Hello, I’m Abel Township Runner 5. My friends just call me “5,” and, assuming that none of you are zombies, mad scientists, or the mind-controlled drones of an evil corporation, you can feel free to do the same.
You may or may not have any idea what I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t, I’m referring to Zombies, Run!, a fantastic app that I highly recommend. It’s a zombie apocalypse-themed fitness app. It’s also a really clever piece of immersive storytelling. In the fictional world of the app, you defend your township, performing various missions (they’re actually workouts, but “missions” sounds cooler) to save humanity from hordes of the undead. It’s a great way to get in shape if you happen to be a big nerd, which I happen to be.
When I started running, I was living in Parma Heights. In my moves back and forth across the Cuyahoga River I’ve realized that Parma Heights is kind of like the west side version of Cleveland Heights; it’s a middle class suburb that is not particularly highway-accessible. It has lots of tree-lined streets, and a fraught racial history about which many of its current residents know very little.
While we’re on the subject of racial issue ignorance, I should mention that Parma Heights was the land of my teenage years and early adulthood; where I really started to become the person I am now. My family did a wonderful job of instilling in me the value of respecting everybody, regardless of skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin, but full disclosure: By nature of where I grew up and who I surrounded myself with, I am in many ways a sheltered suburban kid.
So anyway, I would jog and walk (and gasp for breath) past familiar intersections and landmarks, running away from imaginary monsters and villains, and toward imaginary resources and life-saving technologies. It was fun.
OK, in the interest of full disclosure: the running was torture. It was awful. After running, I would spend days at work, wincing with every step I took away from my workstation. The runs left my lungs burning, my legs sore, and my feet hurting. There were times that every step felt like a little punishment for that extra beer the night before, or for ordering fries instead of steamed vegetables. At this point, I have to admit that, although the self-punishment thing is an effective way to get in shape, it’s probably not the healthiest or most sustainable attitude. But it worked. It got easier. I live in Cleveland Heights now, and I run nearly every day. When the weather is nice, I run in the park near my apartment.
It was a nice morning when I passed through the park. It was also early. Very early. I didn’t really put it together until I was well into the park, but the sun wasn’t even close to being up. Much of the park is well lit, but parts of it are in the woods. Like, fairly deep in the woods. As in, “Gosh it’s dark in these woods, and I’m running away from imaginary zombies.”
I wasn’t listening to music that morning, and in between the storytelling clips all I could hear was the breeze and my feet on the path. I was running in the silence when the app chimed in to let me know I had just picked up a baseball bat and a can of food. That’s a thing the app does—tells you when you’ve collected imaginary supplies—but it was so sudden that I yelped like a startled puppy and just about jumped out of my skin. I nearly scurried off into the trees, a hilarious sight had anyone been there to see it.
Once I had recovered I kept running, listening to the early morning sounds, which were all I could hear. That, and the shuffling, scraping sound on the path behind me. The shuffling, scraping sound that seemed to be keeping pace with me. I ignored it for as long as I could, trying to convince myself I was imagining it, but I finally had to turn around to see who or what was behind me.
Nothing. Only the fall leaves blown along the ground by the breeze. By now, I was pretty freaked out.
As I stopped, I realized I’d gone over the footbridge, to the East Cleveland side of the park. East Cleveland has something of a reputation. For the first time since I’d begun running from zombies, I was legitimately worried that my personal safety might be at risk. I’d run into a city that had a higher crime rate than the one where I live.
In keeping with the spirit of full disclosure, I will point out an ugly truth. “This place has a higher crime rate” is something that white people sometimes say instead of “a lot of black people live here.” Not that it’s necessarily what a white person means every time he or she says it—sometimes a statistic is just a statistic—but another ugly truth is that there’s a socioeconomic correlation between those things.
It’s something that the overt racists, the in-your-face ones, love to point at. And it’s something that people like me, who were taught to value acceptance and who wish the world weren’t such a divided place, don’t like to think about. Partially because it’s hard to live in a world that differs so radically from the worldview we were taught. Partially because it’s our fault. Not yours and mine, you understand, but the historically white majority in this country.
Minorities move in to a community, and the white majority gets uncomfortable and moves out. The majority has the money, and the money leaves with them. Businesses close, and the areas become impoverished. And as we all know, impoverished areas have a higher crime rate. It’s called “white flight.”
Catchy nicknames aside, it boils down to this: mistrust and racism breed more mistrust and racism, just as the bite from a zombie breeds more zombies. Thinking about it made me realize that, like my zombies, the historically white majority is a group of mostly dead people who we run the risk of becoming if we’re not very careful about how we move through the world.
Imaginary monsters helped me get in shape, but there are real monsters. So far, they aren’t reanimated corpses that roam the countryside in search of human flesh to eat. Which is good, I guess, but in their own way they’re just as dangerous.
One monster is hatred, the kind that motivates people to violence and bigotry. In a way, that monster and the humans it infects are easy to deal with, because at least they don’t lie about what they are.
Other monsters are doubt, apathy, fear, and privilege. They lurk in the back of our heads, pretending to be the voice of reason. They tell us that we’re absolved because we don’t commit hate crimes. They tell us it’s not our fault that the world is the way it is, and so we have no responsibility to deal with it. They say it’s too hard to change. They say it’s too dangerous to stand up. And anyway, these monsters tell us, it’s better than it was 50 years ago. It’s not so bad today.
I made it through the park. I ran my ass off through the dark and I was able to escape, preventing the pretend dead people from turning me into one of them. Whether or not we can escape the actual undead who threaten to take away our humanity is another matter.
It’s not about how I can possibly have four car batteries and a sledgehammer in my backpack and still keep pace, but about how I can take responsibility for my privileged position in a world created by people like me – whether I like that world or not, or whether or not it’s the one I would have created.
Because people like me have been born into a world overrun by the undead. We’re surrounded by systems designed to subjugate groups of people based on the color of their skin. We are co-opted into those systems, because they were designed to benefit people who look like us. We don’t want these systems, but we have become unwitting participants in them. We walk and jog (and gasp for breath) or worse, give in to the despair that tells us we are too small, too few, too weak to do anything about them.
There’s an alternate way to view exercise – one that has to do with hope instead of punishment. It’s about living up to the self that you want to be. Running a mile is hard when you start out, but if you act like you can do it, eventually the pace of reality catches up with you. At least, that’s the hope, and reason to try; because even if we’re not responsible for the way the world is today, we are definitely responsible for the way it will be tomorrow.
So maybe the first step to defeating the undead is to live as if the world is the way we want it to be. If enough of us do that, reality will have no choice but to meet our expectations. I’m ready to start running. The undead aren’t going to defeat themselves.
Josh Daum is a very confused young man. By day he is a church secretary at the regional level. By later-that-day he teaches and plays percussion (on a sporadic and freelance basis). By various times of day, he tries to make sense of work, life, and growing up in Cleveland on his blog, Burning River Writing. Like a good little humanities major, he devoted his college career to something he was passionate about, with very little thought about how he was going to use it to make a living. As a result, he emerged with degrees in English and Religion from Baldwin-Wallace University. As an added bonus, he met his wife there, too, and they live in Cleveland Heights. Josh was born in Cleveland, and has lived in some suburb of it or another for his entire life.