Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Crazy Zigzag Course

(A) Concrete canyon; (B) Flower garden in Riverside Park; (C) Spreading gravel on a dog run.


Sierra Cub members doing grunt work on New York's Riverside Park. For free. That's what it was. But one of them was a runner. He took off to Central Park.


They will scarcely notice if I go running. The 23 others are like strangers. I only met them Sunday night, which was the eve of Memorial Day, and now it is Thursday. Lee and Willard (I’ve changed names), two of my roommates at the hostel, know I’m going. They’ll hardly raise a panic if I don’t return, none of their worry.

“Screw it! He’s a grown man, he knew what he was doing,” they’ll say.

Willard is an educated bubba from Arkansas. He despises Republicans and defies anybody bossing him around. “Let me see your supervisor’s licenses,” he demands.

Lee is a Navy retiree is from Pensacola given to blurting out strangely irrelevant statements in a rapid-fire mumble nobody can understand. “I don’t know what the hell Lee’s talking about half the time,” Willard told me one day. “I think, ‘What was that Lee said! Man, I need to clean out my ears.’”

Brad, my other roomie, is from Utah. His hobby is dirt bike racing. He combines motorcycles with cardiology, his day job. He sports a shiny pate on top and a ponytail in the back.

He never talks. It’s hard to guess what he knows. Damned if I see how he finds his way around anyone’s heart—he barely finds his way down the sidewalk, always holding the group up one way or another: showing up late, forgetting his subway card, wandering off to nobody knows where.

“I’d leave his ass,” Willard says. He would too.

Presenting, then, the cast and setting: four misfits stuffed in a tiny room on New York’s Upper West Side, all, more or less, trying to be agreeable.

For now, the day’s work is done, and I’m going running. So I stuff my credit card, room key and four folded $100 bills in my key pocket and set out. Except for the key, I don’t need those things, but I can’t leave them in the hostel for roving thieves.

From Amsterdam at West 103rd Street I head east, through Frederick Douglass Houses, a high-rise project spanning two blocks. I hit Central Park West and duck into the park itself.

I run past the bench where I’d lunched Sunday, just after arriving in town. I didn’t have a room then, but I’d stowed my bags in one of the hostel’s lockers, two bucks for 24 hours. I’d walked over to the park, stopping at a bodega for a candy bar and a Gala apple, and picked up a hot dog from a street vendor.

I’d sat on the bench wielding my K-Bar folder, slicing wedges off the Gala, the only apple suitable for human consumption in my book. Woman from New Jersey walks up. “Where are the restrooms?” she asks. I swear. I hadn’t been there twenty minutes, and here comes a woman asking directions. Did I look like a bored New Yorker dawdling away his Sunday?

“I just got in town,” I said. “I don’t know where they are. If we were in Tennessee, I could point you to a tree.”

Restrooms? I couldn’t advise her. I’m a stranger here. I didn’t even know what I was going to do next.

Remembering, I run past that bench now and head on across the park, passing baseball fields. A rock outcropping rises up from the grass. Young woman with a laptop sits on top, practicing an expression of languid boredom. Pretty, young and alone, perched on a rock, like a bluebird on a stump.

It’s not a long jog across. The park is only half a mile wide. I hit Fifth Avenue and hesitate, wondering whether to exit the park, or stay on a path. After all, my secret is I know where I’m going: I plan to circle the park’s upper side. I can do that within or without the parapet wall. I decide to stay inside the park, on the paths.

Helen will notice if I’m not back for supper, I bet. “Where’s Dallas?” she’ll ask. Ours fates entwined strangely that first day, last Sunday.

Two dozen Sierra Club members arrived at the International Youth Hostel, planning to bunk there and do some work on Riverside Park. Our leader, Brooklyn native Jerry Balch, had made room assignments, four persons to each room. He hadn’t known me except through correspondence.

He thought I was a woman.

Something I’d said in e-mail. I noticed his reply had been quite friendly. I discovered his error Sunday when I asked him why I was assigned to a room with three women.

“I thought you were a woman,” he said.

Well, I’m not. My white beard helped convince him. But he didn’t know what to do about the room. He dreaded changing everything.

“Just make out tonight…” he told me, and then trailed off, suggesting he’d think about it later.

I lugged my bags up the stairs to room 425, dropped my key in the slot and let myself in. The surprised women in the room saw their new bunkmate and started laughing. They thought it was so very funny. I didn’t know how to take that.

We talked. They told me Helen’s sad story. Before my de jure sex change, Helen had been an extra female, and Jerry had assigned her to bunk with three men in 410. That suggested a swap. I skedaddled around to 410 and knocked on the door. There I found Willard and Helen unpacking their bags.

I made my proposal—that Helen and I swap rooms. A wide smile spread across her face. It was deliverance for her. She had already resigned herself to bunking with three men.

“You could tell Helen was nervous, but she was determined to suck it up and make the best of it,” Willard told me later.

That night at supper we put on name tags so we could learn who everyone was. On her tag, Helen had written: “Helen, ‘friend of Dallas.’”

If I fail to return from this run, Helen will notice.

Skirting along the upper park border at 110th Street now. Given that I started at 103rd Street this won’t be a long run. Three miles will be O.K., and it looks like that’s how it might work out once I return.

A lake on my left, two little kids squatting at the edge squinting at something on the ground. Maybe they caught a fish, or maybe it’s just a tadpole. Kids love messing around water.

There are fish here in the middle of Manhattan. My jog takes me past another small lake. I know bass live in there. I saw one on top a few days ago. Guy was pointing it out to a passerby. A few casts of my ultra light…

And I saw a bucket of bullfrogs at a fish market in Chinatown. There were a dozen or more sitting quietly in three inches of water at the bottom of their jail. They couldn’t remember how to croak. They sat silent, like church was going to start.

I finish my jog in time for a shower, supper and a ride downtown to catch the Emerson String Quartet.

Friday rolls around, and we quit Riverside Park early. Which fact causes me to once again find myself jogging across Central Park, this time intending to circle the lower park, a longer route than yesterday’s was.

I jog across the park like yesterday, hit the east side and head south. That is, I get close to the east side. As before, I decide to stay on the park paths, rather than stepping outside and running down Fifth Avenue. But I don’t find that easy. There are many paths and—the greenhorn stranger I am—I keep making choices that threaten to take me back toward the west.

Finally I work my way past the reservoir, and decide to take the direct route south: get out and run the sidewalk on Fifth.

But now time becomes my problem. Reluctantly, I decide I’m not going to the southern end of the Park. My crazy zigzag course has taken up too much time.

I have obligations. Helen, Willard and I are planning to catch a Mets game. It will be a seven-mile run by the time I circle back. Must keep my promise.

So I cut through the park at East 65th Street, six blocks short of my goal. That cutoff takes me close to the Tavern on the Green, near the NYC Marathon finish line. But I never see the line. I suspect the reason is the same one that’s dogged me on this whole run—jogging the wrong path.

On November 4th I will surely find that line. And I’m going to stomp on it hard, with all the fierce energy my 142 pounds can bring. That’s my pledge. I’m going to stomp that line.

And so…eventually I did. The NYC Marathon came on November 4th that year, 2007. I found that line after running for precisely 3 hours, 18 minutes, and 55 seconds, arriving ahead of anyone else in the M65-69 age group.

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