Central Park Conservancy: The Center of New York City

Gabriel Mitchell’s Interview as told by Selena Vargas

 Gabriel Mitchell leads a rather active lifestyle in the amazing and breathtaking center of Manhattan; the much revered Central Park. It is not a position he envisioned himself being in growing up on the lush island of Tobago but when one migrates to the United States you never know what turns your life will take.

 Growing Up and Village Life

            I was born in the country of Trinidad and Tobago on the island of Tobago. Most people don’t realize that two islands make up the one country. My father came from Trinidad and I lived with my parents and nine siblings in a village called Mount Pleasant in Tobago. There were seven boys and two girls and I was the youngest. My eldest sister died when I was relatively young so I consider my other sister the oldest.

Mount Pleasant was a very beautiful place with meadows and fields to play cricket, rugby and soccer in. I loved playing soccer, we on the island call it football, but I could only play after completing my chores. One of my designated chores was caring for the goats. I had eight goats that I was in charge of. I had to water and feed them everyday, let them out to roam in the morning, tie them up in the shade afterschool in the afternoon and bring them in at night.

My mother would make mattresses out of the husks of coconut shells for a company. She would sew everything by hand; except for the actual fiber of the mattress which was created in a mill and sent over to us in barrels. It was great material! The coconut husks would make firm mattresses that would last many years. Her goal was to make twenty mattresses a month and that served as a major source of income for the family.

Education and Migration

       Everyone on the island starts school at age five and graduates from high school by the time they are 15 or 16 years old. It’s different from the American schools; we follow the British educational system. After I completed high school, I worked in my brother’s interior design business for a few years. We were using this new material that resembles liquid plastic called Flexa and we made a lot of money with it because so many people wanted it in their homes and when the job was finished it came out beautifully. Of course later we discovered that the material it was made up of was prone to explosions and actually used in explosives.

All this time I was playing soccer and I was really good. My coach at the time spoke to another coach in the United States and recommended me to be a part of his team. Through that referral, I got a scholarship to come to school in the United States and play on a team in college, since this was about the time that kids are applying to colleges in the United States. To be honest, without that scholarship, I probably would have never came to the United States. I only had to pay my way to get here, but once I got here, a majority of my expenses were covered by the scholarship, so there wasn’t much that I needed to worry about.

Unfortunately, my college experience would be cut short by an injury that caused me to be partially paralyzed and put off from playing on the team for eight months. By the time I was well enough to play on the team again my scholarship was taken away and I could no longer attend college. I didn’t have the money to pay my way through college so I had to leave. I found myself in a difficult situation because I didn’t have my green card, which meant I could not get loans for school. Instead, I turned my attention to starting my own business.

I owned a newspaper stand out in Manhattan for a few years and when I got married, my wife worked alongside me. When my situation was better, I decided to go back to school and get a degree in technical work. My wife manned the stand with another woman we contracted and I finished and worked at ESPN for a year. It was definitely an interesting experience.


Current Employment

My wife was taking classes in Columbia, working on a dental degree when I lost my job. The city had wanted to take possession of all the newspaper stands including ours and we soon found ourselves out of business. I was out of work for about a year. My wife was still going to school and she had met an individual who referred a job opportunity to me in Central Park. It was a position as a ground tech. I would be assisting the zone gardener, kind of like the IT of the bushes. I went in for the interview and got the job. I was given a seasonal position to start with on 100th street, but I did so well they hired me full time after five months instead of waiting for six months to evaluate my work.

I learned how to use various power tools to manage the grounds. There’s this one tool called the “scag” that is used to cut the huge lawns in Central Park. It’s very dangerous to have people around it if it’s on. It could literally cut someone to pieces! We have grapplers to pick up the garbage with and our golf carts that we drive around in to cover large distances, especially when we have to go on garbage runs. On garbage runs, which take priority to any of our other jobs, we unload the bags on the garbage cans and replace them with new ones. The directors of the park say it makes no sense to have a beautiful park loaded with garbage so that’s why its our first priority.

It was nice in the uptown area of Manhattan. I worked in a small area that only required me and one other person to maintain it. The regular patrons of the park were nice and knew me by name. Sometimes during the winter a few of them would come by and bring me cups of coffee. I could easily have four or five cups a day. I worked uptown until 2010 when I was given an overdue promotion and moved to the downtown area. I was promoted to a zone gardener in the downtown area around Hecklesher Park, a children’s playground that I was happy about because it meant that I could make my own decisions of what I wanted to accomplish each day. I could plan my day out, get the necessary tools from our toolbox and get to work.

My job is steady but hard work. It involves much manual labor and can be dangerous at times. Around 2010, I was going to cut a tree limb down that was getting ready to fall at any moment. As I was preparing a tool, a saw that would pull it down, I felt something heavy fall on top of my head. It was the tree limb! It had fallen off before I could cut it down! The limb was large and knocked me out, putting me out of work for almost six months. I had bulges on certain parts of my spine, especially my neck on the C4, C5, and C7 vertebrae. I constantly had headaches and nowadays if I sleep in a bad position, like if I’m on a long bus ride, I have to get up and readjust my spine and head by cracking it. We definitely have to be careful.

Depending on the season, my priorities change in terms of managing my area. I work in an area that is heavily visited by people so during the fall and winter seasons, it is important to keep the walkways and bus stops cleared of any leaves during the fall and snow and ice during the winter. There are a lot of trees, it is a park after all, so when the leaves start falling we have to pick them up otherwise they begin to pile up. More than anything we try to get it done before the snow begins to fall in the winter. This year it was really tough. We had snow coming down continuously from December until late April. Clearing the snow became our top priority because it’s easier to clear it while its still soft. If we let it settle ice could accumulate and it would be more work to remove.

In the summer, it is essential to keep the vegetation hydrated. We set up sprinkler systems on the big lawns that shower them with water in a rotating motion. We have to be careful about the space we are using because it would defy the point of using the system if the water is wetting the sidewalk. My favorite job is weeding. I use this tool that has four long, hard plastic strings attached to it. It’s basically like a whip and you swing it around to cut the weeds, just don’t do it around people!

When events are occurring in the park, and this is often, we’re on a time crunch to get our job done. On top of our regular duties, we have to find the time to complete any additional work for a given area, whether it is the playground or other venue. It can be tough, but I do enjoy my work. You learn a lot about people and how they interact with others and their environment. I’ve picked up a lot over the years. Did you know dogs could get jealous? I saw this lady walking her dog and she came upon a friend who was also doing the same. She started showering her friend’s dog with kisses and endearments while her own dog stood passively by watching. After a while though, her dog began to growl and pace around agitated, and then he shoved the other dog aside and barked. The woman didn’t even realize it until I went up and told her that her dog was jealous. People are funny sometimes.

You learn a lot everyone who is a Pedi cab driver, map girl, horse drawn carriage owners etc. Everyone comes from all walks of life. Even though this is isn’t what they had imagined for themselves, quite a few aspired to be actors, they make the most of it because, hey, its New York City, you have to make a living.

20140520_140409       20140520_140350