Gus of Waveny
We moved out to the suburbs, reluctantly, when the oldest of our children became of school age. Running had become a habit of mine by then, a replacement for the unhealthy ones that had been in place for so long. It was a chance to reflect and unwind, releasing the stresses of the day and connect with both myself and the small slice of the natural world that Central Park represented.
My work schedule dictated that I was aboard the 6:20 am train to New York each morning. This gave me just enough time to get my Mise en place for the busy day to come, trading equities for a large global bank. A typical day was total chaos with variables coming at me with lightning speed from all angles, the way a hockey team warms up it's Goaltender by firing shots at him at random. Running was a way to disconnect from that environment and transition to the pleasantly hectic environs of a twelve-hundred square foot apartment dominated by two toddlers in need of dinner, baths, books and bedtime stories.
Soon after we arrived in the farther reaches of Fairfield county, it became apparent that my daily runs would have to shift to the morning time slot as my late return from the city would make me miss the small window of time I had with them before they went to bed. I also realized that I did not know my way around my new home town. The only landmarks I had were home, the train station and the liquor store.
In typical Me fashion, I decided to solve several of these problems at once, the hard way. I signed up for the New York Marathon. I figured this would force me to get up at 4:30 AM to train. I would get my daily run in. I would learn the neighborhood roads, and I would have a chance to clear my head before work.
The first couple of mornings were a tough slog- getting out of bed at that hour was not easy, but after a couple of weeks I found my groove, cheerfully grabbing my flashlight and reflective vest before walking out into the warm summer pre-dawn light. I didn't think about my route much, just a quick lap around the immediate neighborhood- three or four miles at first. This was the beginning of a 20 week program.
As summer turned to fall, the Sun rose later, and the darkness that enveloped me as I ran through unfamiliar territory was unnerving at first-only the moon, stars and the occasional porch light pierced the black velvet of the night; the sounds emanating from the woods foreign to my city-conditioned ears. The white noise of traffic and crowds of Metropolis was replaced by an eerie silence at the perimeter of my flashlight's halo, occasionally shattered by the call of an unseen bird or animal looking for companionship or food. Occasionally, in the middle distance, several pairs of yellow eyes would reflect in the beam, acknowledge my presence and slink back into the growing shadows of the rising sun. These effects quickened and my pace, whether I admitted it or not. My subconscious noticed the dark lairs of unseen beings down ravines on the sides of the country lanes I trod. This became a kind of self-manufactured adrenaline rush that I loathed and loved simultaneously.
As my training schedule wore on, my daily routes expanded in concentric circles around the neighborhood. One morning on a new route, I noticed the first person I had come across since beginning training. I could just make out his form in the distance of a long straightaway, his shoulders slightly hunched, trudging along. As I approached he came slowly into focus. He was in his late Thirties, maybe early Forties. A salt and pepper mop of long-ish, sweaty hair held in place by a terry-cloth headband, Bjorn Borg style. Cream colored sweats with red, white and blue stripes were tucked into tube socks, ending in vintage Adidas Country trainers. His t-shirt was of similar vintage- a baseball-sleeved Rolling Stones shirt from the Tattoo You 1981 tour.
"Well whattya know?" I thought to myself. "A country hipster. And good taste in music, too".
I gave the customary loud cough/spit to make him aware of my presence without startling him. "Morning! Way to get after it!" I said as I passed.
The next few mornings I saw him again. Always a different cool vintage (cotton) t-shirt: Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead (these were paper-thin; clearly not bought off the rack at Scoop). About the tenth time I came across him I decided I should introduce myself. He's clearly my neighbor and we have at least two things in common: we run at 4 am and have similar taste in music.
He was just ahead of me on the path through Waveny Park that runs parallel to South Avenue, plodding along at a steady but considerable pace for a guy his age. Allman Bros baseball T (Eat a Peach) this morning. Music seeping from his old school Walkman headphones- The Beatles "I've Got a Feeling" audible as I gradually approached:
I've got a feeling, a feeling deep inside
Oh yeah, oh yeah.
I've got a feeling, a feeling I can't hide
Oh no, oh no, oh no.
Yeah, I've got a feeling.
Oh please believe me, I'd hate to miss the train
Oh yeah, oh yeah.
And if you leave me I won't be late again
Oh no, oh no, oh no.
Yeah, I've got a feeling, yeah.
The sun crested the horizon over the playing fields at Saxe as I came even with him, illuminating the side of his weathered, pale face. He favored one leg a bit which made his stride distinctive. An old injury he'd been dealing with for years probably.
"Morning!" I offered, hesitantly. "Way to get after in early!"
"Oh, hey there. Yeah I been running this route at this hour for years. Peaceful out here in the morning." He replied casually without breaking stride. "Seen you out here- I'm Gus."
"Great to meet you, Gus- Just wanted to say hi. Don't want to interrupt your morning bliss."
"Oh that's hard to do. It's a little lonely at times. Happy to show you around the park a bit if you like. Trails around the perimeter are great but there's lots more to it if you take the smaller paths through the interior."
I took him up on his offer that morning, and in the following weeks he showed me every square inch of those woods by light of our flashlights. We talked about everything and nothing, long silences between snippets of conversation as we enjoyed the single track terrain and appreciated the park.
Halloween came around and Trick or Treating was to ensue. This town tool this night Seriously. This was the Event of the Season for parents and kids alike. The girls wriggled into their costumes and my wife and I bundled up against the brisk wind coming down the street. Children raced from house to house, their parents happily trailing after them up the walkways leading to front porches and sometimes into our neighbor's foyers, Open Door Policies very much in effect for the ritual so adored in this small community. Huge pots of chili, beer and wine on offer as we were welcomed into people's cozy homes.
As we came to the next house, our children gleefully banged on the door and bounced from foot to foot, waiting for the door to open. Warm light spilled onto the front stoop as the lady of the house opened the door.
"Trick or treat!" The girls squealed in unison, holding their pillowcases open.
"Happy Halloween! And who do we have here?" She said, takig great pains to show her admiration for their costumes. A large salad bowl filled with candy rested on the table in the entryway. Next to it, a large silver frame with a picture of a man in his mid- thirties crossing the finish line at the New York Marathon. A huge smile on his face. I looked closely.
"Hey, that's Gus! You must be his wife! I'm Chris!" I exclaimed, excited to finally meet her.
"Oh, you knew Gus? How? Did you work together in the city?" She said, startled.
"No- we run together in the mornings. He hasn't mentioned me I guess…" I trailed off, a little embarrassed.
"You ran together?"
"We run together. He's been helping me train for the marathon…"
Her face went pale. Her hands shook as she held the bowl out for the children grabbing fistfuls of candy.
"Gus had a heart attack and died in the woods at Waveny fifteen years ago. He was found by someone walking their dog at eight in the morning…" She said, sitting down and putting her had in her hands.
I still see Gus every once in a while, happily haunting the park. If you keep an eye out, you might, too. Ask him to show you around. There's no better guide!