Monday, September 1, 2008

My Campaign Speech

Now there’s talk of troop withdrawal from Iraq by 2011. Prices at the pump have dropped forty cents per gallon in the last couple of weeks, and Bush’s weekly radio address continues to use the phrase “we need to get the oil from the bottom of the ocean into your gas tanks”. How stupid are we? How malleable are we? How much deception can we tolerate? I, for one, am going to buy as much heating oil and gasoline as I can on November third, because that will certainly be the least expensive day of the year. The republicans will guarantee that, and will undoubtedly congratulate themselves publicly for the service to the American people.

Once the votes are counted, or even predicted prematurely by the media, long before they are counted, the price will rise to where it was when there was no contest. Maybe not that day, but it won’t take long. How much more blatant can the manipulation be?

Am I paranoid? No. The situation is obvious to anyone willing to live in the darkness of our time. We’ve elected (kind of, but not really) a president who has done so much damage to the global community that we fear for our lives. We fear for the survival of our country, and we fear that we have allowed this to happen. The rest of the world knows we have allowed this to happen and frowns upon our ignorance. The mongoose has drawn the snake near enough to make a meal of it. Snakes… we fear snakes, but what we should really fear is their predator.

This administration would like to keep us in fear. It spends a good deal of its time weaving stories of fear, stories that will make us afraid. And we are afraid, but we are afraid because this man, this president, this person who has helped destroy the individual lives of so many who believed in him, wants us to be afraid.

Fear is a weapon of mass destruction more powerful than any nuclear or biological device could ever aspire to be. Fear keeps us engaged, prevents us from straying, and prevents us from reaching out for what might be the truth. There are others in the world who know this and use it as the weapon it is.

Our president, and those who support him, are no different than those who strap explosives to themselves and press the detonator. It is all about fear. They have instilled in us the fear of change: the one thing we absolutely cannot afford to be afraid of.

My son will be seventeen in December. I will not let our government take him from high school and send him into a war that never should have begun. I will not let him surrender his life to the whims of political aspiration. If I must, I will take him from this country to anywhere that is not ruled by fear, if such a place still exists.

I have nothing. I have nothing but my opinion and a family that has shed me as a locust sheds the shell of its birth. But I still care. I care about what happens to the child that won’t speak to me. I care about my son and my two daughters because I want them to believe in something other than hatred and fear, which is all they know. There is nothing more important to me than the next. If there is something I can do to make what might be next better than what is, or what was, I feel obligated to participate. It is my responsibility as a father, as a son, and as a human being.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


The air was thick and moist. Through the foliage that was closing in like the clenching teeth of pinking shears, there was gray: endless, monochromatic gray. It wasn’t terribly warm, mid sixties perhaps, but the humidity would cause me to sweat. I learned last week that a leisurely pace would increase my distance with little effort, so I started off at a casual jog.

I didn’t think it was possible. It had only been a week since I’d passed by the primordial pond, the prehistoric water that hasn’t moved, hasn’t changed in hundreds of millions of years: the ancient stew with the impenetrable surface that takes life without conscience, yet provides it with the means to flourish.

I thought at first I was mistaken, that the surface wasn’t reflective, was never reflective, and had never mirrored the world above it. But I wasn’t mistaken. Just last week, when the two women had allowed their dogs a brief respite by the water’s edge, it was reflective; I know it was. The entire surface of the pond, aside from the beaver lodge and the trees that had fallen victim to the water’s corrosive powers, was, in fact, mirror-like and perfectly still.

Today it was very different. The surface was opaque, covered in a layer of grayish-green oddly shaped discs. They’d all come up during the six days of my absence. A few small, untouched areas remained: uncluttered patches where insects could alight, creating concentric rings of gentle movement. As I passed I imagined my feet evoking the same response. When each touched down, circles traveled slowly outward from their center, as if the ground was smooth and coated in a thin layer of glycerin. I could feel the pond’s surface and was tempted to veer onto it, but logic kept me on course.

