The new guy at Garfield Park is clearly a misfit. He showed up this week in designer sweats and color-coordinated shoes, jogging to whatever beat he alone could hear on his headphones, wearing a weight strapped to each wrist and a solemn expression.
De rigueur trappings for jogging in some other time or place, perhaps, but not for 7 a.m. in South Pasadena, where things are done a little differently.
The early morning regulars at Garfield Park have what you could call distinctive styles--if it were not for their total absence of style. These are part-time individualists who indulge in a brief moment of self-expression before taking up what may be perfectly normal lives the rest of the day.
We have crossed paths almost daily for the three years that I've been circling the little park, and some of them may have been regulars long before that. We connect more often and with more regularity than I connect with my family and closest friends, and yet all we know about each other is the sounds of our footsteps and the likelihood of being greeted with a smile.
Since I don't know their names, I've assigned some.
Most prominent among the runners is the Racehorse, a huge, graceful man whose steady pace is at least three times faster than most and whose endurance exceeds everyone's. Never flagging, ever sweating, he wears the same shorts, even on bitter cold winter mornings. He has beaten his own path into the turf, and I can tell by the footprints in the dewy grass if he got there before me and how many times he has been around.
The Screamer is a sweetly smiling Asian woman who adds sound effects to t'ai chi ch'uan. She appears as if by magic among the picnic tables and shatters the park's silence with bloody yells.
Another mysterious one is an older Asian man who secludes himself in clumps of bushes and pats himself all over, working down from the top of his head and ending his unique ritual with gymnastics that seem extraordinary for someone so far along in years.
One of the most fleeting is the Sport, who lives less than two blocks from the park, arrives there in his car, plays half an hour of tennis, then drives home.
The Dog People are there every morning, too, greeting each other with the same enthusiasm that their pets show at each meeting.
Bubbles is back, but that is not necessarily good news. She is a pretty, young woman who worked off a lot of weight, really shaped up and then disappeared for months. Now she is right back where she started, circling the park.
Then there is the lady who is always the same. Same gray sweats, even in the heat of summer. Same stretching and breathing exercises in the shadow of the palm tree, as if that affords some semblance of privacy. She never loses the poundage that got her started on her morning run in the first place, never improves her speed or distance, never has tried reversing her course just to see how things look from the opposite direction. She would rather be there than any place in the world. That's me.
Countless others have come and gone. You can almost tell by looking at them in their finery that they won't be around for long. Like the new guy who showed up this week, outfitted in all the latest gear, they look as if they don't belong.
How can you hear the birds when you are wearing earphones? How can you be yourself when you dress like an advertisement? How can you do anything with weights tied to your wrists? How can you be there and not smile?
The new guy won't last, but I'm betting on The Kid. He is a middle-aged man who showed up several days ago in a striped T-shirt like little boys wear, an Ace bandage on one knee and socks that did not match. He looked very happy.