And to cap off getting dressed, it was time to “mask up.” After trying a half-dozen masks through the months, I settled on a Zensa: bright yellow (so no one had any excuse to run me over), easy-breathing, sweat-wicking, and fog-free so I could see out of my glasses. I then took our one “tech” step: the Map My Run app. Without a chip or a watch or a Bluetooth, it keeps a detailed map of your route, your pace, your time, and for good measure, lets you snap a photo of yourself to show how disheveled you look afterward. You can email this information to any companions, to keep everyone honest. Little did I know, the runs would be a vehicle for honesty.
I ran the few blocks to Ray’s, who looked like Gumby in his green Celtics mask from the NBA Store, green Celtics shirt from the NBA Store, and I think the same pair of green-trimmed Nike Pegasus shoes he had in college. I dialed him as he sprinted ahead a block, conferenced in Dave, and we were off. The fastest-moving conference call in the East was taking place, and we had to orient ourselves. “United Nations straight ahead,” I told Dave in DC as Ray and I cut over to the East River. “State Department to my right,” Dave replied. Much of our first run was quiet, just some heavy breathing and rhythmic footsteps, with the occasional banter about sports. But it wasn’t weird.
And we heard each other cleanly. Maybe it was my corded Belkin headphones. (Don’t get me started on plain old earbuds that fall out every 50 feet.) I was thankful for this, because there was a lot to hear.
This was among the most time I had spent with friends through the years. When you don’t have a family, it seems the cord frays. Add a pandemic, and the cord threatens to completely unravel. But as we ran, two times most weeks, our calls made me feel like the rope was being knitted back together. Texts, memes, and email chains with other people seemed soulless in comparison.
“I’m starting a new company,” said Ray one morning, “and I feel nervous. But energized.”
“My kids aren’t making new friends,” said Dave another day. “And they’re so young.”
“It’s dawning on me,” I admitted one daybreak, “that I may not have kids.”
That one brought an unusual silence. We all knew it wasn’t a topic we could solve, of course. But I thought they needed to hear it and to understand being single wasn’t merely a source of vicarious thrills for them. I needed to blow up that assumption, starkly. I think it worked, and I think they get it.
Once fall came, we started talking about our college days, when we called home on a payphone, saved term papers on floppy disks, and left notes on our doors about where we were. I also started wearing the best-made item I have ever owned, to stay warmer: a 30-year-old, bright red North Face shell from college, that looked as new as the day I got it. I wore it all winter, rain or shine. They need to make humans out of whatever they’re using at the North Face.
One morning, Dave started the call by recounting an old story we’d heard more than 100 times. A story about when his dad visited him at school and, always the professor, horrified the basketball coaches (and Dave) one day after practice by helpfully showing the team the proper shooting technique. From the 1950s. Then Dave said: “He died last night.”