SECTION SIX

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COLUMN SIXTY-THREE, SEPTEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright 2001 The Blacklisted Journalist)

WALKING IN RAHWAY RIVER PARK

On any given morning, you can see at least 30 persons headed clockwise on the macadam walkway that runs parallel to the mile or so of vehicular drive circling the interior of Rahway River Park. You can also see an equal number of persons headed counter-clockwise.  Although I am one of those persons, I haven't the faintest why I or any of the others chooses to head clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Some are walkers, some are power walkers, some are trotters, some are runners, some are mothers pushing strollers with tots in them and sometimes two tots, some are helmeted kids on scooters with mamas trailing behind and some---kids or grownups both---are on bikes. In the chill and often-humid summer mornings starting at sunrise, an uncounted number of us join in this ritual.  Some of the men are wearing pants---jeans, sweats, slacks, shorts, dungarees or denims---and some of the women are wearing pants, too, as well as sports clothes, overalls, skirts, leotards and dresses. There are also a lot of baseball caps on heads of both sexes. On one particularly chilly morning, I saw a balding and obviously handicapped old man wearing an overcoat as he struggled to circle the walkway with a cane in each hand.

Of course, my companion Ida and I, both past 70, stroll rather than walk.  We start out with a healthy drink of water from the refreshingly clear stream released at the press of a button on the stone drinking fountain situated a short distance from the Rahway River Park Drive entrance at Route 27, also known as the Lincoln Highway. After drinking, Ida and I do a stretching exercise, pushing against a tree to extend our calf muscles, for 30 seconds, one leg at a time.

"Need any help in pushing that tree over?? a smiling by-passer sometimes asks.

There are park-walkers much older than Ida and I who pass us twice and sometimes three times before the two of us have circled the park even once. One who can walk the mile twice to our once is a tall, vivacious woman named Irene, a churchgoer who sometimes wears an outfit that evokes the stars and stripes.  She walks to the park from her home in Rahway carrying a supply of peanuts in a bag slung over her shoulder and she feeds the peanuts to the squirrels as she circles the walkway at least three times a day.

I once saw her disconsolate after we had both witnessed the murder of a squirrel she had just fed by a malicious driver, who deliberately ran down the hapless animal as it crossed the street with the peanut still in its mouth. Irene went into the roadway and picked up


A calico cat
is a bigger attraction
than the swimming pool


the carcass.  She couldn't give the squirrel a decent burial so she placed its remains by the side of the road rather than leave in it the middle of the road to be steamrollered by the tires of passing cars.

Also in Irene's bag as she arrives from home is a can of cat food that she feeds to the calico cat making its home near a pair of storm drains at the roadway entrance of the Walter E. Ulrich Memorial Pool, the summer swimming Mecca, where my big sisters would take me via Public Service bus for joyous occasions some 65 years ago.  Today, the cat is more of a big attraction than the swimming pool to those of us taking our morning exercise in Union County's Rahway River Park.

Not only Irene, but many others of us bring meals for the cat, either of the dried variety, often left in a pile on the storm drain curb, or in the form of moist canned cat food, sometimes left in dishes at a nearby tree. When still unfed, the cat approaches with anticipation each person carrying a bag, but I've never seen the cat allow a soul to pet or touch her.  What I have seen, was a grayish blonde-haired woman who always wears a dress sitting on a nearby bench while feeding the cat out of her hand.

There'd been rumors among us walkers that the cat had kittens hidden down below the grating of one of the storm drains. But I've never seen any kittens and if they ever were there in the first place, they should have emerged by now. Otherwise, the storm drains serves as safe havens for the cat, which disappears below the grating of either at the approach of any of the dogs being walked, sometimes without leashes.  And sometimes without owners equipped with pooper-scooper bags to clean up the messes the dogs occasionally leave in the middle of the walkway.

Unfortunately, the flock of geese that makes its home on the pond formed by the Rahway River before it spills through the narrows beneath Route 27 doesn't come equipped with either owners or pooper-scoopers.  The geese graze like hungry cattle on the park's vast stretches of green, which is the color of the droppings that the geese leave on the macadam walkway when they arrogantly strut to and from the pond and their feeding grounds. Nonchalantly, they cross the roadway en masse, forcing drivers to slam on their brakes and stew.

For me, the geese ---like the young women runners who whiz by us with bobbing pony tails flowing from their earphoned heads while sometimes holding Walkmans and water bottles and sometimes exercise weights in their hands---are pleasant to observe. However, the geese are multiplying at an unabated pace in Rahway River Park. One reason is that they have no natural enemy predators in the vicinity to keep their population in check.  Except maybe an occasional member of America's homeless, some of whom are reputed to enjoy a cooked goose for dinner.

Of course, we don't walk in rainstorms, but it's only the day after a heavy rain that park walkers like me have less fear of taking home goose-doo on the soles of our footwear. At 73, I learned long ago that it's important to watch where you walk.

Aside from the inevitable goose-doo, the park is meticulously maintained by the park employees of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders---with soccer fields; big-backstopped baseball diamonds; picnic areas with tables, benches and cooking grilles; newly planted tree groves; newly planted floral gardens; clean bathrooms for men and for women; green garbage cans stationed every number of yards and a garbage truck with a crew to empty them daily; an abundance of benches for us to sit and rest along the way; men atop scary, giant lawn mowers constantly cutting the grass and making a racket loud enough to keep the squirrels up in the trees; colorful playgrounds for kids.  There are even fish to be caught by anyone dropping a line from the Rahway River riverbank.

A retired schoolteacher, Ida says she has been walking the park for maybe 25 years and has seen other walkers grow old and then vanish from the walkway.  She learns they have died only when those who accompanied the missing on their daily walk tell her so. She also tells me that sometimes the surviving companions take up with other surviving companions.

"It's better than having to read the personals," she adds.

I'm told the walkway is a measured mile, with white poles marking every quarter-mile but I'm also told the walk is really a little more than a mile.  Whether the walk is a mile or more doesn't mean squat to walkers like me.  The first time around is a constant succession of "Good Mornings? to familiar faces, like the easily recognizable Irene. Or like two retired schoolteachers named Martha and Lee, who always have something to say to each other. Or like a tall, heavy-set man said to be an ex-gym teacher wearing a Syracuse T-shirt who is often accompanied by another, shorter man said to be an ex-gym teacher'the two of them usually circle the walkway twice before Ida and I have circled it once.  Or like an elderly man with a charming and intriguing smile who is always in conversation with his light-haired companion, a strikingly attractive woman of an obviously younger age.  Or to the Asian man who walks with a backpack and a straw hat and who apparently doesn't speak English.  I sometimes see him standing alone in the middle of the park practicing tai chi with his backpack on the grass beside him.

The first round of "Good Mornings? and smiles of recognition are warming.  It's as if saying hello to old friends.  On the second turn around the park, just a nod and a smile are acceptable. It wasn't too long ago, after my second attack of phlebitis, that I couldn't even make it up my driveway to the sidewalk. I felt as if I were dragging balls and chains. Today, I am in better shape. And walking around Rahway River Park with my ad hoc family of fellow walkers has proved nothing short of delightful.  ##

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