Alberto Arroyo, the ?Mayor of Central Park,? died last week at the age of 94. His title was unofficial. It came after decades of being a Central Park fixture. In recent years Arroyo could be found in all but the worst weather, sitting on a bench at the South Gate House by the running track at New York?s Central Park reservoir.
For those of us who make a habit of running in the park, Arroyo was someone to whom you always said hello. He was the host who never tired of welcoming guests. Arroyo died in a nursing home, but for most of his life he was in superb health. In his prime, he ran the 1.6 mile reservoir track as many as ten times a day. When his health failed him, he used a cane and finally a walker to navigate the track. After a stroke in 2008, he organized volunteers to push him around in a wheel chair.
It is easy to dismiss Arroyo as another New York eccentric, a figure like Moondog, the blind musician and poet who once patrolled Sixth Avenue in a horned Viking helmet. But that would be a hasty judgment–at best, a half-truth. Like Moondog, Arroyo was more than an eccentric. He was someone who epitomized the opportunity New York affords people to carve out a public identity on the basis of personality rather than achievement.
The French have their flaneurs and boulevardiers. New York has characters who defy anonymity to demonstrate what Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America called ?the singular charm? of living as equals.
Arroyo?s private life afforded him few comforts. Relying on Social Security and a small pension from his days as a clerk at Bethlehem Steel, Arroyo lived in a single room on West 91st Street with a phone that only allowed him to dial 911. He ate one meal a day at a senior center.
Yet Arroyo always got respect for being the Mayor of Central Park. The day after his death, people left flowers and tributes on the walls of the South Gate House. The New York Times gave him an obituary that traced his life from the time he came to America from Puerto Rico in 1935 to the present, and while he was alive, Arroyo was honored by the New York State Senate.
Six days before she died, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a frequent Central Park jogger, made a trip to Central Park to thank Arroyo personally for the get-well card he sent her. It was another sign that he got as good as he gave.