On Running Alone in Good and Bad Times

I confess that I have never read “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” by the British writer Alan Stilltoe though I knew something about the story as a teenager who did a fair share of running, and not always on a cross-country course or gravel track. The story was published in 1959 and three years later became a notable film that brought a brilliant young British actor, Tom Courtenay, to acclaim. A few years later, I was running high school track and cross-country after a dismal freshman year trying to play football, the sport I always loved and had some talent for but lacked in size and courage what I needed to plow into guys who had 30 plus pounds on me and were more skilled. Jeez, I still remember some of them, especially the sadistic bastards I grew to despise as well as fear.

According to Wikipedia, the dreaded online source from which so many of my former students thought they could lift material and call theirs, Stilltoe belonged to a group of British writers known at the time as “angry young men” whose main characters were working-class victims of the British ruling class. Sometimes, they became heroes like the protagonist in Stilltoe’s story, a youth named Colin Smith who finds solace from the bleakness of his impoverished existence by running. Smith gets arrested for stealing and is sent to a borstal, the British term for a youth detention center. My parents used to call it reform school when I heard them describing some poor kid who got in trouble and disappeared from the ranks of polite, lower-middle class society.

Anyway, Smith is a hero because the overseers of the borstal offer him a break from heavy manual labor in the school’s machine shop with six months to go in his term if he agrees to compete in a long-distance race against a well-known public school. For the overseers who run the place, Smith’s victory would generate a positive PR spin for the school and feathers in their caps. Come the race, Smith is leading but stops short of the finish line and victory by letting the other runners pass him. For his defiance, the overseers send him back to the machine shop and hard labor until his term ends. Smith does not regret what he did.

My great friend Al Brilliant who owns Glenwood Books a few doors down just gave me a pristine copy as a gift. I will read it and make sure I got this right. I’ll let you know if I didn’t.

But thanks to Wikipedia this much is clear to me. There’s no way my life compares to Smith’s and the challenges he faced as a poor working-class kid. Nor can I measure up to the courage that made him so defiant and admirable. Smith always ran in bad times and under the gun of people who were directly and indirectly responsible for his oppression. The difference, I think, is in my origins and upbringing. I came from a lower-middle class family whose parents put a roof over me and my five younger siblings and always food on the table and clothes on our backs. And unlike Smith who hated the upper class, we always seemed to fawn in its face.

Michael Joseph Roberto

Somehow integral to my journey as a young man in college and graduate school and then later in life as a journalist, an academic, a community activist and always a musician, however, was a nagging belief that I wasn’t good enough. I cannot speak for others in my family, but I always felt desperate to prove myself to whomever, whenever, and for whatever. Looking back, I recognize the sad fact that these feelings also made me think I was alone. I wasn’t, of course. And it wasn’t like I lacked the love of other people, one in particular for the last 23 years. I just felt alone in good times or bad because I was always in a race to prove myself, unlike Smith who decided he had nothing to prove to anyone but himself.

I have accomplished many things in my life despite the failings, which are huge, because of the many loving people who helped me enormously. I finished my Ph.D. in history at the same university I started 29 years earlier. I’ve played music with some of the best and hope there is more of it to come. I established THE PROJECT in Glenwood for all people who identify with its mission and want to enter into the work that must be done in this neighborhood and other parts of Greensboro to make life better for its residents. I wrote my first book at age 68 and working on the next one. I am writing this column.

True to my heart, however, I am a conga and bongo man before all else and was bent on bringing out a band that would perform for the people in my city. March 20 had marked the debut of BAZOOKA! at the Elm Street Lounge in downtown Greensboro. Of course, COVID-19 put that away, as it is doing so much to all of us as we navigate our way through this horror and its consequences, economically, politically, socially and psychologically.

I am watching as much CNN in the mornings and evenings as I can stand since it is my duty as a columnist to stay abreast of matters as they develop, and at an increasingly quicker pace. Still, the rapidity of “breaking news” is for me always a matter of grasping and measuring the significance against the broad canvass of a global pandemic that is taking down the U.S. and world-capitalist economy. We have entered a depression that will be extraordinarily different in its appearance and depth than the first one in the 1930s. The chickens are coming home to roost, as Malcolm X said prophetically a half-century ago. But they’re coming now in greater numbers and much quicker than we can clean up the shit.

Some of my friends here in Greensboro are deeply concerned what could still happen. A third-tier city in the South suddenly becomes a hotspot. Al fears that our neighborhood, Glenwood, could soon be hit hard. I see too much unsettling stuff outside my windows of the THE PROJECT. We both read what we can and discuss what is unfolding every afternoon. Like Dr. Anthony Fauci, our optimism is always grounded in reality, which means we must be prepared for the worst.

As for me, I hope I am learning from a short story I must now read. Unlike Colin Smith who stopped before the finish line in defiance of his oppressors, I have repeatedly fallen down on my own accord. The “why” is now only becoming apparent and involves a truly difficult and painful process so late in my life. Just for today, I am managing. Memories deeply buried by trauma, much of it self-induced, are arising out of nowhere and at the oddest moments. It makes me think of a favorite song by Frankie Beverly and Maze called “Joy and Pain.” I used to play it for Ana and Nate when they were children. I’m still trying to sound like the conga player when I practice. For this I am grateful.

I also remain hopeful that one day I will stay on my feet long enough to see the finish line and stop the way Smith did, but look around and discover some of the other runners doing the same. Those of us who do might never feel alone in good times or bad because it will be a revolutionary moment.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.