I went for a run yesterday morning, my first after the hurricane. I took my normal route, along the waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, along streets that had been underwater 36 hours earlier. I stopped in at our paper supplier’s to see him jacking up pallet after pallet of ruined coffee cups, paper towels, and shopping bags, taking pictures for his insurance company, wondering how far back into the warehouse the damage had reached. I ran past the home of one of my oldest friends and employees, who finally fled her apartment mid-storm when the water in her living room had come up to her knees. I ran to Newtown Creek, which had flooded and washed the neighborhood with some of the most toxic water in the country, but where this morning the sailboats that are always moored there were still moored there, peacefully reflected on the creek’s surface as though nothing had happened. I ran laps around the track at the park, unaware–as were the dozens of other runners taking laps–that the park was closed.
That was the last run I’ll take before the marathon this Sunday.
Over the years I’ve had flickers of interest in running the marathon. Usually they last as long as it takes me to count to 26. This year it just so happened that the flicker caught on another thought I was having about our work with Wellness in the Schools, who work to improve school food and fitness programs. I remembered that they fielded a marathon team every year. I happened to be sitting at my computer, so I wrote to see if they had an open spot on their team. They did, they accepted me, and within 24 hours I was registered to run and desperately searching the internet for a training plan for under-prepared middle-aged knees.
It’s been a lot of work. It’s taken a lot of time and energy–both physical and mental–to prepare. Frankly, if I were doing it for myself alone, I almost certainly would have backed out weeks ago: I don’t have that much time just to devote to self-exploration. I kept going because I committed to Wellness in the Schools, because I knew that the work they did was important and my run would help bring attention to that work and the needs that it serves. I couldn’t have justified the sacrifice of time, and I wouldn’t have had the motivation to beat myself up for it, if I hadn’t known that I was doing it for a cause I believed in.
I can’t pretend that I wasn’t also excited, though. Without question, I’ve enjoyed the training, enjoyed the focused work that a goal like the marathon made possible. I’ve never felt more capable of rising to challenge and persisting through discomfort than I do now. Running long distance has changed me, as it does everyone who gets up off the sofa one day and decides to do it.
We’ve suffered an enormous blow this week, and we need all the resources we can muster to get power back where it’s out, food to people who are hungry, clothes and shelter to people whose lives washed away.
We’ve also suffered an enormous psychological blow, one whose effects I feel in strange ways, like the feeling of annoyance you get when the news talks about something other than recovery, like that feeling of dread you get when you look at the blacked-out city, like the feeling of guilt we have as we enjoy having power and food knowing we’re just across the river from people with neither.
I love this city and how it absorbs and overcomes disaster. As horrible as 9/11 was, it was amazing to live here in the days following, even though we had no power, even though our apartment and our offices were behind barricades, even though we were breathing toxic air and cut off from everyone we loved. It was amazing to live here through the 2003 blackout, to walk through the streets of the lower east side unable to see the fingers of my hand but to feel no fear.
As someone who’s made New York home, when I think about what it will feel like to run through every borough, following a course that literally links the city together, I get excited at the thought of being part of the psychological recovery that the run will, I believe, represent.
As a business owner whose own business is boosted every year by the marathon running right past his restaurant’s front door, I get the importance of the economic energy–300 million dollars, I’ve read–that the marathon injects into the city. God knows we need all the economic energy we can stand right now.
As someone who’s spent the past two years working endlessly to raise money for various ventures and causes, I understand how important the commitments of money and awareness the marathon brings are. The marathon raises over 30 million dollars for charities, from Wellness in the Schools to the Red Cross. And charities need the money and attention that the race raises. So I get that part of it, too.
I also understand the outrage of people who’re appalled by the mayor’s decision. Indeed, I feel that outrage myself. It’s impossible to think about emergency workers finding bodies in the wreckage surrounding the race course and not to feel revolted by the marathon’s pageantry, its commercial showiness, its chest-thumping boosterism. Part of me wishes the mayor had cancelled it altogether. It would be much easier to resign myself to that reality–just as if I’d had to bow out with an injury, say–than it is to try to balance these thoughts: that I want it to happen, but that it’s impossible to imagine enjoying it; that I want it to unify the city rather than for it to become a lightning rod for the city’s anger at all that’s gone wrong for us in the past week.
I know the bulk of the outrage around the marathon is symbolic. I don’t think it’s likely that the resources that are being brought together to make the marathon happen will be effectively repurposed to help Sandy victims. The generators will be trucked back to their hangars in Pennsylvania or Indiana or wherever they come from, ready to be deployed to the next sporting event or concert that needs them. The security guards and traffic police who would have manned the race course will go off to do other work, guarding building lobbies and writing parking tickets–not stopping looting in Coney Island. And I think the outrage is misplaced–in fact, I don’t think the marathon is going to have any substantial ill effects on the city. And the city is filled right now with frivolous activity that detracts from the recovery effort. But the symbolism around the race is important, especially given the fact that one of the main arguments for pushing ahead with the marathon is a symbolic one–that it will be a symbol of recovery and resilience.
The narrative of resilience–that cities brought to their knees get up and come back stronger and better–can be true, or true enough. I choose to believe it. But those narratives elide many smaller stories of suffering and loss, people for whom resilience isn’t a possibility. The evidence of suffering retreats from view day by day after a disaster, in spite of exhortations never to forget, and finally the big happy story, that we’re back and better than ever, takes over.
But the suffering is still there. People will continue to lose everything to fire, to flood, to theft. People will die of starvation and exposure. We need help all the time, and we need to be giving it all the time. The kids who weren’t eating well before the hurricane still need our help and our attention if they’re going to eat well after the hurricane. The recovery effort won’t have any effect on any of that. That work has to keep going on even as the tremendous work of bringing stability back to the city goes on. From the perspective of a year from now, once the outrage is over and the marathon was run or not who knows what this moment will have looked like? Whether bailing or running was the better choice?
Saturday I will go to Staten Island with my family to help clean up in one of the hardest hit spots in the city, where the marathon will begin on Sunday. I’ll see what my conscience tells me to do then.