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For a Quarter

For a Quarter

A quarter bought me a slice of pizza and a sugary drink when I grew up in Astoria, a scrappy working-class section of New York City. I don’t remember eating an apple but maybe I did. My closest connection to fruit was cherry Kool-Aid and watermelon flavored Life Savers. If it wasn’t cream soda, greasy pizza, White Castle hamburgers, hot dogs slathered with onions, cheese doodles, cookies, candy, Twinkies, Ring Dings, donuts, and a long line of other cavity causing sweets, what was the point? I rarely missed the Mister Softee truck when it cruised down our block or bypassed a Carvel ice cream cone with sprinkles. I guzzled chocolate egg creams and chomped on pretzels I bought at Tony’s Candy Store on 28th Avenue. I still don’t understand why it was called an egg cream when there wasn’t a stich of egg inside, just gooey stuff. Only the lack of the modern technology kept us slender. We spent hours outside at play, despite frigid winters and steamy summers.

How old am I you may ask and do I still have my own teeth? In my mid-sixties and yes my original choppers are intact albeit with lots of fillings and a few crowns. One tooth was cracked in a pedestrian car accident. Home was a four-room apartment in a pre-war brick building complete with bugs and a crooked ceiling. If the radiator rattled and hissed in the winter, then the cheapskate landlord paid for a coal delivery. The buildings were too decrepit to accommodate air-conditioners. For relief from the insufferable summer heat, we opened the windows and hoped for a breeze. Fans only pushed around hot air. .

Since families, large and small, were crammed into tiny apartments, action took place outside. We children took over the courtyards separating the pre-war buildings wrapping around from 41st Street along 28th Avenue to 42nd Street. That’s where we played during the summer time and on weekends. Games consisted of whiffle ball, tag, hide and seek, red light/green light, monster, touch football and climbing over the walls. I scaled a four-foot brick wall by running up to it, grabbing the top and in one leap, I was over. OK, once in a while, I missed and skinned my knees but I almost always made it over the top. Sometimes during a game of whiffle ball, one of us took a swing, belted the ball and it’d slam into a neighbor’s window, smashing it to bits. Wow, that cost our parents a nice chunk of change for a replacement. Whoever took that swing got a scolding. Broken windows never stopped another game, however. We tried to be more careful but now and then another window crumbled to bits. No doubt so many boisterous children running through the courtyards must’ve annoyed some neighbors. We needed an outlet for our boundless energy. None of us went to summer camp. Our parents couldn’t afford the cost. Besides, as city kids, we were afraid of the woods. One summer program, CYO, Catholic Youth Organization, was geared towards sports. What about kids who weren’t athletic or Catholic? Not much was available for them. The term, at-risk, hadn’t yet been coined. We weren’t bad kids, just bored and restless. Nearly everyone had two parents except in a few cases. That’s because a parent died, not divorced. Single-parenthood was taboo. If a girl got pregnant, oh boy. School attendance ground to a halt. She was secretly sent away to a convent or to a place for wayward girls. Babies were almost always given up for adoption. Now and then, I’d overhear my mother talking to my father about a girl who “got into trouble.” After a while, I figured out what happened.

One elderly couple, the Huckermeyer’s, didn’t have children of their own. Alice, the wife, always doled out candy to us children and we, for reasons I don’t remember, always called her Chickee Lady. She took the nickname with pride.

Fun and frolicking was disrupted when the drainage pipes inside our buildings clogged, spilling raw sewage into the courtyards. While the repairmen pumped out the stinky mess and mopped up the human waste, we kids had nowhere to play. Instead of pouting, we hopped on our bikes to ride around the neighborhood. Crime was rare so no one owned locks. Not a single bike was ever ripped off. Now and then, we shrugged off our parents and wandered away from the neighborhood to watch rats swim in the murky waters of the East River or in garbage filled vacant lots. We were easy to please.

Women were housewives. Tidying up itty-bitty apartments only took up so much time so to prevent boredom the ladies became addicted to soap operas and game shows. After lunch they snacked on coffee and cake and blabbered about the latest melodrama or game show hunk on the tube. Life seemed simple.

