Monday, July 19, 2004

The Foster Files Part I: Run Jen Run!

Growing up, I spent my entire childhood in the same house. It was the nicest house in the worst neighborhood, which according to realtors, is not exactly what you strive for. As the neighborhood deteriorated, most of my close friends moved away to nicer, safer neighborhoods. My family stood firm, though. I lived across the street from a beautiful park, and across the park from my school. The neighborhood had character, and my parents weren’t ready to concede and move to some pre-fab subdivision.
We just learned to deal with a few minor inconveniences that you don’t encounter in the nicer neighborhoods: we had to take our garden hose in every night or it would be stolen, and if we didn’t chain the trash cans to our garage, they would end up dumped all over our back yard. Also, about every six months, someone would smash the side view mirror off of one of my parents’ cars, but I guess you learn to adjust to these things.
So, with my list of close pals slowly dwindling, my parents had no choice but to allow me to expand my circle of friends and reach out to the wild family who lived at the opposite end of the block – the Fosters. The Fosters were unique in many respects, not the least of which was their size. I don’t mean their physical stature, although they were extraordinarily tall and thin. I mean size in terms of quantity – the Fosters had eleven children. Mrs. Foster was a very religious woman – fundamentalist Christian – so all her children’s names were chosen from the Bible. From oldest to youngest, they were: Noah, Mary, Diana, Caleb, Ruth, Solomon, Aaron, Isaac, Martha, Sarah, and Samuel.
Mrs. Foster claimed to have read the Bible cover to cover at least 20 times, and often tried to prove this to me by literally backing me into a corner while quoting scriptures. And she swore that a mole on her cheek disappeared after she touched it during a particularly moving episode of the PTL Club. But when you’re nine years old, you can overlook a lot of insanity if it means having eleven friends to hang out with at a moment’s notice. 
It seemed as though the Fosters were genetically designed for troublemaking. The whole family had loud, booming voices, which they often used to yell idle threats and mean names at people walking by. Almost all of the Foster kids were extremely lean and muscular, although they rarely had to use their muscles thanks to their greatest gift, which was their speed. The Fosters were all unusually tall, and at least three-fourths of their bodies were legs. This gave them great speed, which was a good thing since they were often being chased. In fact, when I think back to my youth with the Fosters, much of it was spent running – from police cars, from neighborhood bullies, from angry siblings. When you hung out with the Fosters, you would inevitably end up running from someone.
I remember one particular evening – I was about ten and had convinced my mother to let me sleep over at the Foster’s. Sol, Aaron, and I were hanging out in the park on the swings, minding our own business for the most part. It was far too late for us to be out – probably around 10:00pm – but we were thrilled to be breaking the rules, swinging after hours, and seeing who could go the highest. I would lean my head back as the swing descended, and stare up at the stars. It made me a little queasy to see the ground coming toward me, but I loved it.
Aaron interrupted our late night swing session by alerting us to the fact that four big kids were coming toward the park. Now, to back up a bit, part of the reason that the Fosters were always running from people is because they had a complete inability to shut their mouths when they should have. It was almost as if they needed the adrenaline rush of fear to keep themselves going. And because of their speed, they knew full well that they could outrun almost anyone in the neighborhood.
True to Foster form, Sol yelled something at the boys that set them off and running toward us. They were a good 100 yards away from the park, but judging by their pace, they would reach the swings in no time. Aaron shoved a handful of rocks in his pocket, and took off running the opposite direction. Sol quickly followed, leaving me sitting in the swing alone. I leapt off the swing, jumped the park fence, and started off after Aaron and Sol.
Now, my people are not runners. I come from Sicilian and German stock, and you’d have to look far back in the record books to find an Olympic medal winning Sicilian or German on the track team. Our hips are too wide, legs too short, lungs too underdeveloped for such athletic feats. So whenever I would accompany the Fosters on one of their many trouble-filled adventures, I usually had to rely on Ruth to grab the back of my shirt and drag me along to keep up with her pace. Without Ruth there, I was left to my own devices, which were shoddy at best.
I ran as fast as my scrawny legs would push me, looking back at the group of boys who were rapidly gaining on me. Aaron and Sol were mere silhouettes in the far distance, and by this point, they weren’t even running at full speed anymore. Sweat started to trickle down my back, and I breathed in deeply to try to alleviate the sharp pain I felt underneath my ribs. As I ran, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of anger. I was angry at the Foster boys for starting this and then abandoning me, angry at myself for sneaking out so late, and angry at these kids I had never met who were rapidly gaining on me.
After only ten minutes or so of running at top speed, my legs were on fire, and I couldn’t catch my breath. At that moment, I decided that nothing these boys could do to me could be worse than the excruciating pain I was in. Plus, I was hopeful that once I caught my breath, I might be able to talk my way out of any sort of physical altercation.
I slowed my pace to a trot, then a walk, then finally just stopped dead in my tracks and turned to face my pursuers. All four boys were running straight toward me, at full speed. With my hands on my hips, I put my head down a bit to catch my breath, waiting for their impending arrival. As they finally caught up with me, I was shocked to see them breeze right past. They never stopped, didn’t even make eye contact, but just kept on running to catch Aaron and Sol. I turned around just in time to watch them disappear around the block. While nursing my sore ribs and hobbling back to the Foster’s house, I was struck by this feeling of confused relief. I guess sometimes when you stop running from the things you're afraid of, they just pass you right by.