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Original Issue


I thought I had the answer. I was down in my basement, running like the wind on my brand-new treadmill, watching the snappy LED readout tell me my speed, my distance, how well my heart was performing and even how many calories I had burned.

Several things had led me to subterranean jogging. First, I live in a city, and my Joe Namath knees can't take the pavement anymore. But more important, the city in which I live, which happens to be the nation's capital, has become a free-fire zone of late, a sort of open season on bystanders. Just plain folks have stopped bullets while eating lunch, walking to school or even washing dishes. When a woman was kidnapped at knife point right near my home, I hung up my racing Reeboks.

Then about two pounds of cellulite later, as I wandered through a shopping mall, the answer appeared. In one of those high-tech stores that make you think everybody has a glitzier life than you do, stood an elegant treadmill.

It cost a great deal of money—more than my first car. But this machine not only went round and round and told you how much you were accomplishing, it also had a built-in photo-optic cell that could watch your feet. Somehow it adjusted itself as you padded along, thereby avoiding, the literature said, "eventual ankle and knee problems." The next thing I knew, a salesman was there and my mall-walking Reeboks had thumped along a mile without even leaving the store. I was hooked. Yet I reasoned that since my feet had gone hundreds of miles without a photo-optic cell looking after them, I might elsewhere find a less sophisticated, less expensive home running machine.

I did just that at a large department store where America and Cheryl Tiegs shop. The machine came home that day. It was perfection.

I would crank up the motor, hop on and select my pace by turning a dial toward either a turtle or a rabbit. I could put Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons into my Walkman, bounce along to Sherry and pretend it was 1962. I could jog through the sound track of Flash-dance or Footloose. Then one day, right when I was feeling glad that this machine, Bruce Springsteen and I were all born in the USA, it happened.

What sounded like a gunshot came from the wall, and the belt stopped dead. My God, they got me in my basement! I thought. I had mixed feelings when I saw that the noise had only been the sound of the electrical socket blowing out of the wall. I tried another plug. Slowly but surely, as Bruce lamented being laid off at the lumberyard, the basement began filling with smoke. I called the service center. Two men came out, squatted down and watched in amazement as a bolt of lightning shot out of the treadmill's motor.

In the meantime, I took to jogging on a path that encircles the home run boundaries of a local urban ball field. But the boys of summer, mostly lawyers and lobbyists, take their game very seriously. If, for instance, the leftfielder fails to put his beer down in time to catch a high fly, the jogger—200 feet away at the time—will receive dark glares that say, You broke my concentration!

When the new motor arrived I was assured it was similar to the old one. It was. It too filled the basement with smoke. The third serviceman determined that the machine had the wrong circuit panel. He ordered a new one. I felt sad that my new friend the jogging machine sat there disemboweled.

Finally, when the machine had had every conceivable organ transplant, the repairman turned it on. Turtle to rabbit to turtle, it hummed nicely. He smiled. I doubt he had made it to the 7-Eleven before I was opening windows in the basement to let the smoke out. My machine had died on full rabbit. I exchanged the machine for a different model. I was happy at last, albeit briefly.

I now run through the urban jungle, leaping great sidewalk faults and breathing bus fumes. Last week we had our 360th homicide of the year. But the time will come again when the machine, Bruce Springsteen and I will all be glad we were born in the USA. In the meantime, we're awaiting new repair parts being sent from Utah.