Looking ahead along the trail, slivers of hazy sun made their way to the ground, creating a series of illuminated portals, giving added perspective to the narrowing path and shrinking foliage.

On my return trip past the pond, more signs of life revealed themselves. A tree, freshly gnawed but not eaten through: its flesh still warm, still fibrous, meaty and the color of fresh mango. Then two others flanking the first only inches away. They were reduced to stumps, but with the distinctive conical shape capping them both. Further along, the remains had weathered and grayed, but the evidence was the same. Just then, toward the end, another beaver lodge. Evolution continues: a world exists here, an entire civilization whose story is told by what can be seen of what once existed, and what was here only moments ago.

I felt comfortable. Despite my somewhat brief encounter with sleep last night, I knew I would go on today: how far was a subject I knew as little about as I did the fragile eco-system occupying the ooze a couple of miles back. Gnats and mosquitoes were out in force and much as I tried to forget my physical presence, the couple of bites on the back of my legs wouldn’t allow it.

The trail gave way to the wooded parking area, and then to the asphalt path that is open to the sounds of traffic and nearby homes. This was territory I’d covered dozens of times last year, before deciding to risk the hazards of the dark and sinister looking path through the woods. I would be adding; building up to whatever might be next. I began to think about a marathon again and wondered if I shouldn’t go to the end, take the morning out to eleven miles: but as before, I wasn’t properly equipped for the distance, not even thinking to place bottle of water in a strategic location.

I would turn around just beyond the bridge, a mile or so short. Although I could see what looked to be the upper lot from my position, I knew it would be unattainable. As I headed back along the farm toward the guardrail that always seemed to signify the end, I knew I’d made the right decision. I hadn’t noticed the breeze on the way since it was at my back, but now it was hitting me directly in the chest, making the last mile or so that much more strenuous. I put what I had into the dash for the center lot, ending with enough left to walk it off for a half-mile or so. Perhaps next week I’ll be better prepared, and not shy away from those two other miles, those sirens who tried their best to lure me to their rocky coast.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I wanted to say something as I passed. I wanted to ask them if they knew this was the very spot where life on earth had begun, that all of evolution crawled from this particular bog. That’s why I run here, I would tell them, to visit my distant relatives. Why couldn’t it have been here? Why couldn’t this place have existed before we were here, before anything was here, even before the Rusty Wheeled, Deflated Tire era of mankind, a remnant of which lies just upstream.

The two women stood by the swamp while their dogs’ curiosity fractured the pristine mirror of the water’s surface. I wanted to say these things to them, but instead I simply offered a friendly “good morning” as I passed. The pond was visibly different: felled trees lay partially exposed in the water, slowly decaying, feeding the next. A beaver lodge, large enough to comfortably accommodate five healthy adults and a few children towers in the center and the water seems more impenetrable than I remember. The place has evolved in the year since I first began to understand; unfortunately, I feel as if my own evolution has stagnated.

As the pond narrowed to sluggish stream and the trees drew nearer to the edge of the path, I listened. The rhythm of my footsteps moved from the snapping and popping on coarse gravel, to near silence on the bare, dense and moist soil, to the familiar soft crunch of the finely ground, black shale that covers much of the trail. A light wind moved air without sound over the hollows of my ears, and birds that were not there before began tentatively speaking to each other from the cover of branches. My easy pace gave me the feeling I could go on indefinitely.

I almost didn’t come today. I felt tired earlier and I’d hedged; maybe I’d run the four-mile section I thought, or maybe only two, or maybe nothing at all, or maybe I’d drive to the lot and then decide. Once there I was certain I’d do something, maybe.

