Monday, June 18, 2012
The Indignity of Commuting by Bicycle: It's My Blog And I'll Opine If I Want To
Over the past few years, I've been this close [indicates tiny distance with fingers] to moving someplace else. I don't mean someplace else like Park Slope or Jackson Heights or even Massapequa, either. I mean like away.
Recently though, my resolve to leave has begin to disintegrate, like a crabon fiber bicycle in the sun. (Hopefully that last sentence causes Lennard Zinn to be deluged with more paranoid emails.) In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that I've fallen in love with New York all over again. This is largely due to my recent book tour, during which I effectively "window shopped " the rest of the country by visiting city after city in rapid succession. And while I loved what I saw (except for Boulder obviously, I mean what a slum), what I realized is that there's really no better feeling than the one I get when I return. There I'd be, scrunched into a sub-economy seat on Craptastic Airlines, and we'd begin our descent into JFK. Looking out the window, I could see every place I'd ever lived, and all my favorite landmarks, and even the diner on Rockaway Turnpike where we used to hang out in high school. "How could I ever dream of leaving this place?," I'd turn and ask the person sitting next to me, a single tear running down my cheek as they poked desperately at the flight attendant call button.
Indeed, as the Wicked Scarecrow from "That Wizard of Ahhhs" famously said, "There is no other place like your home. Now hit those ugly ass shoes together a few times and let's get the fuck out of here."
Occasionally, I get emails from people who tell me they are visiting New York City for the first time and want to know which bike shops they should visit. My advice is always the same, which is that if you're coming to New York, don't waste your time going to bike shops. This is not to say that we don't have some very wonderful ones. It's just that, in the context of all the amazing sights and experiences New York City has to offer, honing in on the bike shops during your brief stay is like visiting a strip club just for the all-you-can-eat buffet. Sure, if you're going to visit Portland I suppose you should check out the bike shops, since "bike culture" is all they have. (In fact, I'm pretty sure the only reason they need a bicycle infrastructure in Portland is so people can ride to and from bike shops.) And sure, if you're staying here for a long time you should certainly go check them out. But if you're just in town for a short while, you're much better off going to a museum or visiting an interesting neighborhood. This is the cultural capital of the United States and probably the most diverse city on Earth. Even something as seemingly corny as going to the top of the Empire State Building can be a transcendent experience. Don't drag your incredibly disappointed spouse or life partner into some bike shop to breathe in tire smell, dork out with the shop rats, and stare at a bunch of hats.
All of this is to say that I don't live here for the cycling. Nevertheless, the riding can be amazing. Indeed, it's amazing precisely because New York isn't about cycling, which allows the cycling to sort of run in the background and do its job. Commuter cycling in New York City is amazing for precisely the same reason that the subway is amazing--not because it's anything like riding in a utility cycling paradise like Amsterdam (it isn't), but because it serves to connect all types of people with their incredibly dynamic lives. Road riding and mountain biking is amazing in and around New York City not because it's anything like riding in Northern California (it isn't), but because even in a densely-populated place where people lead the most intensely demanding professional lives on the planet it's still possible to escape by bicycle and revel in something resembling nature. (Obviously my professional life is not even remotely demanding, but it is true of other people.) New York City cycling is like a Manhattan terrace. There's nothing inherently special about a few measly feet of outdoor space, but when you factor in all that's going on beneath your feet suddenly it's worth a million dollars.
This weekend I enjoyed one of those million-dollar cycling weekends. Anyone living in a recreational cycling paradise would scoff at my exploits, and there's not a Rapha photographer skilled enough in the use of black and white to make any of my cycling exploits seem even remotely "epic." Nevertheless, there are few things more amazing than crossing a bridge on a clear day and seeing the entire city laid out before you, or riding from neighborhood to neighborhood and from borough to borough and experiencing the entire history of American immigration and urban development. I was still feeling blissed out from it all yesterday evening when I fired up the old Internet and saw this:
As usual, there is "no criminality suspected" in this cyclist's death, even though the driver broke the law:
Section 1214. Opening and closing vehicle doors. No person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonable safe to do so, and can be done without interfering with the movement of other traffic, nor shall any person leave a door open on the side of the vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.
"No criminality suspected" is the mantra of the police whenever a cyclist or a pedestrian is killed by a driver, even if the driver has clearly broken the law, as in the case above. By the way, do you know what the New York Post calls it when a driver flings a door open without looking and kills somebody? They call it a "freak accident:"
They also make it sound like it was somehow the cyclist's fault, and then they drive the point home by spelling "pedaled" wrong:
The man, in his early 30s, peddled into the driver’s-side door of a parked Toyota Camry on Union Turnpike Fresh Meadows at around 8:10 p.m., police said.
It really challenges your love for and loyalty to your home when you know that, in the event of your demise at the hands of a lawbreaker, the incident will be shrugged off as a "freak accident." It's also bewildering that the police will work proactively to ensure my safety by subjecting people to constant "stop and frisks," yet they won't even work retroactively when someone runs down someone else and then drives away.
After a pleasant afternoon in the park this past weekend, my family and I were returning home by bicycle on a one-way street. As we rode, a driver in a Zipcar turned onto the street and began "salmoning" right at us. I waved wildly at him and he came to a stop and lowered the window. I told him he was going the wrong way and he replied exasperatedly, "I know." Then, instead of pulling into the driveway that was right next to us and turning around, he reversed right back down the block and into the intersection from which he had come. It's good to know that, had things turned out more tragically for either us or the people in the crosswalk into which he reversed, that no criminality would have been suspected of him either, and that any potential recriminations would have ben focussed on whether or not we were wearing our helmets.
Anyway, it's all rather upsetting, especially for a Monday, and so I turned to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for some guidance--but unfortunately he was too busy partying with Russell Brand:
On these streets and in this incarnation I guess it's just every man for himself.