I may or may not have shared this with you before. I wrote this while at Emerson College, working on my BFA degree in writing. It is a reaction to Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Street Haunting.”
JOGGING IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD ON A SPARKLY OCTOBER MORNING
Suppose you decide you’d like to sweat a bit, and you don’t realize — or perhaps you do — that there will be the sweat of humanity you’ll experience in the process — the agony of kitchens that have too much burnt fat in the air, how they’re sticky and dusty and beg to be cleaned, but the strung-out young mother in this two-and-a-half room apartment in the local projects doesn’t have the energy; she can’t leave the kids alone, but alone she must leave them in order to work, how at her last apartment she couldn’t afford a tank of oil until the next welfare check came — yes, you want her sweat and the stinking sweat of her six-year-old because you truly believe that all little boys smell bad, yes, his smell too, and the drunk on the bus — horrors, such awful sweat emanating from every pore of his spent body that you couldn’t bear to inhale but had to, because you had to breathe eventually, and even breathing through your mouth you could taste the booze as one would taste mouthwash, and mouthwash makes you sneeze — you don’t know why — so you want to sweat a bit, so you call the weather to find out the temperature — what will it be today? you ask yourself, and you reply no to the shorts and yes to the size small sweat pants that you couldn’t wear when you were fifty pounds heavier, but of course you don’t want to remember you ever were that size, or half that size — or do you? you ask yourself, and you realize that it is only because you know, and you know you know, the memories are true and real and you can face who you were then, that you know where you are now and where everyone else is, so you add to the sweat pants, which fit, a T-shirt and a sweat shirt covering that, strap on your Walkman, harness your 23-pound Sheltie, who you’re going to pretend is a Doberman at this ungodly hour, and ungodly it must be, because you must go out before 4:30; the magic disappears as the rest of the world wakes up and the drunks go to bed, and you put on those running shoes you bought yesterday, to replace the ones that wore out and were wrecking your feet because of it, and these shoes feel so much like mothers to your feet, although you’re worrying that they’re not broken in — will you get blisters? you wonder, but the dog is aching to get outside and you’ve got your plastic bag, which came from Stop & Shop, for her you-know-whats, and you lock the door behind you and off you go, like a bullet, down the hall not quite tiptoeing, down the stairs keeping in mind that if you take the elevator you might get stuck in there like a bug between the windows, dying to get out the way you and your dog are dying to get out, your dog even more than you are, and you turn on Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life” which isn’t your favorite music but it has that spell on you, the spell that is spurned by heavy drum beats, cymbals, and bass guitars, that beat that keeps you ahead, maybe one step, maybe more, always going forward, like an electrical current or a telephone signal or a desperate telegraph in 1968 pleading for her son’s body, now that it has been found in the jungle where the mine had blasted his neck away, and as you listen to this music you realize that The War meant World War II, and that “War,” just “War,” meant Vietnam, plainly that, and to the young it is just a murky idea, a poppy that dies in October and is forgotten, and you begin to run, the dog following, but soon she stops to find a potty, and you wonder what she smells; was the dog who peed there before you running loose, and did he get hit by a red Jeep Cherokee, and did his owner than stuff his dead dog’s body into the trash along with last night’s delivered steak tip dinner Styrofoam containers? or maybe it was pizza, you think to yourself; you’ve got to leave this guy some leeway, surely, as you jog past a candy-wrapper on the street, which maybe, just maybe, is some lady’s power bar who decided she needed the energy to walk from her house to her car, to go buy some Diet Coke — three cases of it — or maybe Caffeine Free Diet Coke, because she’s health conscious and just read in a magazine that one of the keys to being happy is to do in moderation, although she’s never heard the term skeptic used for its original purpose, and you remember the time this lady who smelled like smoke and had makeup smeared on her face like a warrior tell the cashier, “I only want that ‘diet’ soda; I picked up the regular Sprite by accident — I don’t want it; I’m on a diet!” and you suppressed a giggle because surely this woman, if she drinks all that soda, will burp a great deal the morning after, like a hangover — and how you rode your bike home that day laden with groceries and toilet paper and toothpaste, which you sorely needed because surely, you should be brushing your teeth more, so you won’t offend anyone on the subway or — horrors! — someone in class right after you drank that cup of coffee, or perhaps decaf if you were hyper, at 6:30am before your 8am class, your breath would smell of coffee, second-hand coffee, which is sour compared to first-hand coffee steam or the smell of a freshly opened vacuum-packed bag of Starbucks Gold Coast Blend, which you ground for yourself this morning and brewed to the consistency of maple syrup and spent 45 minutes drinking, which is why you scrub your teeth before you go out jogging, so you can breathe mint and fluoride and some other unknown chemicals only her dentist knows for sure, and as you’re jogging on the sidewalk, because this part of Warren Street has a well-paved smooth sidewalk complete with ramps going into the street, you pass the house where a real Doberman lives, where they keep the poor old boy chained to the side door on perhaps ten feet of chain, then when he barks at passersby, which, of course, anyone would do if they were tied like that, the owners yank him in and yell at him and act disgusted for something that wasn’t his fault, and you wonder if they ever walk him — surely, you’ve never seen any Doberman walking on your street, and how you’re tempted, and you’re sure