The parking area was nearly full when I arrived, just a few spots left at the end where large tree roots abbreviate the undesignated spaces. I looked north toward the paved trail, and the potential for just under four and a half miles, then I looked south, through the woods to the railings of the first bridge, and the thoughts of the hill falling away and the pond and the markers at point five, and one point five, and the other end and I started off that way slowly, cautiously, unconcerned about time, or distance, or whatever else I had to do today. I decided to run at the pace I used to, when all I wanted was to finish, when all that mattered was the act, the doing: the feeling and the seeing, and the understanding that came with it.

I’ve spent the last year looking ahead and looking back, checking my race times, striving, wallowing in the misery of an unchanged and seemingly unchangeable situation, never feeling as if any of it was enough, as if anything I could do would ever be enough. The year has erased my memory.

I looked down just in time to spot a manure pile and a small, flower print hat. I dodged them both and moved on. The halfway point came quickly: I turned and began the three-mile trip back to the parking lot. Just ahead, the sun penetrating the spring canopy fell in unfocused, unconnected blotches on the path. I thought of Seurat: I thought of how this scene was creating itself from light and tiny specks of gravel and dirt and forest debris, and how his simple voluminous shapes could never approach the depth and the density and the subtle shades of what lay beneath my feet. Above me the sky that brought the light that penetrated the canopy was a bright, uniform blue, almost as if all this was housed inside of a perfect hemisphere.

An elderly couple on bicycles came toward me. The man held the colorful hat in his hand. He asked how far I was going. All the way back to the parking lot, I replied without stopping. He handed me the hat as we passed: “there’s a woman with a baby walking along the trail, she lost this without realizing”. I saw her on my way, I said as I grabbed the hat with my right hand.

The pond returned and I retraced the awkward steps that avoided the water spreading across the trail. It seemed as if the people I had passed along the way had all vanished, or had turned back shortly after our encounters. I was alone, keeping to my pace, moving easily, gripping the hat firmly, seeing, smelling, tasting, breathing.

It took some time before I spotted the woman with her child in tow. He or she was in a backpack, explaining how the hat could have been lost without the mother’s knowledge. I said something as I handed it to her, what it was that I said is only vague memory now. She also spoke.

Something changed as I released the fabric. I suddenly felt as if my legs were being pulled, as if I wasn’t running at all, but some thing, some force was drawing me forward. It was a sensation I’ve never felt before. There was a weightlessness about me: I was a marionette on strings, my knees moving higher than they would ever need to, my feet never actually touching down.

The last half-mile or so was cushioned by soft, decaying leaves that lined the forest floor: once living parts of trees that now fed the roots of those same trees. I tried to feel the hair falling from my head and then being drawn back into my veins through the soles of my feet.

I looked ahead, trying to spot the second bridge, not knowing if I was even close, and in doing so stumbled on a protruding root. Don’t look too far ahead, I always told myself, you’ll get there eventually, and never look back, you might stumble and fall. The words I’d relied upon were spoken metaphorically, of course, but here I was, literally looking too far ahead, and literally tripping and nearly falling. It was almost comical. Everything I’d learned during that final run last summer: all of the knowledge that brought me one step closer, or one step farther away from understanding, I would have to learn again.

Normally, when I begin a run I have a goal in mind: a time, or a distance, or both. Today I had neither. Success and failure wouldn’t be making appearances, even in cameo roles. If this day had not been unscripted, I would have focused on the unimportant and the mundane and continued on without ever realizing all that I had forgotten.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The View From My Window

I could see the mountains from the window of my ninth floor hotel room. Their resemblance to the eroded, snow-covered hill outside the airport terminal in upstate New York was just as I’d expected. My memories of the foothills on the outskirts of Tucson were still vivid, more than thirty years after my short time there.
This wasn’t Tucson though, it was Las Vegas, but the mountains were the same. I wanted to stand at their base; the place where the city ended and the impenetrable landscape took over. It didn’t look that far, a few miles at most. The round trip would be a distance I’ve run many times. It was only seven and the freight wasn’t due to arrive at the Hilton until three in the afternoon. I had plenty of time to make the run and have breakfast before meeting my coworker. I did a little stretching in my room, took the elevator down to the lobby and made my way through the busy casino to the street.

