biographical / New York / Non-fiction

Thieves, Car Accidents, Hot and Cold Power

Holland by Bicycle

I managed to unsteal my bicycle wheel and get hit by a car gently enough to admonish the perpetrator and ride home. Overall, a good night.

I’ve been riding to work. I thought 11 miles was too long, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art too classy, but really it’s a crowded and frequently unpleasant hour by train and I don’t work in the Met itself, I’m in an office annex, with a door to my little office, and a drawer where I store dress pants and shoes. Note to self: bring Febreeze.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 11.15.39 AMSo on this unusually warm fall, I’ve been whipping up there and I love it. Bicycling grants another perspective on a place; one comes to intimately know a city’s topography, its circulatory system. In just the first week I came to know that Chinatown rises late, that Manhattan rises along First Avenue above 14th Street, that bicycle traffic will cloud and abet somewhere in the late 20s, that by the 30s the smells of exhaust give way to the smells of the ocean (!). The buildings break along the river to your left, giving vistas to Queens as you climb up by the UN. I saw hints of Old Manhattan, which I long assumed extinct, as I passed under the Queensboro Bridge, the rhythm of people working and walking and deciding to cease doing either one once they reach the bike lane. Going home I took that very bridge, called the Ed Koch Bridge on signs and the 59th Street bridge in that song, for the first time. The industrial Gothic cantilevered bridge isn’t as steep as the Manhattan Bridge I take in the mornings, so was able to keep pace with the subway that rose up alongside me. Inside people looked snug, and in place, the light coming out of the windows like a Kincade painting. I neither envied nor pitied them. In my little shorts in November, I too felt in place.

So I love biking and I suspect I hate cars. We’ve sacrificed so much city space, and air quality to them and yet still they demand more. Somehow we have space for two rows of parked cars on every street, but the addition of a bike lane earns protest.

It’s a Quixotic thing, then, my little two-wheeled protest. The damage has been done; America built in the image of the automobile, and most people are fine with it, or don’t imagine it to possibly be otherwise, or even like it. I’m not immune to the charms of cool car or of going fast, and I’m certainly not immune to the convenience.

As I whipped downtown in traffic—no bike lanes on the East Side until the 50s and even then Second Avenue is rough shape—I just kept thinking, “Cars, can’t live with ‘em, but other people can, so you might die.”

Anyway, my bike parked on Rivington, I was waiting outside of a bar, some kind of well-marked speakeasy, which was at capacity. It wasn’t a club, there was no velvet rope, just me behind a trio of the well-to-do up-and-coming polished peopled and a pair of just past middle-aged women who, for reasons I can’t place now, I assumed were German.

A.S. Daggy Harper's 1897

A.S. Daggy Harper’s 1897

That’s when I saw a man walking off with my bike wheel. I saw him when I parked, standing in the idle way of men with nothing better to do. I knew my rear wheel was takable, the u-lock only securing my front and frame. I more or less lived with fear of this happening all of the time.

As he crossed Rivington I met him in the crosswalk.

I don't know if this is funny.

I don’t know if this is funny.

“Hey, you found my wheel.” I took it. He released it over without struggle or protestation. I was much taller and he was stooped in the way that a lifetime of substance abuse or despair can weigh someone down. Despite my words, and the lack of malice in my tone, I think he understood exactly what was going to happen. Simply doing what you’re going to do projects power in a way that getting mad never could. There will be time for that later, though.

“That’s your wheel?” he said. All of this was perfunctory. “I thought that was Mark’s wheel.”

“No it’s mine.”

He pointed to the laundromat that he had been standing in front of. “You know Mark? He works—”

“No I don’t know ‘Mark.’” I said and walked back to my bike, where it was slumped and crippled, leaned back as in penitent prayer. He called from across the street, I don’t know what he said, and I looked up trying to convey how easily I was letting him off.

It's not really.

It’s not really.

An Australian woman came over. “He nicked your wheel?

I held it up. “Well, not this time.”

“But he nicked it,” the woman exclaimed. Australians are hard to read; I’m not sure what she was getting at or why she seemed sort of delighted to have witnessed this.

“He tried.”

“She saw,” the woman pointed to a group on the corner, “she said, ‘oh he’s going for the wheel.”

