When you haven’t had many big successes to stake your life upon, you take your victories where you find them. Sometimes this means strapping on your best sneakers and race-walking a stroller-pushing stay-at-home mom without telling her that’s what’s happening, then reveling in your triumph. Sometimes it means claiming dominion over an entire public park.
When choosing a park as the site to pound out a lifetime’s worth of frustration, you’ll want to think small. Parks with proper sports fields are out, as those are bound to host many well-attended games and practices. The presence of so many other people, with their own unpredictable ideas of what a park is for and how it should be used, really cuts into one’s own illusions of control. Parks with community facilities that host meetings and dances are out for the same reason.
What you’re really looking for is a torn-up field with a couple of rusting backstops that has, for reasons not quite clear to anyone, been designated a city park. If you have to settle for one with a playground in a far corner, make sure it’s a crappy playground with sand that looks to be concealing bodies and no more than one or two rotting picnic tables nearby. You want the kind of park where only the saddest, most alcoholic mothers take their kids. That’s where you can stake an uncontested claim.
(One caveat: Avoid parks with lots of graffiti, as that might indicate a stronger pre-existing claim. Start with a park that isn’t gang territory, then work up to those later if you’d like.)
I found my park in February of 2009. In those early days of modest wishes and limited vision, my aim was not to claim it as my own. I was only looking for a place to start walking so that I could shed some unnecessary weight. The park was close enough to the house, tucked away in a quiet residential area off of the main roads. It was a place you only went to if you already knew it was there… and didn’t go to at all if you knew about any of the bigger, better parks nearby.
It had a modest, unmarked field with lots of gopher holes, a sad little playground and picnic area on one side, and a paved, tree-lined walking path so short that anyone very serious about walking would quickly get bored and go somewhere else. It was perfect.
After a couple weeks of daily walking, it occurred to me that I seldom saw the same faces from one day to the next. Yet there I was, day after day. This made me feel like a near-instant veteran of the park, and so I started taking it upon myself to greet new arrivals with a courtly nod and a critical squint that said they were quite welcome to bask in my benevolence but still somewhat under suspicion.
Appearing daily to walk my path, I was a more regular presence than even the city, which ostensibly owned the park but only sent emissaries to mow its holey field once per week. Who could doubt that it was my park? I was there daily. I was its public face.
As my delusions of grandeur grew, so too did my stamina. And so I walked the loop many, many times per visit. Eight. Twelve. Sixteen. Unemployed in the midst of a recession, I had nothing better to do, and I figured more time doing laps could only strengthen my claim on the park until, eventually, the city would have to either rename it in my honor or give me the land outright.
I wasn’t sure exactly how the transfer would be handled, but I was sure the mayor would do the right thing once she had heard back from enough of her groundskeepers: “That same guy was there again, walking the loop!” It was just a matter of time. I prided myself on continuing to practice simpler virtues like patience even despite my imminent rise to civic power and importance. Even if, for all intents and purposes, I now owned a park, I was still a man of the people.
Walking twelve laps around a quarter-mile loop affords certain privileges that walking a single, sensible three-mile loop does not. For one thing, you get to be very conspicuously intent on walking. With your full course in view from anywhere along the way, you get to imagine spectators’ mounting disbelief as you circle again and again and again. You get to imagine them leaning forward on their benches, going from “Oh, looks like that guy is circling again” to “Hasn’t he already been around like eleven times?!” to “He was here doing that exact same thing yesterday and the day before! Do you think he’s some kind of Olympian or Ironman or something?”
When you walk a single larger loop, the whole course isn’t viewable from any one spot. A person positioned along the route will only see you pass once. So, in order to get the same amount of credit you get for walking many times around a smaller loop, you have to call out to each person as you pass: “Even though you’re only seeing me this once, this is in fact part of a much larger walking route I take, winding a surprising distance from where we are now all the way to somewhere else quite far away. I am a very serious walker!” It seems an awful lot of trouble, and they might not even believe you.
