These are people in my literal neighborhood, not people in my imaginary neighborhood. I know a couple people already, like the crossing guard who says hello to Sprocket every morning (she says it makes her day) and the woman with the delicate Italian greyhound who plays like it’s a much larger dog.
But it wasn’t until I spent two hours on the track, two weeks in a row, that I felt a part of the neighborhood. The track is 1/5th of a mile long. It sits right below Eastview Middle School, which was built in 1929 and still retains most of its architectural charm. Jim and I have run around the track before, in the summertime, but we were not partaking of many of the activities that were going on. Rather, our activity–the dull pounding of pavement in a loose oval, around and around–seemed downright odd, and totally unpleasant, compared to the fun going on in the center of the oval. Families picnicked. Friends brought volleyball nets to play what my brother, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in South America, fondly calls “Ecuaball.” Kids rode their bikes around the track, dodging boring people like me and Jim. Soccer was had, and rubber balls were bounced, and even though there was a big sign saying NO DOGS ALLOWED, there were one or two who ventured onto the field and gamboled about with the children.
It was a community space, and we felt like intruders, robotically moving around, and around.
But recently, as the days have been getting shorter and I have found myself with no safer option than to put in two hours at the track, I have discovered another set of people. They are another type of authentic neighborhood person, and being there with them has helped me to feel more a part of this community.
I have run into them each once, and some of them twice.
- The Boxer. The Boxer is pretty amazing. When I got there, he was already on the track, and he didn’t leave until an hour later, I don’t think. He wears a heavy sweatshirt and leaves his hood up, and he runs on the outer side of the track, which might account for why I am able to lap him. He jogs loosely, arms sort of flopping. He never sprints. What he does that absolutely makes me want to stop and watch, though, is use the straightaways to practice a few footwork moves. He jabs and spins, stays on his toes. In the deep dark of the night, with snowflakes falling all around and the wind whipping them into a fine smoke at your feet, there are few things more magical.
- The Loner. I’ve seen this guy each time I’ve been to the track at night. He’s OK with two people on the track, but when the number boosts to three, he vanishes, and you think he’s gone, until you see his grey hooded sweatshirt on the turfed level above as he completes his lap. Each time, you can see his face turn towards the track–the point at which you can see him is also the only point at which he can see the track–and you know he’s checking, either to see if you’re still there or to see if the track has become less, um, crowded.
- Le Flaneur. An older gentleman, he arrives in a car coat and a fedora. He wears a red plaid scarf and walks a mile or so, five laps. He executes a very slow jog sometimes, slow even by my standards, presumably when he gets cold. He waves when he arrives and waves when he leaves if you’re within sight.
- The Hooligans. They are inevitable. The first time, I arrived on the track at 6PM and predicted someone with nothing better to do would show up around 7. They did, right on the nose, screaming and pushing each other around in a shopping cart, which they then left. As hooligans are wont to do, however, they left within fifteen minutes.
- The Football Star. He takes up only one part of the track. He runs on the grassy part of the track just inside the oval and sprints hard, running drills, with an imaginary football under his arm.
- The Heartbroken Greaser. He wears a leather jacket, motorcycle boots, clomps along the track. Huge on-ear headphones. Moping. Lots of hair. He walked a good two miles before he left, and that was only to run down into the parking garage, where they were ticketing cars and his, apparently, was wailing. I guess he hadn’t had enough of soul-sucking walking in the dark beginnings of snow, because he came back to do another two laps before he left.
Some characters, right? I’m rarely alone on the track. I guess that’s why I don’t mind it so much. Why would I ever consider a treadmill again???