The emblem is thus a tripartite entity composed of the picture,
 the sentencia, and the “thinking,” which was more often verse than prose....
Etymologically, historically, and aesthetically, the picture is an integral part
of the emblem, and its psychological and aesthetic operation is the result
of the interrelationship of these three parts.

--Elizabeth K. Hill. “What Is an Emblem?”


1.  The Picture
There is still enough coffee in the mug for me to read another line in the faint light offered by the leg-lamp on my desk before I enter the dark of morning.  My hand rests on the line I haven’t read. Sip, and then it comes: the thing that will fill my head for twenty miles: “Female athletes are emblems of our modernity,” he claims, this author who posits various reasons why and how female soccer players are more at risk for injury than male ones.
And then I’ve reached my full-point; no more coffee or my heart will beat out of my chest and hop down the road without me. Down the drain swirls the tan mix and pull the red and white road flats over my socked feet. Not quite ballerina slippers, though in them my stride feels light and airy-- like dancing-- because they are so light.
Once I’m on the threshold, the wooden door closed behind me, I pause. I always do. Stepping out into the dark morning lit only by streetlamp, it’s hard not to feel you’re alone in the world. The only person, I read once in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, loneliness and cold like you’re the first or last person alive. The only one you see or feel or who can understand.
Beep-beep of the Garmin and I’m off, round and up the driveway to the street. And the distance of twenty miles in front of me.
It’s a sort of street-haunting I do, running the edges of avenues and boulevards, streets and lanes and roads, skirting cul-de-sacs (ass-of-the-sack, a Frenchism that made me titter, once back in junior high); street walking like Virginia Woolf in search of a pencil, perhaps. Or not so much, because I’m from Reno and walking the streets has a different meaning there.
Down the infamous Forth Street I’d run sometimes, leaving the Gold and Silver Casino behind, with it’s 24-hour coffee shop sounding of slots and smelling of cigarette buried there and $1.00 cups of coffee in stained mugs you could get re-filled as long as you could drink them. Keno games on old, illuminated screens and black crayons on the table for playing. The go-to play-by-the-numbers game to lose to over breakfast. 
Past the steaming vents I dodge, cement sidewalk to black pavement and back again.
Past the Greyhound station to my left.
Through the dark streets, alone, I ran.
Past the wide loop of McCarran Boulevard with its big four lanes and down into the land of sagebrush, railway and the Truckee River I’d descend. I often wondered if it was here was where I’d find them: the women walking the streets. The mobile ones that signified sex somehow; was it by moving? Or their presence on the streets? The ones faded black Cadillacs stop for, throwing tiny gravel stones into the air with the peel of tires.
I have never been mistaken for a prostitute while running. And I never saw one, either. Perhaps my morning miles were not quite early enough to be close to night; or perhaps I didn’t quite dress the part. Scantily clad, yes, but also sweat-covered and tennis-shoe hooved, wired to my ipod to keep up the metaphor that movement, even if one direction, is musical and lovely.
I run past the site of the old ranch where my stepfather’s family had worked, forty years ago. Basque immigrants from the French side of the Pyrenees, they milked cows, grew the alfalfa in square fields, and of course being Basque, cultivated sheep. Sheep herded to and from; up the mountains to aspen groves where they carved their initials and sometimes nudes into the trees with pocket knives and back down again in winter. A constant vagabondage.
On the shoulder of the road, I trot past upon snippets of words in a language I’ll never understand; a card game called Mus and Aitatia my stepfather’s father, who spoke English with the old language stuck in his mouth like marbles; the skin of his cheeks like the leather they use on saddles and a silence that made me so afraid because of the stories my stepfather told about how violent he could be.
Could be; he wasn’t, ever, with me though I didn’t exactly have any conversations with him that I can recall.
Willows grow around bodies of water-- in meadows and along the banks of the Truckee River. Both Aitatia and my stepfather made whistles for the troop of step-cousins and me out of their branches. High or low: you just had to say which tone you wanted. They cut away the bark in one solid circumcision and formed the reed with hands that knew the mechanical truth of an instrument. Then, the bark would slide back on. A whistle. A whistle I blew until the music faded because I slobbered too much, he said.
