Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
August 23, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 34
Letter from Camp Washington Square
by Clark Whelton
Dear Mom and Dad,
Well, here it is time for my weekly letter and right off I want to thank you both again for sending me to summer camp in Washington Square this year instead of packing me off to old Camp Chigamawog in the Adirondacks. You were absolutely right about me having no trouble spending eight weeks in the park. I can sleep all night on the park benches or among the playground equipment and nobody says a thing. The cops are really beautiful. They just walk by and leave us alone.
In face the cops are great all through Greenwich Village. Except for towing cars and handing out parking tickets, they don’t bug anybody about anything. The streets belong to the people at last. A few Village cranks say this has increased the murder, mugging, and harassment rates, but so what if it has? Nobody lives forever and a few random murders is a small price to pay for an open society.
Please stop worrying about my not getting enough to eat. I’m usually not hungry anyway, because you can buy all sorts of energy pills and other dietary supplements from businessmen who hang out in the park. When I do get hungry, I play a little game the guys in Washington Square call “goin’ to the bank.” What you do is, you spot a couple of people strolling through the park. They’re here to see quaint, artistic Greenwich Village and haven’t heard about the new scene. You walk up to them and say “I need a dollar for food,” at the same time putting the grab on their arm. If they say no, you tell them “Hey, that’s an expensive camera you have there,” or “Your wife sure has a pretty face.” They look around and see your friends staring at them and no cops in sight, so they just fork over the buck. And why shouldn’t they? This park is mine. I live here day and night and they’re just passing through. Some French tourists were beaten up in the park a few weeks ago and I say it serves them right. Who needs these foreigners and outsiders from the neighborhood coming into the park, anyway? I can get my money other places in the Village, in other ways.
In answer to your question, Mom, no, I don’t have any trouble getting to sleep at night. The surrounding streets are brightly lit by those new sodium bulbs, but Washington Square itself is nice and dark. They have these special lamps which seem to absorb light. You can’t see who’s behind the trees, or coming up in back of you, so there’s certainly not enough light to keep someone awake. Now and then you’ll hear a scream from the other side of the Square but it’s so dark you can’t see what’s happening, which is just as well since people should mind their own business more anyway.
Dad, you asked what I like best about Camp Washington Square. I’d have to say it’s the spirit of openness and spontaneity, where people make up the rules as they go along and you never know what to expect next. Once or twice every week, for example, you can see couples having sexual intercourse on the grass in broad daylight. Hardly anyone even watches, except the kids. In other ways, too, people are more honest with their feelings. This guy I know walked up to some duded and pulled his cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket. “That’s my last cigarette, man,” the dude says, but my friend replies, “Why should I give a shit about that?” and pushes the empty pack back into the pocket. Wow, that’s what I call being in touch with what you want and what you need. No more hypocrisy here.
But of course there are always a few cranks who get uptight in the face of direct human contact. One evening this man and his wife are walking around by the south side of the fountain and they pass a bunch of black men. One of the guys says “Hey lady, you ever seen a black cock?” and a second guy says “How would you like a nice black cock to suck?” Well, the woman starts to cry and the man is muttering to himself and clenching and unclenching his fists, and the black guys are laughing. I mean they’re just having a little harmless fun. But some people can’t appreciate openness. A few years ago those persons would not even have been communicating. Now at least there’s some contact between them. All in all, and considering the large number of black people on the Village streets, race relations are excellent, as long as you don’t try to relate back.
Mom, you asked about activities and recreation. No problem there. Crap games spring up all over the park, day and night. My favorite dice games take place on the chess tables, with somebody’s rolled up shirt for a backstop. There are signs which say the tables are reserved for chess and checker players, but just as often pinochle and poker players use them now. If the chess players say anything about it, the card players threaten to knock their teeth out, which is a beautifully symbolic way to protest the dehumanizing effect of signs. There’s also music in the park until the early hours of the morning, and volleyball, and wine tasting, and outings to visit friends over at Camp Sheridan Square, which makes up in wildness what it lacks in size.
As I look around Washington Square now, I find it difficult to believe that only a few months ago some local residents wanted to put a fence around it to try to create what they called a better park. Fortunately they were defeated, otherwise the police would be able to close down the Camp at night and I’d have to go back to the Adirondacks. But now everybody’s happy. The police because they don’t have to do anything, and the guys in the park because they can do what they want. There are still a couple of malcontents who raise a fuss now and then. A grumpy councilwoman named Carol Greitzer actually got the cops to put a patrol car in the park for a few days. It was like a scarecrow in a cornfield. The birds look at it and laugh. And yet some people in the Village still believe the police are going to do something for them. What a joke. I followed the Washington Square foot patrols around for several days, to see what they do. They don’t do much. They stick together for protection. They never notice the guys with the wine, or the crap games, or the hundred little hassles which break out every hour. After a while, they slowly drift away. They used to coop up in the apartment houses along the west side of the Square. Recently I tracked a pair of policemen over to Greene Street, where an NYU security guard let them into a classroom building. I waited around, but they didn’t come out.
Who can blame them? Like they say, they’re only doing their job, which is to represent the people they serve. And face it, the people they represent are scared, disorganized, won’t stand up for what they believe in, and don’t like the police. The police just return the favor. It’s really beautiful.
I think the police have become more sensitive, too. I met this reporter from the Village the other day and he told me that whenever he interviews cops around New York, and they find out he’s from Greenwich Village, they always smile and ask: “Well, how do you like it down there now? Are you satisfied now? No more brutal cops, no more enforcing repressive rules, no more loitering arrests, how do you like it? Are you happy?” And they smile.
Isn’t that nice? They’re concerned about people’s happiness. That puts us on the same side, because I’m concerned about happiness, too. My own.
Your loving son,
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
(ad: Bang the Drum Slowly)
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 20, 2011