The kid at the edge of the LSU pool wore a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with Crescent City Classic, 10K. He had the slim good looks of a typically healthy college student, so I didn’t mind approaching him. I had taught him many times over in my 35 years on the faculty and felt smug about still being close to students even in my retirement. He became a sympathetic, eager listener.
“You ran Crescent City?”
“Yeah, the 36th running. In April. Were you there?”
“Hardly,” I didn’t bother to explain. He knew by my white hair and the lump on my bare chest outlining the defibrillator. “But I can tell you about the fourth Crescent City in 1982.”
By 1982, the running craze was well underway. The Crescent City Classic, no Classic yet, attracted perhaps 12,000 runners. We lined up on Decatur Street, starting at St. Peter Street on the corner of Jackson Square, down past the French Market. Sign posts indicated where to stand based on best estimated time of running a 10 K (6.1 miles). There were no computer chips for individual starts. You started your watch as you crossed the start line. Martha and I started well back from St. Peter Street, and it took 10 plus minutes to get to the start line.
The 1982 route: Decatur Street, a short distance on Canal Street to Camp Street near Lee Circle to a long stretch down Prytania Street through several short turns before ending in Audubon Park.
The first significant incident, preceded by the rank odor of unwashed bodies and cheap wine, occurred early in the race near Lee Circle. Rounding a corner, we brushed against two local denizens, toeless tennis shoes hanging over the curb. The shorter one raised his bloodshot eyes and unshaven face to the taller and asked beseechingly, “Why are they running?” Theirs was a world of flight or fight.
New Orleans is a city of contrasts, a place where streets of unalloyed poverty coexist with those of extreme wealth. Prytania is a street of wealth — huge, beautiful old homes with generous lawns surrounded by wrought iron fences.
On this day, Prytania’s banquettes (New Orleans speak for sidewalks) were lined with ordinary folks, while tuxedoed partiers with their Champagne glasses lined the iron fences, all cheering on the runners.
“Hey, Arch, catch this.” And Archie Manning, superhero then and still, deftly caught the flying doughnut with one hand and started to eat it. I believe he shared it with the stocky guy running with him. Another wiseacre in the crowd drew a rousing cheer with, “He can catch as well as throw.”
Until we saw the flying doughnut, Martha and I did not know Archie was in the race. He passed us effortlessly, weaving back and forth to accept many well-deserved accolades. My new young friend listened appreciatively, laughing at the appropriate times, in the right amounts. He especially enjoyed hearing that every fifth person in the free beer line after the race was a bum holding a dirty, well-used foam cup, and no one seemed to notice.
Malcolm Wright lives in Baton Rouge.
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