La Vagabonde, “The Wanderer” by Colette is a book I devoured in the Gold and Silver with a mug filled with coffee in front of me. I drank it black then, back when I had a lining to my stomach, and so I caught my reflection every now and then in the black soup. I sipped as Rénée Neré walked the streets of Paris to and from her job as a performance artist in Paris. The work was published in 1910 and reflects Paris in its height of the Belle Epoque and le bohème and all their épater. 
Rénée describes her vocation as mime. Her motions are unspoken, and she’s placed on a stage with bright lights, so bright she cannot return the gaze of her spectators. “The gaze” -- a  term tossed about like popcorn in a old-fashioned popper the last time I took a graduate seminar on Victorian Lit-- seems important, vital, even.
But why am I thinking about that now? Me, not really in a coffeehouse, not really reading: me, instead unaware of my pace or place, but with my legs displayed for all to see as I step and stride, so far from modesty as such and the streets of Paris and men--gentlemen-- with hats and canes, skin a cream-colored paleness à la mode. Me, striding past a homeless man just now, without a hat, curled beneath a newspaper and an empty bottle by his head.
The shade and shadow cooler than the patches of early sunlight on the path I’ve found away from the street. I stop for a sip of water from a fountain placed here and as the luke warm liquid touches my tongue, I marvel at modern inventions like a drinking fountain here, just when I was thirsty.
Modern. Modernity. I taught a class once with a text, Trials of Modernity, and I couldn’t help but think that made affairs sound so hoity-toity. Of course modernity was hard. Antiquity was no picnic, either, if you ever read the Odyssey or Iliad. But then there was my colleague, Aaron, who threw his arms in the air over student papers which claimed the modern was now.  The modern moment isn’t now, he’d said, the modern moment is past. We are post-modern. Or, maybe not even that, since post-modern might have been the 1960s. We are always beyond, recording what was.
The modern isn’t now. And yet... Female athletes are the emblems of our modernity. I pass mile four, it’s not the fourth mile anymore I’m headed toward mile five along the banks of the Truckee river and its tall grasses and occasional cottonwood grove. There is never a moment which lingers for the runner; or there is, in memory, but not in the doing. In the doing, it is all the past. And maybe that’s what it means: I’m an emblem for a moment I wasn’t a part of, but that I left behind seconds, hours, years and epochs ago.
2.  Sentencia
Here is the only description of Paris in Colette’s La Vagabonde: “A brief rain—not quite a storm—has started the thaw; the gas lights are reflected, elongated and iridescent in the blackened pavement. The top of the avenue is lost in an hazy mist… Involuntarily, I look behind me and around me, looking for… what? Nothing. Nothing keeps me here.”  The Parisian street for Renée Néré is a lonely place where “nothing” holds her. She moves through it, gliding, a shadow beneath the light and rain. Nothing holds her because, perhaps, she doesn’t belong, as one writer, Anke Gleber claims. In The Art of Taking A Walk, he notes “the street has never belonged to women.”
Or, perhaps it’s because she feels more at home in motion. After all, she gives up the advances of a wealthy bourgeois man for a life of a traveling performer. She leaves him with the promise that she’ll return. Letters comprise the latter chapters; letters always ending in je retournerai. Until the last one, when she’s moved so far from Paris, she felt compelled to keep on going. Goodbye, Paris. Goodbye, France until she reaches South America.
Good Morning Midnight,  written nearly thirty years later, Jeanne Rhys is offers clarity to the problem of walking in an urban landscape: “Paris ...oh what a bitch you can be!“ The street seems to highlight her presence, attracting all the wrong attention.Unescorted, she winds up walking beside a gigolo who clings to her like a cheap coat, expecting her to pay him for sex she isn’t particularly interested in.
I try to will myself into that scene, but I can’t. I’m on the street now, after all. I’m the only one here and by ownership of presence, seems to be mine. I was born eight blocks away; I have walked-- and recently, run-- these routes many times. And yet, there is an undercurrent here, a tension to my presence. A thing I can’t quite say and not because I’m out of breath. I can only remember, once, a time when my mom and my 80- year old grandmother and I had all gone to the Stray Dog Cafe in Elko, Nevada. I can’t remember why we went. I only recall that my grandmother hadn’t wanted to walk to where the truck was parked because it was cold and snowy out and so we had told her to wait alongside the curb for us to pick her up.
She told the story laughing so hard she was in tears.
