Sunday, 22 August 2010

You have been listening to the Boight Family

Soaring a capella harmonies draw a crowd sheltering from the midday heat. People sit on the floor, lean against pillars and stare at the painted tiles like tired pilgrims in an Indian temple, only with a choral soundtrack.

The young family’s soothing vocals provide welcome respite from the New York heatwave. Children play hide and seek between the pillars. Mr Boight stands like a general, leading his troops in song, beating out time with shiny leather shoes. His teenage son, lanky and awkward, checks his watch, yawns and closes his eyes to hit a high note.

After 20 minutes they stop.

"You have been listening to the Boight Family with Mark Redstock on saxophone", Mr Boight announces.

The pretty Miss Boight approaches onlookers for money. Then they break into 'Ave Maria' for the second time. Central Park tourists wander on from under the arches of Bethesda fountain but are quickly replaced. I remain, unable to find anywhere else to escape the sweatiness, and think about the Jacksons.

After turning down the offered $5 CD for a second time from the embarrassed looking teenage daughter I notice that much of the harmony and backing vocals come from a tinny portable CD player, masked by Mr Boight's strong tenor lead and Mark Redstock’s sax. The 2 smallest singers are barely singing at all. It's the older girls who balance their father's strong tenor and stop the whole performance sounding ridiculous. The music shifts tempo as all 5 children start swinging and clicking their fingers to a jazzy sax solo that turns into, "A few of my favourite things".

The children playing in the arches have all moved on apart from two: young Boights too little to stand still and pretend to sing. If this is the Family von Trappe where's Maria?

The longer I sit under the arches the more questions I have: how long have they been doing this? Why? Religion - the songs vary from classical to gospel to generic r’n’b. Dreams of musical glory – they only have 5 songs which the children sing reluctantly. Enjoyment? Apart from the serious Mr Boight and the creepy Redstock the children all look miserable, tired and bored. How important is the income from the hat and CDs that his daughter touts to the family’s income? How does proud Mr Boight feel when he leads his family home after a long afternoon singing ‘Ave Maria’ to tourists in the Bethesda arches?

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Mayor of Strawberry Fields

Every evening at 6 the Mayor of Strawberry Fields lays fresh flowers over John Lennon's memorial, the black and white mosaic which says "Imagine".

He lays whatever's in season: today it's rose petals, sunflowers and cow-parsley in patterns and colours with the reverence of an Indian priest in his temple. Young tourists take photos and leave, older visitors stop and contemplate.

It takes about an hour for the Mayor to fully dress the mosaic. Onlookers on benches surround him, watching his show – a rare, free New York tourist attraction.

A man with a strong Eastern European accent starts playing guitar well while singing like Borat. A severe looking middle aged lady harmonizes prettily over "Norwegian Wood", one of the more catchily meaningless attempts by Paul at realism.

He breaks into 'Imagine'. 40 people smile, look at each other and join in, "you may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one".

Evening sun breaks through the green canopy. Borat continues with 'Help', 'All You Need is Love' and 'Instant Karma'. Central Park feels like Sherwood Forest.

The moment is broken by a terrible rendition of "A Yellow Submarine". Many leave. No one joins in. Of those who stay it's the first to get a clap.

The Mayor looks up from his newspaper and surveys his warm, green kingdom. He tells a succession of confused girls trying to preserve their modesty while crouching for photos in low cut summer dress to raise their index and middle fingers.

"It's the peace sign!" he says loudly, “stick your fingers up!”

The peace that might have drawn John to this calm oasis on the edge of Central Park, opposite the Upper West Side apartment where Yoko still lives, is suddenly destroyed by noisy Italian students. They are to tour groups what the Israelis are to backpacking and mosquitoes to summer barbeques.

The mayor zones out when these groups arrive. "I've been doing this every day for 17 years. It all comes from him. There was the Dead for a while but then I started doing this... Yoko's been down 3 times already this year".

The group leave.

The Mayor's friend Barry offers the Mayor a huge blunt, "where you from?" he asks me.


"You know who the King of Flower Power was, son? Donovan - fucking mellow yellow".

He heads off into the park to score. He has a gig to go to.

Both wear old ripped jeans and waistcoats covered in patches depicting marijuana leaves, peace symbols and bands. Baseball caps are festooned with badges.

Smiling as he rearranges his rose petals he says, "I think John would have liked it. My work is to remind the people what John and his brothers and sisters were talking about: peace and love".