Unruly traffic. Careless pedestrians. Omnipresent thieves. Disappearing bike lanes. Despite it all, five New Yorkers explain why they'd rather ride here than anywhere else on earth.
By A.P. Smith
Not long ago there was some guy in Portland who had his bike stolen, and then he found a Craigslist post from someone in Seattle who was selling his bike. So he wrote the guy, said he wanted to buy the bike, arranged to meet at a grocery store for the transaction and called the cops. And of course he filmed it, it’s on YouTube and it goes something like:
“That’s my bike, he stole my bike, officer.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Cops stand bewildered, or maybe just bored.
“It’s my bike dude.”
“Sorry, man. Not your bike.”
And yes, it’s very clear: the bike is his stolen bike. But what can he do?
I’ve had two bikes stolen in the thirteen years I’ve lived in Brooklyn.
The first bike I had stolen is an embarrassing story. I had gone into the bodega for just a few minutes, leaving my bike unlocked outside, and when I returned it was gone. In fact, no one, nothing was on the street; no one on the sidewalk, not as far as I could see, not a car, not even a breeze. I could hear the streetlight click from green to yellow to red. It was as if the whole block was in on the theft. I turned on my heels, went back into the store and told the clerk that someone took my bike and that I’d like it back—I’d pay for it even. He wouldn’t even take down my number. He just kept saying, “I didn’t see nothing.”
That was my fault, I told myself. And I still believe that. But I didn’t quite learn my lesson. A few years later, around 2008 or 2009, I repeated my mistake. I owned and operated a speakeasy music venue in Bushwick. Needless to say, we dealt with a wide variety of clientele, ranging from affluent collegiate kids to punks to the neighborhood pushers and even New York’s finest. Some nights, 400, 500—one time more than 600—kids passed through the door for an all-night sweatbox with live bands and a basement dance party.
Back then I biked between my apartment in Greenpoint and the venue in Bushwick every day, sometimes many times a day. And the tiny BMX bike I had just wasn’t cutting it. I needed something that could make the journey, something with gears, something that could handle the chaos and potholes of Broadway.
“Yeah, you can borrow my bike,” my friend Alex said. We were playing chess at his apartment on University. “I haven’t used it since I broke my arm. But it’s a really nice bike, man.”
“I really appreciate it, “ I said. “I’ll take special care of it. And you let me know whenever you need it back.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Alex said. “Just don’t ride it to the Laundromat.”
And we laughed. When Alex broke his arm, he had been biking to do laundry and the tie string on his canvas laundry bag came loose and fell into the wheel, tangling around the spokes and sending Alex over the handlebars into the sidewalk.
But the bike was amazing: Light, fast, kempt, it was a dramatic upgrade from my stocky BMX. I loved that bike, my white steed. And then you know what happened?
Some motherfucker stole it.
He stole it straight from inside my speakeasy, where it rested behind the front desk.
The next day I went door-to-door in Bushwick, knocking hard like the cops and demanding I get my bike back. And they took me seriously! Eventually I went from one recommended name and address to another, to one who said, “I’ll show you what I got and you can take a bike but I ain’t got that bike you talking about.” We walked through the building into the backyard where he had a huge inventory of bikes, probably close to 100, all sizes and colors. I walked the yard but didn’t find Alex’s bike. And at risk of being seen riding someone else’s stolen bike through the neighborhood, I politely declined his offer of another bike.
When I finally confessed to Alex, he was pretty upset. But we worked it out and after we established a value for the bike I made a down payment and we went double or nothing on the balance over a game of chess. We played a lot of chess back then. Sometimes I won. Sometimes he won.
But that’s what it’s like having a bicycle in the city: sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Every so often it’s both, like the time when I stole someone’s bicycle.
This was well before any of these other stories, around ten or eleven years ago. I had just moved to Brooklyn and all of my friends were in the same boat: art school freshmen new to the big city. We drank in bars at eighteen years old. We took drugs on the campus lawn. We rode bikes on hot summer nights, sometimes until dawn. It was incredible.
At the time, I rode a wide handlebar Schwinn beach cruiser with a small cassette player in the basket. Billy rode a bright yellow Mongoose BMX. Sam had a cute roadster. And Jake had a slick, brown and cream 1970s racing bike.
We loved our bikes.
“That’s an awesome bike,” I told Jake one day.
“Yeah,” he said. “I love it.”
And then someone stole it.
One day Jake told me that he was leaving the studio very late and his bike just wasn’t where he left it. No bike, no lock, like it was never there.
