the Lake with Andres Garcia-Peña, Gondolier
you think of riding in a gondola, you think of one of the myriad
canals dissecting the ancient Italian city of Venice. A large
lake in New York City is about the last thing to come to mind.
Yet not only is there a gondola gliding majestically on Central
Park’s big lake, “it is there by design,” gondolier Andres Garcia-Peña
avers. “When Frederick Low Olmstead created Central Park in 1850–the
only man-made park to remain totally true to nature–he desired
to acquire a distinctly European flavor to this particular part
of the park.”
Italy became a nation-state in 1868, the same year the Park finally
opened. Thus, near the Bethesda Fountain, the columns on the buildings
are of a Roman style. Hence, gondolas.
Eight of them, originally.
is only one of the many historic tidbits the personable Garcia-Peña–
now the lone gondolier in the park–regales his clientele with.
“I see myself as a communicator and entertainer,” he says. “I
tell them about the history of the park, of the surrounding buildings
such as The Dakota, whatever they want to know about.” Then he
sings to the customers, preferably the same Italian love songs–“O,
Solo Mio,” “Nights in Sorrento”–that his Venetian counterparts
do. All this while dressed in full gondolier regalia, with the
big straw hat, the striped shirt, the whole thing. “To complete
the experience,” Garcia-Peña smiles, “I want it to be one of total
In many ways, the personable 41-year-old Garcia-Peña lives a life
of total fantasy. A successful artist educated at Greenwich Village’s
Cooper Union College–and now living in a 5000 square foot loft
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his wife and three-month old daughter–he’s
had dozens of showings of his paintings in some of the finest
New York galleries. His style is surrealist yet accessible, “something
along the lines of Salvador Dali and Magritte,” he says. He paints
his life experience, including but not limited to his second existence
as a gondolier. He sells five or so paintings a year–the highest
price ever was $7,000–enough to feel elated about his art, but
not necessarily to make a living.
gondola gig “is the greatest second job in the world,” he says.
“First of all, I love it. Beautiful park, beautiful lake, dealing
with all kinds of nice peopleÐwhat’s there not to love? Secondly,
it’s a six month-a year job, from 5-10 in the evening. The perfect
part time gig. And third of all, it pays.” A ride costs $30.00
for a half an hour, split evenly with his employer (The Boathouse
Cafe). In addition, more often than not, Garcia-Peña receives
a grand gratuity due to his charm, enthusiasm, and keen insight
into the romantic aspects of the experience.
the one thing I lie just a little about,” he smiles. “When we
get to the bridge, I tell young couples–many on a first date–that
there is an old legend: if you kiss under this bridge you will
kiss under a bridge in Venice. Ninety-nine percent of the time,
it really starts something.”
Gondoliering is not only fun work but an excellent workout as
well, according to Garcia-Peña. The sculling with a single oar
involves a row-cut-and-steer motion in the water that “makes a
20-30 pound difference in my body weight over the course of six
months,” he says.
Garcia-Peña, who was born in Milan, Italy to Colombian parents
but has lived in New York since the age of 2, took over the gondolier
gig from his retiring cousin. “In gondoliering, it’s not what
you know–it’s who you know,” he quips. He’s had everyone from
Bruce Willis to Spike Lee to George Clooney to Tony Bennett in
his boat in the seven years he’s been The Man on the Lake. “I
can safely say they all enjoyed themselves immensely,” he says.
“This is a dream job where you have the power to make all kinds
of dreams come true.”#
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