The Long-Distance Runner
The Long-Distance RunnerIntroduction
"The Long-Distance Runner" by Grace Paley is the last story in the collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, which appeared in 1974. The story is also available in The Collected Stories (1994). The story features Paley's lead protagonist, Faith Darwin Asbury, who at forty-two has taken up long-distance running. This semi-autobiographical character shares Paley's concern for social justice and her awareness of the cultural and economic divisions between the races, recurrent themes in Paley's fiction. The short story foregrounds Paley's skillful use of dialogue as a way of dramatizing differences between individuals in a given neighborhood. In this story, Faith travels back to her childhood neighborhood in Brooklyn and witnesses from the inside the deterioration of the now all African American tenement where her family once lived.
Grace Paley was born on December 11, 1922, in the Bronx, New York. Her parents, Manya Ridnyik Goodside and Dr. Isaac Goodside, were Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States in 1906. Paley's parents were socialists who had engaged in political resistance efforts against the Russian czar and had been exiled (her father to Siberia; her
mother to Germany) as a result. They settled originally in lower Manhattan where they were joined by his mother and two sisters, who, along with his wife, supported Isaac Goodside while he studied medicine.
By the time Paley was born, the family was living a middle-class existence in the Bronx. Theirs was a multilingual world: Russian was spoken in the home; Yiddish was used in the neighborhood; her father's first employment-based language was Italian; and English was spoken at school and in the city beyond. A childhood colored by such distinct sounds and colloquial expressions early sensitized Paley to how speech patterns convey character. Moreover, her family's concern for the under classes and for social justice, along with their family stories of oppression, predisposed Paley to see the political component as fundamental to individual circumstance. Indeed, when she came, in the 1950s, to write fiction, she focused on urban neighborhoods full of individuals whose ways of speaking both revealed their backgrounds and connected them to different ethnic communities.
Having survived political oppression, Isaac and Manya Goodside recognized how vulnerable people are to social upheaval and economic change. They urged Paley to learn secretarial skills so she would always be able to support herself. After attending Hunter College her freshman year, Paley went to Merchants and Bankers Business and Secretarial School, and thereafter she worked as a secretary for a reinsurance company, for some social agencies, and for Columbia University. Later she attended New York University. At home, she typed her poetry and later her stories. She married Jess Paley in 1941 and had two children (Nora in 1949 and Danny in 1951). The couple separated in 1967 and divorced in 1971, and in 1972 Grace Paley married Robert Nichols.
During the 1950s and 1960s, while becoming increasingly active in Leftist protest activities, Grace Paley continued writing and caring for her children at home. In 1959, Doubleday published her first collection of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man. Among her political activities, she was involved in the 1961 establishment of the Greenwich Village Peace Center, and her 1966 participation in an antimilitary protest at an Armed Forces Day parade led to her serving a brief sentence in jail. She protested for the legalization of abortion and supported the Civil Rights movement. Professionally, in 1966 she began her twenty-two-year connection with Sarah Lawrence College where she taught writing. During these years she continued to publish. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute was published in 1974 ("Long-Distance Runner" is the last story in this collection), and in 1985 Later the Same Day appeared. Also in 1985, she published her first book of poetry, Leaning Forward, followed by Long Walks and Intimate Talks in 1991 and New and Collected Poems in 1992.
Grace Paley's work gradually garnered widespread critical attention, and Paley began to win awards for her writing. For example, she received the 1970 National Institute of Arts and Letters award for short fiction. She won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for fiction in 1986 and the Senior Fellowship of the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987. In 1987, Grace Paley became the first New York State Author, and she also won the fiction writers' Edith Wharton Citation for Merit. She won the Lann an Literary Award in 1997. In 2001, Grace Paley and Robert Nichols began a small literary press, Glad Day Books, which they operated from their Thetford, Vermont, home. Their intention, according to a Publishers Weekly article, was to publish works, both political and literary, which other presses could not or would not publish.
When "The Long-Distance Runner" begins, Faith Asbury is preparing to leave home for a long-distance run. She leaves her two sons and a neighbor friend, Mrs. Raftery, watching television. Faith takes the train to Brighton Beach, changes her clothes in a locker, and runs along the boardwalk for a mile or more. Then she cuts away from the beach and heads into her old neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Almost immediately, Faith is surrounded by a crowd of African Americans who comment on her presence and appearance. She is undaunted by them, engaging them in conversation and commenting back in their language. She points out to the crowd her old apartment, and the Girl Scout Cynthia suggests that Faith go inside the building and meet the current tenants in Faith's childhood apartment.
On the first floor of the apartment building, Faith resists Cynthia's suggestion to visit Mrs. Luddy, the resident in Faith's old apartment. Faith excuses herself with the lie that her mother is dead, and she does not want to see the place. This comment arouses Cynthia's fears about losing her own mother, to which Faith replies that if Cynthia's mother were to die, Cynthia could come to live with Faith and her sons. Suddenly, Cynthia is afraid of Faith and lets out a yell. Afraid, in turn, of the fear she has aroused in Cynthia, Faith runs to Mrs. Luddy's door and begs to be admitted. Mrs. Luddy lets Faith in and bolts the door.
Faith remains with Mrs. Luddy for the next three weeks, sharing the work of tending to three little girls and offering to engage the second-grader, Donald, in reading lessons. As women and as mothers raising children alone, Mrs. Luddy and Faith are able to talk about mutually interesting subjects. But they are separated by racial, economic, and education differences. From Mrs. Luddy's window, they can see across the street into burned-out buildings and garbage-laden empty lots and down into the street below to people on the steps and sidewalk. They discuss men and sex and children; they express their separate conclusions on these subjects. Faith's naive and idealistic assumptions about cleaning up the neighborhood and bringing Donald's reading up to level contrast with Mrs. Luddy's matter-of-fact resignation to her bleak surroundings.
Then one morning Mrs. Luddy wakes up Faith with the announcement that it is time for Faith to leave. Mrs. Luddy says, "This ain't Free Vacation Farm. Time we was by ourself a little." Faith fails to return Mrs. Luddy's strict look. She says, "I tried to look strictly back, but I failed because I loved the sight of her." With a kiss on Donald's head, Faith leaves.