others are tempted, to phone the ASPCA to rescue the poor old boy, but like everyone else you’re afraid to get involved, and the house passes by you, or perhaps you pass by this house, and you hear no barking, so you’re relieved because the Doberman has been spared another beating, and you pass by the school where young folks in cars are parked in the back tasting the sweetness of kisses and maybe more behind steamy windshields; perhaps they are too busy to see you running past with the poky little dog, then you reach the Waltham line, and in the first house, or perhaps the second, a light turns on, then turns off, and you wonder about the seventeen-year-old inside who has gotten herself laid for the first time, how the boy she hardly knew, who had that short-man complex already, who had a nervous laugh, a greasy pimply face, who was a nerd, who shifted from one side to the other as he stood, telling some bad joke that he and he only finds funny, this seventeen-year-old doesn’t find him the least bit attractive; in fact, she’s repulsed by him, and repulsed even more now that he has his thing in her and is rocking, or rather, doing blows to her, again and again, and he’s saying ooh and ahh and baby that’s right and she wonders if she should be making noises too, because her friends had told her that this was the appropriate response, but then as she lays there she leaves her body and stands in the corner of the room, watching the two of them, and he’s sweating and is gross to the touch, and the only sweat she feels is that which has dripped off of him; in fact, she’s quite bored, and he comes up with the line, “Baby, I love you,” and she doesn’t know what to say, she wishes he didn’t love her, but she’s heard what she’s supposed to say, she’s heard it in the movies, so she replies, “I love you, too,” and hates the lie and the filth, and suddenly he spasms and is spent, saying oh, oh, baby, and she wonders what it would be like to have the name, “Baby,” and she knows she will be repulsed if anyone, anytime, ever calls her that again, and he gets off of her and she turns away and gets out of bed, and looks at him all shriveled up like a newborn and waits until he sleeps, which he will do in an instant, and she takes a long, warm shower, washing off the filth of what he called love, and sleep on the couch, and you know tomorrow she’ll weep like a mother who’s lost her child, and the next week he’ll send her roses, and she’ll retch at the smell of them and wash them down the garbage disposal, but for now the lights are off in that house, and it passes by, or you pass by it, and grieve for the young girl and her dignity, and you feel the pain in your gut for any girl who’s 17, or 16, or 20, who hasn’t yet felt the knife of rape and prostitution sear through her, and a loss so great that her beauty will never be the same, and you don’t have to put her out of your mind, you know her, and embrace her, for she is in the sweat that is you, as the Walkman, which has Auto-Reverse, flips the tape and you hear the other side of dear Steve Winwood with the beat, and round the corner pretending that you’re in Copley Square and the crowds are cheering, and you feel the muscles in your legs; they are hard and taught, like the hide that’s stretched across a drum, one of many drums, as your dog stops to take a poop, which fortunately is right under a street lamp so you can see it and pick it up, and you wonder how you got to this corner so quickly — was it the new shoes? you wonder, and you are reminded of how folks always say, “That camera takes good pictures,” which is about the stupidest thing you can say; after all, it’s the person who takes the pictures who deserves the credit, but no, no, never admit that your friend is talented, lest you get jealous, and jealousy is a sin, of course, coveting thy neighbor’s wife, one might say, but really, the backbone of all this religious dogma is decency; surely we don’t need the ten commandments if we were only to make the rule, “Be polite,” because if we are grateful when one does something for us, and share our goods, and give the bad waitress a bigger tip than the regular ones get, then we are doing our job and can be right and would never consider killing another person, simply because it’s not polite to do so, and you’re thinking this as you pump one foot in front of the other and thankfully the dog isn’t lagging too much, as you round another corner at the condo complex where some emaciated 30-year-old is shooting heroin, waiting for the next welfare check, and you think about your muscles some more, and how lucky you are, as a dark-colored car whizzes by and the dog tries to chase it, and you quietly tell her to be polite, realizing she will never grow up and will never sin, and you think about growing up and remember how some of the young school kids said they grew up fast because their parents got divorced, and you want to laugh and cry with them, because they are part of you, whether you approve of their idleness or not, and you realize that if you’d been asked the same question, you’d have said you had been a late-bloomer, that you didn’t grow up until you turned 40, and even now, you’re afraid you’ll suffer through yet another lesson like a monster would move through lace curtains and feel the pain of the fragile cloth upon its skin, which is your skin, which is sweating, as you breathe evenly but not coordinated with your steps, which you’re not noticing anymore, and you start to wonder what’s best: runner’s high, writer’s high, intellectual high, or the simple joy of looking out a window at a woman jogging with her dog at 4:30am in October, and wonder: could that be you? and if it is, you know it is, but you’re watching yourself occasionally because you are that person in the window, too, and as you throw your dog’s poops into the dumpster, you hope that you don’t have to pick them up and throw them again if you miss, but you don’t, so you turn into the side door of your building, and here comes what you set out to find in the first place: a little sweat, and you know you must feel this sweat from all angles, smell and taste it as one would taste a wintergreen leaf, and capture that feeling — if you can — in words, so that it becomes more than fleeting, and can never be washed off.
(The above was my reaction to Virginia Woolf’s essay, October 8, 1999.)