“So, as I was standing there, an older man came up to me and asked what I was doing. If I needed a ride. And I said: ‘I’m waiting for a pick-up.’ I meant a pick-up truck, of course. But that man looked at me with the widest eyes...”.
Of course, we had laughed.
But now, I do wonder: how can an innocent verb and noun combine to make the lowest rung of social society? Walking: the most pedestrian verb. Street: a blasé noun.  To walk the streets, as Sting knowingly crooned, is put on that red light.
And yet, there seems to be the possibility of transcendence in distance. The logical notion that the journey from point A to point B will leave you with some sense of having changed. Evolved. Which is why Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is so disturbing. The entire play takes place along the side of a road that the characters seem unaware of. Instead, they are static, always as they are, unchanging . Eternal like the dead.
I’m still the only one on the path; it’s only six or so in the morning. It comes to an end with a steel gate across its entrance to keep vehicles away. With more miles to go, I turn into an industrial park with square, cement buildings with street lamps that sputter feebly despite the pale sunlight. Empty parking lots; glass doors with chains and padlocks across them. Large, iron garbage bins smelling sick-sweet of rot. I slide past, silently, considering the odd coincidence that Colette’s protagonist and Rhys’ gigolo share the same name. René(e) which means: reborn.
I hop over the iron rails of the train tracks, looking in each direction and seeing nothing but track stretching out for miles. My mind trips over phrases: wrong side  of the tracks but both sides here seem equally bland. My apartment, next to these tracks, five and a half miles back, vibrates with which each passing freight at midnight, shaking the bed frame so much that the one time we had an earthquake, I mistook it for another train. Chez moi: crammed with books and running shoes and the train whistle that sticks to the white walls, all 250 square feet of them.
A room of my own, though, to contain me in the hours I’m not running. A room with walls I stare at when the memories let themselves in. En route to the annual family clan lamb-roast at Uncle so-and-so’s ranch North of Bordertown en route to Susanville-- or was this another one? On the shores of Pyramid Lake, East and slightly North of Reno where rock formations in the middle of the Truckee River’s final destination look like eery white cousins to the ancient monuments in Egypt.
The red Ford pick up and me between my stepdad at the wheel and my mom in the passenger seat, the stick shift between my legs. Nevada desert let in by the open windows that make my hair whip around and slap me in the face. The wind so loud I couldn’t hear the song on the radio which had annoyed me, though I wouldn’t say it that way at the time. And then, he pointed, gesturing to the endless gray landscape baking around the road. I squinted to see what he pointed at, but all I could see is a gray, square building in the distance. No flashing lights like casinos; no sloped roof like a house. No grass. Just an unremarkable square in the middle of an unremarkable landscape.
What? I asked, but his finger remains, fixed on the spot.
A cathouse, he said.
I turned to my mom, but she was looking at him like he’s said something wrong.
What’s that? I asked.
Maybe then he realized what he’d have to explain. A nervous chuckle. And then: Never mind.
So for a long time, I had the mistaken notion that people kept their cats out in the middle of the Nevada desert. Poor cats, I thought. Trapped in an awful building like that.
I asked if we could turn around to see.
Of course, we didn’t.
 I’ve reached the cattle-guard and tip-toe across its iron beams and pick up my trot again. The road curves before the incline. To the left of me is I-80, and to the right a neighborhood called “Mogul,”  filled with tract-style homes built in the early 1980s, about the time I was born. A time that was not Modern, but past it; a time of synthesized beats and saxophones and sweatshirts with ridiculously wide mouths to show one shoulder because of that Flashdance movie. The 1980s are also a time when the number of female athletes grew because Title Nine had been passed ten years before in 1972 and colleges were forced to provide equal athletic opportunity for men and women.
I’ve never been a fan of numbers, times or dates, but running has forced me to count in increments of 400 meters and to remember years as milestones. In 1984, Joan Benoit Samuelson of the U.S. ran in the first Olympic Marathon race for women in LA and won it. She later said, she hardly expected a crowd to gather in the stadium to watch that Sunday morning. Who, after all, would be interested in watching a woman run a 26.2 mile race? But when she reached the track where she ran that final lap, the roar caused a vibration in the air so big, she looked up and waved her hat into the air as though to gather all those voices.
