When the weather is above 40 degrees, I run 4.1 miles down the west meridian of Ocean Parkway, starting at around 4am. The run takes me from my home in Kensington to the boardwalk that connects Brighton Beach to Coney Island and this stretch of Earth to the Atlantic Ocean. Mild weeks in spring are conducive to me making the journey on all seven days of the week; less hospitable winter temperatures incline me to stay indoors. But I would venture that I make the run an average of four times per week. Though when I started running, I thought I would delay boredom by varying my running route, I varied the course and distance some only to return to that same stretch of Ocean Parkway just a hair above four miles and at that same four o’clock hour. I am inclined to bully meaning into spaces and objects that are void of significance and so I have labored over what the repetition of four means in this ritual. I always come up short.
There is a difference between people who run and people who identify as runners. I was neither for the overwhelming majority of my life. I dreaded the annual mile-run required in elementary school and always shuddered at the oxymoron of any event called a “Fun Run.” Even at a time when I was exercising for two hours a day, seven days a week, I never once considered adding running to my regimen. But on a day when I found the open hours of my gym to be prohibitively narrow to suit my exercise impulse, I threw on a pair of pink and periwinkle Nikes and hit the road before dawn. I would later learn that these were among the least optimal athletic shoes for both my running style and the distances I planned to run. That first time, I lost my breath in under a mile but instead of feeling defeated, I looked up at the street signs of Ocean Parkway and realized I’d traveled through three distinct neighborhoods on this maiden voyage. A mile covered a great bit of the world in southern Brooklyn.
As I developed my endurance, I was able to get from my home in Kensington to the boardwalk at Brighton Beach, stopping mostly for traffic lights. Because I run so early in the morning, I am infrequently halted for too long by traffic or passers-by and can slip seamlessly into a euphoric runner’s high. People often speak of runner’s high with skepticism. I understand this; it is entirely counter-intuitive that soothing sensations would arise from intense exertion involving joints and cartilage crunching into pavement. But once I felt the rush of β-Endorphin course through me, I was a true believer. And so it is in this meditative state and with a carefully curated playlist, that the interruptions I do experience are acutely felt on the largely abandoned boulevard running through sleeping southern Brooklyn.
Once a man approached me at a stop light at Quentin Road. He was dressed in a white button-down shirt, black pants, and a black hat in the yeshiva-style, the brim less wide than its counterparts worn more often among the Hasidim in nearby Boro Park. His small stature and stumbling gait made me think that he was a drunk teenager but as he drew closer, it was clear that he was well into adulthood and his movements were a result of ataxia rather than intoxication. He smiled and averted his gaze from me, then sheepishly looked up and said, “You’re really beautiful,” through strained speech before returning his focus to the pavement. It was the first time I’d been called beautiful by a stranger on the street and felt it as a compliment rather than a threat. “Thank you, that is a very kind thing to say,” I replied, to which he blushed and let out a guttural laugh. Our interaction was brief; I tried to couch my concern for why he was wandering the streets at 4:30am in casual conversation. “So are you up very early or very late?” I asked with a smile. He appeared upset by the question and darted off across Ocean Parkway, guided by the glow of plenty of street lamps but, nevertheless, into the darkness.
Another encounter began on the stretch between Avenue J and Avenue L that runs alongside Cemetery #1 that makes up twenty percent of the Washington Cemetery in Mapleton. I passed a teenage boy who was walking in the opposite direction of me when I caught his confused gaze briefly before running ahead. These encounters are not uncommon; boys and men have free reign over the night, while women are expected to schedule their outdoor activities between sunrise and sunset. Those of us who violate these terms are thought suspicious. I sped up to put more distance between us, nearly arriving at Avenue L when I suddenly felt the distinct sense that someone was heading toward me from behind. Before I had a chance to look behind me, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I screamed at full volume and backed away. The young man whom I had passed moments before let out a terrified shriek of his own as he raised his arms to indicate no ill intentions. “What the fuck are you doing?” I demanded. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I just wanted to know where Foster Avenue is. I thought it was this way but I keep walking and it’s not there,” he said, gesturing away from the direction of the beach and toward Prospect Park. “Foster Avenue is right up there, just past Avenues I and H,” I pointed in the direction of the avenue as if it was close by and not three quarters of a mile away. I felt some remorse for screaming in his face but some sense of satisfaction that next time he might think twice about tapping a woman’s shoulder in the dark.
One morning when I was approaching home after the trek to and from Brighton Beach, I found a woman asleep on the benches lining Ocean Parkway with her cell phone exposed in her lap, glowing with recent messages. Her mouth was agape in what seemed to be sleep or unconscious drunkenness and I felt some sense of duty to another woman on the male-dominated thoroughfare to protect her from potential thieves. I shouted “Excuse me,” followed by “Um, ma’am! Your phone!” She was not roused. I suddenly feared that she was dead and if I did nothing, I would become the faceless specter of heartlessness that would flash across the news when word broke about a dead woman lying on a bench in Ocean Parkway for untold hours before being collected. I approached her slowly, trying to maneuver into a position that would help me avoid being swung at were she startled from sleep and confused me for the very thief I was attempting to warn her against. I tapped her shoulder and said, “Excuse me,” again, rousing her quickly in a fit of bewilderment at her surroundings. “I’m sorry to wake you, your phone was just sitting out there and I didn’t want someone to take it,” I explained. She put the phone in her pocket and sunk her face into her hands, a gesture of defeat indicating that more than falling asleep on a bench had transpired the previous night. “Thank you, sweetheart. God bless you,” she said, mustering a grin as I set out on the last block home.
My 4.1 mile stretch of Ocean Parkway is now sprinkled with memories of encounters like these, two strangers passing in the dark, one perhaps more terrified than the other but both confused as to the motives of the other for wandering at these hours. I have been scolded often for my habit of running in the dark, warned that it is unsafe and that only unsavory characters are out at these hours. I have learned time and again that people on Ocean Parkway at this hour are, more often than not, trying to find their way home, or at the very least, a place to rest. And though running elevates my heart rate and sharpens my focus, it brings me closer to the solace of sleep than any of my other waking activities. Our brief interactions in the shadows punctuate lives otherwise lived in the light; that we happen upon each other in the darkness indicates nothing more than the fact that, sometimes, the route to places that bring us warmth is often cloaked in the cold of the night.
I began this running ritual three and half years ago, meaning that I have run about 2800 miles on the same 4.1 mile stretch in southern Brooklyn. I sometimes think that if I had headed south and turned west when I began, I would be on track to arrive in California within a few days. If I had kept running off the boardwalk and into the Atlantic and acquired messianic powers to walk on water, I would be a week or so out from Scotland. But I choose to run the same stretch of Ocean Parkway morning after morning. I have clung to these 4.1 miles of the world, I have memorized their features, and I have made them into something like home. Because if this is home, then these souls I meet in the night are not merely strangers but my neighbors. We share a particular stretch of earth, a fact that requires me to bully no meaning into it.