(A New York Story)
I tried to talk to him today. He was walking against the wind, against the other runners on the track, keeping close to the fence. He had his raincoat on. And shorts. Other people talk to him. I thought I could.
It’s an obsession by now, I have to say. I’m like one of the characters in the Coping column in the Times. I see my life moving every day, taking me to the same spot. It would make a very good column. I wonder if columnists write about each other. “Coping…” Robert Lypsite would say, and then he would write the essay on Jimmy Breslin that day. He would place him early in the morning, but not too early. Quarter to eight maybe, and he would be seen walking in an ill-fitting suit, because it would be ill fitting, with a newspaper under his arm towards his coffee shop. First he would have him stop at the newsstand, that’s his style. He would have him get there, to the windswept corner, and he would look like a bulldog, hat pulled down, collar up to his ears. The guy at the newsstand would look like a dog , too, grim, another kind of dog. A black Lab with those light brown spots under the eyes that gives them an expression. And the newsguy would be listening to Bartok. Sure, why wouldn’t he.
And Breslin would come and get his paper, roll it under his arm, fix his collar. He’d know what to say. The guy is Indian and Breslin would say something about India and the guy would say, “I wouldn’t know, I was born in Queens.” Well, maybe Breslin wouldn’t say anything about that. He’d talk about the transit strike. Then he’d duck into the coffee shop.
Inside, more guys looking like dogs. Greasy aprons. Lypsite would talk about the aprons and about their big hands. He’d have Jimmy know something about each of them—but the column is about Breslin, so maybe they would just talk about him. Tease him about going in there each day to write up his column. It would be like a story within a story … I don’t know. And then I’d read it in the paper, which is where I come in. Breslin would see me at the same coffee shop, looking in from outside, not daring to go in.
I’ve got until 3. Walking around 57th killing time. I could go into Coliseum Books or watch the dancers from the sidewalk at their dance class on Broadway. Lean on the bar, slowly plié, relevé. I’d hear them talking as they came out, you’d think they’d talk about something, and instead they talk about how they got a part in a commercial. On the radio. “Did you hear me? It was for Heinz. I was singing back up.” At my job they talk about getting a TV spot, laying a track of Jimi Hendrix for a car commercial. I’m not listening to them anymore, either.
I left the park feeling so dissatisfied. Everybody talks to the old man, everybody. Even the neophytes who’ve barely been running a few days, and it’s not fair. Somehow they make room for themselves on the court by the track. They come in with running shoes that don’t even have any dust on them, wearing too many layers and then they get overheated. They have to ask somebody to watch their sweatshirts for them. They ask me, as if I didn’t have any runs of my own to do, they think I’m just standing there when I’ve built up my very respectable seniority. I won’t discuss how long it’s been with them, however. Because seniority at the track is a very subjective thing. It’s not about years, it’s about how many seasons you have seen turning. And how much you know.
So I tried to talk to the old guy, I know he knows me. I have earned his respect, he must know my face. Once, when I was on my second loop and he was standing by the water fountains, I felt brazen, and I nodded. He nodded back. It was exhilarating! I made very good time on the next lap, and even recorded the laps directly from my watch onto my running calendar. But I remember I was seized by fear later that night. I was at the Hall already, we were doing Stephen Albert’s Concerto for cello and orchestra, and I was ready for the cymbals in the second movement. The fear froze me: what if the old man had nodded to me out of habit, out of politeness. He didn’t know me, did he. I almost missed my cue.
The old man isn’t the only one, but his attention means more to me, I guess. He’s like royalty, an ambassador, but I feel I belong there, and I’d just like a little acknowledgment. It’s like the United Nations up there, the court where the track breaks off on either side of the pump house. It’s the entrance to the track on East 85th Street, which means that a lot of tourists and Sunday people stop by the water fountains, and then lean against the fence, looking at the reservoir. They have no business being there, they’re not runners, or walkers, but we let them come. It’s just us, a few of us, in the select group. There’s the old man, of course, he’s Puerto Rican, and the Jewish guy with the Long Island accent who’s about fifty. The young Black woman is new; she arrived right before I did, and I thought she was pulling rank when I got there, but then she helped me deal with my shin splints, taught me to stretch. And the older Chinese guy who plays tennis, and then the white guy with the cerebral palsy. That’s Terrence. He’s the only one who could say that he’s almost lived there like the old guy has. Because Terrence comes every day with his lunch in his backpack, and runs around the track, just once, his eyes focused on a distant point. His right arm is stuck to his chest; his left leg limps. He’s seen the seasons, and he has the old guy’s ear.
