The Solar Eclipse in Sheep Meadow

One writer's notes on experiencing the phenomenon from Central Park

April 8, 2024 7:05 pm
The solar eclipse seen through the frame of eclipse glasses.
"With each minute, like an ancient screensaver with nowhere to be, the moon continued to curtain up and to the left," Tanner Garrity writes.
Jason Howell/Unsplash

The moon passed in front of the sun at half past three, as promised, though the city picnic had started well before that.

An hour earlier, Midtown was moving towards Central Park in an atypical and inefficient foxtrot: two slow steps forward, cardboard eyes trained on the sky, followed by stutter-steps to make up for lost time, over and over. I was among this throng. Glancing over my shoulder every block, I found it as difficult as anyone else to walk normally. At one point, I stopped to lean against the Canada Goose on Fifth Avenue, where a store clerk emerged to ask me where I’d scored my glasses.

“They’re handing them out in office lobbies,” I said, unhelpfully. “Do you want to look?”

“No,” she replied. “Sweet of you to offer, though.”

I moved on, mildly perplexed, only to stop a half-dozen more times: in front of Trump Tower, where I usually catalogue either smug group photos or drive-by middle fingers — today channeling a chummy, even charitable air — past the stone deck that surrounds Apple’s glass box, where easily a thousand suits and tourists had carved out standing space, past The Plaza and into the park, looking like a Saturday in early August instead of a Monday in early April.

I advanced up East Drive in the direction of Sheep Meadow. Siblings slid down schist with surprising ease. A man with a backpack shouted “ECLIPSE GLASSES, ECLIPSE GLASSES, CASH ONLY.” A power violin played “House of the Rising Sun” with such passion that the hair on his bow came apart at the seams. The funny walks soon started to stop, as people chose their final resting places. Little knolls took priority, or the promenade near the ice rink. But some seemed content with triangular patches of grass. They took telephone polls for their own. They spotted pathways to the sky even through the canopies of cherry trees.

A typical summer day in Sheep Meadow; on Eclipse Day, almost every yard of grass was covered with people.
Shihab Chowdhury/Unsplash

NYC Parks closed the meadow for winter, as they always do, so today it presented an unlikely green. People came all the way here for the guarantee of a good view — even the row of supertalls posed no threat of obstruction — but you could tell that the plush grass was unexpected and appreciated, a quiet confirmation of our interest in the phenomenon above, a stamp that this day might achieve its full form, after all.

As if easing into a game with familiar rules, out with the time-lapse cameras came volleyballs, bottles of rosé, guitars and wisecracks. A group of Gen Z jackals, settling briefly a few feet to my right, had each other in fits over the idea of approaching people and asking: “You here for the ‘clipse?”

There were groups of all sizes: old couples with the foresight to bring tailgate chairs, co-eds recording each other on ratty towels, white collar-types looking between Slack and the sky as if trying to solve a riddle, frisbee friends trawling around in search of the perfect spot, foreign families hardly able to believe their luck, rings of toddlers playing games you assumed were lost to the ’90s, and solo travelers looking practically asleep under their glasses, lounging against pillow-shaped parkas and zoning out to MGMT.

“It’s like a movie,” a girl gushed as she walked by. “Everyone’s looking up. It’s almost crazier looking at the people than looking at the eclipse.”

With each minute, like an ancient screensaver with nowhere to be, the moon continued to curtain up and to the left. The crowd was oddly patient, dutifully focused. I hadn’t seen so many necks, so many chins, since I was a boy. When the first chill arrived — all the more obvious because the previous hour had been so bright and chipper, as if scored by bluebirds and sparrows — the crowd clapped and cheered. When the moon closed in on the final corner, some howled as if witnessing a walk-off home run.

Mixed with jokes from friend groups (the jackals from earlier had started shouting “The long night is upon us!”), were murmured “wow”s and camera shutters. I adjusted my glasses, realizing in the process that my hands had been planted in goose crap. Yuck and oh well. What was yellow was now only black, and it was poised to stay that way for a while, as the city’s cloud cover finally passed in front of the show.

I hadn’t seen so many necks, so many chins, since I was a boy.

It was time for me to pee. I wanted to sit there and force myself down an existential rabbit hole, but my bladder had other ideas. I walked to the brick bathroom perched at the back of the meadow, only to find a festival-worthy line. I decided to kill some time along West Drive, and a bit north of Tavern on the Green was where humanity started to fall off the shelf.

A man with a backpack ululated racial epithets at a man with a drum until NYPD intervened. A British grandmother chirped at me with disgust as I walked through her photograph of a flowerbed. Someone on an electric scooter ran a red light, nearly striking a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Two girls, about five and seven, looked for their parents: “Stay there for a second,” the older one said. “If a stranger comes up to you, start screaming.”

I wondered if hope was suddenly slipping away, or if it had ever been there in the first place. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but now the dots around the meadow seemed extremely vulnerable to one of our country’s tragic headlines. I still needed to pee.

“Look how it’s shifted around,” a woman said to her son.

She was right; the clouds were gone, and from Sheep Meadow’s perspective, at least, the moon was now pushing straight up, revealing the sun once more. It looked like a giant, yellow grin, an unexpected visit from the Cheshire Cat. I returned to the grass, this time in an entirely new spot, and lay back down under the sky. Soon the smile became a bowl of ramen. The last I saw of it, it was a blob, and one would imagine mere minutes from returning to a ball.

The picnic-goers seemed reluctant to leave the park. They turned their attention to all things anchored down here. They figured the eclipse was as good an excuse as any. I walked politely through the grass and blankets until I was back among the horse manure and the hissing storm drains, my glasses now tucked into the backpocket of my jeans. The walk back to my office was no different than any other day.

A kind of torture, I concluded, realizing that something had happened — but I had no way to prove it.

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