There were two kinds of early morning people at the Hudson River Park that summer – runners and walkers. Vania belonged to both – and none of them.
I called him Vania after Ivan the Fool from Russian fairy tales.
He started as a runner, although an odd one, because there was not much of a running in his routine. He mostly showered in the sprinklers, tried to perform pushups laying across the pathway with his feet hooked up to the rail – or hang on the small metal artistic installation preceded with a sign ‘No Climbing’, not far from the similar big metal artistic installation preceded with a sign ‘No Climbing or Hanging’.
Mostly, as far as I could tell, Vania enjoyed watching female runners, flowing back and forth gracefully, breathing heavily, sweating profusely and generating fleeting illusion of intimacy while passing by.
Once day, Vania even tried to struck a conversation with a shapely lady in a T-Shirt saying ‘No Excuses’ who stopped by the drinking fountain next to his hanging installation – only to be shooed off by the lady’s two husbands who were always running a minute or two behind her.
Clearly saddened by the setback, Vania became a walker. The change gave him an ability to blend in a little, although not much. Out of the major walkers groups – office commuters, sigh-seers (mostly jet-lagged European tourists) and dog owners – Vania, again, seemed to belong to all and yet none of them. His new image included a document case, a camera with panoramic lenses and a dog leash without a dog, used mostly for playful swinging in the air.
Soon, I realized that Vania was into something more substantial than just watching female runners.
He was actually on a mission.
If you were to nominate a Beauty Queen of the early morning Hudson River Park runners, that would be, no doubts, Goldilocks. Her additional irresistible charm became obvious when, on especially hot and humid mornings, she pulled her t-shirt up and ran with the bottom of the t-shirt in her teeth, to provide better ventilation.
When Goldilocks passed Vania, her hair flying freely, he beamed and whispered ‘hi’ shyly. That was in June.
Comes July, and Vania started to sing loudly each time Goldilocks approached.
She never slowed down or even looked at Vania.
In early August, Vania switched from vocal wooing to a visual one. He came with a cane, limping and moaning forcefully, clearly trying to attract Goldilocks’s attention. Another day, I saw him walking and reading a brochure called ‘Hoofer Sailing Club Scow Manual’, risking to fall and get a real limp.
Finally, a morning came when Vania showed up with a dog. It was a big white fluffy creature, barking loudly and nervously, unlike most of the well-mannered, quiet New York dogs. Perhaps, it missed its real owner.
Probably that was the idea, bringing a loud dog to get Goldilocks’ attention, but it seemed to have an opposite effect on the runners trying to keep a distance from Vania and his barking bait while passing by.
That was a strange morning even not taking to account Vania’s new endeavor. Inexplicably, an unusual high number of runners with one hand were present, as if some kind of club of the one-handers came in to jog. In addition, eggplant-like clouds crawled from New Jersey shore to line up above Hudson River, raising a risk of a thunderstorm and making Vania’s dog even more nervous.
By the pier 27, the dog noticed an inflatable crocodile floating between anchored vessels. There were inflatable turtle and shark nearby as well, but the dog chose the crocodile as its enemy. It stopped and started barking hysterically, pulling the leash towards the rails as if trying to jump in the water and clinch its jaws snapping crocodile’s neck.
At this moment, Goldilocks emerged from the corner of the City Vinery restaurant nearby.
Vania smiled dreamily.
The setting for introducing himself to Goldilocks was perfect, finally. It was impossible not to notice Vania and his mad dog. All the joggers either snickered or looked back at them.
I slowed down wondering if Vania would just yell ‘hi’ to Goldilocks or come up with something more inventive, for example, unleashing the dog and asking Goldilocks for help with catching it.
As Goldilocks approached, Vania’s face got redder and flatter, as if an invisible iron started pressing it on.
At last, Goldilocks was there. She even slowed down, looking at Vania for the first time ever, probably deciding what side to take for bypassing Vania and his dog safely.
Vania pulled the resisting dog towards her, singing “Oh-oh-oh!” on a high note – and, finally surprised, she stopped.
At this moment, a thunder roared from the ripe sky above Hudson River.
Dog whimpered in horror, zigzagged and pooped right in the middle of the runners’ path.
Goldilocks shuddered in disgust – and resumed her run.
Vania tried to follow her, wimping desperately. After a few steps, though, he noticed an approaching group of runners, and moaned in fear.
He ran back to the crime scene, waiving with his hands and warning the runners not to step into his dog’s pile.
Then he had to do the same for the runners approaching from the opposite direction. The logical thing to do would be to scoop the pile into a plastic bag and dispose it, but Vania, of course, didn’t have a bag.
A bare-footed Chinese lady standing motionlessly on the cobblestone pavement fragment nearby with closed eyes interrupted her breathing routine, pulled out her shoes from a Rite Aid bag, and gave the bag to Vania.
The problem was, it would take a minute or two for Vania to reach a garbage can, and the pile turned out to be too big for one fetch. The dog, dancing hysterically on the leash, also didn’t help Vania to clean up the mess in one try.
Vania attempted to run fast towards the garbage can with whatever he was able to scoop, the rest of the pile remaining on the pavement, but another group of runners was already approaching, and he had to return promptly to his post to warn them off.
The Chinese lady put on her shoes and went away towards the city.
Vania rushed to the water, but after hesitating for a moment, didn’t dare to empty the bag into the Hudson River.
So, he just stood by the pile, waiving at the runners and prompting them to avoid a treacherous pavement spot, until rain started.
In a minute or two, Hudson River Park became empty, but not completely. Some devoted runners, it seemed, didn’t mind the rain, and continued jogging after putting hoods over their heads.
Vania issues a desperate howl, but continued to guard the pile stoically. After warning one runner, he rushed towards a garbage can, again and again, slipping on the wet pavement, but the next runner appeared, and he rushed back, never having enough time to empty the bag and progress with the cleaning.
Soon, Vania got soaked. The dog didn’t understand why they had to stand in the rain, and pulled his hander away forcefully, barking and growling hatefully.
Yet Vania continued to guard his post, until there was only one last runner left in sight.
I was going to step away from my tree shelter and cross Hudson River Parkway to make it to work in time, when I saw the last runner stopping, all of a sudden, in front of Vania:
“Can I give you a hand?” She asked, catching her breath.
I didn’t understand why Vania shuddered and looked one second at the lady, and another – around, in a horror, as if looking for something, until I realized that the lady was a hypothetical member of the one-handers running club, and surprised Vania, in a total confusion, was probably trying to figure out what hand she was talking about.
Vania sniffed guiltily, nodded and showed the lady, with a nod, to stay on the spot until he makes a quick run to the garbage can.
The dog seemed to like her. At least, he stopped barking and even wagged its tail.
Vania and the reluctant dog took off to unload their bag.
The one-handed runner stood by the pile in the middle of the empty park, waiting for them patiently.
I realized that wanted this encounter to end, or rather continue, happily so much that I didn’t need to know how it would really develop.
Therefore, I left my shelter as fast as I could, and crossed the Hudson River Parkway not even waiting for the red light on the pedestrian crosswalk to fade.