Stumbling Upon the Delightful Cartoon Sculptures of Rockefeller Park

"Is it just me, or are people being a little friendlier these days?"

“They weren’t using these in the 1700s.”

I’m at Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street in Manhattan’s Financial District and the woman next to me is struggling with the menu’s QR code. We don’t know it yet, but the QR code is the least of our worries. The historic bar has installed a new POS system (“point of sale” system, though if you’ve worked in the service industry you may have heard it not-so-fondly referred to as a “piece of shit” system) and they can’t currently accept credit card payments.

People wait as the receipts pile up.

“Maybe it’s the ghost of George Washington,” a tourist quips. Another asks if this means everything is free. The beleaguered bartender does his best to fake a laugh. But the truth is, it’s gonna be a tough day.

I’ve been having a rough one myself. As has the entire city. Tropical Storm Elsa hit New York the night before, flooding subway stations and reminding New Yorkers that their hometown isn’t as prepared as it could be for the effects of climate change. That morning, when I wake up, it’s still raining. The debris of summer trees—stripped bark and downed branches—litter the streets.

My own concerns aren’t as biblical nor as interesting as the storm, but they are clanging around in my head just the same. And that’s before I remember that I was supposed to move a friend’s car to avoid getting a parking ticket. “Too late now,” I mutter as I head out the door and do what I always do when my brain won’t stop buzzing: I go for a walk.

The early morning rain gives way to grey skies as I walk through Brooklyn, and by the time I’m on the Brooklyn Bridge the clouds have parted.

“Brother. Friend. Hey. Hey, man.”

A bike messenger wearing a motocross helmet slows by me, the bridge’s wooden slats clacking under his tires.

This lane is for bikes. That lane is for walking.”

I’m shocked to not be getting yelled at. Of course I know about the split lanes, but I was mulling over my problems and, let’s be honest, haven’t been on the Brooklyn Bridge in over a year. But when I apologize the cyclist simply smiles and says, “No sweat”—the clattering under his wheels quickening as he rides away.

His kindness shakes a few of my worries from my head.

I walk the bridge, past tourists and fashion shoots and vendors selling NYC-themed trinkets.

“One dollar waters. Dollar waters here! Get your dollar water.” A man holding plastic bottles shouts without moving his mouth. I look again and realize he has speakers behind him, his sales pitch playing on repeat—saving his throat for more important things. I smile at the ingenuity.

“I’m sorry, but can you take my photo?”

A young, bearded man holds out his phone, and I stop for an impromptu photoshoot. I ask him if he wants any particular part of the skyline in the background.

“I don’t really care. Just make me look good.”

We both laugh, and the smile on his face when he looks at the photos we’ve taken shakes a few more of my troubles into the water below.

After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, I walk into Wall Street with no plan to speak of. But I’m feeling lighter. The walking is working. I stroll through lower Manhattan, skyscrapers towering above me, and marvel at what movement can do.

Drawing close to the Hudson River, I stumble into Rockefeller Park and make a most delightful discovery.

A small corner of the park—equipped with benches and tables to eat at—is absolutely covered by chubby, cartoon-like statues.

There are bankers and robbers and characters writing books. A dog eyes a cat, which in turn stalks a bird that has its sights on a worm. Across the way a frog sits, calmly.

A man is taking photos of the sculptures, and when he notices that I’m doing the same he asks me if I know who the artist is. I don’t, but together we look it up on my phone. We have both been charmed by the work of Tom Otterness.

The man continues to take photos while I quietly walk the path that snakes between the sculptures, careful not to step on any of the little characters below.

The permanent installation is called The Real World and was commissioned in 1986 and presented in 1992. Apparently I am a latecomer to the art of Tom Otterness, as he has public work throughout the city.

I make a note to find Life Underground, more of Otterness’s work at the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue subway station, and wave goodbye to my park friend.

My spirits are lifted, but I realize I haven’t eaten all day. Which is how I come to find myself at Fraunces Tavern, eating fish and chips and unable to pay my bill.

“If you have places to be, I understand.” The bartender is letting me off the hook, but the truth is I don’t. So I wait, surprised by how many guests seem set on paying their bills. One runs to an ATM and comes back with cash. Another promises to swing by later in the day to settle up.

“Is it just me, or are people being a little friendlier these days?” the bartender asks as he pours me another beer without asking. I agree, and a minute later a man at the bar next to me lends me his phone charger so I can continue scrolling through the pictures I took of Tom Otterness’s work.

Eventually the POS system comes back online. I pay my tab, return the man’s phone charger, and make my way back into Brooklyn.

I decide to check on my friend’s car while I’m out, no longer as upset at myself for my forgetfulness as I was that morning. But when I arrive at the vehicle I am surprised to find yet another turn of good luck. There is no ticket.