Owning a washing machine was a sign of upward mobility. Cramped kitchens, however, wouldn’t allow a dryer. Clotheslines were strung between the buildings to hang out the clothes. Mother Nature took care of the rest. Unless neighbors had an attitude, sharing the lines was common. Not everyone had phones so women gabbed while hanging out wash. Everyone knew intimate details about each other’s lives because of the laundry. From listening in on my mother’s conversation, I found out the tenant in apartment six played the numbers. I wondered what that meant.

Winter time posed problems for the laundry ladies. Clothes froze on the line. I remember blue jeans turning into rock-like material and standing straight up. Heat from the radiator collapsed them into resembling real pants once again.

No mother dared hang out wash when the sewers backed up. Clothes might pick up the rancid smell of fecal matter. If someone’s hand slipped when bringing in the clothes, a clean white shirt could sail into crappy water. Clogged pipes were a problem for more than just us kids.

A family of slobs once lived on the second floor above us. Mrs. Marino hung out the wash in the spring and by the time they moved out, a year later, the wash, including Mr. Marino’s boxer shorts and white socks, lay in tatters on the line. The family also left behind a house full of cockroaches that had reproduced exponentially and spread out to visit the neighbors.

Men worked in factories that crisscrossed the city. Blue collar jobs were plentiful. My father worked in a printing plant. Only Frank Sr., my friend’s father, didn’t work. A disabled WW II vet, Frank was mostly deaf. As long as the weather cooperated, he sat on a lawn chair in front of his apartment building reading sports magazine and smoking cigarettes. Everyone loved Frank.

Families struggled on one income. Welfare was considered shameful. If a family qualified for benefits, no one dared pay for groceries with food stamps. What would the neighbors think? Even the churches rarely had food pantries. The neighbors would’ve been too embarrassed to ask for help. Our worn-down community had stubborn pride. The superintendent’s wife polished the mail boxes to a brilliant sheen. She mopped the floors, swept out front, and kept the building clean and tidy, even if the place was a dump.

Landlords showed up at your front door on the first of the month to collect rent. Pay up or else. Or else what? They threatened you with bodily harm or evicted you within days. Housing courts or laws to protect tenants? Didn’t exist.

Building services like extermination were scarce. We had creepy crawlers because of the dumbwaiter, our trash disposal method. The dumbwaiter was a shaky, three-tiered wooden pulley in the hallway where tenants placed their trash. We were supposed to roll it down to the basement where presumably the superintendent, bleary-eyed Mr. Cavanaugh, when he wasn’t drunk, removed it daily and stuffed it into garbage cans in the alley. On trash pick-up day, Mr. Cavanaugh allegedly hauled the cans to the sidewalk. When he was too hungover, the cans sat in the alley. When stinky bags of open garbage sat on the dumbwaiter for days, naturally it attracted roaches and vermin. The little creatures found their way into our apartments and Mr. Cavanaugh usually found his way to the Red Door Inn, the tavern around the corner, for a brew or two or three or four.

We couldn’t always afford a trip to Rockaway Beach, about half an hour’s drive away, so we slathered our bodies with sun tan lotion and hiked up the four flights to tar beach, a city term for sunning on the roof. It wasn’t as much fun as a day at the shore with cool breezes skimming off the ocean or eating hot dogs on the boardwalk but it was just as effective in getting a tan.

Despite hardships families slapped on fresh coats of paint in their apartments every year. They covered their floors with new but cheap Linoleum. Every month they washed the windows. For an added touch, they shopped for new curtains and bedspreads in the discount stores on Steinway Street, the area’s main shopping venue. Those dinky buildings with rattling pipes were all they could afford.
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In spite of leaky plumbing, crooked ceilings and flecks of paint hanging off the walls, nothing stopped the neighbors from their devotion to the Catholic church and kicking in money to the collection plate. Every Sunday hordes of families flocked to St. Joseph’s for one of about a dozen Masses. Overflow crowds sat in the balcony.