For days afterwards we all lamented Jake’s loss. Of those of us in the group he was the most studious, the most generous, and he had the nicest bike. One night we tried to raise money at the local bar to buy Jake a new bike but could barely pool together sixty dollars.
A few nights later Billy and I were walking home from that bar and suddenly Billy yelped my name. He stood frozen on the sidewalk staring at the street.
“That’s Jake’s bike,” he said.
Locked to the signpost, indeed, was Jake’s brown and cream 1970s racing bike.
We both stood there staring at this bicycle, trying to find a specific detail, some kind of marking on the frame that would guarantee it was Jake’s bike. Finally Billy just said, “It’s Jakes bike and we’re taking it. We’ll come back with my bolt cutters.”
So we did.
We cut the bike’s lock and started walking it home. We were heroes.
“Imagine Jake’s face!” Billy yelped.
“He’s going to be so surprised!” I said.
“Oh my god, Andy!” Billy said. “We should just take it to him now!”
And suddenly we’re on our way. “We have a surprise for you, Jake!” we both said.
“Can it wait until tomorrow?” Jake asked.
“We’re on our way over,” Billy said.
We howled and giggled the whole walk over. Oh the stories they would tell of how Andy and Billy rescued Jake’s bike!
Reaching Jake’s building and shhhhing ourselves, we silently carried the bike up to Jake’s fourth floor walk-up on Lafayette and Franklin. I somehow managed to talk Jake out of his bedroom in his boxers and had him cover his eyes as Billy carefully slipped into the room and positioned the bike on display.
“This better be good,” Jake said, a sober man talking to a pair of drunks.
“Ok, Jake!” Billy said. “Open your eyes!”
Jake took his hand away from his face, squinting. He was not impressed.
“That’s not my bike,” he said.
“Of course it’s your bike,” Billy replied. “Look at it!”
“Billy,” Jake said sternly. “I am looking at it. And I’m sorry, guys…not my bike.”
Billy and I stood in silence, processing the situation. Jake had to have been mistaken.
“I’m going back to bed,” Jake said, turning, rubbing his head and sauntering back town the hallway, leaving Billy and me in the living room with his bike.
But it wasn’t his bike. It wasn’t his bike? We looked at each other, fallen heroes. I let out a chuckle.
Jake, from his bedroom down the hallway, called out, “Looks like you assholes stole someone’s bike!”
Andy P. Smith is a published author, former speakeasy owner, and avid record collector. He enjoys collaborating with artists and musicians by curating exhibitions, concerts, discussions, and workshops both independently and through his work as Creative Director at The Yard, a coworking space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
* * *
The Terrible, No-Good, Very Bad Bike
By Chris Chafin
At the tail end of this past winter, I went to a concert that I was anxious to see and like and tell my friends that I had seen and liked. As is often the case in Brooklyn, the show was supported by a dizzying latticework of sponsors: Brands, publications, concepts, and individual practitioners thereof. “VICE AND ABSOLUT BRING YOU DIY DAYS FEATURING THE BEST CRAFTERS AND SMALL-BATCH CANDY PRODUCERS IN NORTH BROOKLYN,” that sort of thing.
As it turned out, the event was celebrating bike culture, and in kind of a weird way: not advocating for bike lanes, encouraging driver awareness, or watching “Premium Rush,” but by giving away bikes for free. In total, four custom hand-built bicycles made locally in Brooklyn (of course) were being raffled off. During the show (which was good!) they were propped up on tables in the far corner of the room. Due to the crowd, I could only see the first: a whisper-thin, midnight-black road bike. I was in love.
In blatant disregard for the laws of probability, I won one of those bikes. I was ecstatic. I yelled. The casual acquaintances who’d gathered around me during the show laughed and patted me on the back. I ran to the front of the room! They interviewed me on the microphone! I was beaming.
Then the crowd parted and I saw the actual bike I’d won. My heart sank. I ran over in my mind the order they’d announced the winners, and compared that to the order the bikes were lined up in, pacing back and forth in front of them. Perhaps there had been a mistake?
There had not. My new bike was a cruiser, also a popular body type for late-middle-age people shopping for matching bikes at Wal-Mart. It was bright yellow. It was covered in blue flowers and bumblebees. A honeycomb pattern popped up here and there, on the rear reflector and on the front fender. To really be au courant, you want a thin bike with razor tires that look like they’re as likely to slice open the blacktop as glide along on top of it. This bike was wide. It was long. It was very heavy. It was everything fashionable bikes are not in Brooklyn in 2013. It looked like the kind of bike you can only ride if you wear white tank tops under open Hawaiian shirts, have a tiny straw fedora, and make most of your money by selling weed.