I think if one of them weren’t there, there might be room for me, to step up.
Once I came early, we had an early rehearsal that night and I figured I’d better go home and shower first. A lot of times I wait, wander around Broadway until I get down to 57th and by that time my sweat is dry, it’s like a fine layer of salt. It shimmers in the stage lights. I stare furtively at the others to see if they can smell me, I dare them. They never say anything. I don’t want to be part of them anymore. That’s what I figured out and that’s why I wanted to talk to the old man.
That day I was stretching my legs by the footbridge, where everybody stretches. I like to watch my quads flex and separate right above the knee. You can’t get your muscles cut to look like that unless you really train.
The kids from the private schools come to train with their coach. The girls don’t stop there much, their teacher takes them to 90th and has them do sprints. It’s the boys that hang out and stretch where I do. I’d been stretching there since the winter, and then these boys think they can just come and take over in spring when it’s warm. I’m the one who’s been there, rain or shine, even when it’s snowing. The others know. They don’t say anything; either you’re there or you’re not. The school boys start to take over, they’re tall, they’re loud. I heard them, all the garbage they talk about—sex, jacking off, farting in class, and in the middle of all that they throw in how they’re going to Princeton. It was the same when I went to school. I disavowed them. They weren’t part of the group, I was.
When I got back to the benches, the old man was rubbing a young woman’s leg where she had a knot. In her calf.
How could he do that to me? I shouldn’t have been surprised, he does it all the time. Terrence told me. We hate that. It’s always the pretty ones, with the pony tails and the fat wedding rings. They get up on the bench in their microfiber running shorts and complain they have a pulled muscle, a cramp in the calf. They haven’t done anything to earn it. Gary, the Long Island guy, says the old man is lucky, he gets to rub the calf muscles of the prettiest women in New York. They all want to know his story, and he tells them. That he used to run the marathon, that he lived for a year in Central Park, right there by the track and someone was writing a book about him. That could be true; there are enough articles from the papers stuck behind the window screens of the pump house, and you can see his picture on them, getting older, thinner, more gaunt. Then the real Mayor issued a proclamation naming him the mayor of the park. I have a fantasy that this is when the women started hopping up on the benches, laying their legs on his lap, asking for the healing touch of his hands.
I don’t know who I hate more.
There are times when the track gets crowded. Tall guys who run with a buddy, side by side, taking up double the space, and when it’s muddy from the rain they can push you right into a puddle. Some people like to take the middle, thinking they’re so fast; kids who want to show off jump in front and run for about thirty feet kicking up the dirt and then stop short, wheezing, bent over. There are the hard core guys who reek so bad you’ve got to hold your breath for half a lap until they pass. We have to show sportsmanship, but then people get on the track with baby carriages and dogs and bicycles__ even roller blades, tearing up the track. There’s a sign there on both sides—we have to yell at them. People strolling, groups walking off their late lunches, weekend warriors, photographers, ecologists, it’s ridiculous.
I hate them all and I’m nobody. Jimmy Breslin would have had nothing to say about my life, I’m afraid of coffee shops, of guys who work by the dock, and I don’t know anything about sports. But maybe Lypsite would do a column on me. “Were you in love with the First Violin at the Philharmonic?” “No.” “Then, what makes you tragic?”
No one ever loved me at all. I walk with the rhythm of a column in the newspaper. My legs only move the width of each line. My future goes as far as the end of the block. If I get brave I sneak by the Iridium, get to hear Michel Petrucciani playing piano, seven notes for each stubby little finger of his. “But,” says Lypsite, “what else could I write about you?” Nothing. I am one of too many. I want to be one of few.
