Gary in the park, with strawberries:
WNY filmmakers give homelessness a human face
By Ann Marie Trietley
Gary is an average man with a typical routine. On a sunny morning he rolls over, fetches a cigarette, pets his dog, and wakes his wife. This little ritual wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if the trio wasn’t waking up on the steps of a Lutheran church in Manhattan.
Mayor of Strawberry Fields art
courtesy of Torre Catalano.
Gary and his wife Lisa have belonged to the homeless counterculture of Central Park for years, spreading the peaceful message of the Beatles to tour groups and locals alike. A new documentary from Torre Catalano and his cousins Nate and Chris Harar (all Buffalo natives) called The Mayor of Strawberry Fields offers a glimpse at life on Cloud Gary.
Every day, Gary and Lisa decorate the “Imagine” mosaic in Central Park, a memorial for John Lennon. They use flowers and fruit discarded from shops, collecting them in a rolling cart. Strawberries are keythat section of the park is now called Strawberry Fields, in reference to Lennon’s song. In the past, Gary has used stale bagel halves and two giant pot leaves given to him by a transvestite from Connecticut. Every day, he constructs some variation of the peace sign.
Whether he’s talking to his joint-wielding, beer-swilling acolytes or a stunned tour group from Kansas City, Gary delivers an informed speech on John Lennon and the Lennon clan. “It’s for them, it’s not for me,” Gary says, his blue eyes a little hazy but sparkling nonetheless.
The forty-minute short film is a look inside the world of a simple man, albeit one with a cause. “I’m rock and roll, I love music, and I’m also a rebel,” Gary proclaims. “I’m not proud of things I’ve done in my life, but I’m still here. That’s all that matters.”
Throughout the interviews with the documentary’s central figure, there’s a yearning to come to understand a man with such fierce devotion to his own brand of religion. “I don’t need to go to church,” he says, shaking his blond, leonine hair. “God is everywhere.”
After we observe Gary from afar, various onlookers opine on the subject of Gary’s line of work and whether or not it can be considered art. “That’s something I want the viewer to decide,” says Catalano, “while seeing how profoundly the Beatles’ music has impacted our lives and changed the way some people have chosen to live their lives.”
One interviewee in the film notes, “We’re all artists. Some of us just don’t know it.” A group of teenagers brags, “We did the same thing the other night … and we were drunk!”
An artist selling work on Fifth Avenue says that artists are self-sufficient, and don’t depend on a corporation when it comes to earning a profit. Another woman comments that true art is socially aware and inspired by the world at large.
These last definitions fit Gary to a T. He doesn’t construct his daily shrines with the aspiration of getting a gallery or meeting a financial quota. As his wife points out, “He makes the peace signs whether he has his guitar case out or not.”
“Society may look at them as ‘lazy’ or ‘wrong,’” says Catalano, “but there are people in everyday society that aren’t homeless that have a lot less passion and dedication.”
A forty-three-year-old native New Yorker, Gary once lived on Long Island with Lisa, but the couple lost their apartment, and eventually their car. Lisa’s dad was an aerospace engineer when she was growing up, and she was used to a comfortable life. Now she says that everyone should experience firsthand the way that society looks at the homeless.
“If you need something, if you’re hungry, there’s someone who will get it for you,” she says of the strong bond that exists between Central Park residents. “We take care of each other.” Sometimes in the winter, Lisa wishes she could be inside, and the drugs and alcohol that often accompany her way of life can be too much to bear.
The Mayor of Strawberry Fields draws us into Gary’s microcosm: no bills to pay, no dishes to wash, no car to fill with gas to get to work. Gary does work for his money, with an unquenchable dedication to Lennon and his legacy.
After being shot and stabbed, suffering a car accident, having stitches in his head and broken ankles, Gary still strives for world peace. Whether or not that’s too abstract a concept makes no difference. “I am happy,” he says in the film.
Next time you’re in Manhattan and want to hear great live rock ’n’ roll, just stop by Central Park and ask Gary. Any old way you choose it, he won’t let you down.
Ann Marie Trietley was a fall 2009 intern at Spree.
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