Community//

My Best Job Ever — At the New York City Parks Department

Compartmentalizing in the midst of depression

As Arianna Huffington pointed out in a recent piece, “Burnout Is Now Officially a Workplace Crisis,” the World Health Organization earlier this week listed burnout, for the first time, as a “syndrome.”

In so doing, the WHO gave medical credence and legitimacy to a “phenomenon” that our society in the past has typically shrugged off as one of the growing pains of employment.

Not unlike childhood bullying, which, for generations, we as a culture have accepted as a part of growing up, indeed as a rite of passage, work-related stress or burnout is a concept that a large chunk of Americans has never taken seriously.

We have felt that we needed to tough it out, to “power” through illness and injuries, as well as everyday difficulties on the job with colleagues, supervisors and gatekeepers.

When I think back over the years to my own past jobs, I can say that the many positions I had decades ago that seemed to be appealing to others, such as posts on Wall Street or in the law, were jobs that I did not really enjoy.

I have worked as a writer, a journalist and novelist, for more than two decades, and I have written about the rollicking good times that I and many others had at L.A. Weekly, where I was a proofreader and copy editor from 1997 to 2006.

However, the best job I ever had was when I worked as a waterfront planner for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation in 1988 and 1989.

I thought it might be useful to discuss why this was such a great job for me, even though I was extremely depressed at the time, a depression that had been building since my early childhood.

At home in my studio apartment in Gramercy Park, I was catatonic and sat alone on my convertible couch, which also functioned as my bed, while stacks of unopened bills and unread newspapers piled up for weeks, until after about two months I would frenetically pay the bills and read the papers.

In spite of this empty existence at home, I felt energized at my job at the city Parks Department.  During my first few months at the Arsenal in Central Park, I spent much of my time poring over maps of New York City’s waterfront parks and making site visits as well.

It has been said of Bill Clinton that he compartmentalized when he was facing various scandals, that he was able to put aside the impeachment inquiry and focus on his work.

Perhaps, that is what I did in a less conscious way when I left my apartment of doom and headed for my job at the Parks Department, where I exuded vitality and optimism.

I found the work to be quite stimulating, since I had grown up as a geography buff.  As a boy, I had received an atlas and a globe as birthday presents, and I devoted hours of my childhood to studying maps of the world and the United States, which my father and mother had hung on the walls of the kitchen in our home in Hamden, Conn. 

Back then, I also requested and received localized maps of the greater New Haven area, where I was born, as well as Providence, R.I., where my grandmother lived.

So, when Ann Buttenwieser, then-head of waterfront planning at the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, hired me and told me that I would be delving deeply into maps in order to research New York’s waterfront parks, I could not have been more delighted or at ease.

Ann was like a surrogate mother to me, a 22-year-old kid, who was living away from New Haven for the first, extended period of time in my life.  She had a son, who was almost exactly my age, and while she did not know at the time that I was suffering from mental illness, Ann did understand that it can be lonely living on your own in a big city.

I can recall her mentioning to a couple of my colleagues, who played on the Parks softball team, that I, who had told her about my love for baseball, was very interested in playing in softball games for our Arsenal team.

Ann also gave me many wonderful assignments.   She had me investigate the waterfront parks across the country to look into how other cities cleaned up their beaches.

Like the journalist that I had been in college and would later become, I phoned officials at Parks agencies in many other jurisdictions and wrote a detailed report, which Ann sent to Parks officials at our own agency, including Parks Commissioner, Henry J. Stern.

I had a number of close friends at the Parks Department back then.  Besides Ann, who also taught at Columbia University, I had friends on the softball team, in the press office, where I had a desk, and in urban planning.

 While Ann was my surrogate mother, Annie Long and Michelle Cumbo, two other Parkies, who also worked in the waterfront department, were like big sisters to me.

“Parkie” was the term of affection and pride that we used to refer to being a Parks employee.

So many of us loved our jobs in a way that, I suspect, would have been less likely if we worked for, say, the sanitation department.