I dreaded Sunday. My mother dressed me like a doll in frilly dresses with crinoline slips that made my butt itch. I would rather have played stickball or tag in the alleys with the neighborhood kids. I also discovered the love of reading at the public library. Books mesmerized me. Sitting through a service said in Latin bored me, especially during the summer. The church lacked air-conditioning. On hot, sticky and humid days, I was miserable.

I almost stashed enough away for a pack of baseball cards, which came with a thin slice of bubble gum. I only needed another dime so I kept the quarter my Mother gave me that was intended for the collection basket. When we got home, she noticed the shiny coin slip out of my pocket.
“That was for God,” she said.
“I didn’t think he’d mind,” I said. “I was good this week. I needed money for a pack of baseball cards. We’re flipping cards this week.”
“That’s gambling.”
“What’s the big deal? You gamble for money. I gamble for baseball cards.”
“It’s different, I’m an adult. You’re a child.”
After whacking my hand, she took back the quarter. I waited until next week’s allowance to buy my next pack of baseball cards.

Catholic women and girls were supposed to wear a hat or veil upon entering church. Why, I was never sure. Men didn’t have to abide by the same rule. I was out with my Dad one afternoon and he said, “Let’s go to church. I want to pray for Uncle Nicky.” Dad’s only brother had lung cancer.
He glanced at my bare head and said, “What’ll I do about you?”
“I’ll wait outside. I don’t want God to be mad at me.”
Dad whipped out his handkerchief.
“I don’t want that on my head. It’s got boogers on it.”
“Be quiet and let’s go inside.
I sat squirming next to Dad, with his dirty handkerchief on my head, wondering if a bugger would land on my neck.

Families used our neighborhood as a stepping stone to better days. When their parents socked away enough money, they bought nice houses on Long Island, with picket fences and two-car garages. Sometimes they adopted dogs. Kids had yards for play and pools for swimming. Families said they’d come back to visit but never did. My parents couldn’t afford the suburbs and I sometimes felt let down. I slept on the living room couch and ate canned food.

My dad introduced me to the subway in the late 1950s. The cars looked like cast iron, black and ugly. Seats were made of rattan coated with shellac. When the seats frayed, bits of rattan poked you in the butt or scratched your leg. No doubt women had snags in their panty hose, compliments of unruly subway seats.

Air-conditioned cars didn’t exist. Overhead fans swirled warm, stale and stuffy air around. Summertime in the underground tunnels was unbearable. There were no broadcast systems so you had to be prepared or you’d miss your stop. Emergencies or other timely transit information couldn’t be announced. Conductors waited for the train to stop, hopped between cars, and clicked the doors open. The rolling giants roared through the tunnels, screeching as they soared around curves. The noise was awful but what could we do? That was part of the subway’s charm.

Vending machines on platforms sold Chiclets. For a penny, two pieces of gum popped out in a tiny yellow box. What a bargain. I’m not sure what other cavity-causing goodies were sold but there likely was an assortment of candy available as well. Bathroom fixtures were old and decrepit but the stalls were somewhat clean and almost always safe. Yes, people used them without catching diseases or being assaulted.

My Dad rode the trains to work every day. He never talked about muggings, murder or mayhem. An affable, easygoing man who wore a gray Fedora, jacket and tie even though he worked in a factory, Dad was only irked by late trains, cars stuck in tunnels, and passengers who passed gas in crowded cars.

I walked to grammar school, St. Joseph’s, about two blocks from home. A crossing guard guided children across the big street, but we crossed the smaller streets on our own. Afraid of being snatched by a predator? Not a chance. Plenty of children walked to school. Adults were on the streets, headed to the Steinway Street bus or the subway on 31st Street. Few people owned cars so public transportation was widely used. The streets were rarely empty. Sometimes, I walked with my friend Jean who lived around the corner. I headed home for lunch. Since we relied only on my dad’s factory income, lunch was sometimes butter and jelly sandwiches or slices of canned pineapple. Not the most nutritious but I ate lunch. After homework, I played with the neighborhood kids. I shared a small room with my older brother and had no privacy so I spent a lot of time outside.