Faith runs back to her home and finds her lover, Jack, and her one son, Richard, beginning to clean up. It is Saturday, and her other son, Anthony, is just leaving to visit his friends in institutions such as Bellevue and Rockland State. That evening Faith tries to explain where she has been, but Jack, Richard, and Anthony do not understand. The story concludes with a kind of summing up: "A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though she was a child what in the world is coming next."
Anthony, also called Tonto, is Faith Asbury's second son. He is a social activist like his mother and visits friends in institutions on the weekends.
Faith Darwin Asbury
Faith Asbury is Grace Paley's lead protagonist, a woman with an absent husband, Ricardo; two sons, Richard and Anthony; and a sometimes live-in lover, Jack. Politically, Faith is a radical liberal, and as a mother raising children mostly alone, she is sensitive to women's rights and issues. She lives in New York. Her parents live in a seniors facility called Children of Judea.
Richard Asbury is Faith's older son. He and his brother Anthony are watching television when Faith leaves for her long-distance run.
Cynthia is a Girl Scout in Brooklyn who meets Faith in the street and ushers her into the apartment where Faith lived as a child. While Cynthia encourages Faith to meet Mrs. Luddy, the tenant of the apartment where Faith lived years before, Cynthia is frightened by the idea that Faith could serve her as an adoptive parent if Cynthia's mother were to die.
Jack is Faith's lover. When Faith returns from her three-week absence, Jack is cleaning house with Richard.
Donald Luddy is a second grader and the oldest of Mrs. Luddy's four children. He is bright and cordial. Mrs. Luddy keeps him in the apartment most of the time because there are dangerous people in the streets who could hurt him. While Faith stays in the Luddy apartment, Donald composes a poem.
Eloise is the two-year-old sister of Donald Luddy. There are also twin baby girls in the Luddy family.
Mrs. Raftery is a neighbor and friend of Faith Asbury. Mrs. Raftery looks in on Faith's sons and sometimes makes them a meal. When Faith leaves for her run, Mrs. Raftery is watching television with Richard and Anthony.
See Anthony Asbury
"The Long-Distance Runner" suggests the effects of "white flight," a term coined in 1967 to describe the movement of white people to the suburbs as urban neighborhoods and schools became increasing African American. As cities lost population and tax base, urban neighborhoods decayed. Poor people were left to cope with deterioration and increasing crime, and urban neighborhoods were called ghettos. In this story, Grace Paley imagines a situation in which a middle-class white woman and an African American woman in the ghetto are able to bridge the gap created by white flight. Faith runs through her Brooklyn childhood neighborhood and is able to meet and live with people there. She witnesses the changes that have transpired since her family moved away. She is able to talk with Mrs. Luddy about the problems that confront poor people and middle-class people alike. Faith's idealistic responses to the tenement culture and problems are countered by Mrs. Luddy's discouraged resignation. Mrs. Luddy has adapted to her environment, learned to exist in it; Faith visits with the simplistic hope of extending herself to these people, but in the process she becomes more aware of the unanswered questions that permeate the problems of racial prejudice, poverty, and urban decay.
"The Long-Distance Runner" dramatizes how people in an all-black, poverty-stricken neighborhood react when a white woman runs through its streets. Time and shifting populations have separated Faith Asbury from her childhood neighborhood, and when, as a forty-two-year-old, she returns, she is hooted at and challenged by the people on the street. Now a stranger, an interloper, Faith is at risk in the streets where she played safely as a child. The people in the street shout out their comments about her while she tries to make connection with them by talking about the names of flowers. By being in their midst, she learns from them, and they see her as an individual despite her race. Moreover, the fiction allows for Faith to stay with Mrs. Luddy for three weeks. This temporary integration gives Faith understanding about what it is like to live in the urban ghetto and what it is like to be an African American woman who must raise her children in a threatening environment. It also implies the limitations of white drive-by platitudes, such as "Someone ought to clean that up."
Cross-Racial Female Relationships
By enacting a story in which women separated by race, economics, and education spend three weeks living together, Paley indirectly addresses the historical separation of the races in the white middle-class pursuit of women's rights. The feminist movement was mainly a middle-class white woman's movement, which suggested no female alliance across color lines. "The Long-Distance Runner" enacts an implausible fiction in which two women meet despite those lines, and the white woman's education is achieved through this exposure.
Significantly, the meeting occurs on the African American woman's turf. Mrs. Luddy is immediately in charge: "You in my house…. You do as I say. For two cents, I throw you out." Reversing the racial power structure puts Faith in the position to see more and learn more. That arrangement is important because it is Faith who comes with the "answers"; in other words, Faith comes to Mrs. Luddy with conclusions that Mrs. Luddy then challenges. For example, regarding the vacant lot across the street, Faith says, "Someone ought to clean that up." Mrs. Luddy matter-of-factly retorts, "Who you got in mind? Mrs. Kennedy?" Readers get the chance here to see just how this new "meeting of minds" transpires. In effect, Paley creates a world in which the traditional lines that divide African American women from white women are crossed, and it is that crossing that reveals the complicated questions that refuse easy, one-liner answers.
"The Long-Distance Runner" takes place mostly in Brooklyn, New York, in the childhood neighborhood of Faith Asbury. The story takes place some twenty or more years after her departure from the neighborhood. She now lives in a middle-class white neighborhood. However, Faith takes the train to Brighton Beach and runs along the boardwalk and then into the neighborhood where she spent her childhood. The place has deteriorated, and the residents are now all African Americans. To the crowd who gathers around this forty-two-year-old white jogger, Faith explains: "I used to live here." Crowd members answer back: "Oh yes… in the white old days." Since the "white old days," many abandoned houses have been knocked down, vacant lots are littered with discarded furniture and trash, and crime dictates people's behavior on and off the streets. A white woman running through this neighborhood is an anomaly, a person who stands out in every sense from the setting and who residents assume is at risk.
Topics for Further Study
- Research urban decay in the early 1960s, and make a chart that correlates social unrest of various forms with the rate at which urban poverty increased and white populations decreased.
- Read about Grace Paley's social activism, and then write a report on "The Long-Distance Runner" that analyzes how her socialist views and stand for equal rights are suggested in the fiction.
