Distance Running

The New York City Marathon is off, which is both good and what most New Yorkers wanted. But the divisions and distances this controversy revealed aren't going away.
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All sorts of people can call themselves New Yorkers. My friends Dan and Nora are New Yorkers. Donald Trump is a New Yorker, although he is also a scorched ham that has learned how to shout. Other New Yorkers include Derek Jeter and Srinivas, who runs my bodega of choice, and several million other people. Despite having grown up in New Jersey and still claiming it often enough to be irritating, I am a New Yorker. I've lived here for 11 years; my wife, who is both a Mainer and New Yorker, has been here even longer. This is no great achievement, really, because being a New Yorker doesn't have any concrete meaning.

Claiming to be a New Yorker is like bragging on being an organism, basically: you might be a microbe doing something microbial inside the gut of a poodle living in Thailand, or you might be an architect in Oregon, or you might be a hummingbird, or you might be Stromile Swift. Whatever type of organism/New Yorker you are, chances are good that you're generally surrounded by similar organisms having similar experiences. Besides their rough geographic proximity, New Yorkers don't necessarily have anything in common with each other—my life as a New Yorker is different than that of Srinivas or Derek Jeter; it is, blessedly, different from the howling, steak-scented suckhole of self-satirizing vanity that is Donald Trump's.

The New York that I live in was freaked out and moderately inconvenienced by the hurricane that worked us over earlier this week, but that's about it. The New York that friends and family and former co-workers live in has it incalculably worse, and probably will for some time. I can go on living in New York City without ever having to—literally or metaphorically—so much as visit theirs, or think about it. We can of course choose to feel and do otherwise, and I'd argue that the more we recognize ourselves in others the better we're likelier to be, but a city like New York gives you a choice, because there is so much of it. It doesn't quite make us into microbes, but it can make us smaller—little do'ers and movers, at work in our small corner of the greater churning, doing what we do.

***

The central conceit of the New York City Marathon, or at least of the most current iteration of the New York City Marathon, is that the race winds through all five of the city's boroughs. And it does, although the race is barely in Staten Island at all, and not in the Bronx for very long, either. With the exception of the many millions of New Yorkers who live in those boroughs, many New Yorkers don't spend a lot of time in either of those places, either. But the central conceit of New York City isn't that different from that of the marathon—it's everything, it's everyone, every experience and individual all together enough to share the same name if also obviously and inevitably not really all that together at all. You have to want to be a New Yorker to call yourself one, that's the one real qualification, just as to believe in the idea of a city or state or community you have to want to believe that different people in their unimaginable and different-than-yours lives can want the same things, and that it is good that they'd want it.

There were some people who wanted the New York City Marathon to go forward on Sunday, but most of those people are corporations—the marathon is extravagantly well sponsored, from its full name of ING New York City Marathon on down to a webpage awash in brands and ®'s and ©'s. The New York Road Runners, the blue-blooded nonprofit behind the marathon, and which does an excellent imitation of a corporation, was another. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sort of is a corporation himself and is also richer than most corporations, really wanted the race to go forward as a symbol that New York City was itself moving forward and going on. And so—with Staten Island flooded and the Rockaways smoldering and the vertical miles of lower Manhattan gone ghostly and powerless—the city began preparing to run the race on Sunday, and the Mayor progressively more impatiently batted down the argument that it ought not be run. Until a few minutes ago, when CNBC announced that the marathon had been postponed, those preparations had continued.

It was, transparently and for a number of reasons, a worse-than-bad choice to hold the race against this backdrop.  Whatever the notional and non-notional benefits to holding the race as scheduled—the happy sponsors and the projected image of indomitable resilience; the motels and hotels full of out-of-town runners and ambient boost to the local economy; the television coverage and the attendant glow cast on the "luxury brand" (Bloomberg's words) of the city itself—it was also offensively thoughtless. It's not quite as simple as taking the massive generators earmarked to power the marathon's press tent in Central Park and using them to turn the lights on in some Lower East Side building full of scared old people, or taking the NYRR-sponsored pre-marathon spaghetti dinner and redirecting the pasta to the refugee-residents of Staten Island who haven't eaten in days. Disasters and disaster relief are not that easy.

But whether or not a partially ruined city could spare the sanitation workers and police officers necessary to hold a 40,000-person road race—and Bloomberg insisted that it could—quickly and quite rightly became secondary to whether the city should spare those resources. Bloomberg argued that it should, but it was a difficult argument to make—a contest between the amorphous brand truths of The New New York City© and the harder and more horrific truth of the city at this moment: not on-message or hard at work or partying a certain on-brand way, not anything but hurting, scared and dazed in the face of these devastating new contrasts, and suddenly awake to a bunch of old contrasts as well. The present division of New York City into a wealthy and busy place that's functioning the way it ordinarily does and another city that's powerless in ways literal and non- is jarring precisely because it reminds us of the contrasts that have, for some time now, been eroding the anxious status quo that Bloomberg made, and made with that first, too-busy city's assent.

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All this, again, comes back to the question of New Yorkers and New York City. Because the New York City in which Michael Bloomberg lives, which is actually fairly near where I'm typing all this, can afford the marathon, and might enjoy watching it this weekend. In that New York City, the lights never went out, the streets were cleared expeditiously and completely, the restaurants are open and the subways are running again, if only up to the point in Manhattan below which there is no electricity for trains or refrigerators or stoves or water pumps or furnaces to run on.

But the city itself—part of it in rude health and already about its business, part of it in the dark—is not ready for it, and that's because there is, actually, such a thing as a collective New York City. It is, in its way, actually a luxury brand; no one who has ever tried to live here would argue with the "luxury" part, at the very least. But New York City is also the sum of all those New Yorkers, a place with problems to solve and people that have eyes to see those problems. The freely chosen struggle and thousands of individuated triumphs of the marathon would look ghoulishly selfish and perversely obtuse set against the backdrop of all the city's other greater and manifestly unchosen struggles. And that's before we take into account the branded decadence of the contemporary marathon, all the bottles of Poland Spring 100% Natural Spring Water What It Means To Be From Maine© that were to be handed out to thirsty runners while millions of New Yorkers were unable to get a drop from their taps. Where the return of baseball to New York after September 11 was in many ways an affirmation of a tentative recovery, the prospect of a marathon winding through a city that has not yet stopped suffering, let alone started its recovery in earnest, is grotesque.

It's a coincidence that the marathon route skirts the parts of the city most punished by the hurricane, but it's a coincidence that looks especially ugly in this context—all those runners starting with their backs to Staten Island, underwater and in ruins, and then running away, running and running away until they have finished, at which point they will have experienced and conquered extreme discomfort that they chose themselves, and learned some valuable lessons along the way, all before the arrival of another dark night in the parts of the city that can't turn on a light.

Bloomberg, in his statement announcing the postponement, said that, "While holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it is clear that it has become the source of controversy and division." Which is accurate enough, but mostly and crucially wrong, in that the controversy always resulted from the way in which holding the marathon both reflected and callously ignored some increasingly un-ignorable divisions. Bloomberg—who barely even bothers concealing his peevish puzzlement at and disdain for those New Yorkers whose city is so far from his—would miss that point. 


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Comments

Stromile Swift is not an organism.

Granted, Stromile Swift is, in order 1) An Idea, 2) A State of Mind and 3) A Person. But he is technically an organism, right? Like, he's more of an organism than he is a sailboat, right?