A Bike and a Prayer
If you ride you know those moments when you have fed yourself into the traffic, felt the hashed-up asphalt rattle in the handlebars, held a lungful of air in a cloud of exhaust. Up ahead there are two parallel buses. With cat’s whiskers, you measure the clearance down a doubtful alley. You swing wide, outflank that flower truck. The cross-street yellow light is turning red. You burst off the green like a surfer on a wave of metal. You have a hundred empty yards of Broadway to yourself.
It was the Irish writer Flann O’Brien who put forth the theory that if you ride a bicycle long enough it takes on your nature and you take on a bit of its. That’s why you see bicycles hanging out in your pubs and people leaning stolidly against walls. It goes without saying that there never was a more lyrical invention — a machine so attuned to the nature of dreaming.
But leafy country lanes are one thing and the motorized hysteria of New York another. City riding is not a good way to live a long and peaceful life. Its ecstasies are the sort that soldiers know after battle when they have danced with the beast. To ride through the congested heart of Manhattan at rush hour is to dance with the beast. You compass extremes of terror and exhilaration. You are initiated into an occult world no passenger of buses, cabs, and trains can know. At its deepest, riding in the city becomes a way of seeing, a form of self-expression, a consciousness.
Usually, it starts as a simple case of convenience. There isn’t a faster way of transporting yourself in style. At times in New York, which puts a price on everything, the freedom and mobility of a bicycle can make you feel like a rich man. Gliding by the limos of fat cats mewed up in traffic, you know that life is just and fortune has many guises.
Like dogs, bicycles are social catalysts that attract a superior category of people. Their slow speed vis-a-vis Lear jets makes them anathema on the fast track; on your bicycle you’ll be spared encounters with the upwardly mobile segments of society, because they are put off and bewildered by a machine whose character is essentially populist, not to say horizontal. (The upwardly mobile prefer to spend Friday nights trying to cross the Triborough Bridge in so-called luxury sedans.)
At a deeper level, city riding is a continual lesson in feminine principles, in particular the art of being vulnerable. A confrontational, macho aesthetic spells calamity. You must learn to yield, to dodge, to seek harmony. You are obliged to mind the web of interrelations, that complicated mesh of interests, conflicts, intentions: See that stockbroker signaling for a cab at the corner? Wake up, that man’s arm may bring a ton of yellow metal swerving across your path. See that poet with the uncertain expression? He’s forgotten his briefcase; he’s about to turn around in the middle of the road. That fellow double-parked in front of Gray’s Papaya — is he going to fling his door open? No, he’s eating a hot dog.
Your eye for geography grows sharp. Your legs attend the lost world of contours, the dales and hills that are ironed out by internal combustion. History crops up in hazardous remnants of trolley track protruding from pavement near the George Washington Bridge. Squint into the gritty air, battling head winds off the Hudson: no wonder the tall ships went to the shelter of the East River.
You ride a corridor of scents and odors — Central Park’s wet earth and oxygen, the treacly stench of garbage in Szechuan Valley, the atmosphere of fast food and fumes on 125th Street. Every corner brings a whiff of city life — exhaust, bacon, urine, pizza, new concrete, wet scaffolding, cut flowers, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. Every steel plate on the street grows slick as ice in rain. Fifth Avenue feels like velvet compared to Eighth. The light changes. It’s close to nine, a summer Sunday night; you’re rolling east to west, down a blazing canyon: a blindered horse, aimed at the sun.
Afterward, there is a sense of quiet triumph and repose. You sustained the requisite vigilance. The folly of city riding rests in those moments of absent-mindedness when disaster is not averted, when your guard is down, your thoughts elsewhere. Perhaps you are foolish enough to believe that life is easy: you are lulled by the world’s goodness; a fine day has driven malevolent forces into hiding. In an instant, the beast bares its teeth, and you must reckon with your fragility.
One spring night I went for my first ride after laying off for the winter. It was giddy and strange to be perched over wheels again. The gears chirred like a belted kingfisher; the shop fronts of Columbus Avenue streamed past in fast forward. I was thinking how just last fall I had put my ex-girlfriend on my bike and ridden her across the park, and how romantic that seemed now through the veil of memory, even though at the time I had been more concerned with what our combined weight was doing to my rims.
Coasting down Columbus Avenue at good speed (sensing in the long glide the slope of Manhattan bedrock), I moved to the right to turn onto a side street. I slipped between a cab and the curb. Suddenly a yellow door flew open in my path.
If you have a nice bike or if you’re sentimental about your bike (my green Bianchi carried me through adolescence), your first thought is, Save the bike. The cry got halfway up my throat; I had time to jerk the wheel over, and then I was unweighted, sailing over the handlebars. I glanced off the top of the door and returned like deadweight, landing on a fire hydrant on my back. A man rushed up.
“Are you all right? Sit down, buddy, sit down,” he shouted. “Oh, man, are you lucky, I seen the whole thing, man, I thought there was going to be brains all over the sidewalk.” (How could there have been when I left them at home — only an idiot would ride between a stopped cab and the curb.) My back hurt, my knee throbbed. “Are you all right?” he said.
Somehow my bike had come through unscathed, and that was just what the doctor ordered.
“I’m fine,” I said. But I walked home and did not ride for a few days.
You venture back cautiously. Wake up, wake up, says the city. Who doesn’t profit from such a bulletin — who doesn’t need to be shaken by the shoulders and told to live now while there’s time? People averse to risk content themselves with cabs and trains, but they have the machinery of illumination at their fingertips. And at times there is no alternative.
You have a date. It’s set for six. You really like this girl. You take a little nap because at your age you have to take a nap to keep up with people her age. You snap awake. You’ve overslept. It’s a quarter to six. It’s a quarter to six on the Upper West Side and you’re supposed to meet her at a bar in Chelsea in 15 minutes. Is it a quarter to six in Chelsea too? She dumped her last boyfriend because he was always late. Men who are late are the one thing she can’t abide. Oh, it’s over, it’s finished, a woman who could have been the mother of your children, your last chance for happiness. How are you going to cover 70 blocks in 15 minutes through the most congested city in North America?
Subway? Subway! By the time you get a token and change to the local she’ll have already married someone else.
Cab? Cab??!! By the time a cab gets there, she’ll be nursing twins.
The answer is bike. I know because it worked for me. Well, all except the part about the girl."
— Chip Brown, “A Bike and a Prayer (via mrlapadite)
"When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking."
— Arthur Conan Doyle, 1896 (via thebroomwagon)