When I get to the court, the half-moon stage of cement where the benches sit, I see the others have gotten there before me. It doesn’t matter, I can’t forgive the old man. I don’t want to forgive him, because he hasn’t done anything to me and I want to have something to be angry with him for. Except I’m apprehensive—he was quite old. What if he died?
It’s raining almost, kind of bitter, the first days of a fall that has been slow in coming; meanwhile, the fire downtown keeps smoldering. It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen the place. I squeeze my eyes shut when I round the last curve of the track. I have shin splints and a pulled muscle in my hip after not running for so long. I tell myself it’s been long enough. There’s been no place for me in all this time, I still belong to no other place, especially now. So many people have died and I, who knew no one, have nobody to mourn.
I heard that after a few days, a crazy woman got in a taxi and got pretty far into ground zero by convincing a cop that she had gotten a call from her husband who was trapped under the mall. The firemen made an avenue for her to get through, she kept talking to someone on her cell phone. They were going to try to find the place, to follow where she told them that her husband was still alive. On the news, everything was told as it was happening. For a moment I was aware of how gruesome the search was, and then it was discovered it was all a hoax. There was no further comment, on the news or anywhere. You can’t make a joke of things like that.
I got there, to the place where the fountains waited for me. Two or three tourists, someone had set a dog bowl down, Gary was there, holding the leash of a large Lab lapping at the water. He never had a dog before. He didn’t recognize me, of course, it had been a year, but I acted with dignity. I would have to recover my seniority day by day. I would be somebody by the end of the season. We were alone. I didn’t see the younger ones. The woman used to talk to the old guy in Spanish, I remember that. The tennis player was gone.
This time I decided not to stretch, and headed straight for the other side of the track, the reservoir to my left, the smell of moist earth itching at my nose. I held my breath until I saw the old guy coming around, raincoat, a cane, his mustache grayer and yellower than ever. I greeted him, just like that.
“Hello,” I said. “I haven’t been back for a while. How’s your knee?”
When he started talking to me, telling me about his osteo-arthritis and the new gadget he strapped around the patella to hold his knee steady, I was so high I forgot to listen. Other runners passed by and envied me. The old man made me real. I was so grateful I was about to cry. It wasn’t until his eyes widened under the bushy gray brows that I realized he’d said something else.
“Terrence, you remember him, no?”
“Terrence, yes. He talked to me all the time.”
“Oh,” the old man’s eyes softened. “Then, you know. He died. Just the other day.”
“Yes,” I said, and let the tears come.
It’s been over three weeks. My life is nothing like it used to be. I’m about ready to bring my story to the papers except for one thing—nobody trusts me anymore. Still, Lypsite could write about how I’ve been wronged. After all, it was his column that gave me the idea.
Since it was just the three of us left, we decided to have a memorial for Terrence. The old man asked me to make some flyers we could pass around to everyone and post along the track. When people asked, he described Terrence with his backpack and the way he held his arm, close to his body when he ran.
I told them we should have his ashes sprinkled over the track the day of the memorial; Terrence would have wanted it that way. Gary located a distant relative, went to the City morgue, and prevented Terrence’s body from being tossed into Potter’s Field.
But it was me who got the orchestra to come for the memorial to play his favorite by Bartok, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. I invited the 2nd violin to come with me and she helped me set up the chairs. I set up the music stand for Yo-Yo Ma. When he spoke, the Mayor said he’d never been so moved. I asked myself why we let the lives of gentle people go by unnoticed. Terrence was my best friend.
And I meant everything I did for him, for the only family he had left, for the runners at the track. Only they wrong me now. They look at me when I come around, when I stop to stretch on the footbridge. The prep-school boys repeat what they have heard: how did he know so much about Terrence? No one ever saw them talking together. Terrence didn’t talk to anyone that much. He was a very private guy.
I don’t care. When I go by my coffee shop in the morning, the waitress waves hello. I buy the paper at the corner and I meet the 2nd violin outside; it’s our place. I pointed out to her the columnist from the Post who came to do a feature on me. Next week we’ll go to the track and I’ll show him all the landmarks and introduce him to some of the regulars. The old man still nods to me now and then. He doesn’t nod to just anyone. I carry Terrence’s backpack when I run.
Originally published in Speaking Like An Immigrant: A Collection. Revised Edition, 2010