Another advantage of the many-laps-around-a-very-small-loop approach is that it gives you plenty of opportunity to be judgmental of any other walkers that show up. If you see a housewife in capris loading a baby into a jogging stroller across the way during your seventh lap, you get to think “I bet she goes four times around, MAX” and get a big kick out of it when you’re right. If you walk long enough, everyone who starts after you will be long gone by the time you’re done. Which means that you win. Most dedicated walker. King of the park. It’s an easy competition to win if you remember to avoid informing any of the other contestants that they are competing.
This isn’t to say that the park loop was without its complications. Every once in a while, I’d happen to be there when a short, stocky fiftysomething guy in a dirty tracksuit and handlebar mustache would tumble out of a creaky old Cadillac that barely slowed down to release him. He seemed to pride himself on being a serious walker, too. Like me, he walked many laps. Unlike me, he stopped periodically to step off the path and shadowbox among the gopher holes.
This I interpreted as a veiled threat.
As if that weren’t enough, mustache man also upset the natural order I had established by walking the loop in a counterclockwise rather than clockwise direction. When both walking at full speed, we would face off twice per lap. I clenched my fist each time, just in case.
Once, when we both happened to converge on my (sorry, the) water fountain for a drink, he confided that he had lost 100 pounds by walking a lot and wearing a special suit that made him sweat while hanging out around his house. I wanted to ask him why he hadn’t graduated to a longer loop. Or wouldn’t he be happier on the treadmills at a boxing club? The sight of a grown man hitting the walking path of a tiny neighborhood park as if he were Rocky Balboa training for the fight was so desperate and pitiful. I was surprised he couldn’t see how sad it must look to myself and all the housewives and elderly couples I had physically dominated of late.
There were other problems, too. Although the old backstops didn’t invite much baseball action, large groups of Mexican men would show up at unpredictable intervals to use the rest of the field for soccer matches. To make the most of the park’s odd dimensions, they would set up their goals just in front of the walking path. And so, while they played, I would find myself walking right behind an imaginary, netless soccer goal twice per lap, or twenty-four times per visit.
Although I’m not familiar with all the intricacies of soccer play, I believe one immutable rule is that whenever there’s a ridiculous-looking gringo in a Walmart tracksuit right behind the goal, the goalie steps aside and lets him take the hit. During soccer games, my safety demanded vigilance. I’d jog past goal areas, keeping an eye on the game. Beyond hoping I wouldn’t get hit, I also prayed I wouldn’t have to return the ball if it came near me. My walking credentials were beyond reproach, but my athletic training had not yet extended to kicking.
Teenagers sometimes showed up as well. (I thought maybe we’d attract a more desirable clientele if we started charging admission, but wasn’t sure who to contact about this.) As they huddled in a corner of the picnic area on skateboards and scooters, I’d imagine they had come to behold, with their own eyes, the storied Walking King of Garbanzo Park. More likely, they had come to trade homework assignments and tell lies about who kissed who on Friday night. I benevolently allowed it, if only because inciting teenagers has never been a winning strategy for staying in power.
After about a year – it took a whole year! – my weight loss plateaued and the park routine started to feel a bit stale. I relinquished my claim and set out in search of new adventures. Although I’d once felt possessive, I didn’t take any of Garbanzo Park with me. When the time came, I didn’t need to. A year of walking its path had rebuilt me. I was ready to tithe my twenty-five pounds of fat and move along.
I still pass by to check up on things from time to time. The park has seen improvements over the years, with better fields and a more inviting play area. It’s still underused, so it’s easy to spot mustache man as I pass, walking and shadowboxing among what’s left of the gopher holes. He still looks ridiculous. I like to imagine that, when he chances to meet people at the water fountain, he sometimes tells them about that time a few years back when a wily kid in a Walmart tracksuit briefly appeared as a challenger to the throne.