Monday, November 2, 2009

On Crooked Paths in Central Park

There is no express bus on Sundays, so I have to catch the 7:35 in order to make it to choir rehearsal in the city by 9:35. We get into Port Authority at 8:30. That gives me 55 minutes to walk from 42nd and 8th Avenue to All Souls at 80th and Lexington. That’s 38 blocks north and 6 blocks east. It takes me about a minute to walk one block, so I should have plenty of time, if I can resist the temptations on the way: Street Fairs being set up on 8th Avenue, the little coffee shop at the edge of the Central Park at Columbus Circle, and, greatest temptation of all - the park itself. There’s got to be a way to cut across, straight to East 79th street and 5th Avenue, and the last three blocks over to church are a piece of cake. 

The trouble with the shortcut through the park is that I haven’t found it yet. So, most Sundays see me rush up the stairs to the choir loft last minute or later, grasp a hymnal and whatever is left of today’s music on the table and participate in the first work of the rehearsal without taking off my coat or my backpack. Usually, I mumble something like “Sorry, it’s a real challenge to get here from New Jersey on Sunday mornings” towards the choir director.

He sent us an e-mail this week:

“ Remember to set your clocks back before you go to bed on Saturday night -- since you will have any extra hour of sleep, there is no excuse for anyone to be late!  I need every singer possible there for rehearsal at 9:25 since we did not have our usual Wednesday rehearsal this week.
Also, be aware that this is Marathon Sunday!” 

Marathon Sunday! I could take the subway to church, to be on the safe side, but it’s just too tempting to walk and look for evidence of the marathon. Do runners warm up, like pianists and singers? 
8th Avenue is quiet. No runners. A quick “Hi” to Columbus at the corner of the park - it’s not even 8:45, but I’ll skip coffee today. The coffee shop is out of reach anyway, disappeared behind bleachers and an open-air stage. 59th street is closed. 

The park is quiet. The runners I meet appear a little too relaxed to be  participating in today’s event. Maybe they’re warming up for next year’s Marathon. Dogs and people in the dog run, as usual.  A woman carrying pieces of red cardboard under her arm asks me whether I have anybody in the race. Sorry, no, I’m running my own race - against the clock. Just stay on the main path, don’t get sidetracked, I remind myself. The main path winds, but it goes in the right direction, and it does lead me right to 72nd street, where I decide to abandon the park experiment for today, reach the church gate at 9:20, a personal record. 

The Marathon reigns the city. It’s the topic of the sermon, and even the hymnal has something to offer: “Guide My Feet.” We’ve never sung the hymn before, and it hasn’t been a great loss. Hopefully, we’ll only sing it once a year.

When church is over, I enter the park at East 79th, Mile 25 of the race. Whoever has made it this far is bound to cross the finish line, somewhere around West 72nd Street

The crowd’s in a good mood. “ Go man, go. Smooth, keep it smooth, no puffin’. Downhill, it’s going downhill, you’re almost there.”   I find out what the red cardboard is for. It would be fun to have someone to cheer for. Maybe I could talk some of my athletic friends from Germany into running the New York Marathon.

The cheering crowd is just as much fun to watch as the runners.

Not everybody is focussed on the race.

If I were in it, I’m sure I would care less what I looked like at this point.

I hate to glance at my watch, but it would be good to catch the bus at 12:50. With a lesson tomorrow, a tryout on Tuesday and a recital in a month I should do some practicing in the afternoon. So,this is the moment to cut across the park and catch the subway at Columbus Circle. I’ve done it this morning, after all - only now, my former shortcut is part of the racetrack. 

Confidently, I follow a small trail that leads into the woods. 
It’s surprisingly quiet, just a few steps away from the race 

After a very short time, the cheering comes closer again. And sure enough, I’m back with the race. That was quick. It’s  strange that I can’t recall seeing the buildings behind the trees back there on the West Side, though. Slightly confused, I turn around and recognize a sign a little further up the road that I remember from the place where I stood five minutes before.
 I’ve come full circle.

It’s probably safer to follow the path of the race all the way down to 59th street, and cut across there. More runners, and more spectators.  “Coda” announces a sign at mile 26. It’s good to know there are other musicians in the crowd. Columbus Circle is already in sight, and with a slight feeling of regret, I realize it will be time to disappear into the subway in a moment.

So close to the finish line, nobody is permitted to cross the track. Sturdy metal barriers separate the crowd from the runners, closely monitored by security personnel. So much for being on the wrong side of the road. “Entrance West”, says a sign on a fence. The sign is pointing East.  

A wide detour leads back to the racetrack around West 63rd Street. I’ve watched the marathon before, but I’ve never taken the time to see anyone cross the finish line. Since I’m this far already, I might as well take the chance - it can’t  be much farther. I send a telepathic note to Beethoven, the piano and my cat, saying that I’ll be home and take care of them eventually. 

The path along the track ends abruptly in front of a fence and a gate. “East Side Bleachers, tickets only” says a sign. “East Side Bleachers?” We’re on the West Side, I’m positive of that, and I don’t have a ticket. I follow the fence, which connects to other fences, and finally, seamlessly, joins the fence on the far side of Sheep Meadow. Here, in the middle of the park, it is possible to get a glimpse of the place on the East Side where I watched the race more than an hour ago, while the wind carries the cheers from the finish line all the way across from the West Side. The gate to Sheep Meadow is closed. No shortcuts here, either.

When the path finally rejoins the racetrack, we’re already past the finish line. High screens covered with blue transparent fabric line the path, mercifully shielding the faces of the runners from the view of the curious crowd. Wrapped in white and blue aluminum blankets, the winners mill about like a crowd of seagulls, all sense of determination and focus spent in the race. If the security personnel didn’t keep everyone moving, some of them would probably plop down right there and then and not take another step for a long time.    

The Japanese have a saying that bad spirits can’t walk a straight line. For this reason, many bridges in traditional Japanese parks  have angles. The bad spirit can’t make it across and falls in the water. Since the first time I’ve been to Central Park, I‘ve noticed that, when I leave the park, I’ve always left behind whatever may have been weighing heavily on my mind when I walked in. Not a single path in Central Park is straight, I’m sure that’s why. 

The bad spirits crash into the rocks, slam into the trees, drown in the lakes, and whatever is left is absorbed by good vibes of the park. I wonder whether that’s why the marathon ends there - so that the runners can forget the agonies of the journey and limp home with an unclouded sense of joy and pride at their accomplishment.     

P.S. Today, many athletes were taking their medals for a walk through the city. They were particularly abundant around Central Park.

1 comment:

  1. LOVED this post, Birgit! about challenges (and I'm not referring to the NYC marathon). All Souls choir is fortunate to have you. I imagine few others have the traveling challenges you do to get there! Great concept about the crooked bridges. Super pictures capturing things others would not see of the Marathon.
    Thank you for this post...great way to start my day!