Hell on Wheels: Misadventures as a NYC Bicyclist
I’ve been walking this town for over 20 years. It’s one of my favorite things to do since it inspires my ideas as an author and informs my pride as a denizen. I also hate crowded subways and will do nearly anything to avoid the madness of rush hour (and this was before getting stuck on a packed subway car under the East River during the 2003 blackout).
My connection to New York is most profound when walking the streets, meandering from neighborhood to neighborhood, taking in the show, taking in a bite to eat, all the while making ideas in my little factory of an imagination. I was more active in my walks of New York as a younger man, but even as a family man, I find time to take epic treks on days off or those rare weekend days that are available for leisure.
I’m also fortunate to work at a few colleges only a few miles from home. I’ve been walking to and from school, rain or shine, nearly every weekday for the past seven years. It’s been a privilege; it’s also become a burden. I mean, I love these streets but even the amorphous street-scape of rapidly-changing Brooklyn gets old. I needed a new way to travel. A skateboard was out of the question since I’d be on my ass every two feet, and I could never be one of those adults who push their way around on a scooter. So, I got a bike. It’s a cool little Schwinn that I picked up off a friend. I love it. I take it everywhere, weather permitting, around Brooklyn. I kind of found the whole thing empowering, until I decided to venture into Manhattan.
According to the MSNBC commercial, Chris Hayes, the bespectacled liberal wonk, rides his bike from Brooklyn to 30 Rock everyday. It seems like a of a lot of people do it. The bike lanes are jammed during rush hour with people dressed like professionals, except for the whole one rolled up pant let thing. And if all these people do it, I could surely do it, too.
When a meeting called in Midtown one day, I decided to just go ahead and take my bike. I even rolled up one pant leg. Everything was going fine on my way out of Brooklyn, but it was only moments onto the bridge when things turned troublesome. The pedestrians are a nuisance. No, they are worse than that: They are cavalier death traps clutching smartphones who can’t stay on their (somewhat) clearly marked side of the walkway. As a frequent walker of the bridge, I’d witnessed the furious bikers screaming out for pedestrians to stay on their side. I always thought they were being kind of douchey. Now I know they weren’t being douchey enough. You gotta peddle hard to make it up that planked, narrow walkway, and coming down doesn’t allow for heavy breaking or you’ll get rammed from behind. It’s a one-sided gauntlet. A pile-up waiting to happen. There should be an EMT unit stationed on the bridge at all hours.
I made it unscathed over the bridge and rolled into the streets of lower Manhattan, thinking that the worst was behind me and that a subway home might be a good idea, bike and all. But I soon realized that riding a bike in Manhattan is far different than riding in Brooklyn. The fellow bikers are militant, be it the messengers who think they are Lance Armstrong in ripped jeans brandishing gigantic chain locks like bandolero ammunition or the squat delivery men who peddle casually the opposite way without any concern for the rules of traffic. Buses lurch from the curb without warning. Cabs jockey in and out of lanes. Every out of state plate is portentous, and every parked car has a door that may spring open at any time. And in Manhattan, just like on the Brooklyn Bridge, pedestrians are blind to bicyclists. They think of us as phantoms that will just pass without collision, so they step off the curb into crosswalks or dart out from between parked cars to jaywalk with assumptions of impunity.
I was about 20 blocks from my destination when it started to rain, and everything got very slippery. I walked into my meeting soaked and sweaty and a little bit shaken, with a new found appreciation for the mettle of Chris Hayes and the bikers of New York.
Lead image via Mother New York, all other images via WikiCommons
Andrew Cotto is the author of The Domino Effect and Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery. He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Men’s Journal, Salon.com, the Good Men Project, and Teachers & Writers magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter @andrewcotto