I would’ve been aghast at home schooling. Walking to school and playing in the school yard was fun. I read books from the school library. Learning at home would’ve been punishment, locked inside all day in a small apartment that was often too hot or too cold. Children were vaccinated. Nobody objected. Imagine a lay person without a science background questioning the credentials of a physician or a scientist? No, it didn’t happen. You ate what was served or you didn’t eat. If you cursed or used foul language, parents threatened to wash your mouth out with soap. Some actually did. Yuck. I’d never heard the terms gluten-free, ADHD, or autism. Children weren’t medicated for behavior disorders. Teachers were free to smack us if we disobeyed. Then our parents smacked us too for showing disrespect to the teacher. No one had the gall to sue a teacher because we failed a subject. A lawyer would’ve been humiliated to accept such a ridiculous case. Times have changed.

A married couple, Andy and Betty, moved into the neighborhood. They were older and had no children. Everyone had children. Andy stayed home because of a severely malformed right hand and a debilitating heart condition. His wife worked in an office. Andy perked up around us kids. If we played in the alleys, he stared at us behind creepy glasses. If we had a game of stickball, he was there, watching every move. Without a job maybe he was bored. Why meddle with us kids? He seemed harmless so I shrugged off my concerns.

One day, we children chased each other through the alleys in a game of tag. Inside a small dark alley connecting courtyards, a hand grabbed me. My heart pounded. I looked up and it was Andy. He started groping me. I felt yucky. Ready to scream, Andy cupped his good hand over my mouth. He pressed his sweaty body against me. Only the sound of my friend John’s voice calling out my name made him let go. I kicked him in the shin and ran. John must’ve seen my ashen face and asked if I was OK. I was shaking. Why didn’t I say anything? No one would believe me. Andy was a respected member of the Catholic Church. What would I sound like if I accused a heart patient of molestation?

Andy’s disgusting lewd stares continued for the next few years. Whenever I saw him, I ran the other way. Once, when no one was around, I spit at him. I picked up dog poop and left it on his windshield. He never caught me alone in the alleys again. I always looked over my shoulder for the dirty old man named Andy.

Reality crashed through my insular world yet again and brought me to face to face with more ugly truths. I grew up quicker than I expected. My mother sent me to a nearby grocer for milk and bread. Always, it seemed, we needed milk and white bread. Waiting on line, I noticed the cashier, a short, balding man named Ziggy, who had a string of faded numbers etched on his arm. Polite and soft-spoken, Ziggy had the saddest eyes. Maybe he had no children or pets at home. Who could live without kids? Even brats like us.
I asked Ziggy about the numbers on his arm. What’d they mean?
“I got them in a concentration camp during the war,” Ziggy said, ringing up my container of milk.
“What’s that?” I asked. I was probably 7 or 8 years old.
“It’s a long story,” he said, avoiding my stare. “The 1940s weren’t a good time in Europe for Jews. Many people were killed.”
“Why?”
Ziggy glanced at the customers behind me.
“Come back and I’ll tell you.”
My third-grade teacher, a stone-faced nun with a tight girdle attitude, was mum about concentration camps. She offered no credible explanation when I asked. I went back to Ziggy and he told me as much as a child could understand about human extermination camps. I wondered why my church let this mass killing happen. The nuns and priests taught me that God was all loving. Why didn’t he save the Jews?

Not many people in my community used disparaging ethnic names, including the ‘n’ word. At home, at church, and in school, respect wasn’t discussed either. If someone with dark skin walked around looking for an apartment that sent the neighbors sailing off their chairs. Integration was fine, just not in Astoria.

A Cuban couple slipped into our building in the mid-1960s. No one talked to the Cubans but me. I don’t remember much about them except they played cards at night and ate fried bananas that smelled sweet. The Cubans had a big back dog aptly named Blackie. I loved animals and the Cubans always let me play with Blackie when we met on the street. The Cubans invited me into their apartment to eat beans and rice and to play with Blackie but my mother refused. I don’t know what lame excuse she offered. I was confused. She let me visit with the Greek family who lived on the same floor but I was forbidden to visit with the Cubans. What sense did that make to a little kid?