The air was cool and dry. February is a good month to be in Vegas, with the temperature never exceeding sixty-five or so, perfect running weather.

After finally finding my way under the highway that splits the city in two, I followed a graceful curve around to my right and spotted the majestic peaks ahead of me. The sidewalk was dead straight now without interruption and the mountains looked close enough to touch. Strip malls lined both sides of the wide thoroughfare, malls whose signage was primarily in Chinese. Interesting. I never knew Vegas had a Chinatown.

I passed a digital clock on a sign outside a convenience store. Forty-five minutes had elapsed since I’d left the hotel. The six miles I anticipated should only take me an hour or so at an easy pace. I didn’t make the connection. I had a goal and was determined to reach it. Eventually, the strip malls gave way to free standing buildings, then to gravel lots and quarry sites, and eventually to neighborhoods of single story homes packed tightly into narrow side streets and cul-de-sacs, behind tall, rough block walls. I could feel yesterday’s heat emanating from the stones as I passed, holding up my hand just shy of touching their coarse surface.

The neighborhoods evaporated and the landscape was nothing more than fine sand and gravel, whose colors precisely matched the striations in the hills ahead. I could only guess, but it felt as if two hours had passed. I didn’t have a watch, or my phone, or even a dollar in my pocket, only my driver’s license in case of emergency, and the key to my room. Just one more block and I knew I’d be able to see the base. Just one more... long block... then another... and another. I looked up, suddenly realizing my destination was no closer than it had been when my journey began, and I still had to get back. A park came up on my left. Water. There has to be a working fountain. I crossed the street with little hesitation. The traffic had died down. Even the bus stops had disappeared some time ago. As I approached the stainless steel basin, I could tell it hadn’t seen any action in quite some time. I tried it anyway.

Surrendering to the illusion of distance seemed to be my only alternative. I stopped briefly, turned around, and was shocked to find the hotels on the strip barely visible through the haze of the morning. The deceptiveness of the desert had drawn me in and then abandoned me, like a sailor lured to his death by the promise of beauty. There was no illusion now. I knew I was in trouble.

I remembered a Wal-Mart a mile or two back, of course my concept of distance had been somewhat skewed all along so I couldn’t be sure. There would certainly be a water fountain in the store. It would be the first time a retail chain would be part of one of my runs, but it was necessary.
I was alternating between running and walking now, concerned about dehydration as well as getting back to my hotel at all. There were definitely moments when survival was questionable. Too bad I didn’t even think to have bus fare in my pocket. A lesson learned.

After a couple of misguided and frustrating attempts at shortcuts that caused me to backtrack, I found my way to the strip, with my hotel only a few blocks away. It was almost over.

When I pushed open the door to my room, nearly five hours after leaving, I was delirious, desperate for water and had only two and a half hours before my workday was scheduled to begin.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Seven Bridges: Part One of a Two Part Tour

The only available outlet in the apartment that seemed to function was between the closet and the stove, loosely mounted to the wall above the counter. This is not a commentary on the accommodations, they were just as lovely as I had expected; the photos hadn’t lied. I’d left my laptop charging there in the kitchen overnight with the hope that I might get an hour or so of life out of it during the flight home. The new battery was only slightly more inclined to hold a charge than the original, which had become completely useless a couple of years ago. The computer was also my only link to the correct time; information that usually is of little concern to me but this morning would be somewhat critical.

Darkness still prevailed when I woke, although the glow of the city never really allowed it to take over completely. The orange of the streetlights reflecting off the dense cloud cover was no different than anything I’d experienced in any other major city. After my visit to the kitchen and a brief calculation, I decided that it was just after seven. The screen had read a little past one, the time difference being an even six hours. I thought I should really get moving. I lay back down on the fold out couch for a few minutes and thought about the irony of the sleeping arrangements as I stared out through the tall glass panes of the window that I had closed sometime during the night. I’d woken up briefly when a chilly wind had made its way into the room. A fold out couch that was very distant from here had been my bed for the past year since I’d left my family for the third and final time, although this one was decidedly more comfortable.

