Biking has changed my perspective on New York City.
It has become simultaneously bigger and more complex, and smaller and easier. I travel into parts of the map previously unimaginable and marvel at how it just goes on and on, one neighborhood-village unfolding into the next, little universes fully equipped, as disconnected from one another in architecture and language as they are connected by that je ne sais quoi – that membrane – that ties this city into a single body and makes New York New York. On my bike, every artery opens. The full stretch and depth yield to my reach. It’s a small city, for being so huge. And a huge city, in such a small space.
The first time I biked to Washington Heights, most of it along the Hudson on that wonderful bike path, I was flank to flank with the setting sun. In Chelsea, models tanned. Twenty minutes later, above 125th, whole families had turned out to fish, and barbeque smoke and snatches of bachata wafted across the path. It was after midnight when I made my way home and the streets were deliciously empty, smooth, and sheened with light. I took Broadway for the rush of the long downhill. Even at that hour, on each meridian there were people gathered – old men mostly – sitting on folding chairs and watching the street.
And another time at Jefferson I turned right instead of left and went deep into Bed-Stuy. Into its miles and mils of brownstones and overflowing flower boxes, sycamores leaning across the street, and empty lots transformed into gardens where people plucked the last of the tomatoes.
A bike allows you to observe without engaging. You can stare because you don’t stop. One is invisible in the same way as starlings and stray cats. Responsible, yes, for your vulnerable body in the crush of machines on the road – but otherwise unfettered, contained by few boundaries and even fewer rules.
Biking has made the variety of this city palpable, and the density and uniqueness of lives. To bike through it is to be reminded of each individual’s absorption in the stuff of his or her specific existence, which I glimpse fleetingly: her stepping off the curb, him frowning over something in the store window, them gesticulating urgently to a crying child. I drift by, a daydreaming snorkeler over the reef.
Also, biking has provided me a whole new nomenclature for the categorization of people. The first time I rode in Manhattan I felt a giddy camaraderie with all other bikers. By the second or third time I’d graduated beyond the neophyte’s dangerous habit of hugging curb and realized I made everyone’s life easier if I claimed some space on the road. I developed a haughty indignation at those who rode against traffic, though I did it often myself, and chagrin before those who wore helmets (I don’t yet, but I respect those who do). I learned to calculate the red lights I could go through and the ones I could not and, interestingly, I’d realized that behavior at red lights is telling indicator of a person’s character.
On a recent Friday evening I decided to take advantage of something I have so far missed: weekend late night hours at the Met, when they also play music.
I started north around 6ish. It was warm, but the October sun was on its way out.
My favorite way to bike is in skirt and heels. There is something particularly satisfying about going very fast, very far, while looking like you shouldn’t be able to.
So, it’s down Dekalb first, then a right turn after the hospital, bisect the projects, and up on to the bridge. The Manhattan Bridge is a space for wordless communication. Bikers pass one another in droves, and there’s opportunity for eye contact, nods, the occasional smile, sometimes a disapproving glower. This is where you see the whole range of two-wheel types. I pass one poor man over-ambitiously trying to lug a carpet on his hipster single speed, then I slow down for the boys biking side-by-side balancing skateboards and wobbling all over the place. There go the usual unsmiling hard-core types with messenger bags and heavy chains round their waists; and the racer, the dragonfly in our midst, in aggressively colored lycra and iridescent sunglasses; and the many upright commuters (of which I am one) with rubber bands keeping slacks tight to ankle and briefcases in baskets out front.
Crossing this bridge is, every time, a reason for exhilaration. Here we go, soaring over the river v-ed by boats, the craggy skyline stretched out in front, pure blues and browns, and glass facades to amplify the glorious expanse of sky.
Then, it’s down over the Chinatown market which, at this time of day, is pungent with trash.
The Met is on the east side. No Hudson River this time then. It’s up along 1st Avenue instead, where one contends with turning taxis, squealing buses, produce trucks squatting in the path, and the stoic delivery guys who follow a code of conduct wholly divorced from conventional street law.
The Met, as always, is completely worthwhile. First, I seek out portraits from the Gilded Era, USA. Then, art from the Yuan Dynasty, China. A brief tour though the Picasso section and, eventually, a linger in “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance.” On this particular night, I also get a VIP tour of the Starn brother exhibit on the roof. After 9 pm, when the other patrons have been hustled out, I am allowed to kick off those heels of mine and climb barefoot through the bamboo sculpture. At the top one sees the stars over Central Park. They look like lit windows, detached from the buildings below and floating out of place.
On the way home:
At the 60-something streets two men shout in a rage at a taxi driver. They get out, they slam the door, one kicks it fiercely. At impact of foot and metal the taxi lurches forward as if hurt and inches out, an illegal turn into traffic, leaving the righteous men yelling curses in its wake.
The East Village on Friday night: a misery of sharp-heeled faunlets stumbling into the bike lane without looking and flush-faced boys with unbuttoned shirts and manic confidence in their expression.
After a careful crossing of Delancy there’s the relief of the dark and quiet stretch leading to the illuminated bridge.
And now on the home stretch. I pass the Masonic temple. A crowd is gathered in front. A Goth festival of sorts, I think – I glimpse a lot of platform boots and inky-colored hair. I watch as a man with boysenberry lipstick makes the wry “What-Ever” face to two companions and then laughs in a very deep voice.
On the steps of the church at the block’s end a couple has retreated to fight. The man, skinny, bleached hair stiff as ice, bends over to scream in the face of his seated partner. I see the whites of her eyes, darkly framed as they are by mascara and liner. She’s looking sideways as I float past, and inhaling on her cigarette, deeply.