I probably should’ve—and Bruce McCullough would’ve—pointed out that the world would be a better place if we didn’t just stand on the corner watching people steal things that belong to other people, possibly very nice people in this case. But I let the incident speak for itself, secured the wheel to the bike, and retook my spot on line.

I got into the bar and got to chatting with Nick, who teaches English literature at Queens College, so naturally we started talking about Spanish-language literature, and I brought up Turgenev’s essay about how everyone’s either a Don Quixote or a Hamlet, because lately I bring it up all the time.

Hastily: Don Quixote is bound to an ideal beyond himself and perhaps beyond experience, and is a fool and is mocked, but is also sort of admirable in his love and nobility, whereas Hamlet subjects everything to his own internal mind and standards from within himself and gets nowhere.

When you bring this essay up, delicious dichotomy that it is, people will ask you if you’re a Hamlet or a Don Quixote, and I have to admit that I’m a Hamlet, bound by my own analytical neurosis and fundamentally incapable of love or of being loved, but the parts of myself that I admire are like Quixote. Tragic thing about Hamlet; even Hamlets can’t love those aspects of themselves.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 11.34.57 AM

We’re all a bunch of Hamlets, Nick seemed to agree. Or maybe, since we’re writers, and witnesses we’re Sancho Panzas. The internal logic of the authorship of Don Quixote is a whole other thing, and I haven’t even gotten to the part where I get hit by the car, so we’ll let that drop.

We left the bar and I put my bike back together in front of some Rivington club, the would-be thieves and Australian enablers long gone. On the way home I got lost in Chinatown which also seems to go to bed fairly early. It’s fascinating that even in a place as crowded and frenetic as Manhattan, quiet corners remain.

As I got my bearings, a cab pulled directly in front of my path and stopped, forcing me to a stop–this happens, to be clear, all the time. As I went to pull around, the reverse lights came on and the back of Prius hit my shoulder and started to push me down. The exact positioning of everything is sort of lost to me now but he hit my shoulder, not my bike, and I was completely unhurt, but nevertheless, car backing into you.

“HEY!” I yelled, my voice echoing around quiet brick block. The car stopped (which is why I’m here to tell the tale!) and I pulled around to look at the cab driver.

“What the fuck?!” I shouted. This was in sharp contrast to me and the bike wheel guy. Thievery is one thing, but power yielded indifferently is inexcusable. “You don’t use a god damn turn signal?”

He gave me a sort of wave of acknowledgement, as though I had said, “FYI this is two hour parking,” and went to resume backing up.

I swung and knocked his rearview mirror forward, doing no damage but at least getting his attention. He stopped to look back at me.

“Look asshole you’re going to kill someone,” my voice bounced around the street, for the first time I was that guy in New York yelling at someone, but god damn it if he didn’t deserve it. “Then where are you going to be? In jail!”

I guess I thought that would make it land. Gotta make it personal. Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 11.39.02 AM

This was in a way a fantasy I’ve had many times, finally confronting the driver who almost killed me. Most of the time they just drive off, blithely texting and never knowing how close they came to vehicular manslaughter (well, since the NYPD doesn’t bother to pursue these things, they’re further from consequences than I am. I’m fairly certain when I am killed on my bike, the driver will mutter something the poor maintenance of city roads and continue to scrolling through Yelp reviews).

I swore loudly into the night, got on the Manhattan Bridge and went home. When Julie arrived, I described what happened nonchalantly and jokingly to her horror.

It was two years and a week after a driver had hit her off her bike and driven off. The driver left without consequence, while Julie laid on the ground before being rushed to the hospital with broken bones in her face, chipped front teeth, and bleeding from what would become a long scar below her lips. I stayed with her as long as I could in Kings County Hospital, pouring water into her swollen lips and reading an insipid Joyce Carol Oates short story from Harper’s. Julie is still sometimes getting sued for long-paid dental bills.

You could say this evidence that you shouldn’t ride a bike in New York, but I consider it all evidence that you shouldn’t drive a car here. Say what you want about bicyclists (people do!) but the world would be a better place if bicyclists weren’t always riding as though they were fleeing the battering wings of black death in the form of an indifferent black SUV.

Anyway, it’s stupid and foolish but it’s the windmill we’re tilting at, Dulcinea. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s