Los Angeles, 2010
He is almost beautiful – running with the San Gabriels over one shoulder, the rise of the Hollywood Freeway as it arcs above the Pasadena Freeway over the other. He is shirtless, the hint of swimmer’s muscle rippling below his tanned skin, his arms pumping in a one-two rhythm in sync with the beat of his feet. There is a chance you envy him.
Seven a.m. and traffic is already jammed through downtown, ground to a standstill as cars attempt to cross five lanes, moving in increments so small their progress is nearly invisible. They merge in jerks and starts from the Pasadena Freeway onto the Hollywood or the Santa Ana. But he is flowing freely, reverse commuting through the stalled vehicles.
The drivers watch from behind their steering wheels, distracted from toggling between radio stations, fixing their makeup in the rearview, talking to friends back east for whom the day is fully formed. They left home early, hoping to avoid the bumper to bumper, the inevitable slowdown of their mornings. They’ve mastered their mathematical calculations – the distance x rate x time of the trip to work. Yet they are stuck. In this city of drivers, he is a rebuke.
He runs unburdened by the hundreds of sacrifices these commuters have made to arrive at this traffic jam on time – the breakfast missed, the children unseen, the husband abandoned in bed, the night cut short on account of the early morning, the weak gas station coffee, the unpleasant carpool, the sleep lost, the hasty shower, last night’s clothes, last night’s makeup.
He ignores the commuters sealed off in their climate-controlled cars, trapped in the first news cycle and the wheel of Top 40. He holds a straight line through the morning’s small desperations, the problems waiting to unfold, the desire to be elsewhere, to be anywhere but here today and tomorrow and all the mornings that run together into one citywide tangle of freeways and on-ramp closures and Sig Alerts, a whole day narrowed to the stop and go.
His expression is mid-marathon serene, focused on the goal and not yet overwhelmed by the distance. He shows no strain. But the woman in the battered soft-top convertible will say he looked drugged. The man in a souped-up hatchback claims he was crazy-high, totally loco, you know what I mean. A couple of teenage girls driving an SUV way beyond their pay grade insist that, although they barely noticed him, he looked like a superhero, but not one of the cool ones.
The day is an indeterminate, weatherless gray. The sun is just another thing delayed this morning. Beneath the 10, the air over the bungalows of West Adams and Pico-Union is a dull, apocalyptic color. The color of bad things or their aftermath.
The other city – the remembered and imagined one – stretches west, past the sprawling ethnic neighborhoods where Koreans overlap with Salvadorans and Armenians back into Thais. It begins on the big-name crosstown boulevards lined with deco theaters, faded tropical motels, and restaurants with sentinel valets, and ends where the streets run into the ocean. But in this trench where the 110 sinks through downtown, that place is barely a memory. Here there is only the jam of the cars and the blank faces of the glass towers.
The runner is on pace for an eight-minute mile or so it seems to the man behind the wheel of his SUV who woke up late and didn’t have time for his own jog. He missed his pre-dawn tour of Beverlywood, the empty silence of the residential neighborhood when he visits other people’s cul-de-sacs, peering into the living rooms of dark houses as his pedometer records his footsteps, marking calories and distance until the morning’s ritual is complete. He wonders what went unseen – coyotes slinking home before sunup, a car haphazardly left in a driveway after one too many, a man sleeping in the blue glare of his TV, a teenager sneaking through her back gate, liquor bottles shoved into bags and left at someone else’s curb. During these stolen hours before his wife and kids need him, he believes he glimpses his neighborhood’s secret soul, seeing beyond the façades of the bungalows and the manicured squares of unremarkable lawns into hidden discontents.
There is never anyone to encourage him on his early morning runs, no one to witness his labored breathing in the sixth mile, his heroic triumph over his ebbing willpower. Watching the runner navigate the stationary cars, this driver is aware of the jellied muscles of his own legs after a weekend’s drinking.
He wants to reach back for the hour he cheated from himself, when he lay in bed and instead of lacing up his shoes, rolled over, checking the clock to see how long before others needed him. Without his run, today will belong to the commuters in their cars, to the team waiting for him at work, and now to this shirtless jogger cutting through traffic on the 110.
He rolls down his window and wedges his torso out to watch the runner pass. The man’s mechanics aren’t bad – his chest upright, shoulders relaxed, hands not balled into fists. He cups a hand over his mouth, shouting at the man to keep going. Then he sees that the runner is naked. He pulls back inside, raises the window, and busies himself with his cell phone, moving on to the next thing in his day.