The screaming cats had woken me before dawn, the cats and what I imagine I perceived to be a hint of the sky changing from the grayish-yellow of the evening to the cool blue of a morning flirting with sunrise. I had hoped to be out on the street by dawn but I knew by the time I was ready that the moment had passed me by.

It wasn’t more than another five minutes or so before I was up and changed. I’d slept in my clothes as there were four of us sharing the flat and little privacy was to be had. Before making my way to the door I checked the map one last time. Rather than turn on a light that might disturb the others, I leaned out of the window and planned my route in the glow of anticipation; at least the first six or seven blocks that would take me to the rivers edge, the banks of the Fiume Tevere. After that I would let the city guide me.

I closed the door as quietly as I could until I heard the tongue snap into place and then descended the two flights of marble stairs that surrounded the tiny elevator, passed through the tall, yellow glass doors that led to the foyer, and made my way to the street.
I did a little stretching in the courtyard between the ivy covered, black iron gate and the massive exterior oak doors and then began my walk down the hill. Initially, it was the same route that the six of us had taken the night before in search of a recommended restaurant, but after a few blocks I took a right towards the river, rather than the left that would have taken me back into Trastevere.

Two blocks into my personal tour I broke into a jog and the spot just above my right knee began to burn, as it has been known to do from time to time. I ignored it. Nothing was going to interfere with this day. I would just have to work through the pain.
After crossing the main thoroughfare where the green, number eight trams seem to pass ceaselessly in both directions, I moved along a series of winding, cobblestone streets, settling in between the unused, partially paved over, tracks of former public transportation. The river was near, and as I approached it a flea market was in its inception in a small lot off to my right. Tiny cars were being unloaded onto tables that were sheltered by those all too familiar pop-up tents. It was a Sunday morning and most of the city still slept as the sun rose slowly and the rain slowed as the clouds began to thin. It hadn’t started until I’d reached the outer doors of the apartment building. I’d heard the leaves reacting to what I considered an obvious but unnecessarily violent assault by the tiny droplets that fell from the sky.

I took a left just beyond the market, crossed the foot of one of the many bridges and headed along the river. The sidewalk and the roadway were well above the water’s surface so I followed the fist ramp that would bring me closer to the lethargic, green soup, where black birds with gray wings circled and dove for prey.
After passing under the sculpted arches of the next bridge, I felt a little deprived as all of the antiquity lay out of sight beyond the tops of the ancient walls that corralled the current, although the colorful graffiti in another language did hold a modest amount of interest. A long flight of stairs just before the third would take me back to street level. A slight drizzle continued to fall but the sidewalk was dry, sheltered by the leaves of the sycamores that lined the avenue, similar in many ways to Riverside Park in Manhattan, although very different in feel. The foliage in general struck me as not being dramatically different from that of New York, with the exception of the thick, textured trunks and the feathery branches of the many palms that sprouted unexpectedly from Rome’s sidewalks and gardens.

I decided to continue along above the water until the fourth bridge, or Ponte, as they are known here, and then I would cross and find my way into the oldest part of the city. It wasn’t meant to be. The bridges were not all that far apart and from the foot of the fourth, the fifth was plainly visible. Until now they had been relatively unadorned outside of carved balustrades, mostly limestone, I think. This next one was obviously of great importance, decorated with elaborate sculptures of intertwined figures that had been eroded by the passing centuries, with the stone pitted and serrated.
From the fifth, the sixth caught my attention, not quite as elaborate but equally adorned. A row of stalls was set up along the wall between the next two crossings. Green, tambour topped display cases that supported shallow awnings above them lined the sidewalk. There were dozens, all identical, and all yet to be opened for business. A lone vendor swept the damp, fallen leaves from the path that remained. This had to be a major tourist destination, no different from Fifth Avenue south of the Metropolitan Museum where everything from watches to postcards can be had. I would not discover today what was peddled from these shallow trays.

