From my post at the 96th Street entrance of Central Park, I waved at the gaggle of Dutch tourists, clutching their maps and heading my way. As a Central Park Conservancy volunteer for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates, New York, Central Park, which opened Feb. 12, 2005, and remains on view till Feb. 27, I was on hand to help the anticipated 1,000,000 visitors to find their way around.
During the grueling, six-hour-long orientation session the previous weekend, our coordinator had stressed that our bathroom know-how would be critical. "If they don't ask you why the Gates are orange, they'll ask you where the toilets are. You hold the only list of portable toilets brought in for the event."
Central Park dogs, however, didn't need my assistance. The Gates' steel bases acted like 15,000 new fire hydrants ready for christening by our four-legged friends.
The Central Park Conservancy staff is queasy about the Gates project, purported to have cost Christo and Jeanne-Claude $20 million. The conservancy worries about tourists trampling on their $22-million work of art, Central Park.
Central Park associate director of visitor services Susan Boudreau explained, "That's what it costs every year to maintain the park. The city puts up only 15 percent and the conservancy must raise the rest." Christo and Jeanne-Claude had wanted to do their project in October -- that's why the fabric was originally orange, to match the fall foliage -- but we said, no way would we risk damaging the trees. It was February or nothing!"
To overcome the conservancy's reticence, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have agreed to donate $3 million to the organization, and design official Gates merchandise that the cash-poor conservancy can sell to raise funds. Susan Boudreaux stressed, "Make sure that you mention the Christo souvenirs when you send people to the bathrooms." If that proves insufficient, the conservancy has vans driving around the park with more souvenirs that can be purchased right on the drive.
Every spare inch of space in the park has been converted into a point-of-purchase location. Model yachts have been cleared from the Conservatory Boathouse on 72nd Street to make way for $45 Gates sweatshirts and $1,350 Gates watches. The buzz among the staff is that the $5 Gates maps are the hottest item, with the $20 baseball caps running a close second.
This mercantile impulse is a far cry from the conservancy's usual position -- in the past, the organization has been accused of not putting up enough information signs for fear of marring Central Park's 19th-century landscape esthetic.
As unpaid conservancy volunteers, we didn't get the gourmet lunches of Salisbury steak and couscous at the boathouse restaurant offered to the 600 paid Christo workers, who were wearing gray nylon smocks covered with the words "The Gates Project" written in Christo and Jeanne-Claude's familiar spiky cursive lettering.
Instead, we got plastic ponchos, day-old coffee and, curiously, a bowl of cough drops.
Of course, the Gates project installation crews needed those lunches to get through the cold days, where some cocoons unfurled early and had to be resealed. After the inauguration of the project, other teams had to fight off dogs snapping at the tennis-ball-topped poles used to untangle fabric that high winds would twist around the tops of the gates.
Our orientation had prepared us for many of the questions from park visitors. One frequent query is, "Why is that Gate placed in front of my $7,500 memorial bench?" (We were told to say that it was only for 16 days.)
Many people were mystified by the whole process. During the installation, when only the three-foot-long steel bases had been put in place, one man said that he was disappointed that the gates were so small. Another man, after seeing the finished project, said that the gates reminded him of Con Edison flags. A woman called it Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "schmatte" project, and said not only was it hideous, but there was too much of it.
But most people were clearly delighted. The overwhelming number of tourists visiting my section seemed to be from Germany, and had decided to come to New York after seeing the Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin in 1995. Many were on their way to one of Jeanne-Claude's favorite viewing spots, the Great Hill on 106th Street on the West side.
One of the most unforgettable events involved a family whose mother had recently died. Stanley Goldstein explained, "Our mother loved Christo, and managed to visit every one of the projects. She died just before the Gates opened. We have brought her ashes and are spreading them among the Gates. We knew she wouldn't have wanted to miss this.