It was one of the ugliest bikes I had ever seen. I stood staring at it in disbelief.
“I can’t believe we won!” a young woman who had won one of the beautiful black racers on the adjoining tables said to me.
“Yeah,” I murmured distractedly as all this was running through my head. I was also trying to decide whether I’d walk out and leave the thing sitting there.
“You don’t seem too excited,” she said, extremely astutely.
“Oh, no, it’s great!” I said, for some reason lying to a total stranger. I left with the thing, gawked at all the way to the G train, resolved to find a way to make this turn out in my favor.
While I have a bike already, I would have gladly traded up. This one, however, I could not imagine keeping. The very next day, I contacted the bike shop that had made it. Perhaps we could come to some kind of arrangement? So I dialed them up, thinking I could strike just the right tone of good humor, pleading and level-headedness over the phone. The very helpful salesperson who answered listened to my case and seemed to sympathize, but told me that, sorry, the owner wasn’t there, why didn’t I email him?
From: Chris Chafin
Date: Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 5:05 PM
Subject: Magazine event
To: “info@[bikestore remaining unnamed].com”
[redacted]—Hi. My name is Chris Chafin, and I’m the guy who won the custom bike you guys made at the party last night. I was really excited! I just called the shop, and they recommended that I reach you via email.
I think that the bike you guys made is beautiful, and so well-crafted. I’m sure there’s someone who would be thrilled to have it. I just don’t know if it’s really my style. I would hate to just have it sitting around and not use it like it deserves. So, I was wondering, could we explore some kind of exchange? Doesn’t even have to be of equal value—I’m happy with less than I’m sure this beautiful custom is worth.
I hope this isn’t insulting to you. Again, I think the bike is beautiful! I just don’t think that I’m the person to appreciate it like it deserves. Looking forward to hearing from you, and thanks.
Disgustingly obsequious and blatantly full of falsehoods. I hoped, desperately, that it would work, ridding me of my cornflower albatross. It did not.
From: “info@[bikestore remaining unnamed].com”
Date: Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 5:17 PM
Subject: RE: Magazine event
To: Chris Chafin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
We would be unable to exchange the bike as per the agreement we have with the event organizers…you may have luck contacting them.
I am sorry, and please dont take the tone of this email as “insulted”…we are reasonable guys, its just that my hands are tied.
It had taken basically all of my courage to do something as obviously dickish as to return a free bike, and in the process basically tell the person who made it that I thought it was ugly. I knew I was being an asshole, and I was ready to read negative emotions into this guy’s reply, whatever it had said. This one made it easy, though.
Reading over the email now, it’s not as bad as I remember it being in that moment, Still, putting quotation marks around the word ‘insulted’ is pretty obviously thinly veiling something: hostility? Sarcasm? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly nothing positive. I pretended not to be bothered by this and replied, politely asking if he knew whom among the event organizers I could contact. He promised to check. I never heard from him again.
As I told my friends the story in the following days and weeks, they smiled good-naturedly, but could barely wait for me to finish speaking to lay out the obvious solution: just put it on Craigslist. Obviously. Why had I not done it already?
I have spent a not-small amount of time poring over bike postings, daydreaming about new rides or helping friends post their old junkers. My current bike is a Craigslist find. I paid 100 dollars for a 30-year-old Schwinn with broken handlebars, bent wheels and another person’s name carved into the frame. If I paid that much for something so near-terminally useless, I thought I could ask a bit of a premium for the unique piece I was going to sell.
Cycling isn’t even ascendant anymore in New York – it’s arrived. Visit any park, pool or outdoor Shakespeare reading between May and September and you’ll likely have to walk a few blocks from your actual destination to find an empty street sign or young tree to chain your bike to. Surely someone here would want a drastically undervalued custom-built bicycle, even if less-than-fashionable?
CL new york brooklyn for sale / wanted bicycles – by owner
Posted: 2013-03-16, 1:53PM EDT
Brand-new, one-of-a-kind custom bike, handmade in Brooklyn – $400 (Bedford-Stuyvesant)
This is a custom-made bike from [bikestore remaining unnamed] here in Brooklyn. This piece has some amazing components:
1) Shimano Nexus 7, internal hub shifter. This means that on the outside, you’ve just got one loop of chain, but you’ve got seven gears on the inside. Just this bit retails for around $330.
