If You Build It, Treasure Hunters Will Come

People like the Christo and Jean-Claude, the artists behind the Central Park Gates, are endlessly fascinating to me. They first conceived of the idea of blanketing the walkways of the park with large arches of saffron fabric in 1979, and despite two decades of people wondering quizzically, “you want to do what?!” they stuck with it. They funded the massive $20 million installation completely by themselves, and they oversaw every aspect of its installation.

Last weekend Ana and I made the trip to New York to visit my best friend Dan and check out the much-heralded Gates. The last thing I want to do is give you some mental masturbation about what they mean, what they truly say about the human existence. But I can make two observations: On a cold gray February day, the kind of dreary day when most people would rather be watching Desperate Housewives, these ginormous structures had brought people out to the park in droves. They were sledding, jogging, and in at least one case, forming a search party of 13 to look for treasure tokens.

My second observation, having seen the aerial photographs and first-person perspective, is that the Gates seemed to act as a kind of orange highlighter, tracing every single pathway of the park. I’m not sure if this is what the artists intended, but it sure is an interesting way to pay tribute to the expansive landscaping that comprises Central Park.

If given the opportunity to ask Christo and Jean-Claude one question, though, it wouldn’t be about orange highlighters. No, what I want know is, How on earth do you harness obsessive compulsiveness in such a productive way?

In my experience, having a compulsive personality means indulging in lots of bad habits on the sly. The urge to make a pinky-finger pick, especially when no one is looking, is just too hard to resist. Without the yellow gook known as “No Bite” on my fingernails, I just can’t stop myself from taking a nibble. And of course, when Ana goes to bed, my hands unconsciously reach for “A Treasure’s Trove.”

Sometimes, I confess, these bad habits have a way of bleeding into my encounters with other people. I find myself gnashing on a nail in an office conversation, or my finger rising inexorably towards my nose while driving with Ana. And, as was the case last Friday night, I whip out the book in a pitiful attempt to impress new friends.

The friends in question were my best friend Dan’s buddy Wade, from college, and his new girlfriend, Kate. My first impressions of Kate were beyond good: She was funny and outgoing, pretty, and lived in just about the coolest part of the West Village (near the Cherry Lane theater and the Blue Mill restaurant). What’s more, she worked at a vet clinic and had a Wheaton Terrier, Charley, who seemed to have been genetically engineered to be the perfect dog. Compared with Dan’s ex-girlfriend, she whose name we do not speak, Kate couldn’t have been more of a perfect, polar opposite. But it was the book that acted as my ultimate litmus test, a way to determine whether this new girl was merely swell or truly deserving of the 2005 Academy Award for coolest girlfriend.

Let’s put it this way: Kate not only won the award, she made a clean sweep of every other category, too. She became so enthralled with the book, refusing to put it down for two hours, that Dan had to remind her she was working at the vet clinic in the morning and needed to get to bed. She reluctantly agreed, with the one stipulation that we would bring her to Central Park the next day to search for tokens.

So it was that we arrived at 110th Street on Saturday to search for a token that I was convinced was in the northern part of the park. Kate had brought Charley dog onto the subway with us, carrying him through the turnstile like a monkey clinging to her torso. Dan had also called some friends from the Upper West Side, and by time we congregated by the 110th Street Bridge, we were a bona fide search party of 13, including Charley.

Ana and Gwynne were the first to abandon the hunt — about five minutes into it. I knew full well that Ana wasn’t so keen on looking in knotholes of trees and trudging through the wilderness. Her cringing and moaning the night before, when I broke out the book, had made that abundantly clear. Soon afterward, Dan’s recruits gave up, too. Having never heard of the book, and going solely off my two-minute recitation of the story and its clues, they seemed constantly suspicious that this was all just a typical Wheeless prank.

After an hour, it was just Dan, Kate, Wade, the dog, and me. We started off on knotholes of trees, but when those bore no 14-karat fruit we expanded the search to trees, stumps, rock crevices, gardens, and the occasional baby stroller. After about six hours we finally decided to pack it in. Dan and Kate probably could have gone all night, but I knew that my marriage wouldn’t be in good shape if I showed up at 11pm, covered in dirt after having bushwhacked my way through the Harlem Meers.

Still, despite showing up before dinnertime, with no forest brush dragging behind my person, Ana was upset. She explained to me that, like an alcoholic, I had a problem. The first step was acceptance, she told me. With the full force of Ana’s disappointment and disdain hitting me like a 200-ton Gate, I painfully agreed to scale back my Treasure Troving — to at most a few hours a week.

For now, though, I’m not completely giving it up. One day soon I may officially pass the torch to Kate and send Dan my beaten up copy of the book, but not yet. Just think if Christo had given up on his Central Park dream after only two short months of taunting and failure. Ana can take consolation in the fact that the end date for the “Treasure Trove” hunt has already been set for Dec. 31, 2007. So, thankfully, I’ll never need to have the 20-year dedication that Christo endured. My OCD is bad, but not that bad.

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