Day: February 21, 2020

Running Free at San Quentin

“I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d put my money on Fidelio,” says Markelle “the Gazelle” Taylor, winner of the 12th Annual San Quentin Marathon—and the three before that. He isn’t running this year. The 26.2-mile race, held inside the 30-foot walls of what’s got to be the prettiest prison in the world, is for inmates only.

Prettiest, at least, from the outside, where the sparkling San Francisco Bay stretches to the sky and Mt Tamalpais rises above the barbed wire.

The Gazelle always appreciated that view of Tam while running around and around and around the prison yard. He completed his last San Quentin Marathon—105 laps around a quarter-mile track— in a record 3:10:42. A few months later, paroled after 18 years, he ran to the top of the mountain he’d been looking at for so long. (And then he ran the Boston Marathon, in 3:03:52, his personal best.)

No one is going to beat Markelle’s time this year, predicts Frank Ruona, 74, crazy-accomplished ultra-runner, Vietnam vet, longtime coach of Marin’s Tamalpa Running Club—and head coach of San Quentin’s 1,000 Mile Club, since its inception in 2005.

But on a sunny, 46-degree Friday morning in late November, two guys set out to try: Fidelio Marin and Mark Jarosik. Lifers both, like most of the 4,215 inmates at the maximum-security penitentiary, California’s oldest.

I don’t want to know what these guys did to get in here.

Coach Frank sends me the roster of runners in advance, their names right there, ready for me to type into Google. Instead, I concentrate on another email I receive: a Word doc detailing what not to wear. The list is long. No jumpsuits. (Noted.) No sweats. No gray or white or denim or anything resembling denim—or anything that might make me resemble an inmate.

So that the guards with guns watching from the towers above can easily distinguish you, I’m told, in the event of any trouble.

It doesn’t explicitly say no body-hugging Oiselle pants, which is what I usually wear running, but as Kevin Rumon, another longtime volunteer, put it over the phone: “These guys don’t get a lot of female communication, so…” Also, he reminds me, I won’t be running.


The sun rises as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. I breeze through the rainbow tunnel and pass all the Highway 101 exits I typically take. Sausalito, Stinson Beach, Muir Woods. Just past the posh Marin Country Mart, home to $400 bikinis and $32 burgers, I follow signs to its antithesis, another iconic Marin County destination. The one I’ve driven by for years — yet have never been to.

It’s about two minutes till race time and the first runner I meet is Fidelio. At 49, he’s wrinkle-free, with warm eyes and a wide smile, dressed in droopy gray shorts, white socks, and donated gray Adidas sneakers. He has a white napkin wrapped around his forehead, like a bandana. I ask what he had for breakfast. “Snickers,” he says.

There’s a digital clock on the ground and a homemade “1000 Mile Club” banner hanging over “San Quentin’s Field of Dreams” scoreboard, but otherwise the runners gather without fanfare.

No one else on the yard seems to care, nor much notice, that there’s a marathon today. Not the men doing push-ups or the men punching bags or the men playing dominos or the men, so many men, ambling the same track in long denim jackets marked CDCR Prisoner. The geese puttering around the patchy grass could give two poops, too.

‘But these runners do. They’ve been training all year for this, with Coach Frank and Kevin and a handful of other elite runners—who are here this morning, in black puffy coats, with stopwatches and clipboards and pouches of berry-flavored Gu. All lifers in their own way, they joke. They care, too.

“It’s one of those corny-sounding things,” says ultrarunner Diana Fitzpatrick, 61. “About getting more out of it than I put in, but it’s true.” She hasn’t missed a San Quentin marathon. The first had only one finisher, she recalls. Ronnie Goodman, since paroled. A lot of 1,000 Mile Club runners have been paroled.

Running today are 30 of the 60 or so in the group. Not all are looking to finish and 17 are injured and not running at all. (Hips. Hernias. An ingrown toenail.) Still, they’re here help, to hand out water, to cheer on their teammates.

Like Brett Ownbey. “Positive affirmation isn’t something you typically get a lot of in prison,” he says. The 1,000 Mile Club has given him that, and more.

Incarcerated for 17 years, he’d never run before arriving at San Quentin last September, weighing 252 pounds. He has since completed his first marathon, in four-and-a-half hours, and lost 62 pounds. “Running has taught me to set goals, and attain them,” says Brett, 45. “When I’m on the track, I’m in the present. I’m not just a prisoner. I’m human.”

