Tag Archives: new york city

in defense of plodders

“It’s a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours,” said Adrienne Wald, 54, the women’s cross-country coach at the College of New Rochelle, who ran her first marathon in 1984. “It used to be that running a marathon was worth something — there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?’ ”

This from a New York Times article last week titled “Plodders Have a Place, But Is It a Marathon?nyccoursemap

Of course there are a number of articles about running shoes/running barefoot/distance running being published in the Times right now because the New York City Marathon is right around the corner.

But this piece in particular annoyed me. The notion that completing a marathon is worthless is incredibly elitist and dismissive of the hard work that thousands and thousands of non-elite runners put in to accomplish a physical feat that may be the most challenging of their lives.

I’ve run the New York City Marathon twice. Each time I finished in what was about the median time – a little over 4 hours. Besides being an accomplishment that I may never achieve again, this is what I recall of my marathon experience:

A child handing me orange slices from an aluminum tray filled with rainwater with wedges of orange sloshing about.

Seeing my friends and family on First Avenue cheering me on.

Crossing into the Bronx where there were almost no spectators and feeling eerily alone, despite the runners near me. Knowing that there were still over six miles to go and willing my body not to fade.

Joining a line of men peeing from the Verazzano Narrows Bridge at the start of the race because we all drank so much fluid beforehand.

Finishing the race, feeling exhilarated. Then being queued into an endless line, shuffling along in agony, hearing only the sound of the teflon blankets draped around our shoulders rustling as we moved.

In other words, the memories seared into my brain are not about how fast or how slow I ran. They are about the experience of running with 30,000 other people, being cheered on and attended to by many thousands of others, yet being solitary and focused in the midst of all that humanity. They are not about winning and losing, the traditional measure of a race. To think of a marathon in that way – in terms of winning and losing – is to not understand the mindset of what I would guess is just about everyone except the very fastest.

Why not include everyone in the marathon party? I think it’s quite possible that the world would be a better place if more people were training to complete a 26.2 mile race. Less time for war-mongering for instance, I’m guessing.

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stuyvesant town

Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village are in the news.

courtesy New York Times

courtesy New York Times

The two massive co-op housing complexes on the lower east side of Manhattan were sold to a development group for something like 5+ billion dollars a couple of years back. Apparently a highly leveraged purchase.

Of course with the crash of the financial markets, the development group, like many homeowners, is finding it hard to pay its debt obligation.

I bring this up only because Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were a part of my high school life. They represented a de facto campus, along with the worn-out park off 15th street littered with vials and syringes.

The buildings stood across First Avenue from the high school – impossible to miss. We would sneak into the courtyard areas sometimes during lunch to play basketball. Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper felt different – middle class and manicured. Not like the rest of the downtrodden lower East side in 1970s recession New York.

Basketball in the City meant something to us. Uptown, there was the legendary Rucker Park. Closer by, in the West Village, you could watch games from behind the chain-link fence at the West Fourth Street courts. And of course, in 1978, Jim Carroll – who died just a few weeks ago – published his Basketball Diaries, which we devoured.

No one paid attention to what we did on the courts at Stuyvesant Town. Except maybe the security guards. No one films games there like they do at Rucker or at West Fourth. But I’ll bet if you mention Stuyvesant Town or Peter Cooper Village to anyone who went to the old Stuyvesant, before the move to the new building in Battery Park, they’ll eventually get around to talking about sneaking in and playing a game or two of basketball.

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teacher man

mccourtI was lucky enough to be one of Frank McCourt’s students at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School back in the late 70s.

We loved him. I think it was because he was a good teacher. But it might just as easily have been because of his Irish accent or the fact that we got to write what we wanted to in his class. Or because he spent class time telling us amusing stories.

According to his obit in the Times:

Mr. McCourt, who taught in the city’s school system for nearly 30 years, had always told his writing students that they were their own best material.

I don’t recall him saying that to us. But if he didn’t, he should have.

