Running Streak — Day 30

I came across two things on my run that I realize bind together the cities I have run through over the course of my life. Petrified gum stains on the sidewalk and the distinct odor of garbage juice.

These aren’t negatives, and as I have thought about it more, I have come to realize running has actually made these two gross details of city streets representative of experiences that are special to me. They serve as distinct reminders of my life’s adventures across the country and the world.

I was running through San Francisco today, looking down at the pavement, following an undulating path of city blocks and trails toward the Golden Gate Bridge, roughly five miles out from where I was staying with friends. Above me, the trees were heavy with new leaves, leaving dappled light patterns across the sidewalk. There was a cooling breeze, and I was paying close attention to where I stepped, dodging pedestrians and stopping at corners to wait for cars at four-way stops and stop lights.

As I ran I noticed familiar, rock hard black spots on the pavement, created by long since discarded bubble or chewing gum. Perhaps it was at one time cinnamon, mint-flavored, or fruit flavored maybe. Whether it was a piece of sugar-free Trident or a plug of Big League Chew in its former life I couldn’t say, and I hope to never have to find out.

Then around a corner, heading uphill I was nailed with another familiar experience — the odor of garbage juice. Garbage juice is the slime on the pavement left by leaking garbage bags that is then cooked in the sun. If I had to describe what the actual smell is, I might say curdled milk sautéed with onion peels and the juices from the bottom of a container holding a rotisseries chicken from the grocery store. That doesn’t fully capture its disgustingness, but it should provide a loose idea if you haven’t experienced it for yourself.

For some reason the gum on the pavement and the smell of the rancid remnants of collected garbage reminded me of all the wonderful cities I have had the joy to run through.

The sites, smells, and also the sounds — even the most disgusting or alarming ones — make me think of cities full of people, full of stories. The dinner party remnants put out on the curb last week, perhaps after friends celebrated a special anniversary together. The call home to family while waiting on the sidewalk outside the laundromat, or the conversation with a friend outside the cafe. I’m not romanticizing spitting out gum, but there is a story there, bookmarked by the organic medallion on the pavement. It’s representative of the lives of people stacked on top of other people, millions of stories set in the same location.

In Boston, early morning runs were often punctuated with the sound of people hollering to one another down allies or across streets, from car windows to the curb, or from car to car at a stoplight. A dreaded sense of danger at the first yell was followed by relief as I could more clearly hear what was being yelled. Turned out it wasn’t violent threats, but rather pleasantries between friends delivered in the tone akin to Mickey Goodmill yelling to Rocky Balboa in the ring over the roar of the crowded arena.

San Francisco has an impossible number of driveways attached to garages in the basements of apartment houses and town homes. I like to imagine what is hiding behind them as I pass a dozen or more doors in a single block. Meanwhile a corner market nearby has nothing to hide as it opens the steel doors to its cellars wide to the street, allowing you to peek in and see what is below.

During the summer in New York, garbage juice odors seemed to offset the magnificent smells of the oven exhaust from a bakery on Third Avenue near my apartment. My mouth would water with the idea of a pastry after my run, then my stomach would turn with a whiff of the absolutely rancid odor.

Once garbage juice was left on the street in front of our home in a quiet neighborhood in Norfolk, VA. The stench made me remember living in New York. It made my husband remember living in Boston, and we both were touched by how oddly nostalgic it made us feel.

All the details matter, because running is about the whole experience, including the more unsavory aspects of what we come across. They all fit into the story of a runner and their surroundings. I feel powerful when I run, but that comes from a willingness to also be vulnerable and exposed. I am okay with showing off the pasty skin of my upper thighs to keep cool. I am willing to stand in a finish area of a race chatting up friends smelling like sweat and other unsavory body odors.

I will nod to another runner as I hold the door open to a port-o-john, trusting that they will refuse to dissect the actions that have just happened, just like I ignored those of the occupant before me. Forgive us our nasal trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I will accept the dirty little details of the run because each helps me to be present in the footstep and enjoy the full experience.

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