I just killed on this one, and I knew I was going to as soon as I started writing the damn thing. Still wonder if it’s better with or without the last sentence. I used this in the comeback book, without the last sentence. Even after everything, I still think the story is worth something.
Stage 7 of the 2009 Tour of California began amid the malls and downtown-ish boutique stores and upmarket food chains of Santa Clarita, the sort of neighborhood that over-inflates the idea of a European village with the gasses of the American Dream, and the street that passed under the start banner was, as always, lined along its length with linked sections of metal riot fencing that pinned the crowd to the sidewalk side of its curbs.
Hundreds of people? Thousands? Not too many to count, but too frenetic to count, as if someone had broken open a couple ant-hills and was trying to take a census.
The open ends of the street were patrolled by course marshals, and Mavic moto guys in motorcycle boots and zipped-up leathers, and arrogant yet unsure volunteers in orange T-shirts, and sometimes even actual police. If you aren’t a racer, or don’t have a plastic credential hanging around your neck, or aren’t Phil Liggett, you’re not supposed to be able to enter the hallowed ground of the open street.
Except the last hundred feet of the Santa Clarita start was buzzing with kids. Kids on their knees, on their hands and knees, or squatting, or jumping, shouting kid shouts (or those shrill girly shrieks), kids smacking each other for no reason except that they’re kids, teenagers, toddlers, some still in strollers, a few leashed to their parents, some standing in one place and turning circles as if to wind the whole experience around themselves, and others leaning with self-conscious casualness against a fence while talking to someone stranded outside its metal bars, and all of them dusted with yellow on their hands, or hair, or shoes or knees.
The street beneath them was yellow, too. The Lance Armstrong Foundation had been camping out at the Tour of California’s start and finish cities, and driving the routes ahead of the race, distributing free, three-pack boxes of stubby yellow chalk and encouraging people to write or draw something on the pavement. (This would end up causing some trouble at some of the finish lines, especially the ones that finished with several circuits, when the racers kicked up chalk dust so thick some of them complained they had trouble seeing and breathing.)
I looked down and saw that I was standing on someone’s scrawl. I moved my feet.
Uncle Sam We Miss You
I looked around me.
Mom & Dad miss you
My Mom Sybil
I started walking, head down, in a haphazard procession from one chalked message to the next, my feet sometimes at odd angles, my legs twisted about or splayed apart to keep my shoes from scuffing what I now understood to be tributes. And wishes, and prayers, and sometimes a challenge. Sometimes a promise.
In Mickey’s absence
we live on
Mimi: You are not forgotten.
Jason you are a survivor
Miss you Shirley-mom
Jason Hang in There
In Memory of Helen Nestor
In Memory of Jeannie
Thank U for not giving up
This is for Boom Boom
Keep Living Strong
We love you Mickey
In Memory of Ed, Ride Hard
In Memory of Ann
Livestrong for Aunt Debbie
and Ed McKeon
We love you Makenna
4 Uncle Steve Makenna
Livestrong Misti’s Mom
In Memory Miriam
By the time I got to the end of the tributes, the cops and volunteers down there were beginning to blow their whistles and hustle people back out of the street, back over behind the barriers. I turned around to look back at the street I’d just walked, unlike any street I’d ever walked, and right there behind me stood a little girl, maybe as tall as my waist, wearing ruby red slippers and pink socks, high up over her ankles, and a plain gray dress and a pink and purple plastic tiara with red jewels. She was holding a black Mavic bell and a golden-haired doll, and she looked at me with the complete self-assurance of the very young, with more poise than any of the strutting volunteers who were trying to shoo her away.
She was covered with yellow chalk marks.
“Hi,” I said. “Do you want Lance to win?”
She smiled as a courtesy.
“Do you know who Lance Armstrong is?” I asked.
She shook her head, with that slow and deliberate motion only children can pull off, and maybe she shrugged. She looked past my shoulder.
“She doesn’t,” said the girl’s mother, sounding almost apologetic. Tara Olsen, from Santa Clarita, had just driven down to the mall this morning to take Alexa, 4, and her other daughter, Ava, 2, for some shopping. “And we saw this,” Tara said.
“I guess you wrote something,” I said to Tara, wagging a finger at her yellow-flecked daughter. Tara laughed. Alexa held her doll up and said, “Goldilocks.”
Tara said, “We wrote, Keep Fighting Papa Rick—Livestrong.” There was a pause, and she said. “He’s my father.”
I said, “Oh.” I did not know what to say. I thought about asking Alexa something about her doll.
“He has prostate cancer,” said Tara.
“I didn’t see it,” I said, sort of turning and gesturing out along the road.
They had to go. Cops and volunteers and TV crews were crowding into the open space. “In the corner,” said Tara and she and Alexa and Ava were squeezed off the road and toward the sidewalk. “Right at the start.”
I flashed my credential and walked back along the golden-chalked street, the hum of the crowd behind the barriers seeming almost as solid as the metal itself, and the loudspeakered voices of the announcers communicating excitement even if you didn’t listen to their words, and I walked and looked out at the crowd and down at the chalk and back out at the crowd, and there in the corner, the farthest left corner, there was the little piece of hope Papa Rick’s family had created for him.
I just stood for awhile looking down at it.
A security officer stepped on the “P” as he walked past, kicking up a little scruff of chalk dust. In four minutes, these were the people who walked on it: A local race official, seven photographers, a UCI commissaire, someone who’d obviously borrowed a media pass, a Mavic support guy, a three-person TV crew, and Tweety.
Tweety was part of a six-character entertainment troupe that was running all over shaking hands and posing for pictures. Daffy Duck hit me on the top of the head with a Lance Armstrong Foundation “Hope Rides Again,” placard.
Papa Rick’s name was starting to disappear. I walked away, and that day I didn’t stick around to watch the start. I didn’t want to stand there while the things I’d seen got turned into dust.
Lance Armstrong: You should come back forever.
Originally published in the Feb. 7, 2009 Sitting In