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.


paz13 said...

Tamar: Enjoyed hearing about the trip to the race and the actual race. Congratulations on 2nd in AG. I take it you made it back home OK since we didn't get to hear that part of the story.


Robyn from Oz said...

Congratulations, Tamar! Seeing low numbers next to your name can quickly become addictive, even if it's not always attainable.

tamar said...

kevin~ thanks, yes of course, made it home fine. Interesting, the New York Times had a piece today about this pastor that works to protect kids in street gangs in that very area where the race was.

robyn~ thank-you! I bet that brought back good memories for you and your trophy-wins in the big apple! It is definitely nice to be recognized with some hardware :-)

paz13 said...

tamar: What's your next race? Also, looking forward to some stories about the new school year.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tamar. Great blog. Keep bloggin baby. Go Maud! WAZANGUUUUUU! LOL! :)