Friday, September 22, 2006

The Mist, the Mare, The Bag on the Subway Steps

First, a recollection: On one of those perfect September mornings, much like this one, but this was long ago, I was riding my bike down a steep winding road somewhere North of Tahlequah and East of Highway 10. I was hoping I was on the right cut-through which would take me down to the Illinois River canoe rental places where I would find some lunch. There were rivers and pools of fallen leaves all over the roadway and I was zigging and zagging to avoid them and trying not to lose it on the turns. A stick or something jumped up and got caught in my front wheel and, though it didn't seem to be doing much harm, it was making a funny noise so at the first flat spot I pulled over to see what it was.
There was still a slight mist rising over the nearby fields, mown down hay from the looks of it, already cut and carried off to the winter barns. What it was was a piece of bark and it had jammed itself real well between one of the brake pads and the wheel rim. I started to yank on it and that's when I heard the horses. They were far off and down the hill from me, but in the clear air I could tell that there were four, or maybe five, animals making their way, clip clop, up the road. I got the bark out, picked up the front of the bike and spun the wheel to make sure it was on straight then waited to see what was coming.
There were two cowboys on horses leading two more horses. They were in no hurry. One of them was complaining to the other about something and the listening one was the one who saw me first from about one hundred feet away. I should have mentioned that I was wearing my full out-in-the-boonies bike gear, black and yellow striped helmet, brilliant yellow jersey and black with a big blue panel bike shorts. Knowing now that I looked like some kind of giant horsefly helps me understand what happened next.
As they got closer the listening cowboy made a sign to me to stay still. "No problem." I said softly and nodded my head 'Howdy" to the other one. "This one's a little jumpy." he said, "and I don't think she's seen anything like you before." He took a little rein in, "Whoa. Whoa." I stayed put as well as I could, but when the lead horse got to about twenty feet away she saw me. Her eyes got huge and her front legs flew out, straight as pipes and struck the pavement hard in a full jarring stop. The cowboy pulled back on the reins, but the mare shied backwards into the other horses before he settled her down. There was a lot of shushing and whoaing, but things were back to normal in a few seconds. Just a case of the jitters over something you don't expect to see.
So, this morning I run five miles in Central Park and take the subway down to Broadway and 23rd. It's just a short jog from there to my gym. I am just slogging along the big broad sidewalk on my way towards Park Avenue when I see the bag. It's a big bag, a duffel bag, and it's sitting right next to the entrance of the Number Six Lexington Line Subway Station. Many thoughts pass through one's head.
Oh, somebody is hauling their stuff down into the subway and this is the last remaining bag. (No one comes out to claim it as I get nearer.)
Oh, some poor homeless guy has walked off and left this huge bag.
(No, it is as clean as can be, nice and new)
Oh, maybe it's a bomb.
I really said that. My brain whirred momentarily, there was a sound like a piece of bark getting stuck in a wheel and I jammed both my feet into the pavement in a full stop and then staggered back a few feet. I shook my head and looked at the bag. Was that a wire sticking out of those papers? I did a side-stepping move worthy of any step aerobics workout tape and then traipsed backward, keeping one eye on the bag and the other on the approaching curb. And there, holy cow, just when you need one, a cop on the corner.
"I got weirded out by that bag"
"Yeah. Something happened. We are looking into it."
"There's a wire."
"Yeah, my partner checked it out. It's clothes. Coat hangers."
"You guys do not get paid enough."
And so the trembling mare headed up the roadway having survived a bad fright over nothing and the trembling slogger crossed the street and took a nice long steam where he remembered the mist and the mare and that long ago September morn.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Running with the Bulls

The Health and Fitness Games Four Mile for Men was yesterday morning and it was a glorious day. I don't use that term often, but yesterday was about as perfect a day, running or otherwise as you could have. The temperature was 71 degrees and no wind. I had to go into work after the race so I lugged my fanny pack with my change of clothes over to the baggage area and then proceeded to stretch.

I've been really worried lately about my right knee. It's never really recovered from the Half Marathon, meaning that it's been a little tight. There has been some pain, but mostly stiffness that never seemed to go away. So about a week ago I started looking up all the remedies for knees and the Internet came through big time. I found a number of stretches that I had forgotten and got a good routine to do before and after running. Ice is good. Quad Stretch is good. Side Stretch is very good.

