One thing I’ve been doing on these walks has been to introduce myself to some of the other regulars and get their names. “By the way, my name’s Bruce.” They have to be regulars (i.e., they need to have seen me out there multiple times). Bikers don’t count – they go by too fast. People with earbuds in don’t count – they’re in their own world. Generally I don’t introduce myself to women on the trail, because I don’t want them to think I’m hitting on them (hold your horses with the “but I’m a nice guy” stuff, dudebros, and check with some women you know to find out whether they’d find it creepy).
So first there was Jim. Then Trevor, then Nakawa. Jimmy. Today it was Marie and John. I’ve clearly been infected by the narrative bug by Lisa, because I tell little stories to myself about these people. Jim was former military in my mind – polite to a fault, very proper, great posture. Nakawa – seriously, if this guy wasn’t in some people-related industry he’d be wasted, because he’s totally outgoing, friendly, interactive, all that good stuff. Jimmy: I was sure that he was a session musician in Nashville who had retired to Florida. Probably a guitar guy. Always a big smile, southern good old boy accent. Trevor: always had a “keep up the good work!” thing for me, or something like that. Very positive. And Marie and John – African-American couple, probably late 60s, sweet as they could be. I’m guessing that John was a former pastor or something. I only introduce myself to one a day (or one couple today) – don’t want to cheapen the experience. What I want to do, instead, is construct those little stories in my head.
And then, as the days roll by and we see each other more and more, sometimes a little more comes out. Jim isn’t a casual runner, he’s got a program. Because he’s done a bunch of marathons. He was signed up to go to Greece and do the original Marathon route, but isn’t sure that will be possible given the pandemic. He’s got a hill day (yes, in Florida – it’s the trail overpass over a highway, not much of a hill but it will do if you go up it 20 times). He’s got a distance day. He’s got a rest day and a weights day. He said he’d done one in Spain, ending up in “the northwest part of Spain”. Oh, Santiago de Compostela, I asked? The traditional pilgrimage route for Catholics? He seemed very pleased that I knew about it. Clearly for Jim, some of this was not just about running, but was also devotional practice.
Trevor, with the encouraging phrases, told me today that he’d been laid off. He worked for a firm that did large-scale infrastructure projects. He was still upbeat – he’d been planning to retire soon anyway, so this was just the push to do that. He’d had a good run, he said; I said I could see that. Sometimes you don’t know someone well enough to let out how you’re really feeling about a momentous thing like this, while sometimes a stranger is exactly the person you need to say what you can’t say to someone closer. It seemed to me that he was debating which one I was. The safe option was to stay upbeat, and that’s how we left it.
Nakawa apologized for not being on the trail for a few days. He said that last time I’d seen him, he was timing himself (we didn’t talk long at that time), and shortly after he’d seen me he took a fall and scraped himself up pretty well. He still looked scraped up. He was who he was, though – still upbeat, still asking how we were doing. He’d taken his wife and two dogs out on a run the other day. By halfway through each of them was carrying a totally exhausted dog, and eventually he just went home, got the car, and took them all home, where they limped around and slept for a day. He’s a pharmaceutical rep, and still able to work from home, although he’s not sure how much longer that will be possible.
My original idea was just to attach names to these bodies moving through space, to try to make it all just a little less anonymous. I wanted to signal in a small way to the individuals that they had been seen and appreciated, and would be missed if they weren’t there. I wanted to signal to the African Americans that they too were part of all of us out there. I wanted to be a face and a name to Nakawa, to counter the suspicion that black men are under when they do pretty much anything in a public space. We are, after all, in the time of Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered while running. When I see a cop car, I think, “if I were black I’d be worried”. Well, he’s black. How can he stay so positive and interactive when he lives in a society where people like me, middle aged white guys, suspect people like him of “fitting the profile” of all sorts of bad things? I don’t know. But if attaching names to faces in public space helps even a little, it’s worth trying.
Anyway, the little stories I construct for each of these people give way to reality, and usually it turns out that my stories weren’t all that accurate, but they were a place to start. My inaccuracies show up my assumptions, sometimes my stereotypes, maybe even if I’m honest my latent bigotry or gut feelings about people. Maybe too it makes the space a little more human. We’re not all just interchangeable randomly passing bodies. I couldn’t do this if I was on a bike (like I said, that goes too fast), or I think even if I was running instead of walking. So there’s something to be said for this pace, apart from saving my knees from a pounding on pavement every day. Every speed, every pace is its own world, with the flows and textures unique to it. This speed is, I think, the world of people who have names. And stories, first mine and then their own.