Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It Takes a Village

Returning home from a wonderful celebration weekend upstate with my sister and her daughters, I turned the key to my apartment with a subtle feeling of curiosity. Had my place remained intact during my three day absence? Would there be any surprises waiting for me? I swung the door open, and my eyes were drawn to a moving string on the stove top. I hadn't left that there. I flipped on the light to discover the string was the tail of a pudgy little mouse, who was now scooting his girth and tail down into my front burner. Of all the sights I've seen since moving to New York City last year, this was the most unpleasant. I had never once seen mouse droppings or heard gnawing sounds, so there was no indication that there were mice in my building. All the fatigue of travelling had completely left me, and I was now in a heightened state of awareness. I decided that this mouse simply needed a moment to gather his belongings and make a quick exit in peace. I took my mail key and went downstairs to allow him his space. When I returned, all was quiet. Leaving my suitcase exactly where it was in the kitchen, I called my father. He would really be sympathetic, as he had his own rodent story the day before. As I start to describe the events to him, my little friend darted out of the kitchen and into a pile of books in my living room. I screamed in my father's ear. Then the little guy darted across the room behind my printer. I lept onto my bed, and remained there for the duration of the phone conversation. My father was rather enjoying this turn of events, as he reminded me of my lack of empathy when he was relaying his rodent saga the day before. Of course, his story was quite different. He had set a trap out for the perpetrator after hearing much commotion in his basement, and when he checked the next morning, the trap was gone. Naturally, we were both horrified at the implication of this scenario. My sympathies were for the unknown creature in that case. Of course it was true, in my new unrelaxed state, with concern of unexpected mouse activities, my father now had my full sympathy at his previous predicament. He talked me through different options for ridding myself of this guy, and also threw in a little mouse psychology to allay my fears of a future face to face encounter. I hung up the phone, still standing on the bed. I was truly freaked out, and couldn't fathom ever being comfortable again in my apartment. I decided to act as though the mouse didn't exist. (After putting on very thick socks and tucking my pants into them). I unpacked, made myself a little snack in the kitchen, and even dared to use the computer which was within two feet of the last mouse sighting. I did a search for humane methods of mice removal.
The night passed without a second appearance. I purchased a live trap at the drug store, and walked to a coffee shop. The guy behind the counter was preparing my coffee, and I thought I'd start gathering information on this process. I mentioned to him that I'd just purchased this contraption, and was concerned with the part when I release the mouse into the wilderness, the possibility that he may scurry up my arm. The guy had a blank, slightly pained look on his face, that said, 'I have no interest whatsoever in having this conversation.' Instead he said, 'I have no idea,' and smiled awkwardly. He walked away to put milk in my coffee. Unsatisfied with his answer, when he returned I asked, 'But what would you do?' 'I don't know, I don't have mice.' He scurried off into some hidden corner, giving me a creepy feeling of déjà vu. I sat down with my coffee and my humane mouse trap, and heard a little voice behind me. 'Tamar?' It was my Georgian friend Sophie. It is always so nice to see her, she feels like a long lost cousin from a distant land. She joined me for a few minutes, and of course I had to drag her into the whole mouse drama. She came to life and said she recently had her own experience, where she had set a trap for him, and she was annoyed that she was the one that had to discover it and not her roommate. She also admitted she used to be more compassionate, and as a child, her grandmother was furious with her for setting a mouse free that the older woman had captured in a snap trap. What else can I say about him? In a rare case of me updating my Facebook status, I noted that I was wondering if the mouse in my house was planning a party while I went out on my run. An old co-worker responded that she just got the e-vite. I think personifying this guy really helped take the edge off of the whole concept of having a mouse in my house. So far, I haven't used the trap. I think he was just visiting.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Wazungu in Harlem

West Harlem always feels starkly different to me than the rest of Manhattan. Specifically heading west on 125th street from the A train station. It was the middle of the week around 2 p.m., and there were lots of people walking with a purpose down the busy street. Few of them were white. Facial expressions were tight and strained, ready for a confrontation. I was there to check out the
