocks or so, another vendor was set up in the curb lane, making the flat terrain of Park Avenue look like a giant Street Fair booth. Hawkers kept offering passersby some new treat. 

At 52nd Street in front of St. Bartholomew’s Church (the one always seen in “Gossip Girl”), there were several guys wearing big red backpacks with hoses, filling cups of hot or iced coffee from the Juan Valdez coffee stand.  Having been to Bogota recently, we knew that the iconic Colombian cafetero who touted Colombian coffee, Juan Valdez the farmer, had been reincarnated from the advertising symbol of my youth to the mascot of a chain of S**rb***s like coffeeshops throughout his home country. While I sipped the yummy Campesino ice coffee blend (brewed with brown sugar, cinnamon, clove and lemon), a woman asked if I would like to  pose with Juan for a photo. 

Why of course!  She led us over to a street corner where Juan, just as I remembered him, was waiting.  A young helper took our picture, and then apologized.  “Conchita, she could not be here.”  I thought for a moment and asked, “Conchita?” 

“Yes, Juan’s donkey. They no allow Conchita on Park Avenue.”

We got back on our bikes and sped downtown, pausing to admire all the stands where free bikes were available to borrow.  At the “Helmet Fitting” we stopped so Ron could get his chin straps sorted out, and the man there said they didn’t fit helmets you already owned, they were there to fit new ones and give them away.  I asked him how to avoid hat hair in a bike helmet and he answered, “Carry a comb.”  We strapped our old helmets on our backpacks and continued south, shiny new head gear firmly in place.

We passed the Kids Corner, where a ball room was set up outdoors and a juggler was trying to teach mystified toddlers how to flip beanie bags in the air.

Finally, we got to City Hall, zipped past the on ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge and pulled up to East Garden, our favorite dim sum restaurant on East Broadway.  An hour later, after buying fortune cookies, we were back in the saddle peddling uptown. 

The route was much more crowded than it had been earlier, but there were dozens of police and volunteers shielding us from zoned out drivers who hadn’t realized the avenue was closed.  We passed SoHo and NoLita, Cooper Union, the Union Square Green Market, Silicon Alley and then lower Park Avenue.

Crunch Fitness was giving aerobics classes in the taxi stand. Toddlers in the street, lovers photographing each other with cellphones in front of the Waldorf-Astoria, Juan posing with German tourists in soccer jerseys. Lever House had huge Hello Kitty sculptures in front and the Seagram’s Building sparkled in the sunlight, looking much more relaxed than I’d ever seen it.

At 72nd Street we headed west, into Central Park, which is always closed to traffic on weekends, and headed home. 

Come visit next year, when the city will repeat this gesture of kindness for more weekends in July and August. 

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