It was dark as I neared the end of my run.
The usual Saturday party is in full swing by the river on the Lower East Side. Music loud enough to drown out the FDR Highway traffic. The smell of a cookout. The grass packed with people and the riverside walkway impassable without dodging revelers.
As I get through the most crowded section, I see a small huddle of people by the railing. A couple of kids and some adults.
Something is burning on the sidewalk and ashes nearby suggest it wasn’t the only item that had burned.
A man is cursing and stomping on the burning piece of fabric. I recognize an identical un-singed item next to it. I jog over and stop.
“Trouble? I think I can help with this.”
Him: “Cheap Chinese sh*t. It’s junk. Doesn’t work. Leave it alone.”
Then … “You a cop?”
“Ha. No,” I say. “A very bad runner and I’m 16.81 miles into it, so no danger to anybody but myself.”
“Just leave it. It’s sh*t!”
“Knock it off. Let me give it a try.”
I pick up the floating lantern by the top and point for one of the little girls to put the candle in the bottom.
“Gimme the lighter,” I hold out my hand. He sullenly smacks it hard into my hand. The kid holds the bottom of the lantern. I hold the top with one hand and light the candle with the other.
The warm air fills the fabric and I let go. When the contraption starts to lift, I tap her to let go.
The lantern slowly floats in the darkness over the East River. The kids are excitedly babbling, the loud music still thumping.
But for some reason. For that handful of long seconds.
It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
I stand quietly and watch.
Then a punch hits me in the chest hard enough to make me stagger. I look over.
The guy’s smiling. “Your name, my man?” he says as he puts his hand up for a shake.
I put out my hand. He smacks me a handshake that leaves an after burn for a few seconds.
“You just saved her birthday party, dude.”
“Glad I could help. I gotta go.” I look at the girl. “Happy Birthday.”
I limp-jog away, stiff from the stop, but satisfied my birthday is now officially over.