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Oak Parked: Day 20 in Quarantine With Peter Sagal

Venturing out to witness an Edmer Avenue singalong and a friend running an ultramarathon, pandemic-style

Oak Parkers sing on Edmer Avenue.  

At 8:29 on Saturday morning, there was absolutely no one on the corner of LeMoyne Street and Edmer Avenue in Oak Park. It was as deserted as every other street has been the last few weeks. Then, at 8:30 exactly, all the doors along Edmer – all two blocks of it – opened at the same time, and the inhabitants emerged at once, the way extras do in a movie musical. Which was appropriate, because in short order, they began to sing.

     What will they do, as they run out of rooms 
     Vents and masks they say are on their way 
     Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song 
     And I’ll tell you just what we should say

     Oh, we’ll get by with a little help from our friends 
     Stay alive with a little help from our friends 
     Mmm, gonna try with a little help from our friends

Jason Washburn, a 47-year-old psychologist at Northwestern Medicine, led the singing via microphone and portable speaker at this corner, while Cathy Popick, 46, did the same a block south. It was Cathy who sent out a video of the original song the night before, so people could learn the tune, as well as the rewritten lyrics, so that everybody, holding their coffee in one hand and a print-out in the other, could sing along from their front yards.

This all began, Jason told me later, when a 17-year-old on the block had her birthday just after the lockdown was imposed. She would be “celebrating” it locked inside with her family. But this is a pretty tight block. A few years ago, they created something called the Edmer Community Betterment Crew, just so they could all march together in Oak Park’s 4th of July parade – and everybody realized how grateful they were to see each other. So, Cathy says, “we all agreed we’d all like to just see everybody in the morning, and we came out the next day. And then we were like, ‘Let’s sing something.’ The first morning was ‘America the Beautiful.’ We did it a cappella. The next morning we did it again, just because it was nice to see everybody. And then somebody suggested, ‘Let’s sing something different,’ and nobody had anything.”

That night, Cathy sent out the video for “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, which is a great song that everybody knows, and also it’s long enough so people could linger, but she took the liberty of providing new lyrics for the occasion:

     It’s 8:30 AM on a Saturday
     The regular crowd shuffles in
     There’s an old man sitting next to me
     About to crawl out of his skin …

“And everybody laughed, says Cathy, “and we said, ‘This is fun, we’ll do it tomorrow.’ We figured this situation would last for a week, and now we’re on day 17.”

“Quarantine Karaoke,” as the daily ritual is now known, has become quite popular, with each day’s new song posted to YouTube and Instagram – Cathy has become adept at adding lyrics to videos and uploading them – where they’ve attracted a healthy following. Dave Bickler, lead singer of the band Survivor, commented favorably on the Edmer Community Betterment Crew’s version of their hit, “Eye of the Tiger.” 

Cathy says they’ll keep it up as long as this situation keeps up, with new songs sent out by 6 p.m. and then sung at 8:30 sharp the next morning. “It has to be cheerful and upbeat, not too heavy, classic songs that everybody knows.” In addition to being a general morale booster, she told me, it’s a great way to do a spot check on some of their older neighbors who live alone. Anybody who comes out on the lawn to sing at 8:30 a.m. is doing fine.

So, on Saturday morning, I clapped along with everyone else for the group effort, and then waved goodbye from a socially safe distance because I needed to join my friend Chris Weber as he ran an ultramarathon.

Ultramarathons are, of course, a particular subset of running culture, for people who think that 26.2 miles of a marathon are just not long enough. Weber (I can’t call him Chris, because as said in an earlier entry, we have too many Chrises in our running group) has completed a few of them, including a 100 miler, and says that they’re a completely different experience than a half-marathon or marathon. They’re almost always staged on trails, so the racers spend a day or more just looping through the woods at a slow pace, stopping regularly to eat and drink or relieve themselves. It’s more of a meditation retreat than a race, he says, although he does like to win them.

Chris Weber

Along with just about every other sporting event, this spring’s ultramarathons were canceled, leaving a lot of people with nothing to show for their months of training. One of those frustrated ectomorphs was Dave Proctor, a legendary ultrarunner who had been training to set a new record for running clear across Canada. So he came up with the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a virtual event in which, starting at 8 a.m. CDT last Saturday, runners from around the world would run their first 4.166667-mile loop. (That’s 100 miles divided by 24 hours.) The rules were: Everybody has to finish their loop within an hour, check in on Zoom, and then start the next loop at the top of the next hour. People could run outside or inside, wherever they were, on dirt or carpet, pavement or treadmills, as long as they ran each loop, and the winner would be the last man or woman standing. This was all on the honor system: The only prize was a roll of toilet paper, and besides, the only thing dumber than running a round-the-clock endurance race during a pandemic is pretending you did.

I run every day, and have run many marathons, but this still struck me as a ridiculous waste of time. Then again, considering the ways I had been wasting time over the past three weeks, who am I to judge somebody else’s choice? I joined Chris for his second loop on Saturday morning – the first happened while I was enjoying the singalong on Edmer – and he was in an excellent mood, munching a cold strawberry pancake for energy as he alternated walking and running through Oak Park.

He kept it up, every hour on the hour, all day Saturday and then through the night, until I joined him again at 7 a.m. Sunday for his 24th lap, which would complete 100 miles. I was late to the start and had to chase him, but he was easy to catch. Suffice to say he had lost the spring in his step sometime in the middle of the night, and his brisk alternation between walking and jogging had turned into a shuffle that seemed just a little faster than a walk, and just a little slower than a run, and I couldn’t quite match it. I guess it’s the sort of thing you can only do if you’ve been awake for 24 hours.

Chris was no longer bouncy, no longer cheerful, but he was still steadily plodding forward. “I’m so tired,” he said, plodding forward. “What have you been doing on your breaks between laps?” I asked him. “Crumpling up on the floor,” he said, plodding forward.

I thought about that. We are in a moment when folks like us could sleep all day and nobody would care, and this guy woke up every single hour to go outside and run a tad more than four miles because he thought it would be fun. We escorted him in, finishing his 100th mile as I played the “Theme from Chariots of Fire” on my phone, holding it up in the air to provide a soundtrack as he reached his front steps.

But Weber wasn’t done. His intent was to collapse on the floor for the eight minutes that remained in the hour, then get up, and run one more lap — because he’d already run 100 miles at one go once before, back when such things were just another of the million things we could choose to do outside the house. He wanted to go one lap more. He wanted to do something he had ever done before. Well, something else.

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