A massive, obviously ancient, stone structure loomed to my left. Curved, marble stairs led to enormous statues on tall plinths. Carved relief was everywhere on the ornately rendered façade and a cornice protruded far enough from the roof to be considered cantilevered. I crossed the street to investigate further. In the center, letters were carved into the stone blocks above an arched doorway. The only ones that made any sense to me spelled out the word “Tribunali”. It was impossible for me to take in the whole of this building, the din of the sculpted mass being nearly deafening.

The seventh would be the bridge to cross. I thought Saint Peter’s was in sight but realized that the domes I was heading for were on the wrong side of the river, and there were two. I’d contemplated running through the Vatican’s plaza but decided that I would forgo the well-traveled landmarks in favor of the neighborhoods and the mundane which turned out to be anything but. We’d gotten a bit of a tour from the taxi driver who’d brought us from the train station, and anyway, I’d seen them once before. This run was not about those places; it was about the other Rome. I crossed that seventh bridge and lost myself in the maze of cobblestone streets and narrow alleys.

Seven Bridges; Part Two

The city was waking up. Miniature garbage trucks manned by men in fluorescent orange jackets roamed the streets. An occasional Carabinieri or Policia could be seen, usually standing motionless, holding their ground. I imagined that there must be crime here, but at the moment doubted anything outside of pure affection for ones fellow human beings existed.
People emerged from small doorways with dogs on leashes or rolling luggage or handbags. I thought for a moment that I might lose my way, and at the same time would have had no problem doing just that. I could always inquire as to the whereabouts of the river, everyone would certainly know, and I would glance down the wider streets from time to time in order to keep the mottled trunks of the sycamores in view.
Occasionally I would hesitate, peering down an alley that might allow two people to pass each other, as long as they were thin. I’d look for signs near the ends that would indicate an exit, not wanting to back track out of a dead end.
All of the low, stucco buildings were colored and weathered, painted by history in a way that no scenic artist could ever hope to duplicate. This is an organic and constantly changing landscape. Lines of calcium dripped from windowsills, white streaks against the ochers and rouges of the facades. One was painted in a rust color and showed yellow where large slabs of plaster had fallen away. The shadows, the dark umber shadows in the gaps in the crenellation on the corners looked as if it had been intentionally applied.
The stones in the streets weren’t just laid, they radiated in overlapping, concentric circles, mimicking way the river reacted to the diving birds. Every aspect of this place seemed to have been carefully considered, every color and every texture perfectly placed, and perfectly executed.

I came upon a cathedral where a glass railed, aluminum ramp allowed wheel chair access up the short flight of stairs. It was slick and treacherous and I held onto the railing as I moved delicately along the corrugated surface. Three arches of massive doors were left opened to reveal inner sets that were made of glass. I had no alternative but to interrupt my run to stare through the huge panes at the beauty and grandeur of the interior. It looked quiet inside and I would have entered but the few that were seated in the pews appeared to be praying and I didn’t want to disturb them. Off I went, down the other side of the stares, frightening off a small group of pigeons that had been battling over a few moldy and soggy rolls that had been tossed into the street.

A portion of a pristine, white structure appeared in the distance between the gaps in the stucco, probably one of the sights we had seen from the taxi, only this was the back and it was partially shrouded in scaffolding and netting. I thought I might head toward it but just then the river returned. It had found me.

I knew that a left would take me to the coliseum and the ancient part of the city, the birthplace of Rome, but it was getting late. The others would be waiting to go for breakfast and the limo was schedule to pick us up at eleven. I looked in its general direction and assured it that I would come back to finish this.

A group of homeless laid on blankets and towels under the overhang of a contemporary building. A young woman was injecting herself as I passed. I wondered if they were all waiting for some sort of clinic to open its doors for the day.

