11 September 2008

Running Away

This morning I pedalled to work under skies overcast with herringbone clouds that, paradoxically, posed no threat of rain. The air was pleasantly cool, so I hardly worked up a sweat even though I was dodging and racing taxicabs, minivans and assorted other vehicles driven by people taking kids, stuff or themselves to school or work.

In some ways, it's the most pleasant kind of weather condition for cycling: neither heat nor sun saps moisture from your body. And, I would be tempted to ride without my sunglasses, even though my opthamologist says I should wear them any time I'm outdoors during daylight hours.

So why am I mentioning the ride and weather conditions? Somehow, this morning in particular gave me what I like to call a sense-memory. Such recollections are not about specific people or things; they are more about what I felt--whether in spirit or body--at the time I'm recalling.

Today, in my mind, I was riding along the ocean again--on a late-summer day some time after graduating college and living away for a couple of years. I believe it was the briskness of the air against my skin that brought me back to that day.

I had gone to visit my parents--my mother, really, as my father and I were barely talking to each other. They were living in New Jersey, and the ocean was only a few miles from their house. I often took that ride, along a none-too-fashionable (but I didn't care, still don't) stretch of the now-famous Jersey Shore.

I reached the ocean from the bridge at Highlands, just south of Sandy Hook. There, only a couple hundred yards (or meters, for all of you non-Americans) of land seperate the ocean from the Shrewsbury River, which empties into the New York Bay and the ocean at Sandy Hook. When you cross from the ocean to the river, there are only a beach, a seawall, two lanes of Route 36 and a row of houses. This little strip of land extends down to Sea Bright, where the Shrewsbury turns from being an inland river to an estuary that opens to the sea.

You ride down 36 through Sea Bright, Sea Girt, Elberon and a couple of other towns before you reach Long Branch. As you proceed, the expanse of land to your right side grows: Here you are on flat land that ends in the sea rather than a mere shoestring of sand and rock seperating one shore from another. The houses stretch further along the horizon: less weatherbeaten than the ones in Sea Bright and Elberon, but--at least in those days--dingier and sadder-looking. Then, finally, you'd see the sign for the Carter Hotel--Johnny Cash's East Coast pied-a-terre and the unofficial city limit of Asbury Park.

In those days, it was still Springsteen's Asbury Park, only more run down. The boardwalk/arcade was all splinters and spattered glass; even the gaily-painted wooden carousel could not make it less forlorn. (If you see Louis Malle's Atlantic City, you will get a sense of how the place felt in those days.) People went there--much less took their kids--only if they couldn't afford someplace else, or had no one to go with them.

At that time, I fit in the latter category. Of course: Why would anyone want to accompany someone who finds comfort in melancholy? All right, I stole the last three words of the previous sentence from Joni Mitchell, but they're an accurate description of how I lived in those days. I rode there at such a pace that I couldn't tell my skin from my sweat from the breeze from the spray of the ocean. I still love that feeling; that is more or less how I was riding this morning (without the ocean or salt air). I was riding as if I was riding as fast and as far as I could, from something...something that I would never talk about with anyone.

Really, running away that way isn't so different from an escape through alcohol, drugs , sex or saying "Fuck You!" when your purpose is, well, running away. Some people do it with their jobs or careers; others (or sometimes those same people) with their families. And, of course, there are those who do it with sports or other forms of competition.

The method doesn't matter as much as the motive, which in my case was mendacity. I had to run not only from who I am, but also from who I presented to everyone else. I guess I was living a myth whose storyline was something from the Allman Brothers' Midnight Rider: I owned nothing; I owed nothing and nobody would--or could--catch me. There are days when I still miss living out that fantasy.

And that is exactly the reason I miss it: because it's a fantasy. Those emotional Edens to which people want to return are never as pristine as they are in memory. Or, in my case, I wasn't nearly as fierce and independent (much less fiercely independent) as I imagined myself to be. I was not flying free as a bird; the wind whipped me around like a kite.

But this morning I had something to go to: my job, which is, of course, to teach people how to write. (Of course I don't tell them that I'm still learning how to do that myself!) And I was riding briskly because I wanted to get there with time to spare while still having time to stop at a bakery and pick up something to eat when I got there. Which I did--just in time to see a woman about my age pulling sfogliatelle, sfingi, croissants and other pastries out of the oven at La Scala bakery on Grand Avenue in Maspeth. I bought a half-dozen of those nice sfogliatelle--a seashell-shaped flaky pastry filled with ricotta and egg and touches of lemon and vanilla. It's exactly what I'd want for my last dessert. Or breakfast. I knew I wasn't going to eat six, but, as I joked with the woman, "I'm going to teach those people at work what real food is!"

I had no particular reason for buying those sfogliatelli I brought to the office. I just, well, felt like it. Funny, how that's something you say when you're running away. But, I believe, the fact that I was buying those sfogliatelli and had someone to bring them to was a sign that I wasn't running away, at least not from what I used to run from or in quite the same ways I used to run.

And, even though I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night, I was practically bursting with energy when I entered that first classroom at 8 am. And the students, as tired as they were, responded to it.

Maybe I learned something besides a couple of languages and a couple dozen sexual positions from running away, after all: If you settle down because you are who you are and can (and don't want to) be a
anyone else, people actually do respond. They don't have to know that running away brought me to them!

Not to mention that I learned how to cook a few things, fix bikes and--to the degree that I know how to do it--write. Worse things have happened, but I now have better reasons not to keep on running. But pedalling as if I'm running away is still the best way to go.

So that's how I got to work today. And here.