Not everybody got the memo.

"What?" screamed Nicole Wagenstetter, as she arrived at the Great Lawn on Sunday at about 2 p.m., expecting to find a few hundred thousand like-minded protesters, chanting and sticking it to the Man on Central Park's largest patch of green. Instead, she and three equally startled friends were staring at a couple dozen sunbathers, plus a few games of pickup softball. The place looked pastoral. Wagenstetter, who was holding a cardboard sign scrawled with "Fight the Power," looked shocked.

"Where is everyone else?" she asked.

Not here, at least not in the early afternoon. The Great Lawn would have been the site of the massive anti-Bush rally in Manhattan, but after a lengthy and highly public fight, New York's Parks Department turned down the request, and a week ago a federal judge backed up that decision. After some delicate negotiations, the city and the protest organizers settled on a new location, far away from the Great Lawn.

"Are you serious?" Wagenstetter wondered.

Definitely. Don't you read the newspaper? Or watch TV?

"We don't trust the TV," piped in a friend, who wasn't kidding.

"Maybe if we huddle together, we'll look like a crowd," said a friend.

While other stretches of Manhattan teemed with marchers, keeping an eye on this 13-acre refuge for most of the day was exactly like watching the grass grow. Which is just as the city wanted it.

The legal battle over the Great Lawn, it turns out, was about the lawn. Parks Department officials said no because they were worried about the grass. Specifically, they were worried that the protesters would inadvertently dig up the lawn and leave a mooshed, divot-filled mess in its placard-waving wake. Many heard this and naturally assumed that some Republican, desperate for a reason to shunt the protesters off New York's main stage, came up with a very lame excuse.

But if that's your assumption you probably don't live in Manhattan. You probably have a lawn, or you know somebody who has a lawn. New Yorkers don't. All they have is the random nooks of greenery wedged haphazardly in various corners of the city, and Central Park. The precise number of private lawns -- the sort large enough to throw a football in -- isn't known, but it's widely assumed that no town in America has a tinier lawn-to-humanity ratio than this one. Which is why people here have a love for grass that is downright Cheech-and-Chongian, and an abiding affection for their parks.

"These are our secular churches," says Adrian Benepe, the city's parks commissioner. "It's where we go in times of joy, in times of stress, to seek communion with nature and one another. Our residents count on their parks for interaction with grass."

None more so than the Great Lawn. A fixture of Central Park since the early '30s, the lawn was given an $18 million makeover in 1995, with three feet of subsurface -- much of it sand -- laid into the ground and a robust blend of Kentucky bluegrass blanketed on top. The whole project took two years. Today, a long list of rules keeps the lawn in nearly golf-ready condition. Sports are banned six months out of the year, to let the grass rest, and red flags are put out after a rain to signal that all permits for all games are canceled. No football, no soccer.

Talk to Benepe for a while and it's impossible to doubt the man's sincerity. And you can push any way you like, he's ready with an answer. What about that Dave Matthews concert last year, sir? Why allow that and not an anti-Bush protest?

"Because the concert was ticketed," he says, which set a ceiling on the total number of people in the place. Plus there was a bond put up to cover any damage, and most important, there was a rain date so the show could be rescheduled in the event of a downpour. A crowd on the lawn in a downpour is Benepe's worst nightmare.

"It didn't rain but we still had $130,000 worth of damage," he said, "primarily in compression of grass. We had to resod some portions."

By 4 o'clock Sunday, the Wagenstetter party didn't need to huddle to look like a crowd. More than a thousand protesters had trickled in, having wound their way to the Great Lawn after they finished marching. They sat in a circle, clapped and chanted slogans like "Whose park? Our park! Whose park? Our park!" An all-dressed-up protest group called Billionaires for Bush played croquet on the lawn, while a group in fake military fatigues called the Clown Army trotted around shouting, "Mission accomplicated!" There was a strong but low-profile police presence, and no indication that they were eager to intervene.

"To be honest with you," said Assistant Chief Raymond Diaz, as he surveyed a ring of chanters, "the park is usually a lot more crowded than this on a typical Sunday."

For most of the day, the bulk of the action on the Great Lawn took place on the softball fields. The players seemed just marginally aware of the day's political theme.

"What do we want?" shouted an outfielder.

"Third out!" yelled a teammate.

"When do we want it?"

"Now!"

Finding people who thought the city was right to turn down the Great Lawn rally permit wasn't hard. You just asked someone swinging a bat.

"It's my impression that protests don't really do anything," said a man who would identify himself only as Jeff. ". . . So go protest some place that's desolate, go down to Wall Street. There's nobody there today."

"We don't need to hear that nonsense here," said his buddy, who would only offer "Charlie" as his name. "I hear enough of that [stuff] on 'Larry King Live.' "

But if you ventured beyond the softballers, opinion ran strongly against the Parks Department. And that reflects widespread public opinion; a Quinnipiac University poll found that 75 percent of New Yorkers thought that the city should have opened the Great Lawn to the march. This city is heavily Democratic, and perhaps its affair with its grass is no match for its appreciation for the right to protest wherever you like.

"The city is spending so much money to host the Republicans here and I think it's only fair that they spend a little money to host the protesters," said Robert Petkoff, an actor who was picnicking with friends. Petkoff is now playing the role of a revolutionary in the Broadway production of "Fiddler on the Roof." The theater had been rented out by a Republican organization on Sunday night, and Petkoff was looking forward to delivering lines like "In this world it is the rich who are the criminals."

"Central Park is the heart of New York," he said, "and what place better to express what is in the heart of New York?"

The park's founding fathers probably would have disagreed. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed and built Central Park, starting in the 1850s, the green spaces were a lot like paintings in a museum -- meant to be appreciated, not touched.

"The whole idea from the designers' intent, which was a very 19th-century idea, is that you were supposed to derive mental refreshment from looking at the grass," says Sara Cedar Miller, author of "Central Park: An American Masterpiece." "Olmsted was in charge of the park keepers, and there was a list of rules. One of them was everyone had to stay on the path. No one on was allowed on the grass."

At the time, the Great Lawn wasn't a lawn at all. It was a working reservoir and served the city's water needs for decades. In 1931, once underground tunnels had made the reservoir obsolete, the city's legendary builder Robert Moses filled the reservoir with dirt excavated during the creation of Rockefeller Center and converted the area into a grassy expanse. It was a hit, but by the '60s, overuse and drainage trouble had killed all the greenery, with the exception of some hearty crab grass. The Great Lawn was known to locals as the "Dust Bowl," and with the exception of pickup soccer and football games, not much happened there.

"It wasn't as nice as it is now," said Bill Kaufmann, a protester who was wearing a T-shirt that read "Sunday in the Park Against George." "But nobody told us it wasn't nice. We thought it was terrific."

That was a long time ago, a time when the city was struggling to bring people besides sports lovers to the park. Those days are long gone, and by 4:30 p.m., the protesters vastly outnumbered the non-protesters. Assistant Chief Diaz said that as long nobody built a stage or started shouting over an amplifier, he and his fellow officers would just watch quietly. That left a shirtless guy on a softball team begging for a little space.

"Please move over a little bit," he pleaded with a group of protesters, who were milling around. "You guys are standing in left field."

"Count de Vote Not" and "Ivana Nother Benz" of Billionaires for Bush, mock the president's supporters in Central Park.Billionaires for Bush, above, mock the president's base of support in Central Park yesterday, while a young family, right, enjoys a peaceful outing near the Great Lawn, where protesters planned to gather.