I walked along the dirt paths of the Ramble, around its oaks, maples and glacial rocks, and stopped near a footbridge spanning a brook. A clear night here turns strangers into silhouettes. But on a cloudy night, the eternal lights of New York City are captured and then refracted in an orange glow that peeks under tree tops and reveals glimpses: shiny Adidas pants with racer stripes hugging boy hips; a nipple ring glimmering in the light down of a defined chest; a knit cap above a square jaw.
Two guys stared each other down like gun slingers about to draw. I heard footsteps behind me, felt a hand move under my spiked belt. I turned around, saw pursed lips, tousled hair. “Let’s play,” he said.
I nodded and we ducked under branches then moved to higher ground.
The Ramble is a micro-forest in the heart of Central Park. Paths grip cliffsides, double back and meander along slopes. The dense brush and trees provide infinite alcoves. A cock-shaped peninsula projects into Azalea Pond, a topographical totem to the men who have been coming here for over a century. And still they come: uptown boys in do-rags, downtown artists wearing paint-spattered pants, even middle-aged men from the Upper East. Just trees and rocks and sky and us.
And cops. They patrol in vehicles or wear plainclothes to try to surprise us. Queers scatter under the beams of headlights or, after a big bust, line up in handcuffs.
One summer night, I walked down the gravel path of the peninsula. At the proverbial head, a cop shined a light in my face. “Did you lose your dog?” he said.
“I saw a poodle somewhere around here,” another cop said.
I turned around to leave and they got into their souped-up golf carts and followed me, the headlights blazing on my backside. My face burned, not with shame but rage. They finally swerved away and the night draped around me.
I remembered an old Earth First! technique called “slash.” Slash referred to the fallen trees and other objects from the forest floor that activists use to blockade logging roads. The logging trucks backed out and the forest lived another day.
I began dragging rocks, branches and decaying tree trunks into the paths. Some queers looked over at me with raised eyebrows or walked a wide “U” around my mounting fortifications.
“We have to bash back,” I said.
A queen in a leather trenchcoat and a shaved head stopped and smiled. “Girlfriend, you bangin’ on the wasps’ nest tonight, ain’t you,” she said.
I erected three barricades along a path that was several feet wider than a car. Unplanned, the barricades went from smallest to tallest. The tallest was over eight feet (a fallen tree with an umbrella of intact branches provided the base). Behind it was the gazebo, the place the cops most love to surprise us – that’s where the group scenes happen.
Five minutes passed. Some cops in an electric car drove in to start another patrol of the area. They pulled up to the lowest of the barricades and – a crash, a scraping of rock and wood on metal.
Their lights started flashing and the vehicle remained stationary for a full minute before continuing forward. They were heading towards the next barricade.
Other queers stood in clumps, watching, waiting. Some of them snickered.
The cop hit the next barricade without seeing it, the sound of damage much louder. This time, the car didn’t move. They hit their sirens and must have radioed for back up, because an SUV spun down another path, headed towards the gazebo, lights flashing. The driver slammed the brakes right before the third barricade.
A lot has changed since Stonewall. But more than ever, our elected officials, their corporate backers and their minions in blue control our public spaces. They tell us we can’t dance in bars or on the streets and say we need to ask permission to have a picnic with more than 20 people in the park. They beat us, corral us and pepper spray us at political rallies like the one on February 15, 2003, when we took to the streets to try to stop the bombing of Iraqi civilians in the name of nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction.”
A sea of red and blue lights pulsed along the peripherals of the Ramble as dozens of back-up units arrived. I walked out, laughing, freer than when I arrived.
You’re supposed to fuck in the parks of New York City. And dance and sing and organize in the streets. Whether you prefer the long-term commitment of changing legislation or the quick thrill of direct action, do something to take the city back. Organize a street party, un-elect a mayor, monkeywrench the machines they use to suppress us. But above all, don’t ever forget those moments when you experienced what it means to be free in our city.