Discover more from Stephen's People
Do runners have the right to be jerks?
(No. 111) In today’s newsletter, I ponder the arrogance of runners, and why I want to be one myself + you can read the latest chapter of my dystopian/utopian novel, The Lost City of Desire
warning: the following illustrates hypocrisy (or the ability of humans to change, depending on your POV)
Often, I’ll be walking down a narrow New York City sidewalk when I feel a sudden whoosh of air on my neck as a runner skims by me, almost knocking me over. Or a couple of them will come at me from ahead on the sidewalk, silently demanding that I make room for them because they are…runners. And runners are doing something important. At least in their minds.
In the first six months of the pandemic, runners in New York tended not to wear masks. They were running. Running is good. Masks are for bad, sick and weak people. Therefore, no need for running masks. They’d blast past me shedding sweat and flakes of skin and vaporous viral breath. I’d hold my own breath till long after they’d passed.
Have you ever seen a vaporist exhale a hue cloud of vapor from their lungs? It extends and lingers in the air, a marker of how far their lung ether is spreading into your space — very far. The runners knew this, of course, though they ignored it, just as when checking into a Best Western I always ignore my memory of the TV show that used ultraviolet light to illuminate the cascading human secretions on the carpet, couch and bedspread of the average hotel room.
In general, experience has shown me (until this moment — more on that soon) that runners are self-absorbed, arrogant people who believe their activity is more important than most. Thus, they deserve the sidewalk more than people who are walking dogs, carrying bags or just talking to their neighbors while smoking a blunt.
And now, improbably, I’ve undergone a sea change. I have decided to be a jerk — I am becoming a runner myself. My younger brother started running with a group a few years ago, in Texas. Recently he mentioned how much the experience of running with others had motivated his workouts. Wanting to get more cardio, I poked around the old Internet and found a New York Road Runners group that teaches running fundamentals. It’s for beginners, which is perfect since I haven’t run much in about 15 years.
I started on a cold rainy day this week, meeting up with the group in Central Park. OMG, I loved it. The people, from all walks of life, were welcoming and the coaches were kind and encouraging. Running again felt great, especially since they taught us some good warmups.
I liked it so much that I ran with the group again two days later. The whole workout was an hour long, with about half of that devoted to running/walking. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I slept marvelously on the nights when I ran. Today I went out in 30-degree weather and ran twice as far as I’d gone with the group two days ago. Wonderful. An added plus: apparently running slows the aging process.
And now I no longer think runners are jerks. I think we’re doing something very important!
The Lost City of Desire
Chapter 4. The Route
[I am serializing this utopian/dystopian novel chapter by chapter. You can previous chapters here.]
My ankle was wrecked. I wasn’t gonna get down the ladder without help.
“I can’t walk,” I called to them.
The boy was the first one up the ladder. A wide smile.
Woah, I thought. That smile!
“What happened?” he said.
“I fell, last night. I feel so stupid.”
“My ankle hurts enough for five fucking ankles,” I said.
After a moment the girl peaked her head over the roof and said, ”This doesn’t look good. I’m Carmen. We’ll get you down.”
“You fell?” the boy said.
“I’m Joe, by the way.”
He held out his hand, and my ankle screamed as I leaned forward to take it.
“Sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Carmen helped from above and Joe from below as they bumped me down the ladder to the street. I actually cried out twice, and had to pull myself together when we reached the pavement. I put my arm around their necks and hopped along between them as we made our way to my house. Funny, but Joe and Carmen already felt like friends. It was a natural fit.
“This is weird,” said Joe as we hobbled past the old seminary, with it’s 19th century buildings and flowering vines and roses hanging over the iron fences. “Upstate you can watch the cows chew. Or you can throw rocks at a bottle. But I never saw a castle like this before. Amazing.”
“Can we sit for a second?” I said
I eased myself down onto some stone stairs steps.
“To me the city is kind of boring sometimes,” I said. “But I'm glad you like it.”
“I guess it just depends on where you come from,” I said. “Me, I’m tired of the city. I want to see the world.”
“What do you mean?” Carmen asked.
“Well, the first thing I want to see is what’s on the other side.”
Carmen and Joe suddenly went quiet. Joe looked grave.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “What’d I say?”
“We were told never to talk about that,” Carmen said.
Carmen looked around to be sure no one was listening. Joe scanned the sky for drones. None. There never were.
“It’s dangerous. Those people are dangerous,” she said.
“Well I won’t tell if you don’t tell,” I said.
Joe smiled. It was as though a map appeared in front of me in that smile, like a layer over my vision, with a course marked in pencil that would lead me up the river past the Palisades and on through the woods and abandoned villages of that abandoned border territory, all the way to the wall that separated us from them. Me from my parents. The old ways from the new. I saw myself on that path. It was just a flash. But it was real all the same.
“They say that over there they hate us,” said Carmen.
“They think we started the whole virus. That’s why they built the wall,” said Joe. “And if we stay on this side, mind our own business, there won’t be a problem.”
“They’ve got all the things we used to have -- the lights, the computers -- you don’t want to mess with them cause then they’ll crush us,” Carmen said.
I’d heard this talk before. It seemed to comfort people to believe the other side was an unobtainable paradise. I couldn’t understand why.
“I’ve never seen anyone from over there, have you guys? I always hear how powerful they are, but I’ve never seen even one.”
“You don’t think you have -- you never know,” said Carmen.
I wondered what she meant by that.
“They’re sneaky,” she said.
“My parents are there,” I said. “My mom and dad.”
“Why?” Joe said.
“It’s a crazy story, really. I don’t remember everything, but my Aunt and Uncle told me what happened. When I was a little kid my mom was really big on organizing people, like politics, you know? Before that the city was just like it is now -- everyone did their own thing. But my mom got the idea to organize. She thought our neighborhood, and then the city itself, could be a lot more powerful if everybody came together and chose a leader. She was going to be that leader. That was her plan. So she and my dad worked towards that, all the time. They got to know practically everyone who was around by name. My aunt says it was amazing. It was like the most successful thing that had happened in decades. Crazy. I don’t remember any of it cause I was too young,” I said.
“What happened?” Joe said.
“The Westerners over on the other side got scared. They didn’t want to have to deal with us. They were afraid we’d come and attack them and take their stuff -- and bring the virus. Or somehow politically we’d take over. They still believed we could infect them and ruin all they’d built up. So they sent a squad that kidnapped my parents right out of our house to put an end to the political organizing. And guess what? The city never tried to organize again. And I never saw my parents again.”
“Did you see them take your folks?”
“I guess I was sleeping. It was night. They took my parents away to the other side of the wall. When I woke up, my aunt and uncle were my only family. My parents were gone, and they never came back. Kidnapped. It’s been ten years, and I can barely remember them, no matter how hard I try.”
Chapter 5 will follow next week.
Subscribe to have the next chapter delivered to your inbox. Stephen's People is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.