Simon sat on a bench in Central Park—in Strawberry Fields, to be more precise—and felt his heart shatter. No one could tell, of course, at least not at first, not until the punches started flying and two tourists from Finland of all places started screaming while nine other park visitors from a wide variety of countries caught the whole horrible incident on smartphone video.
But that was still an hour away.
There were no strawberries in Strawberry Fields and you’d be hard-pressed to call the two-and-a-half-acre landscaped grounds a field (singular), let alone more than one, but the name was derived not from anything literal but from the eponymous Beatles track. Strawberry Fields is a triangular-shaped area off Seventy-Second Street and Central Park West dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, who was shot and killed across the street. The centerpiece of this memorial is a round mosaic of inlaid stones with a simple caption in the middle:
Simon stared straight ahead, blinking, devastated. Tourists streamed in and snapped photos with the famed mosaic—group shots, solo selfies, some kneeling on the inlaid stone, some lying down on it. Today, as it is most days, someone had decorated the word imagine with fresh flowers, forming a peace sign of red rose petals that somehow didn’t blow away. The visitors—maybe because the place was a memorial—were patient with one another, waiting their turn to step toward the mosaic for that special photo that they’d post on their Snapchat or Instagram or whatever social media platform they favored with some John Lennon quote, maybe a Beatles lyric or something from the song about all the people living life in peace.
Simon wore a suit and tie. He hadn’t bothered to loosen the tie after leaving his office on Vesey Street in the World Financial Center. Across from him, also sitting near the famed mosaic, a—what do you call them now? vagrant? transient? drug-addled? mentally ill? panhandler? what?—played Beatles songs for tips. The “street musician”—a kinder name perhaps—strummed an out-of-tune guitar and sang in a cracked voice through yellowing teeth about how Penny Lane was in her ears and in her eyes.
Odd or at least funny memory: Simon used to walk past this mosaic all the time when his children were young. When Paige was maybe nine, Sam six, Anya three, they would head from their apartment only five blocks south of here, on Sixty-Seventh Street between Columbus and Central Park West, and stroll across Strawberry Fields on their way to the Alice in Wonderland statue by the model-boat pond on the east side of the park. Unlike pretty much every other statue in the world, here children were allowed to climb and crawl all over the eleven-foot-tall bronze figures of Alice and the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit and a bunch of seemingly inappropriate giant mushrooms. Sam and Anya loved to do just that, swarming the figures, though Sam at some point always stuck two fingers up Alice’s bronze nostrils and screamed at Simon, “Dad! Dad, look! I’m picking Alice’s nose!” to which Sam’s mother, Ingrid, would inevitably sigh and mutter, “Boys,” under her breath.
But Paige, their firstborn, had been quieter, even then. She would sit on a bench with a coloring book and intact crayons—she didn’t like it when a crayon broke or the wrapper came off—and always, in an ironic metaphor, stayed within the lines. As she grew older—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—Paige would sit on a bench, just as Simon was doing now, and write stories and song lyrics in a notebook her father had bought her at the Papyrus on Columbus Avenue. But Paige wouldn’t sit on just any bench. Something like four thousand Central Park benches had been “adopted” via big-money donations. Personalized plaques were installed on the benches, most of them simple memorials like the one Simon now sat on, which read:
IN MEMORY OF CARL AND CORKY
Others, the ones Paige gravitated toward, told little stories:
For C & B—who survived the Holocaust and began a life in this city . . .
To my sweetie Anne—I love you, I adore you, I cherish you. Will you marry me?. . .
This spot is where our love story began on April 12, 1942. . .
The bench that Paige most preferred, the one she’d sit on for hours on end with her latest notebook—and maybe this was an early indicator?—memorialized a mysterious tragedy:
The beautiful Meryl, age 19. You deserved so much better & died so young. I would’ve done anything to save you.
