Q: How did you become a gondolier in Central Park?
A: I was laid off last year and was trying to think about what specialty skills I had that could keep me going. I knew about the Central Park gondola because my oldest brother, who is also a gondolier, asked if he could row five years ago when he lived in New York.
My two brothers and I all learned how to row in Oakland, CA.
Q: There is a place to be a gondolier in Oakland, CA?
A: There’s a lake in the middle of the city called Lake Merritt. There’s some fact about Lake Merritt—like it’s the largest inland salt-based body of water completely surrounded by an urban environment—something elaborate like that. I grew up down the street from it, and had always liked boats. So after my oldest brother met the head gondolier and learned how to row, I was eager to start up.
Q: And so you got the job in Central Park. Obviously there is a lake there.
A: Yeah and, surprisingly, a gondola. When I tell old school New Yorkers about the gondola, they like to tell me that it FLAT OUT does not exist. But there have been gondolas there since 1863 when the lake was dug out.
The lake’s entirely man-made. It pulls water from the reservoir and is very shallow—about three and a half to four feet deep.
Q: The whole way across?
A: The whole way across.
There are over a hundred rowboats and it’s shallow just in case someone capsizes—so they can walk out. You’ll see people thrashing, trying to tread water, and I’ll tell them, “You can stand up, you know.”
Once there were two HUGE guys from the Bronx that were in a real struggle until I called out to them…
It’s a weird optical illusion because the lake is clouded and gross with pond scum.
Q: What’s it like being a gondolier in Central Park?
A: I went through stages. At first I was nervous. On my first day I crashed the gondola into the Boathouse. It’s a restaurant with an open theater element to it, with all seats oriented toward the water. So everyone saw it happen and some people started scoffing—I ended up breaking a light and the chef had to come out to fix it. He was totally pissed.
The next stage, I was juiced. You become a pseudo celebrity. I mean, no one is going to pull me aside on the subway and ask for an autograph, but you run the show on the lake…
Q: And was there a third stage?
A: I have a problem with time—I don’t understand it very well. I think post-college, I started to miss the semester system. So after gondola season died down, it felt like I had to go back to school.
Q: So obviously the season stops and then you’re out of work.
Q: Were you a full-time gondolier? How many gondoliers were there?
A: There are two gondoliers and one gondola. Andres rowed for fifteen years, seven days a week. He did it enough that he bought a house in Barcelona and he could take winters off and paint—he’s a painter. He often says, “My kids are the only ones that pray for rain in the summer so that I can be home with them.” He looks and sounds exactly like Vince Vaughn. He’s very charming.
Q: And people make reservations to go on the gondola rides?
A: Yes. Cruises are half an hour long, so you really get a chance to hang out with people.
I like the double cruises, though. I like being able to cover the whole lake.
Q: And you sing I assume?
A: I have five songs that I sing. Four are in Italian. Even though I don’t speak a word of it.
Q: How did you learn the songs?
A: I listen to Pavarotti on YouTube. You should check him out—he’s really good.
Q: How many people can fit in the boat?
A: Up to six people is what we say. I once had twelve people and another time I had nine-ten very thin hipsters who don’t take up too much space…
Q: Do you ever see marriage proposals?
A: By the end of the summer I’d seen over 50 proposals.
Q: What is it like?
A: There’s no way you could possibly wrap your mind around it. You’ve seen this relationship for five minutes, and all you know is that this guy is nervous all the time. It’s nerve-wracking before, and it can be cathartic after. I’ve had goosebumps multiple times.
I wasn’t in a relationship all summer though, and was getting over one, so sometimes I’d think to myself, “I hope you’re happy, jerks.”
Q: Have you had any other strange characters on the boat?
A: Oh yeah. Lots.
One night this guy rolled up—he’s a bald guy who looks like Mr. Clean. He had a tall leggy blonde with him and he says, “Are you ready to rock and roll this gondola ride?”
So we push off and two minutes pass, I start singing and it’s getting pretty romantic… until I look down and realize it’s getting REALLY romantic, like she’s going romantically down on him. So I just keep singing and he gives me a thumbs up over his shoulder, which from my angle looked like a thumbs down. Then after they finish up, they’re arguing and the woman says in a Russian accent, “But I need marriage papers in order to live here!” And then mid-argument his phone rings and he looks at it and says, “Ah, man. It’s my fiancée!”
Then he busts out a joint and starts passing it back and forth with his lady…
Afterward, he shakes my hand, which is gross because who knows what’s been going on, and then he hands me his business card. It says that he works for an organization that assists needy children and senior citizens. He later became my most frequent customer and one time he came with both his fiancée AND his mail-order bride at the same time.
I thought, “That guy can accomplish more in half an hour than I can accomplish in a year.”
Q: Do you think he’ll mind that you talked about him for this interview?
A: Aw, he’d love it.
Q: Is it ok if I use your full name for the interview?
A: Sure, use the whole thing—Liam Daniel Pierce.
Q: You realize all killers and rapists go by three names.
A: What? I never thought of that.
Q: Sure, who killed JFK?
A: Lee Harvey Oswald. Ooh, you’re right.