Anyway on the morning of the race, no tenseness, at least not in the right knee, but the rest of me was a bundle of nerves wondering if at the three mile mark something would blow up.

This race was just for men. (Twelve women ran with us. Beats me why, maybe they wanted to do two races that morning, good for them.) The testosterone level was evident in at least two ways: 1) everyone pushed up a mile per minute or so in the starting place. The ten minute milers were all up in the six minute mile slot. Even the starter was laughing about how many runners were near the start in the five minutes per mile. He said "You know, guys, that is supposed to mean that you can do all four miles at a five minute pace, not just one." I was happily situated in the ten minute slot. I had "The End of the World as We know It" for a start song and I kept telling myself that I just wanted to well, not kill the course record.

Well, 2) unlike races with men and women, this all men's race was all business. Women like to talk to each other and to men as they run. I will be churning along at as fast as I can go and three women will pass me all chatting about just returning from the Jersey Shore. Nothing like that happened in this race.

From the moment the horn sounded it was run, buddy, run. My split for the first mile with the music blasting was just at NINE minutes. Please recall that this is the same guy who was doing 11:55s just two weeks ago. I ignored the water stops, they are always a mess by the time I get there and everytime I spoke to my right knee it said it was just dandy.

The course was perfect for a fast time because we started by climbing Cat Hill and then made the loop around to finish at 68th Street which except for a short hill up to the reservoir is a downhill finish.

So I crossed the line at 37:15 net time which is a PR for me (at least since I started running again last year) 9:18 pace.

Um. Wow for me. Even starting way in the back still finished ahead of about half of my age group and three hundred or so men will still huffing their way around the course while I was going to get my goodie bag from Fitness Magazine.

And the good news is that I have hardly any tenseness in the knee. Remarkable what actually following a training regime will do for you.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I am Interviewed By the Police

Checking the weather radar before you leave home is always a good thing to do. We had a big storm blow through last Saturday night and when went to bed the radar was a solid green mass of rain across the whole area, but when I punched it up at 4:45am, everything was clear. So I was a little surprised when I reached the park's Merchant Gate by how dark it was. There was a layer of fog oozing through the trees and the roadway was pitch black.

The streetlights were out. It was just after 5:30am and I did see one runner go by as I came down the sidewalk towards the road, but he had disappeared by the time I reached the curb. "What the hell." I said and pressed the start button on my watch. I headed up the hill, eastward, towards the Seventh Avenue exit and the Boathouse. The signal lights were working so I got to run first in green light and then in red. I know your eyes are supposed to see better at night in red light, at least that's what they taught us in Escape and Evasion School -USAFSS, another story for another time, but I have to report here that it was much easier to see in the green light or the brief yellows.

The storm had knocked all kinds of sticks and branches onto the road and there were deep puddles to avoid or splash through along with trying to peer through the murk to see if anyone else, besides the previous runner, was nuts enough to do this this early. Sure enough right after the Fifth Avenue exit, I saw two women and a man running towards me. They must have been as put off by the dark as I was because they actually said "Good morning." that never happens unless I happen to say something first. There was a large tree branch down just past that point blocking the sidewalk on the left side of the road. There was already Caution Tape strung across it so someone in authority must have already seen it.

I got to the Boathouse just before six am and it was then that I remembered- it was a holiday weekend- no one was going to open the restrooms until later. (The Boathouse has the cleanest restrooms in the Park.) This was going to be a problem because I needed an open restroom. Sooner rather then later. I had a number of choices, none of which I really liked: 1) run back to 59th Street and see if the icky public johns were unlocked and chance being in there with three homeless guys washing up, 2) run over to Fifth Avenue and catch a cab down to the all-night Cosmo Diner at 888 8th Avenue. (Yes. I have had to do that before.) or 3) jog up to the Precinct Station at the Reservoir and see if they would let me use the men's. I had never done that before but it was fairly close, about a mile and half.

The only problem was I didn't know how to get to the Precinct. I know that sounds strange, but you can see the building from the Bridal Path but it's across one of the roadways that cut through the park and there are no signs directing you how to reach it. So after I got to the Reservoir, I had to find a way to get down to the Bridal Path and then find the Police Parking lot and then find the path from the parking lot to the roadway, all without having an embarrassing emergency.

And it was still very dark, but somehow entryways appeared in the murk and I climbed down a little stairway to the road, crossed over and made it to the door. It was open.