2) Brooks Flyer Special Saddle and grip tape — saddle goes for around $150
3) Hand painted, one-of-a-kind design.
4) Kickstand, bell, cool reflectors — everything!
And then there’s this whole bike attached to those things! It was a present (which I unfortunately can’t return), and I’ve literally never ridden it. It’s beautiful, but just not exactly my style. Hope to find it a good home!
A good posting, I thought. Note how I coyly cite its “hand-painted, one-of-a-kind design.” Strictly true, if slightly misleading, like saying that being executed is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I sat and waited for the replies to roll in.
Later that same day, there was a freak March snowstorm. No one was thinking about buying bicycles, it seemed, or even going outside at all. I got no replies. I resolved to wait until the weather was better, and try again. I would have more personality next time, I told myself. I would also lower the price.
CL new york brooklyn for sale / wanted bicycles – by owner
Posted: 2013-04-27, 10:33AM EDT
**Sweet Custom Bike. Do people still say “sweet”? – $250 (Bed-Stuy)
Holy shit! It’s finally nice out! Weren’t you going to get a bike this year?
May I suggest this particular bike? I think you’d be way into it.
It’s a custom bike which I recently won at a concert. It was exciting! I never win anything! But, I already have a bike, so here I am offering it to you.
It’s a cruiser, with some really neat custom touches — fancy internal shifter, Brooks leather saddle, and a custom paint job. Never ridden! Adorable! Summery!
Send me an email, let’s talk it over.
I eased up on the technical mumbo-jumbo. No bragging about what the parts are worth. I felt as if I’d done much better. Sill, not a single email. These posts expire after a week, when you have the option of renewing them. I did this as soon as I could.
And then, deliverance! A man named Gustavo, whom I must assume is handsome, charitable, and kind, reached out.
Date: Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 5:44 PM
Subject: Interested in bike
Very interested in the concert bike, I would like to set up a date so I can actually see the bike in person and if it fits my girlfriend, if it does then we’ll buy the bike asap. Thank you for your time, I will be looking forward to your response.
“Interested in bike”!! Just the subject line sent my heart soaring. I practically dropped my phone in my excitement to respond.
From: Chris Chafin
Date: Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 6:12 PM
Subject: Re: Interested in bike
To: Gustavo Lopez <email@example.com>
Cc: “firstname.lastname@example.org” <email@example.com>
Hey, Gustavo — Great to hear from you. How’s tomorrow, after-work-ish? I’m flexible. Let me know what works for you.
This was the last I ever heard of Gustavo. His girlfriend, whom I can only assume is terrible and taking advantage of a man with a kind heart and the monetary liquidity to spend $250 on a gift, must have seen a picture of the bike, and said something along the lines of “Eww! No, gross! I am a terrible person and I have terrible taste. And yet, somehow, not terrible in the way this thing is terrible. Does Ed Hardy make bikes? Get me one of those.”
The thing is, these days a bike has to be just so, or you might as well light it on fire and throw it off of a building for all the use you’ll get out of it.
Take, for example, this bike. It works fine, sure. Its weight might make it a little challenging to ride for long distances, but other than that it could take me around the city perfectly well. And yet, I will never, in a million years of Sundays, ride it. Ever. But, as long as no one ever sees me so much as touch it, I’m getting used to sitting on it in the privacy of my darkened apartment. I gingerly move its handlebars when I need to walk past, instead of the annoyed swat it got from me at first. I sometimes catch myself admiring its heft and solidity. Sometimes I just sit on it and bounce around, imagining I’m selling dime bags on the boardwalk in some early 1980s, “Fletch”-colored California. I am beginning to feel affection for it, but one I would never display in public because, well, I have a reputation.
Although, dear reader, if you’re looking for a bike, I have one you might like. Let’s say $200? Get in touch.
Chris Chafin is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering things you can listen to, play or attend for places like The Awl and The Village Voice. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Leah Lin is a Manhattan-based illustrator and graphic designer who loves pad thai, streaming docudramas, bezier curves, blooper reels and collecting cats on the Internetz.
* * *
On a Bike, After the Storm
By Kyle Ayers
I lived in New York for over a year before I finally rode my bicycle in Manhattan. I would traverse Brooklyn (and occasionally Queens) with no trepidation, riding from Williamsburg to Park Slope, back through Fort Collins and out past Bushwick. But I heard the horror stories of riding in Manhattan. Cars cutting you off, other cyclists weaving through traffic as though laws don’t apply to them, pedestrians existing.