Take a step back, again. She wasn’t the first, after all. The first might have been Kathrine Switzer in 1967 who toed the line of the Boston Marathon with numbers-- a first-- because she had registered as “K. Switzer.” Race officials had assumed she was a man. I wonder which name they assumed K stood for with each slap of my foot to pavement. Kyle. Kirk. Kristophe. 
When the race director realized his mistake, he hopped from a cart and tried to remove her from the race.
 Switzer said she remembered hearing footsteps behind her. She felt someone grab her shoulder. And she thought about leaving the race because, she said, I felt guilty like I was doing something wrong.
But then, if she quit, she said: I was afraid people would say women were always butting in where they didn’t belong. And then other women wouldn’t be able to run and train like I did.
 So, her boyfriend threw a shoulder-block, sending the race director to the curb. Switzer finished the race despite claims circulated by medical doctors that women who attempted to run marathons would suffer the unfortunate consequence of having their uterus fall out. I don’t think I have to say that didn’t happen.
Or back, further still, is another first: the 1920s, a decade in which women won the vote in various countries and also the year women were first included in the Olympic Games.
Not running. But swimming, diving, tennis and fencing: and American female athletes immediately began to be used by popular media as a way to promote a new type of nationalism: sexy and strong, appealing and new. Modern.
I fill my lungs with air. An exaggerated sigh of relief because the hill is over, though there will be others in the miles I’ve got left to run. There are always hills, I’ve learned.
I’ve left Mogul behind and it’s sagebrush country until I reach the first line of evergreen trees in Verdi-- miles off.
An unused barn stands abandoned to my right. Boards stripped of their paint are now a dark brown, with several missing from either wind or rain. Cows behind barbed wire fences watch dully as I tap-tap by, flicking their tails at flies. The sun warms my back and my shadow stretches out before me. My mind inserts the necessary archetypes missing: the cowboy. The ranch hand. The wife, churning butter.
This was once a ranch. Scattered boards reveal what might have been a corral. A stone foundation of a house, now overgrown with the prickly desert plants.  A lizard sunning himself on the black asphalt startles as I stride by, taking refuge beneath an accumulation of tumbleweeds, caught in the barbed wire, a tangle of dead things.
1928 was the first year women were allowed to participate in a running event in the Olympic Games. It was a Track and Field race, the 800 meter dash. Two laps around the track to finish one-half mile. The gun shot echoed as the nine women set off as fast as they could round and round the bends. Yet no one stood or shouted, except for one French man who, as the women closed in on the finish line, said: Stop the cruelty!
The world was horrified: female competitors crossed the line and one by one appeared “exhausted”; they “sprawled on the ground” and “covered themselves in dirt” as the entered in the infield-- phrases that newspapers would use to describe the scene, slanting the coverage to highlight the inappropriate actions of the female athletes. The thought was: women shouldn’t act like this, especially in public where they can be seen.
And so, the 800 meter race was cancelled for subsequent Olympic events because it seemed like the event was too strenuous for women. It would not be until the 1960s and Switzer’s Boston race that a woman would attempt to officially compete in any distance longer than a quarter mile. And I wonder, having just run nine miles with eleven left before me, what on earth the world was thinking.
This stretch between Reno and Verdi along the old highway reminds me of the rural regions of Nevada I grew up in. The most striking feature of any small, Nevada town is what it’s lacking. Homes spread out in a haphazard scattering with no sidewalks in front of them. Roads that curve and twist and hardly meet at right angles. The presence of only life’s barest essentials gather in the loosely-grouped “center” of town: a post office and a bar. And when my family lived near Elko, Nevada, there were, added to that, the brothels.
I was fifteen and a new addition to the high school’s cheerleading squad the year we were given coupon books to sell to raise money to buy new uniforms. The coach-- who quit two weeks later-- said in passing that a great place to sell them would be the brothels in town because “those women needed to save money.”
My mom took the coupon books to work with her. She came back with them the next day. I sold one to a neighbor. But since houses were spaced so far apart and I had no car, progress was slow in the sale of the coupon books. As the deadline approached to report our sales results to the coach, I remembered her suggestion. Sell them to the brothels! Of course.
My mom and I were already driving over Lamoille Summit-- the hill that separated the valley we lived in from Elko-- when I asked if she’d drive me to the street where the colorful houses were.
To sell the coupon books.
You can’t be serious, she said, followed by a look that said, no.
Coach said it was a good idea, I said.