Manning the starting line chalked in gravel, he finally feels a part of something, he explains. “Individually, you know, we’re all going at our own pace, at our own ability—but together, we make up the club.”

“3-2-1,” Frank counts down, and they’re off. A ragtag group, ages 22 to 72; whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians. The rest of the yard might be segregated, but not the 1000 Mile Club. “There’s no racial bullshit” as one runner puts it.

“This track is horrible,” says Ralph Ligons, 68, cofounder from a plastic chair on the sideline. He was an All-American sprinter at Cal State Sacramento who competed in the 1972 Olympic trials, before being sentenced 25 years to life, before he had a cane and his scraggly goatee turned white. He retired from running ten years ago. “But I never stopped walking,” he says. “You’ve got to keep going.”

Part-pavement, part-dirt, the “route” has six 90-degree turns and all sorts of distractions. It starts in right field, near the flaming sweat lodge, then cuts between the busy basketball court and the always-taken tennis court, weaving past a pull-up bar and an artist displaying his work.

A few things, though, make this race different from any other in Marin County: the sporadic prison alarms forcing everyone on the yard to sit down where ever they are, until the issue, whatever it is (medical, rioting, murder), is resolved.

Perhaps the toughest thing: “Every lap, you’re passing the finish line,” says Nicola Bucci, 47. “You’re thinking: ‘When’s it going to end?’” Not unlike prison itself, he adds.

Recovering from surgery, Bucci is sitting this one out. He completed his first marathon last year, coming in dead last. Didn’t matter. “It felt like coming in first,” he says. “It gave me the will to want to continue. It helped me realize that whatever I face, I can overcome.”

“Only 102 laps to go!” cries Dan McCoy, giving a thumbs up as he goes by. There are no live bands or little kids holding signs or water stations. Most guys BYO in old plastic Pepsi bottles, to hang on the chain-link fence. Some are topped with squirt caps Kevin bought for them on eBay, so they can drink and run.

Eventually, the smiles and waves turn to groans, guys gripping hamstrings, some shuffling to a walk.

John Levin, 55, a two-time finisher, cuts out after 18 miles. “Hey, sister!” he jokes, having heard we share the same last name. His brother loaded up his MP3 player with running-themed songs, he tells me. “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. “Marathon” by Rush.

John came to San Quentin with a degree in computer science, but had never run before. “It means everything,” he says, wiping away tears. “That coach, and all these free people, show up, and can look past your poor decisions and treat you like a real person, like you’re not the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

For most of the race, Fidelio is indeed in the lead, a full lap ahead Mark. Until mile 21—lap 87when he rolls his ankle.

Mark pulls ahead. He’s got less than a mile to go. “Down in the yard,” booms a voice over the loud speaker, cramping the runners’ style. Seventeen minutes later, they’re allowed up.

The last lap is a short one, the .2. Shirtless and chest puffed, 107.7 “The BONE” blaring in his ears, Mark barrels toward the finish line.

Brett and Bucci hold up a piece of red plastic tape that reads “Danger” — and he busts through, six minutes short of Markelle’s record.

Feeling like a lone SportsCenter reporter after the SuperBowl, I scurry over, holding up my mini-recorder. “There’s a new king in town,” says Mark, with a wry smile. Then softens for a moment. “Running takes you out of this place.”

Fidelio rolls in two minutes later; second place but still beaming.

Steve Reitz finishes at 3:41. His mom is going to be proud, he says. Vicente Gomez follows in white stocking feet. He kicked off his crappy sneakers four miles ago. Blisters.

Watching them go by is Warren Corley. He’s inspired. “I had no idea there was a race going on. I was just sitting on the wall and said, ‘Hey, I know half those guys! I’m gonna get them some water.”

This is his second stint at San Quentin. His first was in the ‘80s, he tells me. “It was another place back then.” Riots. Murders. Tension all the time. “None of this was here,” he says, surveying the yard. No tennis. No garden. No 1,000 Mile Club. No marathon.

“I could imagine doing this,” says Warren still holding a cup no one has grabbed. “Yeah, I’m going to run next year.” He pauses. “I’ll be here.””

The marathon won’t be over for another couple of hours.

Fourteen more guys will finish, including fresh-faced first-timer Michael Johnson, who fixed to have a friend waiting at the end with Peanut Butter Panic ice cream. (“I lent him a calculator earlier,” he explains.)