Paige would move from bench to bench, read the inscriptions, find one to use as a story prompt. Simon, in an attempt to bond, tried to do that too, but he didn’t have his daughter’s imagination. Still, he sat with his newspaper or fiddled with his phone, checking the markets or reading the business news, as Paige’s pen moved in a flurry.
What happened to those old notebooks? Where were they now?
Simon had no idea.
“Penny Lane” mercifully came to an end, and the singer/panhandler segued right into “All You Need Is Love.” A young couple sat on the bench next to Simon. The young man stage-whispered, “Can I give her money to shut up?” to which his female companion snickered, “It’s like John Lennon is being killed all over again.” A few people dropped some coins into the woman’s guitar case, but most people stayed clear or backed away making a face that indicated they had gotten a whiff of something of which they wanted no part.
But Simon listened and listened hard, hoping to find some semblance of beauty in the melody, in the song, in the lyrics, in the performance. He barely noticed the tourists or their tour guides or the man who wore no shirt (but should) selling water bottles for a dollar or the skinny guy with the soul patch who told a joke for a dollar (“Special: 6 Jokes for $5!”) or the old Asian woman burning incense to honor John Lennon in some vague way or the joggers, the dog walkers, the sunbathers.
But there was no beauty in the music. None.
Simon’s eyes stayed locked on the panhandling girl mangling John Lennon’s legacy. Her hair was matted clumps. Her cheekbones were sunken. The girl was rail-thin, raggedy, dirty, damaged, homeless, lost.
She was also Simon’s daughter Paige.
Simon had not seen Paige in six months—not since she had done the inexcusable.
It had been the final break for Ingrid.
“You leave her be this time,” Ingrid had told him after Paige ran out.
And then Ingrid, a wonderful mother, a caring paediatrician who dedicated her life to helping children in need, said, “I don’t want her back in this house.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I do, Simon. God help me, I do.”
For months, without Ingrid’s knowledge, he’d searched for Paige. Sometimes his attempts were well organized, like when he hired the private investigator. More often, his efforts were hit-and-miss, haphazard, consisting of walking through dangerous drug-infested areas, flashing her photograph to the stoned and unsavory.
He’d come up with nothing.
Simon had wondered whether Paige, who had recently celebrated her birthday (how, Simon wondered—a party, a cake, drugs? Did she even know what day it was?), had left Manhattan and gone back to that college town where it all began to go wrong. On two separate weekends, when Ingrid was on shift at the hospital and thus wouldn’t be able to ask too many questions, Simon had driven up and stayed at the Craftboro Inn next to the campus. He walked the quad, remembering how enthusiastically all five of them—Simon, Ingrid, incoming freshman Paige, Sam, and Anya—had arrived and helped settle Paige in, how he and Ingrid had been so cockeyed optimistic that this place would be a great fit, all this wide-open green space and woodland for the daughter who had grown up in Manhattan, and how, of course, that optimism withered and died.
Part of Simon—a part he could never give voice to or even admit existed—had wanted to give up on finding her. Life had, if not improved, certainly calmed since Paige ran away. Sam, who had graduated from Horace Mann in the spring, barely mentioned his older sister. His focus had been on friends and graduation and parties—and now his sole obsession was preparing for his first year at Amherst College. Anya, well, Simon didn’t know how she felt about things. She wouldn’t talk to him about Paige—or pretty much anything else. Her answers to his attempts at conversation consisted of one word, and rarely more than one syllable. She was “fine” or “good” or “’k.”
Then Simon got a strange lead.
His upstairs neighbor Charlie Crowley, an ophthalmologist downtown, got into the elevator with Simon one morning three weeks back. After exchanging the usual neighborly pleasantries, Charlie, facing the elevator door as everyone does, watching the floors tick down, shyly and with true regret, told Simon that he “thought” he had seen Paige.
Simon, also staring up at the floor numbers, asked as nonchalantly as possible for details.
“I might have seen her, uh, in the park,” Charlie said.
“What, you mean like walking through?”
