Oh, How Romantic (Until the Pirate Attack)
I DID not always see myself becoming a Central Park gondolier. But like many Americans, I also did not anticipate being cast into a purgatorial state of quasi-employment.
I graduated from a fancy East Coast university (Brown) a year ago and lost an internship at a prestigious publication (The New Yorker) because of budget cuts. From last June to this June, I tried my hand at nine different jobs — including dog-sitting, coffee-shop-cleaning, script-reviewing, inventory-counting and actually writing. Some were temporary by nature, others by will. Eventually, I returned to one of the odder entries on my résumé: rowing a 37-foot-long Venetian boat while singing “O Sole Mio.”
I come from what may be the premier Irish-American gondolier family in the world. I am the youngest of four brothers, and three of us have rowed gondolas on Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, Calif., on and off for about 10 years. The outfit there, led by a man named Angelino who insisted on drinking wine while training, is superauthentic and super-romantic. Yet little could have prepared me for the immensity and bizarreness of love, New York style.
The Central Park gondola operation, run through the Boathouse restaurant, has been the province for 15 years of a man named Andrés, who worked seven days a week from May to October. It was a coincidence that he was looking for help — his painting career had started to take off — when I was looking for work. I was honored to be the first person in Andrés’s tenure allowed to row New York’s 45-year-old gondola, affectionately called “The Dry Martini.”
In the three months since I took up the oar, I have done more than 400 cruises, and a low-ball estimate is that 40 have been marriage proposals. (Sorry, no, you were not the first.) Anniversaries, first dates, birthdays: no problem. But proposals are nerve-racking. What do I do if she says no? Make someone swim?
Thankfully, I have not yet witnessed such a crushing rejection. But I certainly do not count each “yes” as a success.
Some proposals go immaculately, like the one on a Tuesday night in July that coincided with the New York Philharmonic’s concert in the park. Beethoven was filtering through the Ramble, and shortly after the night’s young hero got down on one knee beneath the Bow Bridge, fireworks exploded over the lake. The timing was not planned, but as his new fiancée was bawling out, “This is too perfect!” I could not help but feel that this couple was meant to be.
On the other end of the spectrum was the Casanova who showed up 15 minutes late to his own proposal. Halfway through the 30-minute, $30 cruise, he asked, “Hey, how long is this thing, anyway?” Incredulous to learn that it was about time to head back, he blurted: “Ah, forget it! Uh, will you marry me?” Then, while his bride-to-be called her mother with the news, Mr. Romantic turned and asked, “Hey, boss, know any cheap restaurants around here?”
Then there are those that never quite get off the water. In the middle of a cruise with a lovely South African couple, a rowboat approached carrying members of the pop band Chester French. They circled us, declared their fame then jumped on the gondola, crying out, “This is a pirate takeover!” (only with an unprintable modifier starting with “f” between “pirate” and “takeover”). Apparently they were shooting a music video. The situation struck me as slightly uncomfortable, until a week later, when a YouTube search of “Central Park gondola” brought up a hit titled “Chester French Postpones My Marriage Proposal.”
Rowing — while standing — is only part of the job. The gondolier is a professional third wheel: part marriage counselor, part wingman. So when a pair of preteenagers sporting Coke-bottle glasses and pants up to their bellybuttons sidled up, I expected that they would need help. I started in tour-guide mode: “This gondola was built in ...” when, with confounding authority, the girl said: “Yeah, yeah, whatever. We don’t need to hear it.” She turned to her 12-year-old Romeo, and the two proceeded to make out for the entire ride, glasses bumping, ignoring slack-jawed stares from other boats. This might have been my favorite cruise.
Flirtatious bachelorette parties are always good for an ego stroke, and parents often try to pawn their daughters off on me, which is very kind — except for the time when the daughter was in the boat, devastated. Perhaps my oddest invitation came from a Hasidic woman riding with her child. I did not think much of it when she said, “Yup, just a family day out on the boat, the whole family, just the two of us.” But after she rounded out our chitchat with comments about my using a “big pole” and by asking me how much muscle I was smuggling under my shirt, I was eager to get back to shore.
I have had raccoon squatters in the hull, a male client with a different date every Tuesday, a female client with a different date every other Thursday, the self-proclaimed “most romantic Yugoslavians in the world,” couples who have asked me to “park the boat” so they could get even more romantic, drunks, people who threaten to jump in and swim, 12 skinny hipsters at the same time, solo cruisers and an opera singer in tears. I have been assigned gondola baby-sitting duties. I have battled rowboat flotillas. I had a near run-in with Steve Guttenberg in a rowboat.
After three months, I have come to think of the gondola as a private Manhattan — longer than it is wide and surrounded by water, ferrying cross-sections of the city in perfect 30-minute intervals.