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Early Winter 2003

ON THE MARATHON

By Henry William Brownejohns

Every year, on the first Sunday in November, thirty-five thousand masochists run voluntarily from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Central Park – and not even the short way.  Instead, they do it to be sure it takes them 26.2 miles, in a mistaken tribute to the distance run by that messenger bringing news of the Battle of Marathon home to Athens.  That, firstly, Marathon is only twenty-three miles from Athens, and, secondly, that the messenger who so famously ran that first course died when he arrived at the capital, are both nit-picker’s details that none of the latter-day New York City harriers are interested in knowing.  These folks just want to run; and if they survive this one, bet that more than a few of them will come to Philadelphia to do it again in a few weeks.

     Despite its superficial senselessness, the New York City marathon has become one of the city’s most communal events, a day when a full quarter of the city’s population, by some counts, will come out and spend a Sunday morning lining the course route to see, razz, and pity the wheezing corpses in their labors.  Runners, bent double on the happy side of the finish line, all pant the same tribute to the city, that it is the motivation, applause, and support of the people of New York City that make such a feat possible, and even make it, in the skewed, sickened perspective of the modern long-distance runner, enjoyable.

     And as surely, every one of these accomplished runners, whether they took two hours or seven, will, when pressed, name those neighborhoods of the city that show the most support, and are the greatest pleasure to run through, and those which are the most difficult.  And lo, if the unanimous choice for New York’s worst marathoning neighborhood, among a sample of several exhausted and exhilarated Philippides’, isn’t Williamsburg.

     The reader knows about Williamsburg – we needn’t be coy.  Much has been written and whispered about this modern age American Bohemia, most famous node and core of today’s ambitious and fashionable not-so-young youth.  It has often seemed that an entire aesthetic generation has settled in this single territory, and to talk of Williamsburg has become a conversational short-hand for talk of the entire triuncial demographic of Generations X, Y, and Z.

     And to keep this well-heeled population happy, Williamsburg has grown a truly preposterous crop of coffee-shops, clothing boutiques, candle-lit bars, and shops where a fellow can by his grandparent’s leather suitcase for ten times what he sold it for, after it was left him in their estate, and a lava lamp to accessorize.  Again, in the short-hand, this region is called Bedford Avenue, one of the most affluent commercial strips in the entire borough of Brooklyn.  It is along this tony lane that the marathoners shuffle in the agony of their twelfth mile.

     And after being cheered through Bay Ridge, enheartened by the throngs of Sunset Park, and serenaded by string quartets through Fort Greene, the marathoners all lament the stony silence they meet there in Williamsburg.  The sidewalks are populated only by a few disheveled romantics having an early brunch at the outdoor cafes, and not one of these reportedly even acknowledged the runners over their soy-based egg replacement, tofu-bacon, and latte.  One marathoner reported that it was if there were a cultural boycott on.

     But we all know that this is only glancing the truth.  In fact, it is only appropriate to point out that hipsters are among the most intolerant people in society, precisely because they put such an effort into being ‘socially enlightened.’  The bohemian mentality becomes so obsessed with openness and experimentation that the personality attached to it becomes downright belligerent towards everyone who is not as enlightened as they would be.  The occasional academic might call this the ‘Middle America Syndrome,’ after the generalized disdain in which so-called Middle America is held be the self-styled elites of the coasts.  And nothing has become so Middle-American as the urge to shed one’s bourgeois malaise with the sweat extracted by a near-fatal run.  Jogging, and marathoning in its extreme, is something of a mass-social midlife crisis, an empowering flirtation with suicide by a society that has lost all sense of its own power.

So when Middle-America runs right through the heart of the American Left Bank, the denizens stay in bed, their disinterest a placard.  Of course, it is also true that the residents of the Burg are ordinarily late sleepers, a lazy bunch content to eat breakfast after the sun has already begun to descend, because this is also an affront to the norms of the society which is so fashionably snubbed.  And the marathoners grow weary in the silence of their collective foot-steps, until they turn off of Bedford Avenue and into the roar of a new neighborhood’s fascination and good-natured epithets.  And a few hours later, when even the most asthmatic stragglers have long made it into Queens, and the empty water bottles line the kerbs of Bedford Avenue awaiting the brooms of the Sanitation Department, the bleary-eyed Williamsburgers emerge from their lofts and dens, look at the mess and the abandoned barricades, and nonchalantly ask if the marathon had been today.  Ohhh.  Oh well.

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