Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Dignity of Commuting by Bicycle: Cold-Blooded Murder

(Finding the leak.)

This morning, as I was riding up Avenue A along Tomkins Square Park, something fell out of the air and into the bike lane right in front of me. It looked like a balled-up rust brown sweater that had been thrown from a top floor window. "What new indignity is this?," I sighed to myself. "Are cyclists being pelted with dirty laundry now?"

As I drew closer and stopped though I realized it wasn't a sweater at all. It was in fact a terrier-sized hawk with a beak that looked like it could tear a Rivendell Roly Poly off a Mavic MA-2 with minimal effort, and it was standing atop a very nonplussed-looking pigeon. I beheld it with awe for a moment until it flew across the sidewalk and perched itself upon an iron fence, the poor pigeon very much alive and dangling from the hawk's talons.

The hawk looked back at me with typical hawk-like sang-froid, and the pigeon looked at me at me with resignation and a sense of inevitability. (Well, admittedly it was the same expression they have when they pick crumbs from discarded Twinkie wrappers, but they look resigned and possessed of a sense of inevitability when they do that too.) I felt like I had walked in on a fraternity brother taking advantage of an intoxicated sorority sister. Then, I realized I had my camera on me, but in my typical fashion I fumbled with it like a Nü-Fred trying to work a multi-tool and by the time I managed to turn the thing on the hawk decided to take off in search of a quieter place to tear the pigeon apart. I did, however, manage to get a picture of the pair just as they departed:

The hawk is pretty well camouflaged and almost looks like a big knot in the tree, but it's there, and so is the pigeon. I'm assuming the hawk is a red-tailed hawk, since according to the field guide I purchased at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge awhile back they're pretty common around here, and I have seen similar hawks picking at carcasses in the parks every so often. Here's a closer look:

It almost looks like the hawk has its talon around the pigeon's shoulder and like it's simply leading it away someplace where they can chat in private, but even though I'm no ornithologist I'm pretty sure that's not what the hawk has in mind. By the way, I wasn't the only fascinated onlooker. My photograph also reveals a delighted child enjoying the scene:

A little smaller and he might have been in danger himself.

Anyway, after that the kid and I grabbed a beer together and reflected on how beautiful it is that you can watch nature at work in its most basic way even right in the middle of the city. Ordinarily I find bike lane intrusions irritating, but I welcome little miniature nature documentaries like this one any day. I would be similarly delighted if a family of beavers dammed up the new bi-directional bike lane that now runs along Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, and would simply welcome it as an opportunity to practice my cyclocross remounts.

Speaking of encountering little delights while riding, a number of people have informed me that the city of Copenhagen somehow continues to devise new ways of pleasing its bicycle commuters. The latest is this little footrest, forwarded to me by a number of readers, which means that cyclists no longer have to go through the trouble of extending their feet all the way to the street at red lights:

The translation for what's written on the footrest is: "Hi, cyclist! Rest your foot here... and thank you for cycling in the city." Presumably, this photograph was taken just before the city's "Intersection Cycling Pleasure Squad" arrived to clean the rider's glasses, rub his shoulders, and check his air pressure. While some might argue that with this Copenhagen has overshot "improvement" by about three or four blocks and is now deep in the neighborhood known as "coddling," I personally think they've still got a ways to go and I'm looking forward to the implementation of the new bathroom "home wiping for cyclists" service sometime in the spring.

Sadly, we will probably never see this level of coddling in New York City, for the simple reason that our bicycle commuters believe the act of putting your foot down while cycling at any point is a despicable act of surrender. This is true of all cyclists: Nü-Freds, roadies, messengers, Beautiful Godzillas, the "fitness cyclist" wearing a sweatsuit while riding a hybrid, and even the irritable "Finding Forrester" guy who rides a three-speed and only leaves his apartment once a month to have painfully protracted interactions with postal clerks and bank tellers as people waiting on line groan impatiently behind him. For this reason, any intersection footrests would go unused. Consider the gentleman in the purple pants:

I found myself riding behind the gentleman in the purple pants recently and he exhibited typical New York City-style intersection behavior. Upon approaching the red light, he shoaled me and struggled awkwardly to slow his brakeless track bike, and then rolled through the crosswalk and into the intersection, where he proceeded to trackstand. However, he was unable to maintain the trackstand for the duration of the red light. He struggled valiantly, but eventually he was forced to do the unthinkable and put his foot down. At this point, a weaker-willed rider might resign himself to waiting and move out of the way of oncoming traffic, but the gentleman in the purple pants instead attempted to salvage his dignity by crossing the busy intersection by means of an incredibly awkward fixed-gear "schluff." If you've ever seen a fixed-gear "schluff," it's a horrible sight--more so even than a traditional "schluff." A traditional "schluffer" stands next to the bicycle, but the fixed-gear "schluffer" continues to straddle the bicycle and pushes him- or herself along with one foot while the other remains in the toe clip rotating along with the crankarm. It's as graceless as a hawk swooping down and grabbing a pigeon is graceful, but ultimately just as tragic.

In any case, had there been a footrest there I very much doubt the gentleman in the purple pants would have availed himself of it. Cyclists here prefer to press on regardless of how unreasonable it may be to continue. I, however, would make frequent use of intersection footrests. Whether it's a hawk attack or a fixed-gear "schluff," I prefer to rest comfortably and enjoy the carnage.