- Return to a former neighborhood, noting the changes that have taken place during your absence. Write a short story in which the main character not only returns but takes up residence among the more recently established neighborhood dwellers. Let the story expose the differences between the character who returns and the current residents, and hint at ways in which these differences can or cannot be bridged.
- Research the correlations between poverty and three factors: race, gender, and single head of household with dependent children. Draw a chart to show how these factors correlate in three decades: 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s.
- Study a map of a metropolitan area with which you are familiar, and research population according to race across the area. Then reproduce the map so that you can color it in for racial distribution. Reach conclusions about the frequency of segregation and integration based on your research.
From Mrs. Luddy's apartment window, Faith can look down on empty lots and burned-out houses. She sees what has happened in this neighborhood in the past couple decades. She concludes: "The tenement… had been destroyed, first by fire, then by demolition (which is a swinging ball of steel that cracks bedrooms and kitchens). Because of this work we could see several blocks wide and a block and a half long." Whites have moved away, people's homes have been knocked down, and African Americans have remained. Now vacant lots hold overturned sofas, and animals prowl in the trash at night. Setting heightens differences between characters and helps explain why connection cannot be sustained across racial lines.
Dialogue is the main tool for characterizing individuals in "The Long-Distance Runner." Otherwise unidentified individuals on the street comment on Faith: "Who you? Who that? Look at her! When you see a fatter ass?" A man from Africa states haughtily, "I will learn the fine old art of sailing in case the engines of the new society of my old inland country should fail." Cynthia, a Girl Scout, asks Faith, "Whyn't you go up to Mrs. Luddy living in your house, you lady, huh?" These disparate voices encircle the intruder, Faith, distinguishing their speakers from one another and from Faith. Grace Paley does not use quotation marks in this story; thus, the voices rather than the punctuation identify separate voices. The way characters use language reveals their background and identifies them as members of certain groups.
The implausible plot of this story is that a white woman can run through her old neighborhood, which has changed from immigrant Jewish and Irish to poor African American, and decide to drop in at the apartment her family occupied when she was a child. She gets into the apartment suddenly and unexpectedly and then ends up staying there three weeks, living with the current residents and participating in their daily activities. This imagined storyline reveals some basic truths about what separates racial and economic groups and how that separation leads people on both sides to certain prejudicial conclusions.
Gender and Racial Prejudice
In the nineteenth century and through much of the twentieth century, when white middle-class women worked for gender equality, many of them refused to make alliances with women of color or with poor women. While all women experienced unequal treatment, African American and Native American women faced the additional oppression that white women exerted over them. This pattern of exclusion by white women was measurable in the so-called social agencies designed to improve women's lives. For example, the Women's Christian Temperance Union denied membership to black women in the South, and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) did not allow African American women to serve on its board. Even in the late twentieth century, this pattern could still be traced in the absence of African American women from some conferences on feminism, from professional associations, and from positions of power in universities and corporations. Toward the end of the twentieth century, cross-racial collaboration increased, and awareness deepened concerning the multi-layered prejudices at work that affected race relations between women.
In 1974, when "The Long-Distance Runner" appeared in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, the United States continued to be in social and racial upheaval. The 1960s disruption caused by race riots, antiwar protests, the Civil Rights movement, and abortion debate left its aftershocks. Moreover, in 1973, the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade legalized elective abortion in the first trimester. This decision came too late for women like Mrs. Luddy in Paley's story. Mrs. Luddy is a single parent who is responsible for a second-grader, a two-year-old, and twin baby girls. Her poverty and her self-defensive imprisonment in a ghetto apartment surrounded by dangerous streets and crime are made all the more difficult because she has four little children to rear. Mrs. Luddy is oppressed by her class, her sex, and her race. Faith Asbury gets an education by being able to live with Mrs. Luddy for three weeks, an exposure that reveals how complicated Mrs. Luddy's problems are and how resistant they are to easy, liberal solutions.
Critics have noted the small size of Grace Paley's oeuvre, but her literary reputation is significant, nonetheless. When The Collected Stories appeared in 1994, it was nominated for a National Book Award, and the volume drew widespread affirmation of Paley's fiction. Pointing to its central issue, Cynthia Tompkins in her World Literature Today review stated that the collection "encapsulates the moral dilemmas" raised by the question: "How are we to live our lives?" Like other critics, Tompkins also pointed out Paley's "'ear' for idioms and speech patterns," which enhances her handling of characterization and depiction of social interaction between members of different groups. Moreover, in the fiction since the 1970s, Tompkins pointed out that "Paley's texts illustrate the feminist dictum: the personal is the political." These various elements in the work—thematic issues, characterization, and social interaction—are all dramatized in "The Long-Distance Runner," the story of a white woman's return to her childhood neighborhood, now an African American ghetto.
Compare & Contrast
- 1970s: After decades of resistance to the distribution of contraceptive information or devices, contraception devices are now available. Roe v. Wade legalizes abortion in 1973, and women gain the right to choose to end unwanted pregnancies within the first trimester. However, in 1976, Congress outlaws the use of Medicaid funding for abortions, a decision that mostly affects poor women.
Today: While thousands of elective abortions are performed across the United States, pro-life advocates continue to fight against legalized abortion.
- 1970s: The 1970s are shaped by the possibility of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution that would state that men and women are equal before the law. In 1972, Phyllis Schlafly organizes Stop ERA, but in 1973 the proposal for an Equal Rights Amendment passes in Congress. State ratification gets bogged down, however, and by 1979 the ratification period has ended, and ERA fails.
Today: Equality between the sexes is sought in the workplace via the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment, particularly Title VII, which makes discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin" illegal.
- 1970s: The ratio of poverty among African Americans compared to that of white Americans is three to one.
Today: While the percentage of poor African Americans has declined (for example, from 55.2 percent in 1959 to 31.9 percent in 1990), the ratio of poverty among African Americans to white Americans remains three to one. Among all African American households, the highest rate of poverty occurs in those with a single female head of household and dependent children. The occurrence of poverty for this group exceeds 50 percent.
- 1970s: The Civil Rights Act of 1968 becomes fully operational in January 1970. It makes discrimination in housing and apartment rental on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex or national origin" illegal, and it applies across the U.S. housing market with small exceptions, such as privately owned, single-family homes sold without the assistance of a realtor.