Percy Sutton 5K race which was to be held that Saturday. Right in front of me was a group of about 20 teenagers. It was a hot day, and one girl, around 15, took her water bottle and sprayed it on the white tank top of a tall, lanky boy in front of her. He walked off to the side to assess the damage, a fiercely sullen expression on his face. He looked pissed, but I think it was mostly to save face with his friends that he walked methodically with an exaggerated anger up to the offender, grabbed her from her group of friends, and held her close as he squeezed the entire contents of his water bottle all over her. This public display of revenge felt like the MO of the neighborhood. Show respect or pay the price. I casually skirted past the entire scene, averting my eyes so as not to be pulled into this drama that had nothing to do with me. I felt my enthusiasm for the race markedly plummet, as my attention to my immediate surroundings suddenly became much more pressing. When I turned north on St. Nicholas Blvd, I was surprised at how desolate the street had become. Originally I wanted to walk through the course to get an idea of what to expect on race day, but between the intense heat and surrounding attitudes of the neighborhood, that idea no longer appealed to me. I compromised and decided to just check out the starting line so I'd know where to go on race morning. I started walking up the street. There was a park to the west of me that continued for many blocks. A wall of trees made up it's perimeter making it appear impenetrable. I believe this was St. Nicholas Park. I walked through it once on my way to City College for a visit. I remember walking up hundreds of stone steps, wondering at the time if there wasn't an easier way to get to the college. As I neared the street of the starting line of the race, I saw two police officers handing out fliers outside the 138th street subway station. I took one. It was an artist's rendering of the rapist who had struck the previous week in a nearby courtyard. This whole thing was starting to take on a surreal quality, and my emotional response followed suit. I dismissed the message contained in the flier I held and later studied at home, and proceeded to focus on the officer's description of the course: very hilly. This race was looking more like an adventure run than a chance to show off some speed. Then again, with the looming threats of violence nearby, maybe a PR was a guarantee.
That night after I'd turned out the lights and reviewed the order of events to get myself to the starting line, I felt a mild panic building somewhere within. I'd never taken the A train heading north so early in the morning. Was I realistically in danger? Most crimes are committed on subways with few passengers. I couldn't imagine many people, other than muggers and rapists, riding the train at 6:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning. There were alternate trains that I was more familiar with I reasoned, but then they wouldn't bring me as close to the starting line.
When my alarm went off the next morning, I decided to take the A train. I knew how to avoid danger, I told myself. Looking as nerdy as only a runner heading to a race is capable of, I went out into the night. It was actually light out, but I'm trying to add intrigue here. I arrive at the A train platform, and there are several people waiting. They appear to be on their way to work. Within two minutes, a train pulls up. I board, and am embarrassed to see half a dozen runners all nerdy like me, all white like me. Embarrassed because I knew that they too were relieved to not be alone in their 'outsiderness'. Instantly I felt depressed that this event, named after one of the first black Manhattan borough presidents, taking place in a predominantly black neighborhood, in honor of historic Harlem Week, like all American running events, would be sorely underrepresented by black participants. Between my earlier fears of being attacked on the subway and my current malaise over the state of racial inequality, I nearly forgot to generate the usual hysteria in the face of running a 5K race. The train stopped abruptly on this thought, depositing us whitey's in the heart of a vibrant community working together to make this neighborhood event a success. There was music playing, race walkers and runners warming up, and the comfortable feeling of pre-race jitters. Normally a New York Road Runner sponsored race boasts close to 5,000 runners. When the races head off the beaten path (read: not in Central Park), the numbers go way down, and it's a much more civilized experience for the nervous runner. Within a few blocks into the race the humidity made it feel like I was running inside someone's armpit. The air was so heavy I felt as though a giant, invisible rubber band was holding me back. As I passed 150th street, I was happy I'd told my friend Mannah to come out and watch me- this gave me incentive to keep a dignified running form with the semblance of a decent pace. Without a personal audience, I would happily have slogged through the course, content with any manner of forward movement. There were some beautiful views of interesting old brownstones and later a river appearing to the east. Was that possible? The last half mile or so of the race was an impossibly long straightaway, and a big moment of truth: I had no energy left, but if I didn't maintain or pick up my pace, I was at risk of not breaking 22 minutes; and that hasn't happened to me in a few years, so I didn't want to start any new traditions. I held my head up and ploughed to the finish line, a hard-earned 21:47. Not a PR, not my goal for the day, but the best I had in me that day.
Award ceremonies for NYC races are not the big productions their upstate counterparts present. Unless you've outright won the race, you have to quietly walk over to a table tucked behind the runner's baggage area, and claim your winnings. I hadn't seen the results yet, but I didn't see too many women in front of me, so I had some hope. I scanned the results sheet, and upon seeing the '2' next to my name, signifying a 2nd place age-group win, I did a mini-celebration dance on the spot. This was my first NYC award in four years! This was one of the medals I wasn't planning on dropping off at the Salvation Army during my next house move.