The two cops behind the counter looked up as I came in.
"Hi," I said, "I wonder if I could use your men's room."
"Sure thing." replied the one closer to me, "Down the hall on the right."
"Thanks so much." I said,"Man, it's really dark in the park this morning."
"Oh?" The cop looked right at me. "Tell me more."

There are two groups of people I love to have conversations with, reporters and cops. Why? Because they ask you questions and then really listen to your answers. Hardly anyone else does that. A customer asks how to hang a lamp on a plaster ceiling and then, as you answer, lets his eyes glaze over. A friend asks you what you did over the weekend and before you get the first sentence out starts fiddling with the lid on the ketchup bottle. But when a cop says "Tell me more." He wants to know. AND you, you know this, you cannot hand him a line of horsehocky, you have to give him what you really know. It used to thrill me when the editor of the Tulsa World would ask me "What's new?" My mind would spin trying to think of something which was actually new.

"I'll be right back." I said to the cops, "I've really got to go."

When I came out they were waiting at the desk. I went over with them, practically yard by yard, what sections of the lights were out and which ones I thought I remembered being on (the Boathouse was all lit up, just nobody there.), I told them about the big tree branch and one of the cops said, yeah, he's seen that about 3AM. I said maybe that was part of the cause of the light being out. He said he was going to make a circuit of the park in about twenty minutes and he would check it all out. I said something about there not being too many others out on the roadway, the other cop said something about how it was dangerous to be in the park so early, I said I would be careful, that I didn't want to make any extra work for them. They smiled. I like cops.

I headed out along the Bridal Path to the Bridge. This is the one I call the Stretching Bridge because most of the day it;s covered with bent and bending bodies, runners of every shape making their limbs into semi-natural shapes. It's one of several that reach over the Bridal Path to one of the walking paths in the park. I got to the roadway again just as the rest of the fog was lifting. The rest of the run was uneventful except that after I had cut through the 102nd Street cutoff and was headed South again, one of the cops went by in the cruiser. He gave me a little wave. "Oh, good,"I thought, "Now he knows I'm not just a nut."

Wait a minute, my brain replied, seeing you still out here probably confirms to him that you are a nut. "Shut up." I said and pushed past the Delacorte Theatre where there were about three hundred people asleep in the ticket line. I'll have to do a piece on them sometime. That day was the last performance of Mother Courage and her Children, an interesting choice of play in these times in this city.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The gazelles stayed silent.

New York City,
Wednesday 5:12AM,
The A Train,
Third Car from the End.

When I get on I see her huddled next to the windows of the car with four or five black plastic bags stuffed with her belongings around her legs, stacked up next to and underneath the orange and yellow seat. The space next to her is empty and she is deeply sleeping. She is old. It is usually hard to tell just how old any homeless person is, but this one is old. Deep lines map out her face which has the look and color of an apple left out in the sun for too many days. The rest of her looks burned up, almost cooked, the flesh on her arms, the skin on her neck, the back of her hands. Her feet are wrapped in layers of cloth with a pair of huge men's white athletic socks covering part of them. She is clutching a blue canvas backpack, the kind a grandmother buys for a first grader, it has flowers on it and a picture of Winnie the Pooh.

We, the six other early morning travelers, are settled into our seats, scattered throughout the car, hooked up to Ipods or staring at the box scores in the New York Daily News. The train rumbles towards 59th Street making one local stop after another on the way.

At about 135th Street, I wasn't paying attention to exactly when, a man entered our car from the one in front of us. He was tall, over six feet two, and wearing a filthy pair of jeans and what used to be a red tee-shirt. He began by making his please-help-me-get-a-little-breakfast-speech. Every panhandler has his pitch, some of them change over time, some of them stay the same forever. There was a guy on the 1/9 line who had ''been mugged by three men three months ago." and just needed something for that day to get him back on his feet. I heard him tell that tale over and over for about three years. Same three guys, same three months ago. There is still a guy who works the A train during rush hour on his knees. His thing is to beg pitifully and he is really good at at it. He does a lot of praying for everybody, that they get home safe, that their families will be alright. He holds a can with some coins in it and rattles it as he moves through the crowded car like a penitent at Padua. Some panhandlers sing, mostly Motown tunes with the occasional "Amazing Grace" thrown in to set the right tone. They are, for the most part, universally ignored. Both riders and panhandlers know that it's illegal to beg on the trains and most people just want to be left alone, still the game goes on.