I was back along the water now, and I thought I might cross back over, not wanting to miss the flea market and the turn back toward the Via Phillipo Cassini. The first bridge I came to was chained off to both automobile and pedestrian traffic. I thought this was a little odd, but that perhaps it was unsafe, being as ancient as it was, although all of them seemed to be. The next was open and was the only one out of all that I had passed to employ iron balustrades. I didn’t recognize it, but soon realized that this was the one I had passed beneath when this journey was in its infancy. The café, so far below, with its stacked, white plastic chairs and rough wooden structure was a comforting sight. I would cross at the next opportunity and run along the upper path where I had taken the ramp down on the way out. This would prove to be the only unbroken surface that my feet would encounter this morning. All of the others up until now had been either cobblestone or a mix of deteriorating asphalt and concrete. The short stretch of smooth pavement was a bit of a relief.

I would find the same, serpentine, unutilized tracks where small groups now waited for buses. Back past the colorful flower stand that seemed too small for the arrays that cascaded from its tiers, back across the six-lane thoroughfare, dodging the cars and the trams and the buses. Back where the cafes were beginning to unlock their doors, finally arriving at the base of the street that would put me within a few blocks of my final destination. There I would slow to a walk, but not for long. After two blocks, a tall, marble staircase was laid out in front of me. It was six or seven flights, the width of the entire street and seemed to lead to a wooded area high above. I went after it with great enthusiasm and when I reached the top my thighs burned with gratitude and I found my breathing to be labored for the first time.
I stood at the summit for a minute or two and stared out over the terra cotta tiled roofs whose equal heights and arbitrary angles created an undulating sea of shallow, sienna colored waves. The pair of domes where I had turned to make my return voyage seemed to be so distant as they blended with the mist of the morning. I wondered for a second if it had been nothing more than a dream.

During my final walk up the last block, a slender, dark haired woman passed with her dog. She said something in Italian that I didn’t understand, but her gestures suggested it had something to do with the sweat that soaked my light gray shirt.

I made my way back up around the caged elevator and inserted the oversize key that I’d been carrying in the palm of my hand the entire time into the door. The two women who were my traveling companions each occupied one of the white sofas that were placed at right angles in the living room. They looked up at me, smiled, and asked if I’d had a good run, almost immediately admitting that my appearance spoke for itself.
I showered quickly, dressed, and we walked down the hill together to the nearby pasticceria where we bought postcards and stamps and cappuccinos and lattes and lemon glazed croissants. Rome would soon be behind us.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


I’d hoped to be up earlier but by the time we’d finished work, found the obscure hotel, and gotten dinner it had been nearly eleven. I felt tired when I woke, a feeling that has become common as the sixty hour work weeks consume me. I gave myself the standard no excuses speech and threw on my running clothes. The only appropriate stretching aid in the room was the tiny refrigerator by the door. It would have to do. Out by the trail my car’s rear bumper works well.
I thought that maybe the path along the bay would be nice; I’d walked it a short distance yesterday while I was waiting for the truck to arrive. The length was certainly there but so was the job, and I would see the large, white tents and the furniture as I passed. Maybe along the waterfront back in town, near the hotel, no, that would be inappropriate at only a few blocks and I’d have to continue on one of the narrow, cluttered streets, and anyway, San Francisco’s Embarcadero held far more appeal, at least in memory.

