In the neighborhood around Kissena Park in Flushing, a middle-class enclave in the borough of Queens, N.Y., Joe Pardo and Karen Cusack have become something of an institution. Every day they can be found running an eight-mile route through the streets around the park, each clutching one end of an elastic cord that is stretched between them. Their appearance almost always elicits comments.
“People go, ‘Woof, woof,’ because of the rope, and one guy yelled, ‘Don’t let him get away, lady!’ ” laughs Karen. “They always assume he’s the one on the leash.” Often the onlookers don’t notice until it is pointed out to them that Joe is blind.
Joe, who is 58, met Karen, 23, three years ago, after he launched a women’s running program at the Flushing YMCA. He works there as a physical-training director and masseur. Karen joined the group to lose weight. “Joe would run with the best runner,” she recalls. “As I got progressively better I started running with him.”
By now, the Pardo-Cusack relationship has long since progressed from running to romance: They’ve lived together for more than a year. Yet their partnership is often as bumpy as the city streets they travel—spiked as it is by Joe’s trademark, the pointed but affectionate put-down. “He’s a beast when he runs,” sighs Karen. “A 7-year-old could guide me better than she does,” he counters. “We’ve hit a car [“It was a stationary car,” she interjects] and I’ve fallen maybe twice. I might as well be out there by myself.” Grinning, Karen replies, “So many things happen in a run, I think I’m too lazy to tell him.” Joe recalls the first race Karen entered because he ran with her. “Actually, we didn’t run together,” he says. “I pulled her.”
Joe doesn’t use the leash for every race. In fact, most of the 49 marathons he has behind him he ran on his own. A fixture on the international circuit, Joe at first didn’t want race officials to know he was blind for fear they wouldn’t let him compete. So he’d stay with the pack, using the vibration of the other runners’ feet as a guide.
Born in Detroit, where his father was a Ford factory foreman, Joe took up running at 9. An admirer of aviator Eddie Rickenbacker, he majored in aeronautical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley—with time out to fly Navy fighters in the Pacific in WW II. After finally graduating in 1948, he piloted DC-4s on Pan Am’s transoceanic routes.
One morning in March 1953, Joe, then 29, was awakened to sign for a telegram—and found he could hardly see where to put his name. His vision worsened, and he was diagnosed as having retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. “It was like overnight that it happened,” he recalls. “I had never heard of it before.” By year’s end he was totally blind.
Jobless, he worked as a door-to-door salesman in Detroit and Los Angeles and did well, supporting his four children (one of whom was killed in Vietnam in 1970). Eventually he and his wife, Margaret, divorced in the late 1950s, but not because of his blindness. He then moved East and became a masseur in Stamford, Conn., where the State Board of Education for the Blind financed his training. He took the Flushing Y job in 1962, though it meant a long commute by train and subway.
At first he vowed not to use a cane (“I didn’t want to become an object of sympathy”). He soon relented on that but still finds the white stick irksome. “People come up to you on the street and say, ‘Can I help you cross?’ and then they almost lift you off the sidewalk. I really don’t need the help,” he says. “I do it for them.”
In 1964 Joe moved to Queens. “I didn’t like New York and had no intention of staying,” he recalls. But then, neither did he plan on falling in love. In 1979 he met Karen, a postal employee’s daughter who was in her last year at Queensborough Community College. Although almost two more years passed before she moved into his small apartment crammed with bicycles and barbells, Joe liked her “from the first time I heard her voice.” What did it for Karen, she says, were the leg massages Joe gave her.
Their families now accept their 35-year age difference, but it is still an issue for them. The subject of marriage, for example, brings an abrupt “No” from Karen. “I keep telling him I’m going to leave him when he’s 60,” she jokes. Suddenly serious, Joe explains, “I wouldn’t want to burden her. She’s got a lot of living to do yet.”
For now, running and the rope they hold between them is the tie that binds. Joe resists pressure from pals who want to see him chalk up his 50th marathon. “That means more to them than to me,” he claims. He hasn’t entered a New York marathon since 1980. “There are too many people,” he complains. “It slows the pace.” Karen’s time this year: a respectable 3:30:24.
Joe and Karen continue their daily workouts. But in races they run separately. “He’s gotten slower,” cracks Karen. And, for once, she’s had the last word.