Today: The Civil Rights Act of 1968 has little effect on housing discrimination because of its limitations in enforcement.
This story focuses on the gulf African American and white women have to bridge in order to make connection. The whole question of spanning a chasm is connected to Paley's political activism. Adam Meyer stated that the stories Paley writes "create a forum wherein she can question her own real-life activism" and where the well-meaning but naive white activist can confront realities that check idealistic platitudes. In fact, regarding Paley's lead protagonist, Faith Darwin Asbury, Meyer stated that the reader comes to "question the inconsistencies in Faith's reasoning." Paley's fiction puts liberal beliefs to the test, and stories such as "The Long-Distance Runner" create scenarios that challenge solutions people may actually espouse but do not necessarily run the risk of putting into action. In her article on marginality, Victoria Aarons stated that Paley's stories create characters "in relation to others, to a community."
In an interview with three Paris Review writers, Paley's stories were described as "rigorously pruned [so] that they frequently resemble poetry as much as fiction." In sum, one might say that Paley's work allows readers to see through new eyes and to witness possible intersections that may not yet be lived in real life. In these ways, the fiction envisions a new reality. That the prose has the intensity of poetry is another plus.
Monahan has a Ph.D. in English. She teaches at Wayne State University and also operates an editing service, The Inkwell Works. In the following essay, Monahan explores the cross-cultural, crossracial homecoming that is enacted in "The Long-Distance Runner."
Grace Paley's "The Long-Distance Runner" begins with a common enough experience, a long-absent adult's return to the childhood neighborhood. People occasionally drive through their old neighborhoods to look at the homes and buildings in which they spent earlier years. If a new ethnic or racial group occupies the neighborhood, the returning visitors may remark on the culture they remember and contrast it with the culture they now observe. Indeed, as they register local changes, they may wonder about the people who now live in what used to be their homes; they may slow down or park near the old house and imagine themselves reentering it. This commonplace fantasy is literalized with matter-of-fact detail in Grace Paley's story about a woman who not only returns for a look-see but takes up temporary residence in her childhood apartment.
Grace Paley's implausible story is a fictional attempt to span the geographical, social, economic, and racial chasms that separate Faith Darwin Asbury's white middle-class life from the urban ghetto she once called home. Purportedly out for some exercise, Faith takes a train to Brighton Beach, runs along the boardwalk for a mile or so, and then veers off into a once-familiar Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood. Returning after the 1960s' White Flight and rampant urban decay have gouged this landscape, Faith is both struck by the setting's deterioration and made to feel all the more the outsider by her conversation with people on the street. Nonetheless, the street talk, particularly with Cynthia, a Girl Scout who encourages Faith to enter her old apartment house, propels Faith to knock on the door that once marked entry to her family's home. In this imagined encounter, the current residents take her arrival in stride and accept the way in which the white woman immediately begins to share their everyday lives. When Faith returns to her current home three weeks later, her own family greets her with little surprise and less inquiry. In the interim, she has gone all the way back to her childhood, geographically and in some ways psychologically, and she has remained there long enough to connect with the present tenement and a few of its residents. The truism that Thomas Wolfe used as a title, You Can't Go Home Again, is thus tested in Grace Paley's "The Long-Distance Runner."
Grace Paley's use of dialogue to capture diversity and her radical activist stand for civil rights and gender and racial equality intersect in "The Long-Distance Runner" to dramatize specifically a white middle-class woman's encounter with an African American mother, Mrs. Luddy, who is raising four children alone and mostly behind a bolted tenement door. Suddenly afraid of the people outside the apartment building, Faith runs toward her old apartment door and knocks and begs for entry. This point in the story is curiously and tellingly handled. Quotation marks are not used in the text, and a reader might miss the shift that occurs at this point. When Faith knocks, Donald Luddy, a second-grader, refuses to open the door: "Mama not home, I ain't allowed to open up for nobody." Faith responds, "It's me," and then, as if suddenly a child herself running to her own mother, she says, "Mama! Mama! let me in!" Suddenly she is a little child, fearful of strangers outside, begging her mother to open the door. In letting Faith in, Mrs. Luddy takes charge as if Faith were indeed a child. Mrs. Luddy insists, "You in my house…. You do as I say."
Thus the intersection is created, and once on site Faith sees (perhaps more like a child might see) how her naive solutions and well-intended aspirations bump up against local realities. Looking down on the vacant lots strewn with discarded furniture and trash, Faith remarks, "Someone ought to clean that up," to which Mrs. Luddy counters, "Who you got in mind? Mrs. Kennedy?" When Donald expresses his mother's criticism of the porch slackers, "They ain't got self-respect," Faith intellectualizes, "he ought to learn to be more sympathetic." She tells him, "There are reasons that people are that way." Then Mrs. Luddy checks her, "Don't trouble your head about it if you don't mind." When Faith thinks about leaving the apartment, she admits feeling trapped by fear: "I'd get to the door and then I'd hear voices. I'm ashamed to say I'd become fearful. Despite my wide geographical love of mankind, I would be attacked by local fears." Just being on Mrs. Luddy's turf, inside her reality, informs Faith about the daunting complications inherent in social problem solving.
Regarding improving Donald, Faith suggests bringing him "up to reading level at once." She tells him he is "plain brilliant" when he composes a poem full of his mother's words. But Mrs. Luddy corrects her: "You fool with him too much." Then Mrs. Luddy tells the story her grandmother told her mother, about standing in the slave cabin door when a field boy came running through announcing, "Sister! It's freedom." Ironically, Mrs. Luddy, who daily copes with a necessarily locked-in existence, is the teller of this tale about sudden freedom. Paley's handling seems to suggest that story is one way of learning what was and is. As she tells her grandmother's story, Mrs. Luddy's circumscribed existence is juxtaposed with the cabin-door slave girl's life. The fiction gives us a sense of history, but not a sense of progress. Faith's hopes for making a difference here are diminished by the long shadow slavery casts, a darkening that reaches into the 1960s and 1970s to engulf its descendents. Then, as abruptly as Faith arrives and takes up residence, she is forced to leave. Mrs. Luddy tells her, "This ain't Free Vacation Farm."