The religion thing came back to me yet again. I thought God loved all his children. Why not the Cubans? When the Cubans said they were leaving, no one wished them farewell except me. I missed them and their goofy dog Blackie.

In high school, unlike grade school, I met African Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Latino students and teachers. We all got along. Students weren’t rude to teachers because of race and there was no bullying either. Were we model students? Of course not. We smoked weed, cut class, had sex with our boyfriends, and misbehaved. Times were tumultuous for the country because of the Viet Nam War and the Civil Rights Movement. We were only teenagers but the mood of the country raised our collective conscience too. How could it not?

I felt peer pressure to steal because my lunchroom crowd boasted about the items they pilfered from various stores. To show off, I rode the subway to a neighborhood, away from mine. I walked around a chain drug store called Genovese and stuffed a few items under my coat such as a notebook, pack of pencils and maybe tissues, nothing that I needed. On my way out, I tripped and everything fell to the floor. So afraid of being caught, I ran out and down the block. I darted across the street, against a red light, almost slammed by a car. I kept running and running until I was breathless. Then I ran again. By this time, I was in a strange neighborhood and had to figure out my way back to the subway. I never stole again until the early 90s when I lived in Colorado. I took several dogs from a deranged man who’d been abusing them. I brought them to a shelter in another city, claiming I found them. I doubt the shelter believed me but at least the dogs were safe.

As a high school student, I worked in Macy’s flagship store from about 1970-1972. At the time, there was a cheesy restaurant in the basement known as the Dutch Treat. The food was hardly a treat but I enjoyed the camaraderie among my co-workers, mostly teens like me. A waitress, I worked after school and on Saturday’s, hustling for tips, earning about $35 a week. Our salary, paid in cash, came in a small brown envelope. Hardly anything then was open on Sunday. Maybe once or twice a week stores kept their doors opened until 9 p.m. Big box retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Costco and Best Buy were unheard of. So were the internet, fax machines, ATMs, cell phones, lap tops, iPads, and Starbucks. Blackberry and apple were known only as fruits. 5G didn’t terrify some people into torching cell phone towers; it was merely an apartment number or short for $5,000. A text was a hardcover school book. A virus could make you vomit. Tablet? That was the name of the Catholic publication in New York City. Uber sounded like Goober, a chocolate candy, not competition for a taxi or van service. An app was the beginning of the word application. How did I survive? Not only did I turn out to be a reasonably intelligent person but I earned two college degrees, one from a prestigious private university, without the benefit of technology. If you wanted the result of 3,456 x 4,738 you did it by hand. Up until college, calculators were unavailable. Even if they were, we couldn’t use them in class. You took notes by hand. Some teachers closed the door at the sound of the bell. If you were late by even five seconds, too bad. You missed the entire class. Smoking was permitted in college classes. Imagine that? In fact, smoking was permitted almost everywhere including hospitals. That was life back then.

My mother said college was for boys like my brother and my father always went along with her. Throughout high school, I slacked off, doing the bare minimum. In fact, in junior year, I failed religion. I’d had enough with the God is good stuff. Why wasn’t he good to me? I looked out the window in religion class, counting cars on trains rolling by on the Hellgate Bridge. The failure didn’t go over well with my mother when she had to sign my report card. How’d you fail religion? It wasn’t easy, I said, as she slapped me. High school had been one big joke but in senior year I wasn’t laughing. My friends were headed off to colleges and universities like Cornell, Georgetown, Stonybrook, Boston, and more. Me? Despite being president of the school, I was on the road to nowhere, sad, lonely and depressed. My drinking worsened and I was only 17 years old.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I held a series of dull, inane and boring jobs in corporations and hospitals. At least in 1978 I ditched the booze and the weed. I rode the subway to work every day. I attended college at night, hoping to make something of myself. Scuzzballs and withered little prunes rode the subway too, prowling for women to bother. I had my first encounter with a sex-starved mole one morning when I was stuffed into an impossibly crowded train on my way to school. A grungy looking man, sweating like it 100 degrees even though it was 2 above zero, rubbed his pelvis against me. As soon as I caught wind of his lewd and lascivious behavior I elbowed him below the belt and shouted for help. The surrounding crowd pounced on the swine and he bolted out the door at the next stop. Women never acted so crude around boys by bobbing their boobs.

