When you walk the Common, as I have now for three months, certain people keep cropping up, and you get to know a bit about those you walk with.
One man, it turns out, is my “neighbor,” in that he comes from the same part of town as I do — my husband, who jogs through the neighborhood, has seen his car parked in a driveway about half a mile away. The two older ladies I see walking with their cowboy gentleman — it turns out that he is the husband of one of them — one of them belongs to a Methodist church the other side of town, and they are both members of TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly). (And you can see their progress, which is always nice to talk about!) And it turns out that the man who looks so much like my priest — is an atheist. Takes all kinds.
There are people who are a bit less forthcoming about themselves, and people whose sole purpose is exercise, so they don’t talk to anybody — but it’s fun to watch them in action. There’s a young girl who shows up from time to time and uses the Common for her morning jog. To my unpracticed eye, her form looks about perfect: straight back, loose arms and wrists, steady pace, not striding but not just ambling. I can’t help wondering if she is as efficient in life as she is in her running, helpful and pleasant but gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.
There’s a middle-aged lady whom I feel profoundly sorry for, not because there’s anything wrong with her but because she’s Here To Work Out, Dammit! She uses that race-walker technique with the straight legs and the heel hammering the cinder pavement of the walkway, earphones glued to her head, and some kind of monitor strapped to her arm — heart-rate monitor, pedometer, I can’t really tell, but I always feel like saying, “Lady, the birds are singing, the air is cool and fresh [at that hour of the day, it had better be!], just slow down and relax and enjoy what you’re doing?” This just doesn’t look like fun for her at all.
Now that school is back in session, Sister Maximilian and her hardy crew of runners are out at 6:30 in the morning — may God bless this woman’s dedication! — jogging through the neighborhood. They stay away from the Common; I’m not sure if they’ve had run-ins with child molesters or if they’re just trying to stay out from under other people’s feet, or maybe just give the kids a glimpse of life in a normal neighborhood, where screaming and hitting are not the usual order of things. (These kids have all been removed from their homes by child-welfare services of one kind and another.) At any rate, it’s an experience to see eight or ten kids of all ages, all with their little day-glo jackets on, running through the streets, accompanied by a nun in very traditional garb, wearing her day-glo jacket! Incidentally, today the Children’s Home is holding a 5-K fundraising run, in which my husband is participating. I’m not in the 5-K category, yet.
There are, of course, occasional folk who show up, people who are just looking for a quick stroll while they’re killing time on their way to somewhere else, or people who have clearly decided to give it a try and decide, after a week or so, that it’s just too much. I feel for those folk; I was among them, at one time, and I hope they continue to give it a try because who knows, one of these times it may stick.
But my favorites among this group are the distant relatives of Flower Children, young adults who are there to Just Be. I mean, you expect to see children using the playground equipment, the slides and swings and little play house, and they are there in full force all day long with their patient moms, or babysitters, supplying the fire power for the swings. Now that school is back in session, the midday crowd is considerably younger than it was over the summer. But the new generation of Flower Children, as I think of them, can be there at any time of day, including the early morning; they show up and head for the swings, park themselves on a swing and just drift back and forth, sorting out whatever brought them there in the first place, or just enjoying the early-morning peace of the Common in contrast to the workaday traffic immediately outside its perimeter. I have to admire someone who still has the playfulness, in adulthood, to swing — and, more importantly, not to care what anybody else thinks of them.
Then there are people who drive up in their cars and stay in their cars, reading. I have to wonder about these folks: Why is it not possible for them to read in their own homes? Are their spouses dedicated to the morning news? Is the house so empty and lonely that they have to get out of it at the earliest opportunity? Do they just want to be able to sit and read in a quiet, natural environment? Who knows? But they come with their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and morning paper, or book, and just sit in the car and read.
Then there’s that lunatic who shows up, crawls around the Common at a snail’s pace for two or three laps (depending on the level of humidity in the air), then gets back in her car and reads her book, making multiple signs of the Cross — “backwards” — while reading. That’d be me, doing my prayer rule. I’m not sure what I’m going to do once winter hits, but while the weather is decent, saying prayers on the Common is better than trying to compete with the morning news. (In this very French Catholic town, there is only one way to make the sign of the Cross, and the Orthodox way isn’t it.) Lately I can count on this runner showing up near the end of my prayers; he always lopes up to the car and stands around, dripping sweat while he engages me in conversation. That’d be my husband, who by this time has had (a) his breakfast, (b) his morning news fix, (c) his coffee, and (d) sufficient time to let everything work through his system so that he can focus on his main task of the morning: running eight miles. He doesn’t run eight miles around the Common, but by showing up every morning, he’s become part of the Common Folk, too.