The mansions, it would have to be the mansions. We’d driven Bellevue Avenue in our search for the hotel, driven it in the wrong direction and then doubled back after a stranger in on the sidewalk responded to our inquiry. I’d been on this road once before, in the evening as well, but I’d never really seen the mansions.
It was an uphill climb to the start, both spiritually and topographically. I started off at a jog but soon realized that walking the six or seven steep blocks would be a better choice, and a chance to warm up. The streets were tiny and some were laid with cobblestones, the clapboard and shingle houses separated by little more than the breeze that blew off the bay.
After leveling off, the route began with the boutiques and shopping malls that lined the blocks preceding the wealth and privilege of the past. I was surprised at the condition of the sidewalk; coarse, uneven, weathered gravel. After a few minutes I decided that I would never make it on a surface that torqued my ankles constantly and so dropped off the curb to the street. There seemed to be ample room, and although not officially designated, the expansion joint a couple of feet from the edge seem to serve as a border to a bike lane. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
I began to travel backwards in time. As I moved along the wide, straight, concrete avenue, the mansions grew larger and more palatial, staggering in their sheer size. Limestone columns that rivaled the Parthenon, curved, marble staircases and balustrades, wings that led to other wings, homes built to a scale that almost defies reality. Huge windows with the curtains tied back, straddling a ballroom or lavish dining room allowed the low sun to pour through from the ocean side.
Ancient oaks spilled over black, iron gates with gilded accents while transparent figures in proper Victorian attire strolled casually over immaculately maintained lawns. I could see them; I could see the white, lace gowns and the black suits and the pipes, the upper echelon of past generations chatting idly about their place in society.

Each property had a name either on the gate or on one of the many elaborate limestone walls that protected the massive structures from the less fortunate population, and most also had a plaque that designated it a member of the Newport Preservation Society. Only a few said “private” at the entrance. One was now a museum of illustration and daily guided tours were offered by at least two or three. I wouldn’t have the time to participate in one of those this time around, thinking that maybe I would come back when work was not a factor.

The road made a sharp right at the end of the run of mansions and then another half a mile or so farther on. This led to a left turn onto Ocean Drive, the newly paved, asphalt road that followed the coastline back into town, the long way around. The moon was in front of me, full, and a little higher in the sky then the sun that was now at my back. It appeared as transparent as the figures on the lawns but with features just as discernable.
I thought I’d left the majesty of Bellevue, and I suppose I had since the houses now were a bit more contemporary but equally as grand. The first, at the top of the hill to my right was a sprawling white stucco affair with no less than eight chimneys. This was obviously a year round residence, unlike the gaudier, more ostentatious manors that I remembered somewhere along the way were only summer homes, occupied maybe two months out of the year, then the furniture was draped and the doors locked. They had no chimneys, at least none that were plainly visible.
The urge to keep moving forward nearly took over but I knew I was getting to a point where I would have to turn around in order to get back in time for the workday to begin. Just a little farther, to the top, close to the level of the lower windows where I could get a sense of what the allure of living by the ocean might be. My father had a condo on the coast of California for quite a few years and I visited from time to time, but it was difficult to conceive of being there daily, the view only of water and sky.
As I made the turn I understood. The seemingly endless ocean spread out in front of me, there was a small cove with a gray, sandy beach, and seagulls gathered and squawked above the shallow water. Rocky cliffs, cattails and tall grass decorated the landscape. The scene was stunning, dwarfing the man made structures that could only admire the vastness and the mystery of nature from their tiny perches. I could easily imagine looking out over this every day as the light and the colors shift constantly, painting a new image with each passing season, each passing day, each passing hour.

As I made my way back past the grandeur of competitive opulence, one other unusual aspect of this particular run struck me; almost everyone that I had passed, whether jogging or biking or just walking, waved and said “good morning”, all but two I think. This was a first. There were smiles and plenty of eye contact, even from across the street. I was astounded and began to wonder what the cost of living might be and what I could do for work if I chose to dwell here for a time.

As always I deviated, needing to go just a little farther, down the hill and along the docks, with the clutter of too many sailboats in too little bay. I would approach the hotel from the other side, slow to a walk at the base of the street that leads to the front door, and spend ten minutes cooling down.
I got back to my room just in time to take a quick shower and meet the crew downstairs for breakfast, managing for the last hour and a half to have forgotten about the task at hand and experience a unique beauty that the others would never know.