Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Born to Run

(Hartenstein in Versailles, France. Oct, 1995)
“In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American Dream.”

I watched it unfold while jogging on the treadmill.
Usually images on the Taiwanese news make little sense when accompanied by Chinese language reporting. It’s easy to confuse a political rally with a bake sale, the halting of construction due to digging around a leaky gas main and the shooting of a local mob boss. You know it’s just the news. - If it bleeds, it leads. We’re taught to expect the worst.
(Hartenstein at Maison Temple, ChonJu South Korea. April, 1994)
“Sprung from cages out on highway 9, chrome wheeled, fuel injected and stepping out over the line.”

But this story was unmistakable.
Huge dented car roof ceiling. Shattered windshield and headlights. Blood splattered all over the sidewalk. The black ribboned picture of the young girl that didn’t make it and her boyfriend laying tangled in tubes on a hospital bed, topped off with a camera view from atop the sixth floor apartment building where the young students jumped. I mean, blood soaking into the cement brick cracks on channel four at five o’clock. It’s jarring, and leaves you gasping for air.
(Hartenstein chasing windmills in Amsterdam. Sept, 1995)
“Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims and strap your hands across my engines.”

It’s not like I haven’t been living in a daze.
Last week was a tailspin with 9th grade national exams, placement interviews, and the annual 8th grade Speech Contest. Randall was the winner. It bent the collective nose of the entire school out of shape because of the disparity. Contestants were angry that Randall was allowed to sit on a chair that was carried in and out for him while the rest had to stand naked in the center of the stage with a microphone strapped to their belt. They said it wasn’t fair, complained even more he got to go first while the others drew straws for order. “We were nervous too… we were shaking too,” they screamed in streams running down the pores of their cheeks. “Nobody gave us special treatment.”
(Hartenstein stranded on Ulong-do Island after typhoon. May, 1997)
“Together we could break this trap, well run till we drop, baby well never go back.”

Randall was born with cerebral palsy.
His legs are bent like pretzels. If walking for him is as painful as it looks, I can’t imagine his private hell. He has absolutely no muscle development in his body. Complete atrophy. He is constantly knocked down or falling out of his chair, and he is the only student allowed to use the teacher’s private elevator to the fifth floor. He sits in class while the others dance around and play games and rush to the board to write answers and race wild with emotion. Randall has never shot a basket or swam in a pool, never thrown a football or attempted a somersault, and as far as I know, he has never, not once, ran in his whole life.
(Hartenstein at Great Wall, Badaling China. May, 1995)
“I want to know if love is wild, girl I want to know if love is real.”

Randall’s speech was about the joys of killing yourself.
The Title: How to jump off Taipei’s 101 Building.
(It is the world’s second tallest structure.) He meant it to be funny, speaking about bringing a novel to read on the way down and binoculars to take in the sites. All the students laughed.
Afterward I took him aside.
“Randall, you can’t make fun of suicide. It’s not funny.”
No expression.
“You understand. This is school. Suicide is a problem?”
No expression.
“You are going to have to change it.”
Randall looks at his speech not me when he speaks, “But , I say you will wake up standing next to your great, great, great, grandfather. It is reassuring.”
“Yes, but suicide Randall? Have you ever known anyone who killed themselves? I have.”
No expression
“Here,” I take his speech and begin marking it, “let’s make some changes.” I begin scribbling, looking up every couple of seconds to stare into Randall’s eyes. There is no expression, just the watching of my red ink sinking deeper into the margins of his words.
(Hartenstein in Budapest, Hungary. Nov, 1995)
“The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors and the boys try to looks so hard.”

As a boy, I never took instruction well.
I sped through assignments, bled my letters across notebook lines, colored in smudges outside the proper bubbled limits. I still remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Putnam, handing me back my red ABC notebook after I had completed it first in class, telling me I would have to repeat the whole book, that my penmanship was awful, my spelling atrocious. “You move too quickly.” She scowled. “If you don’t slow down, you’ll fail your way through life.”
It was like a death sentence. The rest of the year I never recovered. There was no way I was going to catch the other students who had already moved on to the purple book. I was to repeat red ABC again. I remember returning to my seat and breaking a pencil against knuckles and bone, splintering the wood deeper and deeper into my palm, shaking with anger.
(Hartenstein and Lorin Fields leaping into Adriatic Sea, Corfu Greece. Sept, 1995)
“We’ll live with the sadness. I’ll love you with all of the madness in my soul.”

Those early years were all about running.
Out to the barn to get my dad’s hammer, into the field to chase down a line drive off the tee, up the gravel drive to collect the mail, my legs were quicker than lightning. Mom used to stop at the top of the hill and let me race the car home, darting past pine trees and jetting along fox tracks in the tall grass. I felt like I could fly. Watching the sun fall down to the earth in these brilliant orange and red flames and me racing the dying light, knowing I was about to win.
I suppose, I think about that young boy now and again. So eager to leave home, to fly away and see the world. All that he accomplished because he never let his feet stop moving, never slowed down, never stopped trying to catch dreams. It makes me think about all the others I went to school with that never stood a chance, all the others I’ve met and taught whose lives bleed together into one long string I hold from the end like a knot. Hanging on for dear life.
(Hartenstein on Cheju Island, South Korea. Oct, 1994)
“But till then, tramps like us, Baby we were born to run.”

I didn’t watch the news long.
I ended up turning off the treadmill and heading out into the city, sprinting out into the night past lovers huddled on park benches, temples alit with candles, and street lamps burning down dark streets. At night on a run through the city, shadows come alive. The noise and the buildings and my heart pounding. I have crossed the world. I have circumnavigated the world. All the while running for my life. My legs quick as lighting, and I will never stop. Never.

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