Returning home via the park where she played with her own children, Faith sees young mothers and thinks, They will "be like me, wrong in everything." What she has learned at Mrs. Luddy's makes her doubt her initial certainties. At home, her family greets her with mild surprise. When she explains where she has been, Richard tells her to "Cut the baby talk." It is as if she has come home younger, more childlike, more aware, as children are freshly aware when they have made unexpected connections. The grown-up Asbury family members cannot understand what she has learned because only she has had the chance, Paley states at the end, "to [learn] as though she was still a child what in the world is coming next."
What Do I Read Next?
- Grace Paley's essays are collected in Just as I Thought (1998). This compilation includes her views on topics ranging from abortion to women's action for peace to reflections on Paley's father and her life in Vermont.
- In The Collected Stories (1994) readers can find selections of stories from The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985).
- Gloria Naylor's novel The Women of Brewster Place follows the lives of seven women living in Brewster Place, a ghetto housing project in a northern U.S. city. The poignancy of these women's lives and their hopes and challenges clearly depict the difficulty poor African American women face living in poverty and coping with racial and sexual prejudice.
In her essay, "The Value of Not Understanding Everything," Grace Paley suggests an alternative to the writer's first rule, to write what one knows. Paley argues it is better by far to write about what one does not know. She admits that she has written a number of stories with Jewish themes because she was an outsider to Judaism. "There were families of experience I was cut off from. You know, it seemed to me that an entire world was whispering in the other room. In order to get to the core of it all… I made fiction." Now in this 1960s essay, she believes she "knows" her Jewish past and can no longer write those stories. Now she needs to enter new questions life presents. Paley states, "The writer is not some kind of phony historian who runs around answering everyone's questions with made-up characters tying up loose ends. She is nothing but a questioner." In "The Long-Distance Runner," Paley imagines a plot that literalizes an encounter, that dramatizes a most unusual kind of connection. This story maps out the what-ifs that generate from the fictional premise of a white woman's taking the time to see and learn about the life of an African American mother living in the ghetto. Marginalizing the easy solutions such a white woman might have, the story privileges the hard questions such an encounter causes. Facing those questions constitutes the homecoming education Faith Asbury achieves.
Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on "The Long-Distance Runner," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.
In the following essay, Goffman examines how "The Long-Distance Runner" and "Zagrowsky Tells," another of Paley's short stories, "begin the process of decentering and rewriting identities both Jewish and American by reflecting them through African American perspectives."
Grace Paley is steeped in traditions of community, social activism, and the struggle for transformation. A descendant of the East European Jewish socialist tradition, who developed as a writer in the tumult of the 1960s, Paley remains a political activist. Like her politics, the often-noted power and charm of her literary voice is not merely a personal idiosyncrasy but derives from extensive roots. Her Yiddish heritage blends with urban dialect and African American inflections to create a quirky expressiveness, a cross-section of the everchanging American language. These influences coalesce in the prototypical ethnic mix of New York City, the scene of a plethora of linguistic styles, an exotic territory familiarized through Paley's community of voices. The urban milieu is crucial in portraying a Jewish American community branching out and cross-pollinating with other peoples, creating a (post) modern multicultural persona. Simultaneously, Paley tests and refines Jewish American identity against the African American experience. The Black presence forces an engagement with past Jewish marginalization, calling into question a comfortable incorporation into mainstream America. American minority communities must define themselves not just against a presumed American center but against each other. Americanization as simple assimilation into a preordained culture is revealed as untenable. "The spatial topography of center and margin," Henry Louis Gates suggests, "has started to exhaust its usefulness in describing our own modernity" (189). There is no stable framework into which one fits one's cultural patterns, but an everchanging aggregation in which various communities interrogate each other in an incessant reshaping.
Paley's New York is the ideal setting for a (post) modern literature: polyglot, multilingual, interethnic. As early as 1924 Mikhail Bakhtin de-fined modern literature as surmounting the limitations of earlier forms to create a dialogic blending. Monologism is pierced by a multiplicity of voices, an expanding variety of classes and backgrounds, so that "the world becomes polyglot, once and for all and irreversibly. The period of national languages, coexisting but closed and deaf to each other, comes to an end. Languages throw light on each other" (Bakhtin 12). This view of literature as an instrument of change proves somewhat idealistic in practice. Bakhtin overlooks the elite nature of the institutions through which literature is transmitted; the spectrum of voices is inevitably filtered through an educated class. From a position not only of difference but of power, privileged authors may choose to write across class and racial boundaries; their authority and authenticity, however, is problematic.
The posture of speaking for the Other has long marked Jewish speakers and writers regarding African Americans; in Andrew Lakritz's terms such representations "make risky incursions on the un-common grounds of groups that have not been accorded the authority to speak for themselves" (4). Speaking for another often leads to representing one's own concerns, distorting or even erasing that other identity. So Michael Rogin argues that by adopting blackface guise, such Jewish figures as Al Jolson created themselves as Americans through contrast with the excluded Other. The minstrel guise "passed immigrants into Americans by differentiating them from the black Americans through whom they spoke, who were not permitted to speak for themselves" (Rogin 56). However most situations in which Jews attempt to represent or speak for African Americans are ambiguous, characterized by mixed motives and mixed results.
In representing the African American presence within a larger cultural imagination, Paley, despite her obvious sympathy with Black communities, ratifies and interrogates her own Jewish American identity. As she herself explains, "if you speak for others—if you really perform that great social task… you'll really begin to be able to tell your own story better" ("Conversation" 35). Paley tells her stories from a more comfortable standpoint than earlier Jewish cultural figures, and with a keen awareness of African American needs. She seeks not just to define herself relative to the excluded Other, but to recuperate and legitimize the lost history of Otherness, both Black and Jewish. Her reexamination of American Jewish identity redefines America as a society of overlapping margins, or rather of overlapping communities, superseding the old margins-versuscenter dichotomy.
Two stories, "The Long Distance Runner" and "Zagrowsky Tells," begin the process of decentering and rewriting identities both Jewish and American by reflecting them through African American perspectives. In these stories easy assimilation becomes untenable; America is (re) presented as a collection of unfinished, interlocking histories. Yet even in the midst of stylistic and cultural blendings ethnic communities often remain segregated. This is particularly true for African America which becomes, willingly or not, a test case against which other groups define themselves. For Jewish Americans the Black presence is a jarring reminder of a past history of ghettoization and marginalization. A comfortable version of assimilation in which ethnic groups participate fully in American life while maintaining at least a portion of their traditions is called into question. A more extensive American vision is needed, one epitomized by multi-ethnic New York. Yet this new vision is fraught with danger, with unfamiliar contacts and potential misunderstandings.