This newcomer to our car was of the announce and then make eye contact school of begging. That is where you tell your story once aloud and then proceed to each person, one by one, hand or can out. It's got to be hard, and hard on you, you start to think, to be so low, but that's only because the story has gotten to you a little this morning. You start to wonder if you still have those two quarters in your pocket, you start to think, ah, what the hell, but then something happened with this guy.

He seemed a little high, a little cracked up, wound up a little too tight. He started to take a little too long looking at everybody, standing in front of everybody, leaning in, one at a time, staring at each person, hand out, waiting. This guy is big, he's got some kind of bruise by his left eye and a tenseness in his face. It began to feel less like panhandling and more like a shakedown, more like something might happen if somebody doesn't cough up soon. He gives the sleeping woman a glance and moves down the aisle. Nobody makes a move, everyone gets very interested in the article they are reading in the paper, on the page in their book. I just shake my head 'no' when he comes towards my seat, but he still comes, he still waits for me to raise my eyes to him. I don't.

He storms off down the car to the door to the next one and slams through it. A feeling of release, of escape from something, fills the air. The guy across from me turns the pages of his paper and noisily raises it out in front of him then folds it in half in a swift motion that looks almost defiant. The train stops at 125th and some more people get on, a couple of the six get off. I smile to myself and try to find my place in the recorded book I am listening to, it's Emperors and Idiots, about the Yankees and the Red Sox and the author fills minute after minute with long ago forgotten men and their achievements on the green, green grass. Home runs abound, so do bobbled grounders and pitchers with worn out arms, I have to listen to another re-telling of where some Boston fan was when Bucky Dent came to bat.

Suddenly the car door slams and the guy is back. He doesn't look at any of us as he walks through the car. He gets to the far door and stops. He stands there for a couple of seconds and I think he's revving himself up to make his get-some-breakfast speech again, but he doesn't. What he does do is sidle back down the car until he is even with the sleeping woman then, softly softly softly, he settles into the seat next to her.

For a half a second I am thinking he must know her, that he recognized her from somewhere, that he's watching over her, but then the reality side of my brain wakes up and says 'Bullshit. He's going to steal her bag.'

Did you ever watch one of those nature films where the cheetah is trying to run down one of the gazelles? Once the chase begins, the cheetah only looks at that gazelle, at his prey, and the other gazelles, the ones who are not being chased, head off in all directions, looking in all directions except where the one who is being chased is being chased, so it was on this early morning train car.

He kept his eyes on her, he knew that no one else would say anything, he knew us, he knew me that well, he knew we would sit there, the unpersued gazelles, as he moved his hands down around the bag. Seconds went by, a whole minute, he was patient, moving not inch by inch, but in tiny slices of distance.

"Hey, what you doing?" the old woman yelled. "Hey, hey, what the fuck you doing.!??" The guy leaped up and cracked his skull on the overhead handrail, he yelped, "I'm not doing nothing, I'm not doing nothing." He backed down the car holding the top of his head. The old woman was standing now, looking right at him, fists out in front of her. "I wasn't doing nothing." the guy said again. "Shut up, you no good."shouted the woman, "I've seen you now. I've seen you. And now you've made an enemy." The woman took a step around her bags, she put one foot out in the aisle, the big guy was backing away down the car. " Now, sometime I will see you sleeping and I'll take every thing you got." She laughed, "You've got an enemy now. Heh."

The gazelles stayed silent.

The guy slammed his way out of the car at the next stop and the woman, already curled up in her seat, seemed just two breaths away from being fast asleep again. Everything settled down.

I listened to about three sentences of my book before shutting the thing off. The shame of it all began to well up over me. What a brave crew we were, what a valiant soul am I. What a bunch of whimpish bovine creatures we all were. We would have sat right there and watched him swipe that woman's bag. We shouldn't be allowed to ride in the same car with her, we don't have half of her courage. If the same thing had happened to anyone else on that train, do you think they could just roll over and go back to sleep? They'd be shaking and weeping and stunned, not her, she was back to snoozing, in seconds at peace with her world.

The train roared into my stop at Fifty-Ninth Street and I was up and out and halfway up the stairs to the park before the whole shame rolled over me. I would have done nothing, I would have been frozen by my fear of getting a shive in the chest from the wired up junkie with a grudge.

There isn't a herd of gazelles who would have me and now I was going to run a circle around the park. I put the music on my headset on as loud as I could take it, it wasn't loud enough.