And, for the fourth time, Tommy Wickerd, his tattooed arms bulging, his bad knees holding, his bald head inscribed: “Ma & Pa I Tried.” He never ran long distance before prison. “The cops always made sure I didn’t get very far,” he jokes. Then turns serious. “Running has changed my life. When I’m running, I’m not in prison. I’m thinking about my father, my grandkids, my next breath, my next step.”

Brett and Bucci string up the red tape for every runner crossing the finish line, as if instead of Danger, it reads: fresh start.

 I’m ushered out before the end of the race. I leave these men and their mistakes and regrets and hopes and dreams. And Mike Keeyes, still trucking tortoise-style at 72, before he finishes his fifth San Quentin Marathon in five-plus hours. He’s been incarcerated for 45 years. My entire lifetime.

These guys run, I realize, for the same reason I do: to feel alive, and free.

The bars clank close behind me and I drive out along the bay toward Tennesee Valley. I swap pants and hit the trails until the sun starts to set.

Later, at home, I can’t help it: I Google. Yet like Coach Frank and Kevin and San Quentin’s geese, I don’t care. I want to go back.

The Usual: For generations, Thanh Long has been the go-to for crab

In the summer of 1985, Annette Jackson and her high school boyfriend drove into the city in his drop-top Mercury Cougar toward Ocean Beach. Not to the beach— only once has she gone to the beach— but a few blocks east of it, to Thanh Long.

All senior year, her boyfriend kept telling her: “I’m going to save all my money and take you to a special dinner for graduation.” Graduation Day came and went, but he wasn’t quite yet flush enough. So, he gave her flowers instead and saved a little more.

“I’d never heard of no restaurant Thanh Long!” she says. “Thanh Long? I thought he was making it up!” The two dated all four years at Oakland High. They’d go to Mexicali Rose. “Sizzlers was always popping,” says Annette.

That first supper was special. “All of East Oakland was there!” she recalls. It turned out, everyone knew what 18-year-old Annette had just discovered: Somehow, Sunday nights at Thanh Long were a tradition. . And there was no better place in the Bay Area for Dungeness crab. Garlicky, peppery, buttery sweet roasted crab.

Now 53, Annette’s relationship with the restaurant has long outlasted the boyfriend. “Oh, I dropped him my first year of college!” she says. “But I kept the crab.”

Most Sundays, she and her girlfriends would make the pilgrimage from Merritt College for their favorite meal—and the crowds of cute, single guys who came craving it, too. Real gentlemen, she recalls. They’d buy Annette her friends drinks. Gift them garlic noodles. “Someone would usually pass us a platter of crab, and say, ‘Here you go, ladies!” She laughs. “I guess that’s why we went on Sundays.”

As life moved on, she’d go with her favorite cousin, with guys she dated, every birthday. And after watching him grab the crab in her New Years’ Eve gumbo and crack it with his bare little hands, she brought her son for his fourth birthday, too.

“He went beserk!” recalls Annette. “He got on his hands and knees at the table, all dressed up in his little plastic bib, and went to town like he’d been doing it for years,” The butter was running down his face, he was licking his arms.” She and his dad, Lenny Jones Jr., were cracking up. “We were like, ‘Did he really just eat an entire crab by himself?’” (He did.)

Lenny Jones III, now 28, has spent every birthday dinner since, like his mother—devouring Dungeness.

He has had hundreds of other dinners there, too: “look how much I’m spending dinners” with his high school sweetheart, Mariah; prom night dinners; boys’ night dinners; home-from-college dinners. One lone “I’m a vegan now” dinner. (Until, Lenny left hungry.)

Since then, he’s had countless any-old-time “I’m feeling crab” dinners. Even if it takes two hours, from Dublin, during Friday rush hour traffic to get there.

And only there. Thanh Long has been drawing crowds to Judah and 46th Avenue long before the stretch became a media darling as a magnet for bearded surfers and clog-clad women seeking espresso and toast and ceramics and succulents. Which is to say: predominantly white. People will wait hours for dinner at Outerlands and people will wait hours for dinner at Thanh Long— but these are noticeably not the same people. Neither Lenny nor his mom have ever been, nor really noticed, anywhere else on the block but Thanh Long.  “I only eat at Thanh Long when I come to the city,” says Annette.

The longtime host, Lani, lets them slide in sans reservations. Lenny fist-bumps the same server he’s fist-bumped since he was a kid.

At 6’3”, 256 pounds, his knees, when sitting, are now taller than the table. He forgoes the bib, unlike everyone else in the two-story, 150-seatrestaurant. He drinks Don Julio 1942 Tequila neat, with a side of pineapple juice. His mom lets him wear sweatpants. And he never lets her pay the bill. Which, of course, isn’t cheap.

“I remember when the crab was $28!” says Annette, a customer service employee at Target. “Then it went to like, $34. At some point it shot up to $43! Now it’s at, what? $53?” ($58.95)

On this night, they get two, roasted with founder Helene An’s “garlic sauce and secret spices. Plus, those garlic noodles—no one doesn’t get the garlic noodles—and an order of chicken fried rice, with an extra side of melted butter, which Annette pours over the bowl of rice.

They add the shaken beef, cubes of New York steak flambeed in Chardonnay. When it arrives, Lenny shakes his head at the piddling plate — and politely sends it back. “Can you put a few more greens on there?” he politely requests. As in: Where’s the beef? Lenny turns to his mom. “That’s a sign of disrespect, right there!” he says. Their Thanh Long is better than that.

Their Thanh Long is also a blissfully messy one. Not unlike, they admit, their life: a mix of ups and downs and obvious mother-son love. Lenny’s father  left long ago for prison and has since passed away. Annette’s sister served time, too. Getting a full ride to the University of Reno for football and signing with the Forty-Niners were definite highs.. The two concussions that followed, and his current free agentsituation, a bit of a low. “You are not going to Canada!” declares Annette. Maybe he’ll become a firefighter? “You are not going to be a firefighter!” she says, finishing off her glistening rice.

Lenny didn’t even start playing football until senior year. He recalls the coach saying: ‘Are you really going to let those big ol’ hands go to waste?’”

Clearly, no matter what happens, he hasn’t.

The crab crunches beneath his massive claws. No mini-forks for this table. “We’re finger people,” explains Annette, wresting a piece of fleshy meat from a leg and dragging it through the bottom of the accompanying bowl. “It’s about the butter and the pepper,” she instructs.

It’s also apparently about the shell. Lenny palms the featherlight, fire-red carapace, and sucks. “I saw an Asian man do that once,” he says.

Other than the prices, the only thing that’s really changed over the years, says Annette, is her drink. (A Hennessey margarita these days.) Also, she’s a grandma now.

 In his four months, Lenny IV, has already been to Thanh Long three times. No crab for him— yet. Mariah brings avocado mash instead. She doesn’t do crab either. (Only that so-so shaken beef.) “But I’ll still come,” she says, rolling her eyes beneath lashes as long as her nails.

 Everyone still comes. Annette and her Lennys — andlimos of lively ladies from Oakland; and decked-out couples from Concord; and graying trios from Vallejo who religiously rotate the tab; and chatty besties from Antioch who refuse to share. Even, yes, Danny Glover, as Thanh Long’s website proudly touts.

“They’re not lying,’ says the local celebrity, laughing over the phone. “I’m going to go with my niece tonight!” He’s been a regular since it first opened in the early 1970s.. It was his family’s first introduction to Vietnamese food, as it was for most Californians. Last year, Helene An was honored by the Smithsonian for introducing Vietnamese cuisine to mainstream America.

The crowd was mostly African American  then too, Glover tells me. People from the Western Addition, the Fillmore, before they were pushed out of the city, he says. “You get something that catches on in a community— especially the Bay Area’s relatively small African American community— and that’s it, word spreads. Also, it’s crab! You know what I’m saying?”

They come for the crab, they say. The best in the Bay Area. But after four decades, is it really the crab alone?

As Annette says, she can get it at her local Lucky for just $6.99 per pound! She has tried to recreate An’s long-secret recipe (so secret the restaurant has an entirely separate kitchen for it). “But it’s always an epic fail,” she says. That’s okay. Her mom’s seafood gumbo recipe—which had been her mom’s seafood gumbo recipe, back in Louisiana—is damn good, too.

“People are always like, ‘Girl, do you have stock in that place?” one regular put it while waiting for the valet. We laughed.

Maybe not in the financial sense. But stock as far as faith and trust and roots.

It’s a rare thing anywhere, even in the food-obsessed Bay Area, for anyone to consistently commute across cities and bridges for a meal. But it’s an especially rare, wonderful, thing for generations of black people to trek to some foggy block otherwise swarmed with white people in Patagonia puffies fawning over fresh pain au levain, to a far-flung restaurant founded almost 50 years ago by a family of Vietnamese immigrants— and call it home.







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