Issues of interpenetration remain controversial, making for a vexed literary treatment. "The Long Distance Runner" and "Zagrowsky Tells" employ two vigorous yet highly divergent Jewish narrative viewpoints, which powerfully compress and individuate larger interactions. Triangulated among tradition, exclusion, and assimilation, Jewish Americans perceive Blacks through a complex, often conflicting, matrix of subject positions: as a people alien to Judaism, as a similarly oppressed minority group, as a nonassimilated version of the Other. Like many progressive Jews, especially during the social movements of the 1960s, Paley seems at once determined not to forget her people's past and resolved to help similarly oppressed groups join—and thus revise—a larger social collectivity, and, in so doing, end the history of terror inflicted on subnational groups which has so devastated world Jewry.
Paley's recurring protagonist, the free-spirited activist Faith Darwin Asbury, is the narrator of "The Long Distance Runner" and a central character in "Zagrowsky Tells." Having survived a difficult divorce and raised two children singlehandedly, Faith is an ideal subject for dramatic treatment of feminist themes. Her migration from a domesticated status generates a perspective sympathetic to the similarly, though not equivalently, marginalized African American community. Faith's ambiguous position may serve as a bridge to reconstructing other marginalized perspectives as it is made familiar to the reader via Faith's consciousness. A eurocentric perspective is ruptured by historical alienations both Jewish and female.
Despite her newfound independence, Faith's self-doubt lingers; she begins "The Long Distance Runner" ill-equipped for the kind of freedom romanticized in the masculine adventure novel. As a middle-aged woman she starts to run, explaining that "though I was stout and in many ways inadequate to this desire, I wanted to go far and fast." Adventures epitomized in the masculine adventure novel—vast sea journeys and cross-country excursions—are untenable for a middle-aged women with children to tend; in restlessly exploring her identity, Faith embarks upon the nearest available substitute. Yet her journey out is also a journey in, or rather back. Her running takes her to her original home in Brooklyn, now psychologically and socially distant in ways that parallel the faraway lands of countless adventure novels. Like the prototypical male adventurer, Faith finds the alien, the dark Other, in large numbers: "Suddenly I was surrounded by about three hundred blacks." As in Joseph Conrad's novels, in confronting these others she is confronting herself, yet her heart is not of darkness but of benevolent curiosity. The terror associated with the Other is negligible. True to her heritage of striving for sisterhood and brotherhood, Faith attempts to familiarize the strange, to bring it into harmony with her notions of identity and culture, of an America remade in the image of the many.
The Blacks Faith sees are people like herself, living lives as best they can in a neighborhood alienated from mainstream norms, as she did when a child. In confronting the history of her neighborhood, she reacts not only with fear but, even more, with a delighted curiosity. Conscious of her own implication in a racist history, Faith is anxious to make connections, to humanize. She exemplifies the well meaning, progressive White, telling the gazing Black crowd that "I like your speech…. Metaphor and all." In praising the richness of the Black vernacular she does more to explain her own sympathies than to engage the crowd. In addition, she makes a historical connection: "Yes my people also had a way of speech. And don't forget the Irish. The gift of gab," a statement prefiguring current notions of American multiculturalism, of a stream of languages, customs, and approaches to life that are flowing together. The ideology of assimilation into a prefigured European-based culture is called into question; the philosophy of many peoples continually inventing and reinventing a culture is ascendant.
It is impossible to tell how much of "The Long Distance Runner" is represented as literally happening and how much occurs in Faith's imagination since increasing leaps in plausibility render much of the story fictive, even from the viewpoint of the fictional Faith. The story is about an imaginative, internal awakening. From her position as sympathetic political activist, vastly separate from the realities of Black life yet committed to bridging the gap, Grace Paley plays a delicate balancing game. Blacks for her can never entirely escape their role as a projection of White (in her case Jewish liberal) needs. Her dialogue seems self-conscious in struggling to give her African American characters agency, a life of their own. Faith's viewpoint, though sympathetic, shades into a liberal version of the discerning White gaze, a judgmental stance which the story itself satirizes. Adam Meyer suggests that Paley is "asking herself why she, a white woman, should have the right to speak about African Americans in the first place" (80). Yet the alternative, silence, is worse: whatever the pitfalls, "both collective action and coalition would seem to require the possibility of speaking for others" (Alcoff 102). Given her political motivation and the close relation of African American issues to both Jewish and 1960s progressivism, she cannot but speak. Of course her stories are not meant to be definitive, but are merely one stage in a continuing dialogue.
Paley endows her Black characters with dialect as authentic as she can manage, as when one member of the crowd exhorts respectful treatment of Faith: "Poor thing. She ain't right. Leave her you boys, you bad boys." A moral sense, a sympathetic reaching out, is evident. Rather than being a monolithic whole the Black crowd begins to acquire individuation through dissension, dialogue, and brief, telling description: "You blubrous devil! said a dark young man. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and had that intelligent look that City College boys used to have when I was eighteen and first looked at them." This description purposefully defies preconceptions of the "non-intellectual" Black while linking its subject to intimate remembrances of adolescent anxiety and hope, bridging barriers of color, dramatizing the common human experience.
Yet the dialogue in which Faith engages with the Black crowd is limited; to them she always retains a strong element of White Other, a representative of an alien society powerfully mythologized in the collective Black consciousness. A barrier remains, an inability to understand: "She ain't right." White is interpreted as displaced, as Other, a mysterious ghost from a separate world. The crowd remembers those they have displaced from "the white old days. That time too bad to last." Paley renders Black dialect to subvert dominant norms; from the perspective of the ghetto residents the good old days were, and are, a nightmare of exclusion. The White Other appears as an omnipresent force surrounding the Black ghetto both physically and psychologically. Whiteness in African American perspectives mirrors the inescapability of Blackness as naturalized in White racial ideology. This inverted gaze reclaims at least some of the authority lost due to Paley's elite position.