We Parkies loved our jobs because we were engaged in an inherently joyful pursuit, being stewards of the city’s green spaces, coming up with ideas for recreational activities in those green spaces, and even working in those green spaces every day.

We had Parks night at Shea Stadium, then-home to the New York Mets, one of our tenants.  We had Parks night at Wollman Rink, where we went ice-skating.  

Sometimes, we had meetings on the roof of the Arsenal, where we had a terrace beneath a pergola, very close to the waterfront department, which was based in the southeast turret on that roof.

As I told Ann, working in the southeast turret, amidst trees and leaves, was very arboreal, kind of like the tree house I never had as a kid.

And presiding over all of this fun was Parks Commissioner Stern, who passed away a few months ago.

Like Ann, Commissioner Stern did not know that I was grappling with severe depression, but he was a brilliant man, acutely sensitive to the many gifted people working around him.

Although I read in a recent obituary in the New York Times that Commissioner Stern collected Campbell’s soup cans, I can testify that, when I worked at Parks, Commissioner Stern famously scooped cold Progresso soup, and only Progresso soup, out of a can.

He was known to like escarole, as well as another flavor with an exotic name, whose name now escapes me.  The latter soup may have included meatballs, and it may have been discontinued, because I can no longer find any such exotically named flavor in the supermarket.

I had first read about Commissioner Stern, the quixotic genius running the Parks Department, in Jerome Charyn’s book, Metropolis, which I had come across serendipitously one day in college.

Unable to concentrate on my work at school, due to my deep depression, I had left the Yale campus one night during my senior year and veered over the old Chapel Square Mall, where I walked into a bookstore and found a book on one of those rotating bookshelves.  The book had a cover that was illustrated in a Crayola crayon-scrawl, which was quite cognitively friendly to a traumatized young man, like me.

There, in the bookstore, I began reading Charyn’s ode to New York City, which he dedicated to Hugh Mo, a city councilman at the time, as I recall, and Henry Stern.

Charyn had chapters, where he traveled around Gotham with then-Mayor Ed Koch, who ran the city “like a fiefdom.”  Charyn also had chapters about his own youth in the Bronx, where he battled the fury of his father and fought back by getting A’s and B’s.

But, more than anything else, what drew me to Charyn’s book was his delightful portrait of Commissioner Stern, who drove the author around the city searching for egg creams, talking to trees, trying to wipe out graffiti from the city’s parks and playgrounds.

As I have noted before, I loved Charyn’s book, and I loved his portrayal of Henry Stern.

I knew, I just knew, that I would love working at the Parks Department.  And I knew that I would admire Henry Stern.

When he would phone the waterfront department, and I would answer, Commissioner Stern would often ask me in a very kind voice how I was doing.

I had the distinct sense that he, who had skipped several years of school as a child, knew what it was like to experience trauma, to be bullied, to be mistreated, as I had as a kid.

Thankfully, Commissioner Stern had persevered in his long and remarkable career in city government, serving as an official for many city agencies in the 1960s, as a city councilman at large in the 1970s and early 1980s, and finally as Parks Commissioner under Ed Koch.  (He would later serve a second tenure as Parks Commissioner under Rudy Giuliani).

During my time at Parks, I wrote a few speeches for Commissioner Stern and for Ann, my boss.  And they both supported my idea for a Baseball Ferry, to take fans from various locations in New York City to the World’s Fair Marina for Mets games.

With the backing of Commissioner Stern and Ann, I was able to implement the ferry proposal that I had conceptualized and written up in 1988.

On August 4, 1989, about 30 years ago, I gave the keynote address at the opening of the Baseball Ferry.  I spoke after Ann and was followed by Commissioner Stern.

It was a magical ride for me, being employed by the city of New York, working for two dedicated public servants and alongside many idealists.

Sure, there were some less than pleasant people with whom I had to interact on the job.  And, yes, I was debilitated, almost crippled psychically, when I was back in my apartment.  But I was a good Parkie, who produced fresh, original work for the department, who was encouraged to show initiative, who represented us well at meetings, and who was given credit too for my beautiful idea.

All these years later, I can’t think of a better job.

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