The Polite Runner



500 1st ave ny 10016

Neighborhood: East Village

“It is the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.”    –Erica Jong

I’ve started to go running at 6 am. I am not a competitive runner: I don’t run daily, I don’t clock mileage and I don’t sport special athletic duds. I am a runner for time.  Well slept, pumped with a protein shake and my hair a bird’s nest, I approach the morning with strength and optimism. When I spring into action this early, the day ahead seems promising and available, and I experience the sensation that my thoughts and dream residue are anxious to converge, conflict and resolve themselves.  I plunge into the morning: I am off.

A polite runner, I am especially cautious not to bombard the elderly who tend to promenade down the street a bit off beat.  All done up with costume jewelry and tattered cloche, I spot Mrs. Chupenki who I know from the Polish beauty salon where I can get a manicure, pedicure, and leg wax for twenty bucks.  Walking to the mailbox, she is dropping off a Hallmark to a family member far away. She smiles a toothless grin, and I know this may very well be her big outing of the day, not including a trip to our beauty salon where she’ll have her thinning blue-gray hairlets curled up in big plastic rollers, the preamble to a bouffant lacquered “set.”  I get a melancholic feeling of appreciation for her many years of life accomplished when I see old folk such as she operating on such a simplistic level.

To experience the wafting fresh bakery scents of the early morning, I run along the sidewalk. Passing the small Italian bread shop, I catch my reflection in the window and notice a sign that advertises “two loaves for a dollar.” Sounds enticing, I think to myself, I should stop in, but no, I must run and bread is not the best thing for my system. Flour plus water equals paste. I never bring cash on a run anyway, but I know the owner, and that he’d honor my request to take away now, pay later, if I’d asked. I have a friendly rapport with the village people, and every now and then reward their good service with a plant, poster, or old argyle sweater that I no longer need or want.

Running, I cruise further northbound and bound through Kips Bay. Rubbish swirls through the air at all angles; storefront posters for off-Broadway plays long since forgotten are yellowed like parchment; and the dusty, faded velvet curtains framing buzzing neon beer signs in dank old pubs make me run harder and faster. I won’t attach myself to these visuals as I find them depressing, I simply acknowledge that they exist and press on.

My breathing accelerates as I near Bellevue Hospital. Scuffling around are doctors in scrubs, derelicts smoking unfiltered cigarettes, Puerto Rican mamacitas chiding their offspring and zaftig pretty ladies with long airbrushed fingernails standing in a coffee cart line buying doughnuts. As I run past, I think maybe those who see me take a split-second to acknowledge that I am out here, young and healthy; perhaps remembering a time when they too were as fit, a time before physical passivity, brittle bones and monthly check ups. I leave the hospital behind, and happen upon a small park that I have never before noticed. A fountain trickles, amber leaves dance and a Stetson-hatted newspaper-reader occupies a bench. It’s quiet in there—a serene little hideaway where the air sits cool and the blare of traffic is mystically drowned out.

I start to sweat. I like it when I run past someone and inhale their mist of cologne. It’s an olfactory Doppler effect, and most pleasing when the scents are familiar. One lady smells of spicy Anäis Anäis, and I am transported to my fourth-grade classroom, whiffing Ms. Tanagucci’s special perfume as she leans over to help me with my long division homework. I look to the skyscrapers and feel Lilliputian beneath their concrete stateliness. I pass co-ed police cadets decked out in stellar training duds walking in unison toward a uniform shop, or graduation ceremony, I can never figure out which.

Up by 34th Street, an apartment complex is being built. Still in skeletal structure, they say that all the apartments have already been sold. In jazzy dialect, the on-site construction guys bid me a robust “good morning” and I am amused, trotting past as they sit along the curb devouring egg-and-cheese sandwiches and slurping piping-hot, sugary morning joe. Why is it they wear dirty sweatshirts first thing in the morning? I guess I am doing the same sort of thing—running in the same clothes I slept in.

From a one-block distance I spot the freaky, scabby lady who holds out her cup and opens the bank door. In her career of standing at the bank’s entrance, why has she never realized that ATM’s don’t dispense coinage and that no one ever gives away twenties? But she is a qualified doorperson (doesn’t stink), and always wears a cheery pink headband. I imagine if she were to take it off, her hair would be perma-greased in an off-the-face, head-banded rim, a wrinkle in time. I point out the Verizon Wireless guy who’s there disassembling a sidewalk payphone, and gesture to her half-jokingly that she should hit him up for a quarter.

Running, legs burning, I reach my three-quarter’s mark, and keep reminding myself, “homestretch, get it over with, homestretch.” I pass a doorman with fast-current hose watering the plant life outside his building. The cool water steaming on asphalt and seeping into foliage smells fresh and transports me to another time and place: I am feeling California, dad in Smurf-blue robe watering the azalea bushes in the driveway of our Los Angeles ‘canyon’ home.

I tune into the sound of my rubber-soled feet pouncing the sidewalk. Sweat drips down my face and chest, but I am not one of those intense people who can soak an entire T-shirt. I am more apt to experience the salty tingle of sweat on skin, the toxicity of the city’s everyday pollutants pushing outward through the epidermis.

The final leg of the journey sails me past the 24-hour Ukrainian diner where a clique of Goth kids is having breakfast. I cannot decipher if they are early risers like me, or owls clinging onto the edge of night. I start to slow down my pace, turn the corner onto my block, and ease into a slow deep stretch.

I feel good—I’m on top of the day and half the people I know are still asleep. There’s really nothing quite like a run this early in the morning. I have the chance to think of my family and relatives and remember to whom I owe a birthday tiding or “happy anniversary” phone call; I can compile my day’s “to do” list of social activities; and best of all, when I run, I blow off steam. And then I wonder why I even have steam to blow off this early in the day. 

As vibrant as a five-mile run makes me feel, and as satisfied as I am with my early morning’s hard work, I just can’t seem to languish in the moments I work so hard to achieve. Or maybe it’s just that there are and will be so many more that not each and every one must merit thoughtful pause. Constantly pushing through each situation in order to get to the next point in time is my attempt at finding something that will sustain me. My rush to get from one place to the next is not simply in observation of a time imperative, but more about what awaits me where I am going than what occupies me where I am.

No matter how involved I am with the city, somehow I still feel like I’m running on the fringe, skimming the surface of my every experience, disengaged. It’s a combination of my having just completed an assignment, like a hard run in the city or a crucial project at work, and the self-inflicted reminder to constantly do more, see more, process more. There seems to be just enough room left over for me to realize that even when I’m contentedly surrounded by familiar faces and the resounding music of the city’s dynamic, that I am still on my own. 

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