Despite intimations of a larger African American cultural perspective, "The Long-Distance Runner" maintains the experience of its Jewish protagonist. In returning to her home, Faith revisits her past, updates and revises a crucial part of her psyche. She stops at the apartment of the fat and tragic Mrs. Goreditsky, a Jewish resident from the old times left behind in the ghetto, whose death was discovered due only to the smell: "They couldn't get [her] through the front door. It scraped off a piece of her." Just as history, as the old neighborhood, remains with the Jews who have left, so a piece of them remains, part of the overlapping cultures, the palimpsest of American society. The old and impoverished are left literally behind to die while symbolically the history of ghettoization remains in the Jewish people.
If Mrs. Goreditsky exemplifies one fate for America's Jews, Faith bears witness to the extreme opposite: abandonment of one's improversihed childhood, along with any sense of responsibility for the continuing existence of poverty and marginalization. She remembers one deserter from the neighborhood who is now
the president of a big corporation, JoMar Plastics. This corporation owns a steel company, a radio station, a new Xerox-type machine that lets you do twenty-five different pages at once. This corporation has a foundation, The JoMar Fund for Research in Conservation. Capitalism is like that, I added, in order to be politically useful.
Capitalism with its plastic facade (like plastic, both everchanging and superficial) is endlessly accumulating, multiply tentacled, and ideologically self-replicating through its incessant funding of think tanks. Implicit in this passage is Faith's critique derived from her socialist mother, her need to preach, "to be politically useful," to empower people to understand their social situation with an implicit long-term goal of change. Between the extremes of impoverished ghetto resident and capitalist entrepreneurship, Faith struggles to reclaim her people's history, to retain their historical conscience while developing a modern identity. Her return to her (transformed) neighborhood (re) opens a connection between her (transformed) neighborhood (re) opens a connection between her own history and the plight of the marginalized, which assimilating Jews are tempted to jettison.
When Faith finally enters the apartment of her childhood, "my old own door," the story thoroughly enters the realm of the metaphorical, of Faith's imaginative exploration of her homeplace as interrogated by the Black presence. The return dramatizes the Jewish psychological reaction to a Black America which has taken over both its neighborhoods and its estranged status. Despite being "attacked by local fears," by a separation from this ghetto with its new strangeness, Faith's impulse to dialogue continues. Engaging Mrs. Luddy in somewhat one-sided conversation, Faith is conscious that she "is constantly intruding into the lives of these black people, offering advice as if she knows, and can teach them, what is right." She discusses, analyzes, criticizes, and seeks to improve. The temptation to overstatement, to the grandiose, is hard to resist; Faith's good-natured liberalism often borders on the self-righteous, as when she suggests that "someone ought to clean up" the outside terrors of the slum, and Mrs. Luddy rebukes her with "Who you got in mind? Mrs. Kennedy?" The authority of Faith (and by implication Paley) to analyze and speak for another community is questioned, with a partial answer implied in the existence of dialogue. A dialectic between the liberal idealist, spewing her opinions in long streams, and the realist, blunt and brief, tempered by a harsh reality, articulates something of this neighborhood's dilemma. Faith's and Mrs. Luddy's differing attitudes derive at least partly from their contrasting histories: the African American experience of promises repeatedly denied, of the slow-paced life of a recently rural people; the Jewish American experience of purposeful immigration, of escaping the New York ghetto in a generation.
Her three weeks in the slum, with its fatalistic psychology, may not have altered the neighborhood, yet Faith returns home with her questing spirit intact: "A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though she was still a child what in the world is coming next." Her position as middle-aged explorer, driven to run but thriving on the forces that drive her, is interrogated but not greatly changed by her glimpse of an ethnic Otherness. She has seen what her preconceptions encourage her to see. As an exemplar of the enlightened subject—but one interpolated by other positions: Jewish, feminist, socialist—she remains convinced, through her encounter with the Other, of the value of learning and exploration. She glimpses a future multiculturalism in which the barrier of Otherness dissolves. In her childhood this dream is already planted; from her past, her situation as an ethnic poised on the edge of society, she imaginatively (re) constructs the Black situation and glimpses an American future.
In "The Long Distance Runner" Blacks and Jews ultimately remain in separate communities, as happened after, or despite, 1960s upheavals. Any kinship postulated between Blacks and Jews seems to have fractured, leaving a relationship far from familial, or perhaps that of a bitter, estranged family. Yet Black-Jewish relations of the closest kind did arise out of the 1960s, leading to mixed-race children, if only in limited numbers. If in "The Long Distance Runner" a Jewish character crosses into terrain ostensibly reserved for African Americans, in "Zagrowsky Tells" a Jewish milieu is infiltrated by a Black, the child Emanual. If dialogical processes question essential racial identities, biological processes, together with the right historical circumstances, can expunge them. Surprisingly, it is not the sympathetic Faith, but Izzy Zagrowsky, a character tinged with racism, who appears with a (half) Black child. The confrontation between Faith, an examplar of Jewish progressivism, and the more conservative Zagrowsky allows Paley to explore a range of Jewish attitudes regarding African Americans. These responses are further problematized through the use of Zagrowsky as narrative consciousness. His slippery inclinations exemplify the ambivalent, multiple nature of Jewish responses to Blacks, while his ability to hold conflicting views yet remain unaware of the contradictions is psychologically convincing. At times Zagrowsky identifies with dominant society, at times he views himself as Jewish, an outsider, almost a Black.
Emanual is the object of these contradictory identifications, the motivating force provoking Zagrowsky's internal dissonance, his evolving consciousness. "Emanual" means "messiah" in Hebrew, and the child indeed heralds a new vision. Judith Arcana explains that he serves "to heal the grief and misery in his family, embodying a bond that holds the generations together" (163). The healing occurs not just to Zagrowsky's immediate family, not just to the split between conservative and progressive Jews, but to society's larger racial wound. The child is the catalyst for confronting the pain of old enmities. Yet ultimately such racially mixed children are active agents in redefining the meaning of ethnicity in America through subverting rigid racial boundaries and facilitating cultural blending, roles only implied in "Zagrowsky Tells."