You’re really going to walk up to the door and ask them if they want to buy a coupon book? My mom asked.
Yes, I said without thinking.
And so, she drove me to the street we never drove on before despite Elko being such a small town. Maybe to humor me. Or to see if I had common sense and would back down.
She cut the engine and I sat there, waiting.
Well? she asked.
Let’s go, I said, putting my free hand on the door handle. The other, filled with coupon books.
I’m not going with you, she said.
You have to!
No. I don’t. If you want to knock on their door, go right ahead. I’m staying here.
It had seemed easy before, when I didn’t think about it. But in the silence of the car, I realized what I’d have to do: I’d have to knock on that door of the bright pink house and squeak out a lame offer of minimal savings. I wished I would have thought about it before opening my big mouth. Because that door, now, was not so much a door as it was a portal, a representation standing in my world and another one I hadn’t thought of much.
But I did it: I slid out of the seat, the skin over my hamstrings gripped the leather as a final appeal to think clearly, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. I walked up the steps to the porch and rang the bell. As though I didn’t know what sort of house it was or what went on in there. Ding-dong.
A woman came to the door. It was dark behind her and around her. She kept the black metal screen door shut between us. so I could hardly see her face. It was as though she was composed of shadows.
Yes? she asked. Confused, probably.
I forgot what I was going to say for a moment and stared. I stared, trying to remember. A minute-- or a millennium-- of silence followed before I said: I’m selling coupon books. Do you want one?
No, she said.
OK, I said over my shoulder, already running down the steps back to the safety of the car which would take me miles away from that uneasiness I’d felt, facing a young woman with a life I didn’t want to imagine and now, couldn’t simply forget.
3.  Thinking, In Prose
It’s strange how human bodies come to represent ideas, how an arm or leg or torso can mean something different depending on its size and shape, composition, distribution and overall aesthetic effect. A developed, muscular arm means: Strength! A protruding, female belly means: Motherhood! Unnecessary fat means: Sloth! Height means stature; tanned means, well, I don’t know. Tanned and hot. Sizzling, like a steak.
Or how bodies can come to represent a geographic area and a way of life. A man propped up on a horse with chaps and a Stetson hat, covered in dust and years of sun signifies the Wild West even if he’s from Europe and speaks very little English.
But women’s bodies are more fragile carriers of meaning. According to some scholars, a man walking on a street evolved in the early modern period from flaneur to loiterer to sandwich-board-carrier whereas, there is no equivalent for the female pedestrian. There never was a flaneuse; just street-walker and tramp unless you happened to read something by Colette: a wandering performer herself who cut her hair short and refused to be cordoned by societal norms that suggested a woman’s place was in the home, in the kitchen or out of sight; anywhere, in fact, but on the street.
Colette was in the street. And then, so was Jean Rhys, who came after her. And then, the women who came en masse, flooding streets in the 1920s, wanting the right to vote. Wanting to move society. Wanting to move themselves.
Yet, the female athlete is something else entirely. A woman in her body, moving through space, a symbol of her own emancipation.
It’s a strange thought to have, running back the way I came, back alongside the Truckee River, back to the downtown corridor shaded by the tall rectangles of the CalNeva, the Fitzgerald and its fake Blarney Stone rubbed greasy by decades of hands, the Eldorado with its neon-pink tower; the Silver Legacy, cast green at night, now white with a facade of storefronts of the way the West never was. I catch glimpses of myself in the glass something I read comes to mind: “The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth[1].”
Then, I think of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and how the protagonist was a prisoner, incarcerated for stealing money because his father had been overworked and died. His one chance at freedom: to win a Cross Country race. An opportunity he refuses; he refuses to play the game.
And maybe we’re all outlaws, those of us who stumble out as the first and last person alive, running silent miles to say what can’t be articulated anymore. We aren’t exactly modern--doing what people have done since antiquity. Perhaps we aren’t anything but wispy shadows, our bodies a channel of memory and emblematic of the struggle that runs beneath these concrete foundations of the homes and casinos and highways around me-- and, of the places we’ve been that no one remembers anymore.
While running, I remember them all. 
And so, twenty miles later, my own sort of street haunting carries me back to my door. I am no longer the first or the last person, but one among many. A representation: an embodiment, bodied, a body.

[1] Jeanne Rhys Good Morning Midnight.

No comments: