All day long it rained on and off, the kind of weather that finds you dressed wrong from one hour to the next. Cars streamed by, spraying sidewalks. Shoppers searched for last-minute Mother's Day gifts. By nightfall, we were tired from crowded greeting-card aisles, and the weather's fickle extremes had pummeled us into passivity. We anticipated a dull evening in front of the TV. Then a friend called and reminded us: The Olympic torch was in New Jersey and would pass by just yards from our neighborhood. We all looked at each other. Well, why not?
We walked to the corner where Farm Road meets 206, the route the runner was to dazzle with his torch at 9 p.m., and found a small crowd of 20 people at the end of the ill-lit street. Normally this corner was undistinguished, marked only by a bent street sign. Now children raced around in the dark, leaping in and out of puddles, exhilarated by the rare pleasure of staying out past bedtime. Neighbors we had never seen before turned out wearing baseball jackets and velour jogging suits, proper tan raincoats, or bright slickers. A few carried sleeping infants strapped in cocoons on their chests. A van with a CB antenna parked, but its lights remained on, and the large man inside, who looked official but wasn't, monitored the radio's crackle. If it were a little colder, this group would be singing carols; hotter, and we would watch fireworks. But it was a cool night in May and we waited.
Not long before the Olympic torch reached New York City, this jaded spectator returned from Peace Corps service in West Africa. My first few weeks back in America were spent in the wilds of the New Jersey suburbs, cynically viewing the condominium and shopping mall scene. This evening, I found myself again slipping into the role of observer, a nonparticipant taking mental notes.
Seasoned sports fans had dragged out lawn chairs. The wisest wrapped themselves in blankets. One small girl wore sweatpants and posed for her mother's flash camera, holding a tin-foil torch with a crepe paper flame. A teen-age boy flung his arm up, and way above the telephone wires a tiny firecracker popped, then another. The crowd clapped. This ad hoc holiday had a kindling excitement.
The moon was full and bright, but the headlights were brighter. Each time a group of cars neared in a cluster, we thought it was the official pack, but they moved on. An AT&T van sped by. We waved. Finally, a police car passed, announcing that the runner had reached a traffic circle four miles north. Immediate speculation about the runner's speed buzzed round us. ''Twenty minutes ,'' someone said confidently. ''Nah, are you kidding? A half hour, at least.''
Ten more minutes went by and our thoughts drifted. Other cheerful crowd scenes ran through my mind: flying kites in a windy city park; an hour stuck in an elevator with a bunch of amateur comedians; digging cars out of snowdrifts in Boston; traveling in a nearly empty airplane with good-natured strangers across the Atlantic.
My return to America had made me think that we are a culture greedy for constant stimulation: There were too many restaurants and movies to choose from. Food was oversalted or too sweet. Cable and home video poured such distraction into our living rooms, we forgot that there could be a life without electricity. Walking down a street in New York, I was brought nearly to a halt by the blinding bazaar of people and colors and noise. Tonight we had come out of our houses for a low-tech, cheap event without a scoreboard or a sound track, but, as media junkies, we would be sure to try to catch a repeat of it on the late news.
Then I remembered one day in Senegal, the country where I served as a volunteer, when the president of Mauritania came to visit a small town a few miles away. All the villagers dressed in their holiday clothes and hiked over the sand early in the morning to row a canoe across the Senegal River and wait all day to see him. It was a break in the routine, a reason to leave the tiny village, and something to talk about for a week. Perhaps not so different from tonight.
On a cold spring evening in New Jersey, July seemed far away; Los Angeles even farther. But when we heard the announcement by the man glued to his CB, ''They reached K mart!,'' a cheer rose up. The lights of the escort appeared. All traffic stopped. Errant dog-walkers drew near. Dozing children woke up. Among the steady headlights, we saw one lone yellow glare bouncing up and down, and as the runner approached, a tall man with an easy stride, we moved our sneakers through the wet grass toward the asphalt, and we saw that it was true, the Olympic torch had indeed come to our small town, and under a full moon on Route 206 for a moment we knew that nothing is too far away, that anything is possible.