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The long run

The storm cast parts of New York into darkness but other divides disappeared. Mario Tama/Getty Images

This isn't a story about the marathon.

Two nights and a day after the hurricane blew out our power, I met my neighbor Mr. R on the second-floor landing. The elevators were useless and we were both walking upstairs. This was Wednesday, Halloween afternoon.

R is in his early 70s. Gray haired but unbent, of average height and average weight, he is sharp-featured and wears a trim, dapper moustache. He blinks at the world through unflattering glasses and carries an unfashionable briefcase. I have never seen him without a necktie.

I'm a pudding-faced cynic and former smoker in my middle age, stuffed with conceits and suet and weak in my knee joints and my character. Mr. R and I know each other in the way many New Yorkers know their apartment neighbors, which is to say not at all. We exchange smiles and polite small talk in the lobby, but the trick to city living is the exchange of invisibility. This we do for each other. The suburban equivalent is the illusion of privacy measured by the width of your driveway.

The stairwell was as black as a mineshaft, and we both carried small flashlights. I was just back from a submerged, unstartable car. R had a heavy pair of plastic grocery bags lashed together and hung over his right shoulder -- lots of canned stuff and a giant bottle of root beer. The store they came from was a very long walk uptown. He had a three-gallon bucket filled with fresh water at his feet, too, likewise tied up in a grocery bag. He was leaning against the wall trying to catch his breath.

We live on the 18th floor.

We said our hellos and after a minute or two I took the bucket and we climbed a flight together in silence. Our lights ricocheted from the floor and the steps and the ceilings and the walls. The risers and the treads and the floors are all a high-gloss naval gray. The walls of the stairwell are the cheap mint-green of a Soviet-era mental hospital. We were breathing hard and the sound of our breathing and our footsteps was loud against the walls.

Two more floors like that, slow, quiet except for the rasp of our exertion and the soles of our shoes, both of us laboring in our separate states of invisibility. Not enough wind to talk and climb. Fourteen steps between every landing and you could feel every one of those steps in your legs, both of us huffing and puffing and locked in our thoughts. He was falling farther and farther behind. By the time I'd made the seventh floor, he was a whole flight back in the darkness. Without thinking I turned and called down, "We can do this. C'mon." I'd have clapped too, if I wasn't holding that bucket. And suddenly and involuntarily, I was channeling the language of every coach I'd ever had and ever hated and every field I'd ever stood upon, every game I'd ever played and every stadium I'd ever sat in. "We'll get there. One step at a time. We can do it!"

Fifty years of sports cliché and earnestness set themselves loose into the shadows, came to me without thinking, poured out of me unstoppably, until at every landing I called down the same mindless, breathless encouragements I've yelled to long-gone teammates and strangers and friends and to the river of marathoners running past me on 138th Street or over on Bedford Avenue every year. "You can do it you can do it you can do it." Clap clap clap. Every cornball exhortation to "stick with it stay at it here we go you'll get there" came to me unbidden, and seemed filled with new meaning.

In my noise, chests heaving, R and I climbed on and on. "Just one foot in front of the other! That's it!"

We can argue about how little sports "mean" in the face of real disaster -- especially the money and the nonsense apparatus we've built around them all -- but sports in pure form remain a perfect compression of the human, a theater of every kind of physical and philosophical adversity. And a tutorial in how to overcome them. What shocked me was how deep those lessons ran. I cajoled and I wheedled and I called on teamwork and togetherness and the better angels of just one more flight, just one more step. I surprised myself with how honestly and completely I meant the things I said.

For a few days last week we were disconnected from everything but each other. Cut loose from our conveniences, that climb in the dark is all we have. And when what's left to us is only muscle and imagination, maybe sports and the lessons of sports can coax from us the most and the best of our humanity. We each hang by a very slender thread after all, and the purpose of sports might be to remind us it's the same thread.

When we made it to R's door, I set down the bucket and we shook hands. We both tried to smile, but for a long time we were too out of breath to say anything.