I just got back to DC from New York. My wife and I drove to the Big Apple on Saturday. I had not been there in quite a while. It is always strange returning to a place you once called home. I still knew the streets and kept pace with the residents while walking them, but I could not fool myself. My days as a New Yorker were gone.
The subway trains no longer took coins, and a computer voice now announced all the stops, along with a snazzy graphic board tracing the train’s progression. When we moved to the city in 1981, the trains glowed with graffiti art on the outside and heavy, indecipherable marks covered the windows and some of the seats. Men with paper cups moved from car to car seeking penance from riders who could afford the ride. “I may be big, and I may be black, but I don’t rob and I don’t steal” always yielded a cupful of dollars and change.
There was a chaotic energy to the city then. An intoxicating mixture of survival and danger gave the air an electric feel. I used to ride the trains sometimes with no destination in mind except discovery. So many faces from so many places all rolled into one. But this trip, I knew where I was going and welcomed the unexpected order I found.
The New York City Marathon began on Sunday, and my oldest daughter would be one of the 50,000 taking it on. She had trained for months and done all the things the experts suggested. A disease claiming a friend had inspired her to raise funds in this compelling way, and I was moved by her courage. I knew I could never pull it off.
I don’t remember the community spirit surrounding the marathon engulfing me in our years in Manhattan. But by the time our family moved to Brooklyn in 1988, the race had grown into an event, and we would gather each year off Adelphi Street in Fort Greene and cheer the runners on. My friend Greg and I would always swear the next time would be our turn, but we knew we never meant it. Running 26.2 miles seemed as far fetched as dancing in space. Long distance running was something other people did, and, even as I waved flags and egged them on, I always wondered why they had nothing better to do.
In truth, envy distorted my view. How had these runners of all ages and sizes found the time to channel their energies towards a singular goal with no clear monetary purpose? I still don’t know for sure. What I do know is, on the coldest running day in memory, my daughter left her apartment at 6 a.m. and headed for her first marathon. Her layered clothing was cheap enough to be easily discarded along the way. My wife had written her name in neon colors on a sign pinned to her chest. We had synchronized our plans the night before.
My wife and I would leave my daughter’s apartment in Queens around 10:30 and catch the N or Q subway towards Brooklyn. We would exit at Dekalb Avenue and then walk up to Adelphi, where we gathered years before. We told her we would be standing on the right side, just below the church where the middle school band played the theme from Rocky over and over again.
When we got there, a crowd hugged both sides of the street. We put on our bright caps and pulled out the teal bandanas my wife had purchased to make us easy to see. We stood near the nine mile mark, and yelled out the names or countries of strangers as they passed. “Go, Stacey!” “Looking good, Haiti!” “Yes, Norway!” “You got this, Dave!” The spectators around us were equally as loud.
As I waited for our daughter to approached, I glanced around the old neighborhood and noted the changes. Millennials were in full stride, and there were more coffee shops and sidewalk cafes then I remembered. Still, the vibe was the same, and the sense of neighborhood and community made me homesick for yesterday. My daughter was entering the second grade when we moved to Brooklyn. Now she was one of the few braving the marathon.
“Go, Erin!” “You can do it!”
She saw our flags and found us in the crowd just beyond the blue police tape. We hugged briefly and noted she still looked fresh and determined. “Looking good,” we said. “See you in Harlem!”
My wife and I walked back down to Dekalb for our next stop at 116th and 5th Avenue via the 2 or 3 train. That would be the 22.5 mile mark, and we wanted to be there to rally our oldest to move past the famed “runner’s wall” we had heard about. We had time and stopped at the McDonald’s off Fulton for coffee and fries. We were surprised to see how much we still remembered from the time when we walked those streets several times a day, children in tow.
All grown now, our daughters had stepped into their own lives years ago. We had moved from guides to cheerleaders and occasional advisers. It was more than enough for us. In Harlem, we again had coffee and danced to the music all around us. As the runners passed, we could feel their fatigue, but still they ran, and still we cheered.
“Go, Raul! Almost there! You got this, Kim. Look at you!”
By the time our daughter found us and hugged our necks, we had enough composure to take her picture and videotape her running past our grasp. We then headed for our final meeting spot off 74th and Columbus. By then, she would have finished her race and wrapped herself in the bright blue poncho they give you at the end.
She limped slightly as she moved towards our outstretched arms. A friend from long ago had met us in Harlem, rode with my wife and I to Columbus, and the led us all after the race towards a nice restaurant nearby where she treated us to chicken soup and sangria. When we were all new to the city, our children had walked to preschool together in Manhattan. Now, our children were grown women on their own course. Hers was starting a great new job in the city, and ours had just run the marathon.
Time can be such a wonderful adventure if we let it. I can’t wait to get back to school tomorrow and tell my students all about it.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)