The next week, when I returned again on Monday, I began warming up with a man named Greg. He looked to be about retirement age—perhaps a little younger—with completely gray hair and a compact 5’7” build. As we passed and set to one another, he suddenly said, “You know, your team should automatically get extra points because you look so much like a volleyball player.” I felt very flattered.
My first team was comprised of a spunky girl named Nicole, who I ended up spending a good deal of the night practicing my pass-set-hitting sequences with when we weren’t on the court; a tall, lean Hispanic guy with baggy shorts and a black bandana who looked for all the world like he could be cast in a movie as a gang leader. He possessed the air of cocky world indifference to match that impression, but he still exuded the air of someone you desperately wanted to please, someone you wanted to “be cool with,” evident by the fact that guys were either tough with him or ignored him and girls either flirted with him or had to play the tough card. When our first set of games were over, Nicole and I practiced passing with him. We had to be tough, partially because we were trying to be good volleyball players, but mainly because we aren’t Hispanic—those girls were always flirty, even if they were skilled players.
The next guy on my team was a tall black guy, somewhat similar in stature to the Hispanic guy because of his lean, muscular, innate-seeming athleticism. However, this guy had an air of classiness to him. He held himself with a particular grace and acted with a quiet, reserved politeness that I cannot quite describe. Suffice to say, I knew that if I made a mistake, he would not be the one to give me a dirty look for it.
The last member of the team was another guy whom I also imagine would never have given me a dirty look for any mistake I might make. This guy was Asian (I regret to say I cannot identify which particular ethnicity), which made him appear younger than the other two guys, but upon reflection, he probably wasn’t any younger than the rest of us and perhaps may have been older. He was certainly a very skilled player. He was very quiet at most times, but not passive at all, in spite of his wire-thin appearance. He emitted what I would call an aura of humble pride that made me wonder what sort of image I gave off without realizing, because I doubt he had any idea that people may perceive him as seeming humbly proud.
In any case, that has only been one of my experiences at a New York Park and Recreation Center. The other occurred even more recently, when I took an evening to use the center’s pool for the very first time.
Much to my chagrin, the pool was extraordinarily crowded. I suppose this is to be expected, considering that the center is publicly owned and operated and that I was swimming at the most convenient hour of the day for every working individual. Thus, I was forced to share a very narrow lane with five other swimmers. This would not have been such a problem, had they been anywhere near my speed or ability; however, not one of them even did flipturns. At one point, two of the swimmers left, and I paused at one wall to determine what my next set would be. Another boy standing at the wall looked at me with what appeared to be awe. “You’re really good,” he told me. I laughed, thinking to myself as I always do at those kinds of compliments that he had no idea what “good” was. But I thanked him, and we chatted for a bit about how long he had been swimming, what good exercise it is, and the best times to swim. It was a pleasant chat, and we shook hands at the end before he left the pool. His name was Anthony.
Later, at the end of my swim, I received a similar compliment from another lane partner. This fellow’s name was Mike, and he asked me whether I could swim breaststroke and butterfly. When I replied that I could, he told me he was jealous. He had recently taught himself to swim, and he had only mastered backstroke and freestyle so far. Now, from swimming in the lane with him, I never would have pegged him as a self-taught swimmer, so I told him that. He was bashful, but not so bashful that he kept from asking if I wouldn’t teach him butterfly. I was very surprised, but I said sure, and then suddenly there I was: teaching a grown man (is someone my age considered a grown man? I suppose that depends) the fundamentals of the butterfly.
Even before I joined the NY Park and Recreation Center, though, I had been so in need of a “group” of athletes that I Googled running teams and came up with the Harriers—a group that runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in Central Park. I emailed the coordinator and then showed up one Tuesday evening in mid-July, hoping for the best. It turned out to be one of the bravest and most beneficial things I could have done. Obviously there are so many runners in Central Park that finding one particular group is a bit of a task, but once I had asked half a dozen people if they were the Harriers, I found one correct person, and was then welcomed to the workout. As they first discussed what we’d be doing, I knew I would be at the back of the pack. And since then, I have remained there. It feels reminiscent of my “serious” attempts at swimming: the harder I tried, the more “bottom of the pile” I was. But having already been resigned to that position on a team and working for My Personal Best rather than to beat another person, I am okay with that. Instead, I am celebrating the wonderful people I have already met through this group.
First and foremost is the closest person I have to a friend here in NYC: Arianna. I have only met her in the last month or so, but she is the perfect running partner, because she is a wonderful conversationalist, and we are very close in speed. We started out by calling each other up for long runs on the weekends, and then, once I got up my courage, I asked her whether I could store my belongings at her apartment on Tuesdays and Thursdays when she planned to attend Harrier workouts. It is too far for me to go all the way back to Queens from Hoboken, NJ and then get back to Central Park by 7pm, and she lives six blocks from where the Harriers meet to run, as well as about halfway between the two points on my commute. She agreed, and it has worked superbly every since.
Almost all of the other runners I have met through the Harriers have been very kind, but the other one worth mentioning is Mark. He’s sort of the Harriers’ unofficial “coach,” as he writes and attends most of the workouts, and he is probably the most knowledgeable runner I have ever met. What really made him stand out to me as a coach was the fact that after only my fourth workout with the team (and I haven’t attended all that many, probably not even ten yet), he ran behind me and gave me tips on form—my form, what I specifically was doing with my body—for sprinting vs. long-distance running. I honestly couldn’t believe it. Me? I wanted to ask him. You’re paying attention to me? But I’m not even a real runner! Again, it was so reminiscent of my swimming days with WHAT and George. Every time George would come over and give me advice about my stroke or my times, I would think, He’s paying attention to me! Even though I’m slow! Even though I’m not a real swimmer!
So the bottom line is, New Yorkers ARE nice. But maybe it’s athletes who are nice. Sports create community; although I guess it is hard to tell if they are the cause—if the sport generates the camaraderie between individuals—or the effect—if kind, welcoming people tend to gravitate toward athletics. Regardless, sports have proven, socially, to be my saving grace every time I settle somewhere new. From elementary school to parochial school, back to public school, to high school, to college in Rochester, to England, to New York City, sports are what have always helped me feel a “part” of something.
Maybe war is just patriotism, wanting to feel a part of one’s country, gone horribly, horribly wrong. Because doesn’t it just seem like a sport on steroids?