Who knew that Mr. McCourt had Angela’s Ashes within him? His last year at Stuyvesant, I was writing for an “underground” newspaper – not school sanctioned – started by my friend Mike, whose parents he maintained were blackballed as communists during the McCarthy era and who knew Mr. McCourt from the local pub, the Lion’s Head. Our paper was aptly titled “Apathy” – the perfect angsty name for an underground high school newspaper. Since we all loved Mr. McCourt, we decided to interview him. A farewell piece. I still have a copy, buried somewhere among my papers. In it Mr. McCourt tells us that he’s leaving teaching to pursue his dream of being a published author. He’s working on a novel, he says. Called Brownstone Blues.

I remember exactly where I was when Mr. McCourt reentered my consciousness. I was working as a teacher in my own classroom late one evening, probably getting ready for the next day’s onslaught, when I heard a familiar voice come from the radio. I was listening to Fresh Air and Terry Gross was interviewing someone about the publication of a memoir that detailed his wretched Irish childhood. The lilting voice was unmistakable. I couldn’t believe it. Angela’s Ashes? What was that? The questions I wanted Terry Gross to ask were: What had Mr. McCourt been doing all these years since I last saw him? What happened to Brownstone Blues? Did he ever think about Stuyvesant and his students there? Did he remember Apathy?

Needless to say, these questions were not in Terry Gross’ reporter’s notebook.

Over the next year, I watched in amazement as the book became a subsequent smash hit and spawned the McCourt Franchise. I meant always to attend a reading and speak with him, send Mr. McCourt a photocopy of the Apathy article to jog his memory, a reminder of how much we adored him. But I never got around to it. To my everlasting regret.

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4th of july

My friends Anat and Rob were in town from LA this weekend. Anat loves fireworks and insisted on seeing the show over the bay. Rob was once traumatized by burning ash dropped from mismanaged fireworks. A 4th of July tossup, which Anat won. Joining us was one of Anat’s friends from Israel, Nava, whom I’d just met and who was in the country for the first time.

We trudged down to Fisherman’s Wharf along with three zillion other people. Nava had lots of questions about the fireworks tradition, the age of the country, San Francisco. People here, she remarked, seemed so at ease and non-self-conscious. Very un-Israeli, apparently. (And un-East Coast, I told her.)4thofjuly

By the time the fireworks began, I was feeling cold and claustrophobic and wondering not about our nation’s birth but whether I’d ever find an apartment. And then, finally, greens and reds and whites began bursting in short trails. There were loud booms and small white dust explosions that looked like comet tails. Colorful tendrils that appeared to come right at us. Multiple bursts of first white and then red, straight lines and then swirly pinwheels.

I remembered watching fireworks back east. As a kid, setting off roman candles in the P.S. 20 playground. Buying packages of firecrackers in Chinatown, a dragon emblazoned on the label affixed to the red paper sheath. The firecrackers themselves always multicolored, which made them seem harmless, like too-thick birthday candles. Arguing over the strength of an M-80 – a quarter stick of dynamite or a third of a stick? (Probably neither.) Later, when I was older, with my mother and brother and niece, leaning on the hood of my car in a UMass parking lot on a hot, muggy night. Or watching off a pier in Provincetown as the sky exploded over the Atlantic.

I recall most vividly, though, the bicentennial celebration in New York City. Multi-masted schooners sailing around Manhattan and a fireworks display that was awe-inspiring. I had just started high school that year, in Manhattan, and was loving the excitement of the city. I knew on some level it was a dangerous place – crime was on the rise as the city’s population dwindled, bled out to the suburbs. But it was MY dangerous place, which made it not-dangerous in my teen logic. Rather than be frightened by New York, I relished it – the gritty grimy hard-ass and unbowed city that seemed so primed for the anarchy of the nascent punk rock movement,

The bicentennial was the year of the 44-caliber killer, when couples no longer risked sitting and kissing in their cars for fear of meeting up with the Son of Sam. It was also a year when the city was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – just months earlier the Daily News had run its famous headline about the federal government’s decision not to bail us out: Ford to City: Drop Dead. The murder rate in 1976: 1,622. (In 2008: 496.)

All that crime and chaos was forgotten, though, for a moment at least, in the smoky afterglow of that summer’s 4th of July fireworks show.

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