If you were a New Yorker in the '70s, people were always asking if you'd ever been mugged. (No, but my apartment was burglarized. The lowlife fed my dog to keep her quiet.) In the early '80s, it was whether you'd ever made it inside Studio 54. (Took my teenage sister.) The '90s: have you met Jerry Seinfeld? (Stood behind him and his wife at the marathon once.) And at the moment there is one question we New Yorkers get wherever we go: did you see "The Gates"?

Suddenly they were gone, all 7,532 of them, vanished completely. But for a little more than two weeks visitors to Central Park were welcomed as though by bevies of long-legged bridesmaids, their gaudy skirts rippling in a winter wind. Said to be saffron but really a Hare Krishna orange, "The Gates" consisted of a line of giant croquet wickets edging the park paths as far as the eye could see, their crossbeams hung with a deep flutter of fabric that embraced the walkers beneath.

The only significant vandalism encapsulated an age-old question: someone wrote the word ART? in black marker on several of the stanchions. I can't debate the issue; if I could speak that language I'd be a critic (or a pedant). But in a city that has undergone a long, long winter--more than three years of it--"The Gates" bloomed bright. "Art achieves a purpose which is not its own," a French philosopher once wrote. The unexpected side effect of that cavalcade of color in the center of the city was that it provided an antidote to the monochromatic emptiness that has dominated downtown since September 2001.

We've lost sight of rituals of happiness. Oh, we've become adept, even mechanical, at remembrance and regret. There are ribbons for everything, for breast cancer, for AIDS, flattened and magnetized and stuck on the bumpers of cars to support our troops in Iraq (although a living wage and armored vehicles might be more supportive). But the public gestures that make us smile have slipped away. Parades used to be like that, and Christmas trees, before someone came up with the heinous idea of manufacturing artificial ones. Happily, you can still stop traffic with a hot-air balloon.

There were people who hated "The Gates," who said it looked like a construction site, who complained that it despoiled the park. The bright color set some of them off. Perhaps they are people who believe that the basic shades in a Crayola box should be beige, gray, black and khaki. Being New Yorkers, they felt free to treat a project that cost the city nothing and was up for less time than it takes to find a really rotten apartment at an exorbitant rent as though it was an enormous outrage.

There was an actual enormous outrage in this city, not so long ago. Once there was a landmark, designed to last forever, twin towers so tall their summits sometimes disappeared into a puff of clouds. And then the landmark was destroyed in a huge spasm of hatred and evil and loss.

"The Gates" was a landmark, too, but one that was intentionally fleeting and that was created in a burst of high spirits and good feeling. Unlike what is expected to be built on the Trade Center site, it was a monument not to blind commerce but to the quixotic sensibility of its creators, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who put up more than $20 million for its construction. They waited more than two decades for permission to do this, until New York had a mayor who was not afraid of the avant-garde. But in some ways the long delay made for perfect timing. Perfect timing, in that dull stretch between Christmas and spring, when darkness comes too soon. Perfect timing, at a moment when New York still seemed to have lost forever its sense of the festive.

Toddlers reached for the orange overhang from their strollers. Runners were roused from their habitual brown studies and looked around. The Great Lawn was a tapestry of tourists, languages tangling in the air like colored yarns in a work basket. In a city that has been somber for too long, "The Gates" made the people walking beneath its swaying curtains smile.

Some critics have noted this disparagingly, as though happiness is an unworthy response to true art. But there's plenty of skepticism to go around, and not enough good feeling. All over this country there are cities and towns troubled by natural disasters, personal loss, tragedies. Flags at half-staff, black bunting, roadside memorials with crosses and flowers. Where are the markers of joy?

When pressed about what "The Gates" meant, the creators said it meant whatever you thought it meant, which was a relief after all the highhanded symbolic tyranny that passes for meaning nowadays. For lots of people, the installation made them happy for no reason, the way a spring day does. The spring days are coming soon, the yellow forsythia and daffodils rising as the orange stanchions disappear. Perhaps New York is left a little brighter, a little lighter, a little less bereaved. Left with the lesson that a grand gesture, plotted over time, can end, not with destruction but with gladness. Our town has been a widow. For a few weeks she took off her weeds and put on a party dress.