Racial discord persists in the aftermath of 1960s protest, a period of trauma that, in its search for a new beginning, dredged up ancient divisions. The mistreatment of Blacks and other marginalized groups, a wound in the facade of the American republic since before its inception, was confronted but not healed. In "Zagrowsky Tells" this division is an omnipresent backdrop of contention. Years before Faith had participated in a boycott of Zagrowsky's pharmacy, accusing him of refusing to serve minorities. Having previously delivered medicine to Faith's deathly ill child, Zagrowsky feels betrayed, enacting a microcosm of difficulties between progressive and more conservative Jews. To Zagrowsky, Faith is patronizing and self-satisfied as she suggests ways he should raise his grandchild. The edge of satiric self-criticism which permeated "The Long-Distance Runner" is made explicit here in Zagrowsky's characterization of Faith as the "Queen of Right." In lecturing him about how to raise his son, she again enacts a version of self-satisfied liberalism. Yet when Faith tells Zagrowsky that "we were right" to protest segregation, it is hard for him to disagree given his subsequent acceptance of a mixed race child. A distinction between right and wrong is suggested here, whether defined by evolving social attitudes or by a larger moral code.
Yet Zagrowsky cannot admit that he was wrong in his treatment of non-White customers; instead he serves up a litany of guilt-relieving excuses: "naturally, you have to serve the old customers first… and to tell the truth I didn't like the idea my pharmacy should get the reputation of being a cutrate place for them. They move into a neighborhood… I did what everyone did." That Zagrowsky's people have been similarly marginalized escapes him at this moment. Running through his head is a catalog, zigzagging and contradictory, of Jewish responses to African Americans. He remembers his wife's comment that "We kept them down," and his reply: "We? We? My two sisters and my father were being fried up for Hitler's supper in 1944 and you say we?" If the Holocaust may be an important bridge from Jews to Blacks in their role as the oppressed, it is here used to deny responsibility for other forms of racism. My people, my immediate family, have been the victims, not the perpetrators, of racism, Zagrowsky angrily contends. Mentally his role shifts from a member of the dominant culture to a marginalized outsider, depending on his immediate psychological needs. Later in the story he shifts again, pondering about his blond-haired daughter: "Out of my Cissy, who looked like a piece of gold, would come a black child." Zagrowsky understands blond and black miscegenation as dangerous, an understanding formulated by dominant culture in its attempt to keep the races separate. The irony he misses is that Cissy's blond hair might come from some long-ago rape by a Polish peasant, that she herself is a product of miscegenation from a violent society practicing its own racial politics, that her people were once the "dark Other."
Zagrowsky's awareness of racial ideology, then, is acute yet inconsistent. Elsewhere he shows himself aware of the connection between Blacks and Jews, that both have been victims of racism. Worried how outsiders will take the sight of him with a black child, he rationalizes, "They think the Jews are a little bit colored anyways, so they don't look at him too long." If here it is pragmatic for him to identify with Emanual, the overall effect of Emanual's existence goes far beyond pragmatism, forcing a realignment of Zagrowsky's social and psychological landscape. As Zagrowsky puts it: "A person looks at my Emanuel and says, Hey! he's not altogether from the white race, what's going on? I'll tell you what: life is going on." Racial mixtures such as Emanual are one means of undermining hatred, forcing a coming-to-terms with difference. Neil Isaacs explains that Zagrowky's "experienced love" speaks "louder than his learned hate." Furthermore, Zagrowsky's Jewish heritage provides material for a counter-ideology consistent with his new experience. He begins to unearth long-term kinships: "They tell me long ago we were mostly dark." An immediate family link awakens historical connections. Zagrowsky, like Faith in "The Long Distance Runner," has confronted a past and, in doing so, redefined a present. If an exploration of the African American presence motivates Faith to reexamine her Jewish identity, Zagrowsky's ties of blood are even stronger.
Within the story Emanual is a focal point for others' reflections, stimulating change through his very existence. He is a product of historical trauma, of a time fraught with questions and changes. If the sixties produced crises—fissures between generations, genders and ethnicities—they were a time also of struggle for togetherness, of hope for an eventual end to the racial division that has tainted American history. Emanual is a product of sixties upheaval, and "Zagrowsky Tells" is a parable of healing. If Emanual is the object of others' perceptions and struggles, an emblem of familial and societal restoration, outside the story's time-frame such multiracial, multicultural individuals will actively confront their ambiguous status. Emanual will be an outsider to Black America through his Jewishness, an outsider to Jewish America through his Blackness, an outsider to mainstream America through both. Paradoxically this alienated, indeterminate status will make him prototypically American, a progenitor of new identity. Outside the pages of "Zagrowsky Tells," narratives such as that of Emanual will help to define an American in transition, a world in flux where the meanings of color and transracial identity are perpetually reinvented. Paley's stories should not be considered in isolation from this process. Her narratives are entangled in multiple cultural networks through which they speak and to which they contribute, part of a clamorous dialogue, an evolving if convoluted inquiry into what we believe and who we are.
Source: Ethan Goffman, "Grace Paley's Faith: The Journey Homeward, the Journey Forward," in MELUS, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 197–208.
Aarons, Victoria, "A Perfect Marginality: Public and Private Telling in the Stories of Grace Paley," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 1990, pp. 35–43.
Meyer, Adam, "Faith and the 'Black Thing': Political Action and Self Questioning in Grace Paley's Short Fiction," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 79–89.
Paley, Grace, "The Long-Distance Runner," in The Collected Stories, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994, pp. 242–58.
——, "The Value of Not Understanding Everything," in Just as I Thought, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998, p. 188.
Paley, Grace, Jonathon Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar, "Grace Paley: The Art of Fiction CXXXI," in Paris Review, Vol. 124, Fall 1992, pp. 181–209.
Tompkins, Cynthia, Review of The Collected Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter 1995, p. 42.
Feagin, Joe R., comp., The Urban Scene: Myths and Realities, Random House, 1973.
This book is a compilation of excerpts from other books on the subject. Topics covered range from grieving for a lost home to the American dream to perspectives on poverty and the political economy of the African American ghetto.
Jargowsky, Paul A., Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City, Russell Sage Foundation, 1997.
In this book, Jargowsky examines the inner city and the urban poor. He also addresses the importance of community development and race relations.
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