Most days, I love Harlem.
I love seeing the historic Apollo Theater every morning as I go to work. I love passing it on my way to the gym.
I love that the Magic Johnson Theater on 124th & Frederick Douglass Blvd. is still thriving. When it opened, Magic wanted to prove that multiplexes in black neighborhoods could profit without attracting undue gang violence. (Now, of course, he reps for Rent-a-Center, helping them bilk our communities out of millions of dollars.)
I love that in Harlem, 6th, 7th and 8th Avenues are named for important black historical figures – Malcolm X (6th Avenue), Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (7th Avenue) and Frederick Douglass (8th Avenue).
I love that there are two Starbucks on 125th Street, within a block of each other — one on 125th & Malcolm X Blvd., the other on 125th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.
But when it comes to exercising outdoors, I really, really hate being in Harlem.
I started running about eighteen months ago, after about a ten-year hiatus, by joining a New York Road Runners class for beginning runners. The class gradually became more challenging, and getting the full benefit of class required practicing each week’s workout three to four times per week.
During the week, I could go to Central Park after work and do my practice runs on the same trails we used for class. But on weekends, I had to find a park closer to home.
I chose Marcus Garvey Park because it is only a couple of blocks from my apartment. I don’t know the park’s exact dimensions, but my unofficial measurements indicate that it is somewhere between .6 and .7 of a mile around. The sidewalks around the park are flat and relatively smooth. I decided my weekend running workouts would consist of running laps around Marcus Garvery Park.
And then I encountered the Peanut Gallery.
The Peanut Gallery is the group of men who always seem to be camped on the East 124th Street side of the park between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue. From casual observances, these men appear to be engaged in some other activity — smoking, or drumming, or bicycle repair.
But if you’re in the park, you’ll notice they’re most actively involved in watching and commenting on women as they walk or run past.
When I first started running, I was 60 pounds heavier than I am now, and the comments were, in a word, cruel.
“Come on, baby, you gotta go faster than that!”
“Yeah, that’s it, girl, now go around about 6 or 7 more times!”
I fought every temptation to raise a middle finger or voice the sentiment symbolized by that finger. As I struggled to breathe, I also struggled to keep my eyes straight ahead. I willed myself not to glare at the smokers who were commenting on how slowly I ran, or make a comment about the big gut of the guy who had the nerve to tell me I needed to run another six or seven laps.
Once, I took my 12-year-old daughter out with me. As she sped ahead — way too fast, I tried to warn her — the Peanut Gallery shouted at me, “Catch her!”
Sometimes, the comments were more supportive.
“Good work, Ma, get fit!”
“Keep it up!”
But even when the comments were more supportive, they were equally unwelcome. Running is a solitary activity. This wasn’t the New York City Marathon, and I didn’t want or need people shouting at me as I ran, or attempted to run.
I prefer the anonymity of running in Central Park, where running etiquette is strictly observed. In the park, no matter how fast or how slowly I run, I never feel out of place. The only acknowledgement I ever receive is an occasional smile from a fellow black woman runner as we pass each other.
Still, I persevered.
As I progressed from Beginner to Intermediate; as my speed increased and the pounds began to drop off, the nature of the comments changed.
“Is that that big girl who be running out here? Damn, she dropped a bunch of weight!”
“Ma, can I run with you?”
My reaction didn’t change. I kept my eyes ahead, not looking to my right or left.
The last time I ran around the park before my ankle injury, I even heard something from the Peanut Gallery I enjoyed hearing: “Damn, Ma, you got fast!”
A few months ago, I suffered an ankle injury that prevented me from running for a number of weeks. My doctors recently cleared me to start running again.
After a few weeks of running on the treadmill at the gym, I decided it was time to try running outdoors. I tried running in Central Park, but the hills proved too challenging for my still weak ankle. I decided to go back to running laps around Marcus Garvey Park, and gradually build strength and mileage from there.
Which means dealing with the Peanut Gallery again.
So far, I’ve run 3 times around Marcus Garvey Park. The Peanut Gallery has been out in force, but I haven’t heard nearly as many comments from them. Maybe I’ve gotten better at ignoring them. I see more women running laps around the park. Maybe they’re directing their comments at those other women.
Or maybe the sight of a black woman running for exercise in Harlem is no longer a novelty.
Whatever the cause, it would be foolish for me to expect the Peanut Gallery to remain silent. Just a few days ago, I heard one of those comments that made me want to go curse someone out:
“Yeah, Dread. That’s right, Ma. You run and get fit. Because then I got the tonic for ya. Ha, ha.”
WTF does that even mean? I had to take a look at this fool. Unattractive, decidedly unfit — and, I reminded myself, not worth a reaction. I just shook my head and kept going, not looking to the right or the left. Until my ankle told me it was time to quit.
From now on, my weary ankle is the only voice I’m listening to when I run.