In February 1982 I quit smoking cigarettes. Parting ways with the habit showed immediate results. The rancid tobacco odor faded inside my apartment. I wasn’t breathless hiking up three measly stairs to the racquetball court. No more putrid piles of butts clogging my ash trays. My mouth didn’t taste like camel grit.

I swapped one addiction for another and took up jogging. A brutal winter lingered so I stocked up on sweat pants, hooded sweatshirts and a cushy pair of sneakers then readied myself for the great outdoors. Despite blustery winds and freezing temperatures, I rose at the crack of dawn and dragged myself for a few miles. My lungs pumped over-time, my cheeks were rosy, but I made it without collapsing.

By late March I was confident enough to enter my first five-mile road race in Flushing Meadow Park, sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club. The NYRRC oversaw dozens of road races throughout the five boroughs that comprised New York City. For a modest entry fee, runners received a commemorative T-shirt and the chance to compete against hundreds, usually thousands of other runners. There was no prize money, except in the New York City marathon. The joy of running the races satisfied us all. Even though I straggled near the end of the pack on a cool, overcast morning, I finished in less than one hour. I was delighted. Just the month before, I still smoked. Nothing could stop me now. In April, I ran in another five-mile race, this one in the pouring rain on Staten Island. Again, I finished near the end, soaking wet, but who cared? I was on the move.

In September 1982 I went all the way and entered a half-marathon, a 13.1-mile race. Did I have egg salad for brains or what? To prepare for the big one, I jogged five mornings a week.
On a chilly, crisp autumn morning when the air smelled fresh, well as fresh as air could smell in New York City, I completed the half-marathon in just about 2 and one-half hours, limping across the finish line. Exhausted, sweating and achy, I was on top of the world. I ran thirteen miles a mere eight months after I inhaled my last cigarette. My breathing improved, a cloud of smoke didn’t surround me, and my skin had a healthy glow. Running steered me in a new direction.

I shed my fast-food connections. That year I scarfed down my last Big Mac. No more Whoppers with greasy fries on the side. I never ate another hot dog heaped with onions at Nathan’s in Coney Island. I quit drinking diet sodas with mystery chemicals that had the scouring power of battery acid. I met vegetarians and discovered the health and social benefits of meatless meals. I was sold. I became the queen of pasta salads and veggie burgers on whole wheat buns.

I ran in dozens of races, all of which had names. The Bagel Run, a 6.2 mile run around Central Park, ended with coffee and bagels at the finish line. Runners who entered the L’Eggs Mini-Marathon, a spring time race for women, were given a pair of panty hose along with T-shirts. Winter races came with long-sleeved T-shirts because the temperatures often dipped below freezing. I ran in one ten-mile race, known as the Season Opener, when it was only 8 degrees Fahrenheit at the start. By the time the race ended it had warmed up to a balmy 10 degrees. The New Year’s Eve Midnight Run was funny, rowdy and one of a kind. Runners competed in costumes to welcome in the New Year. At the stroke of midnight when raucous crowds packed Times Square, the race began in Central Park. Champagne was handed out at the water stations in tiny cups. My group ran as Christmas packages in 1987. We wrapped big cardboard boxes with holiday paper and bows. For headgear we wore wreaths. Bright red tights kept our legs warm. We were quite the spectacle as we trotted down Columbus Avenue entertaining fellow New Yorkers on the way to Central Park. We competed against runners dressed as the Berlin Wall, Richard Nixon, Dorothy and the Tin Man and army soldiers.

I found a stray dog in 1985 and named the scruffy mutt Scottie and introduced him to jogging. He was my faithful companion for many years. After Scottie my dog died in 1992, I scattered his ashes in Central Park, a place where we shared many good times together.