“No, not exactly.” They reached the ground floor. The doors slid open. Charlie took a deep breath. “Paige . . . was playing music in Strawberry Fields.”
Charlie must have seen the bewildered look on Simon’s face.
“You know, um, like for tips.”
Simon felt something inside him rip. “Tips? Like a—”
“I was going to give her money, but . . .”
Simon nodded that it was okay, to please continue.
“ . . . but Paige was so out of it, she didn’t know who I was. I
worried it would just go . . .”
Charlie didn’t have to finish the thought.
“I’m sorry, Simon. Truly.”
That was it.
Simon debated telling Ingrid about the encounter, but he didn’t want to deal with that particular fallout. Instead he started hanging around Strawberry Fields in his spare time.
He never saw Paige.
He asked a few of the vagrants who played if they recognized her, showing a photo off his phone right before he tossed a couple of bills into their guitar case. A few said yes and would offer more details if Simon made that contribution to the cause somewhat more substantial. He did so and got nothing in return. The majority admitted that they didn’t recognize her, but now, seeing Paige in the flesh, Simon understood why. There was almost no physical overlap between his once-lovely daughter and this strung-out bag of bones.
But as Simon sat in Strawberry Fields—usually in front of an almost-humorously ignored sign that read:
A QUIET ZONE—NO AMPLIFIED SOUND OR MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
—he had noticed something odd. The musicians, all of whom leaned heavily on the grungy-transient-squalid side, never played at the same time or over one another. The transitions between one street guitarist and the next were remarkably smooth. The players changed on the hour pretty much every hour in an orderly fashion.
Like there was a schedule.
It took Simon fifty dollars to meet a man named Dave, one of the seedier street musicians with a huge helmet of gray hair, facial hair that had rubber bands in it, and a braided ponytail stretching down the middle of his back. Dave, who looked to be either a badly weathered midfifties or an easier-lived seventy, explained how it all worked.
“So in the old days, a guy named Gary dos Santos . . . you know him?”
“The name is familiar,” Simon said.
“Yeah, if you walked through here back in the day, boy, you’d remember him. Gary was the self-appointed Mayor of Strawberry Fields. Big guy. Spent, what, twenty years here keeping the peace. And by keeping the peace, I mean scaring the shit out of people. Dude was crazy, you know what I’m saying?”
“Then in, what, 2013, Gary dies. Leukemia. Only forty-nine. This place”—Dave gestured with his fingerless gloves—“goes crazy. Total anarchy without our fascist. You read Machiavelli? Like that. Musicians start getting in fights every day. Territory, you know what I’m saying?”
“I know what you’re saying.”
“They’d try to police themselves, but come on—half these guys can barely dress themselves. See, one asshole would play too long, then another asshole would start playing over him, they’d start screaming, cursing, even in front of the little kids. Sometimes they’d throw punches, and then the cops would come, you get the deal, right?”
Simon nodded that he did.
“It was hurting our image, not to mention our wallets. So we all came up with a solution.”
“A schedule. An hour-to-hour rotation from ten a.m. to seven p.m.”
“And that works?”
“It ain’t perfect, but it’s pretty close.”
Economic self-interest, thought Simon the financial analyst. One of life’s constants. “How do you sign up for a slot?”
“Via text. We got five regular guys. They get the prime times. Then other people can fill in.”
“And you run the schedule?”
“I do.” Dave puffed out his chest in pride. “See, I know how to make it work, you know what I’m saying? Like I never put Hal’s slot next to Jules because those two hate each other more than my exes hate me. I also try to make it what you might call diverse.”
“Black guys, chicks, spics, fairies, even a couple of Orientals.”
He spread his hands. “We don’t want everyone thinking all bums are white guys. It’s a bad stereotype, you know what I’m saying?”
Simon knew what he was saying. He also knew that if he gave Dave two one-hundred-dollar bills torn in half and promised to give him the other halves when Dave told him when his daughter signed up again, he would probably make progress.