In the nineties and aughts, there was a lawless vibe in the East Village and Lower East Side, especially late at night. As uncool as I was, even I knew a few of the vaguely to very illegal fun spots out on the dirty and somewhat dangerous streets: a ground-floor apartment door on East First that you could knock on at whatever hour and the lady there would invite you in to her living room and cook you an amazing dinner served on TV trays for forty bucks; a basement after-hours club on Avenue B that only got rolling at 4am, a Spanish restaurant off Essex where you could order a frozen margarita in a giant to-go cup to keep you dehydrated as you and your friends wandered to the next establishment for music and libations.
All that colorful street scene became harder to find as the city tidied itself up for tourists, developers chased away squatters, and police cracked down on the homeless encampments, skate punks, drugs, and other quality-of-life crimes. But these days, in a city that’s more cleaned up and gentrified than ever, some of that old lax and lawless feel has returned. As the COVID quarantine drags on, there’s sidewalk drinking and street-corner carousing going on at night, more petty crime than in years (my eleven-year-old witnessed his first car break-in the other day), and whispers of secret parties and other antisocial-distancing behavior.
Here in Williamsburg, one up-side to this shift in the vibe on the street is that I can once again grab a frozen margarita to go, at a joint just two blocks away, although now it is ordered and served with socially distanced protocols and bored police handing out face masks posted nearby.
But a far bigger benefit is this: New runners are everywhere, at every hour. There are more joggers jogging than I have ever seen. Twice or thrice as many.
Some newcomers are clearly folks whose usual sport of choice isn’t available to them, climbers and spinners, yoga practitioners and martial art aficionados. These athletic types are probably having a fairly easy transition to running.
Others are true beginners, formerly ardent non-athletes who have ventured out as a desperate attempt to ward off cabin fever. They often exhibit a tentative gait as their adult feet and legs rediscover how to let loose and go. They sometimes wear quirky workout gear that makes it clear they don’t own drawerfuls of items made of Lycra. Often they have a very serious expression as if they are worried about being too slow, too silly looking. They haven’t yet discovered that no onlookers really care about this stuff.
Whatever their style or skill level, the newcomers don’t have any idea how happy I am to see them. After the apex of the running boom a few years ago, there has been a 20 percent decline in participation in the sport I rank first above all others. So I thrill to see another running boom happening right in front of my eyes. And with the old adage of it takes only four to six weeks to establish (or break) a habit, I am hopeful that a lot of them will keep on running once things start to shift back to some version of the normal we used to have. They’ll have discovered how running is a refuge, a daily push-back against anxiety, depression, and other feelings that drag us down, a source of immediate and lasting physical benefits that give your whole day an infusion.
Sure, I love to walk around while sipping on a cold cocktail as much as the next guy or gal. But far better is the chance to raise my eco-friendly to-go cup in a silent toast to every new runner I see on the way: Welcome!