Along with an impressive T-shirt collection I amassed a long list of running related injuries. I suffered through shin splints, bursitis, ilio-tibial band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and other assorted aches and pains. Bone spurs requiring minor surgery halted my jogging for two months in 1988. Nothing hurt me enough to hang up my sneakers. I popped Ibuprofen, used a heating pad or ice packs for sore spots, and got back to the park. I loved running too much to quit.

I woke up around 5 a.m. that morning in November 1986, unable to sleep. I was determined to finish my first marathon. Still, I slipped a subway token into my running bra just in case I fizzled. The race started at 10:40 a.m. but preparations for the huge race began in the wee hours. Runners assembled at the main branch of the New York City public library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Several hundred buses ushered the nearly 25,000 eager runners to the starting line at the foot of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in Staten Island. The race touched all five boroughs. I arrived at the staging area with my friends by 7 a.m. We passed the time huddled in one of the hundreds of tents set up for the runners. We stretched, drank coffee and joshed about the 26.2 miles that lay ahead. Excitement built around 10 a.m. when the massive sea of runners swarmed to the starting line. Not only was I surrounded by athletes from across the US but there were people from across the globe. I met runners from Ireland, France, Albania, Kenya, Egypt and Haiti. As the clock ticked away, the air was electrifying. News helicopters hovered overhead and nervous bodies jammed together. We removed our sweat suits anticipating the start. It was only about 40 degrees so runners jumped up and down to keep warm. A canon boomed and off we went. The elite runners started first. We ladies hung in the back.

As throngs of runners flew across the huge suspension bridge, it swayed back and forth. Always terrified of heights, I picked up my pace, worried that the bridge might cave in. I wanted to reach Brooklyn as quickly as possible. When my small group rounded the curve and jogged off the bridge onto Fourth Avenue, a main drag, thousands of fans smothered us with cheers and well wishes. This was show time, one of New York City’s biggest events and I was in it. School bands played uplifting music, such as the theme from the movie Rocky along the way. People handed out water and orange slices to thirsty runners. Medical stations were set up to heal the wounded warriors. Almost everyone applauded. Whenever a spectator called out my number and said, “Go F214,” I rejoiced. Fellow runners encouraged me to keeping going. At 24 miles people said, “Looking good.” They lied. How could cadaver gray skin look good?

Competing in my first marathon should’ve been one of the most thrilling days of my life. It was not. By the time I reached the 20th mile, my legs were like wet sponges. Even my eyelashes ached but quitting wasn’t an option. How I crossed the finish line still conscious was a miracle. My official time was six hours and nineteen minutes. By then, the winner was probably home, taken a nap, eaten dinner and was ready for the disco the Road Runners Club sponsored for all the marathon runners. I don’t remember how I got home but when I opened the door, I said to myself, oh no. My dog had to go for a walk. Make it quick boy. Scottie must’ve known I was almost in a coma. He took care of business right away. I rested on my couch after soaking in a warm relaxing bath. I skipped dinner. My friends asked me to meet them at the runner’s disco but I was asleep by 7 p.m.

The next morning I barely moved. My knees were so sore it was like they’d been whacked with hammers. I smiled, knowing that I completed every mile of the marathon, even if it was under someone else’s name and it was almost dark when I finished.

By 1989, my life had the appeal of fly paper. I was up for change so I did the unthinkable. I gave up my rent-stabilized apartment on West 87th Street and moved to Boston with my two rescued dogs. Giving up the apartment wasn’t such so insane as some people said. Located in the basement, the studio had only one window, had bugs, peeling paint and sporadic heat. I’d miss the neighborhood but not that hellhole. It’s unlikely I’d ever live in New York again. First, how could I afford it? Secondly, I’m content in Phoenix where I moved because of a disabling car accident that ended my working career. A traumatic brain injury made life harder but I never gave up. Getting around Phoenix without the snow, rain, sleet, etc. has been much easier. I love the life I created here but my heart will always belong to the Big Apple, the place where I was born, raised and gave me one heck of an attitude. I love you New York. Thanks for teaching me compassion, caring and a sense of humor. It’s kept me going even after the accident me my life much harder.

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