There are a handful of places that move with me no matter where I am in the world. Their memories, however brightened by my own imagination, are as sharp and sensual as their actual experience. I have so internalized these places that they are as much a part of me as any other part of my being.
One of these is in New York City: a six-acre three-block stretch of leafy pathways, vine-webbed arbors and fountains tucked well uptown, at the western fringes of Spanish Harlem. It's all guarded by a high wrought-iron gate, whose bars end like spears — the tips of those nearest the garden's entry painted gold.This is the Conservatory Garden, Central Park's only formal garden, which nevertheless heaves and breathes with wild abandon. The gates are those that used to stand in front of the Vanderbilt mansion (now the site of the Bergdorf-Goodman department store).
I have visited the garden in all seasons: when 20,000 tulips break winter's doldrums, and the crabapple trees are a riot of pink; and in the frozen denuding season when the evening sunlight filters through dry wispy reeds turning them into delicate filigree. In the summer, when I am home, I visit the garden almost daily.
I never grow tired of it. I never get bored. Just today, I happened upon a faded plaque screwed into the wooden slat of a bench. This sort of thing is not uncommon: many benches in the garden have dedication plaques to people, now passed, who used to come here as often I do.
But this plaque was different. The person who commissioned it had no interest in immortalizing himself or anyone else. It read:
VENICE OR HERE.
I sat down next to the inscription to take in the view that had inspired it. At this late afternoon hour, a great arching tree with a tangle of limbs was bathed in sunlight from the west. Two bronze children -- a boy tickling a flute, and a girl with a bird on her arm -- had their backs to me. Beneath the frilly hems of dried hedges were white clumps of remaining snow.
I knew this view. I knew it in the summer, the spring and the fall too — when the now dry pool is filled with water and a carbon copy of the patinated children quivers across its surface.
Yes: give me the shadowy streets of Venice, its crumbling palazzi and pink sunsets. Or, please, leave me right here.