Now, I’m not a hardcore cyclist. Until recently I had no idea why people rolled up one of their pant legs when cycling. I still don’t understand the benefits of only having one gear, except for the fact that people will tell you that you have a sweet fixie. I have lights for riding at night, and they are gripped to my handlebars and frame via some painters tape that I had sitting around my apartment.
I work in Midtown and had always tossed around the idea of cycling to work from Williamsburg by trekking north over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, then crossing into Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge. But I never made the trip, citing nowhere to lock up my bike and not being in shape. Then Hurricane Sandy hit, closing down my access to Manhattan. Due to the uncertainty of public transportation (and the uncertainty of the status of the city after the disaster) my job did not require that we come in immediately after the hurricane. They did, however, ask that you come if you could, proposing a small bonus for those who could lend a helping hand. I committed, deciding that this was the perfect opportunity for this fledgling cyclist to experience Manhattan (or what I knew would be a much more vacant version of it) for the first time on two wheels.
I got up very early and made it to work with no hang-ups. The trip barely required me to ride in Manhattan, since my office is only six or so blocks from where the Queensboro Bridge touches down. It was after work when I got adventurous and decided to adjust my route and go 65 blocks or so south through Manhattan, to the Williamsburg Bridge, and cross to Brooklyn that way. I knew a good part of the city was out of power, especially the southern portion, and I thought I would see it for myself. Traffic was sparse. I was not facing the fearsome foe so often referenced by cyclists I know. I was cruising down Second Avenue, stopping occasionally for a car, and slightly more often for a group of people or a dog walker. Then, more abruptly than I imagined it could happen, I hit the powerless zone. There were people, sparsely strung around, but not a single open business. I had left the busiest city in the world and entered “I Am Legend” territory in a span of four blocks. Police tape, covered storefronts and a general absence of life or movement.
I pulled up to a street light and stopped. An elderly woman was working her way slowly down her brownstone steps. I said hello. She smiled, waved, and responded. She was toting one of those reusable canvas shopping bags halfway up her arm, nestled at her elbow.
“A bit eerie, huh?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like a movie,” I replied.
She hugged her railing and when she reached the sidewalk from the bottom step, she stretched for her fence while keeping her other hand gripped to the auburn rusted handrail that led up her stoop. One hand, then the other, on her small wrought iron gate.
“How are you holding up?” She reached out for conversation.
“Good, good. We didn’t get much damage over in Williamsburg. You?”
“No power over here. Making the runs.”
Making the runs can mean a lot of things, I thought. I asked her what she meant.
“Grabbing my prescriptions. A Duane Reade is open up around 30th Street.”
She introduced herself as she swung the gate closed. Carol was her name. She was maybe five feet tall, in her seventies or eighties. She was wearing a baggy sweatshirt with birds embroidered on the front.
Carol sauntered over, telling me that she had lived in the same neighborhood, the Lower East Side, for forty years. In two different apartments, a couple of blocks apart. She had never seen anything like this.
“Do you want me to run up and fill your prescription? Is that a thing I can do?”
Is that a thing I can do? I’ve always had a way of terribly verbalizing what I want to say.
“I don’t know, would you? Give me a second.” She smiled and pulled out her iPhone, turning away to make her phone call. I finally dismounted my bike and set it on the curb.
After a few minutes Carol turned back around. “They (meaning Duane Reade’s pharmacy) said it would be more than O.K. You’re a gem.”
I took her papers for the prescription and some cash to cover. The ride, thirty-five blocks north, to a Power Zone (a term I coined for areas of Manhattan that remained on the grid after Sandy) seemed immediate. The pharmacists were expecting me. They were glowing, and thanked me numerous times. What a great thing I was doing, they said.
When I rode back to Carol’s she was waiting for me on the stoop. She hugged me and said, “This you will learn, the city is so kind. You’re part of that. We always grow stronger.”
“Is there anything else I could run and get for you? Anyone else in the building need anything?”
Carol smiled and laughed. “Young man, young man,” she said to herself. She sent a text message and two older men came down, handing her their prescriptions.
“And some groceries, if it’s not too much?” she said, “I’m on the fourth floor, and our elevator is out. I can’t go lugging stuff around like I used to.”
“Of course,” I told her, “why do you think my bike has this rack?”
After getting back, I hiked up the four floors, with Carol following me at a surprisingly quick pace, rarely lagging no more than a few steps behind. She gestured to her apartment, its door slightly ajar. I shouldered it open.
“That one is mine,” Carol was behind me, “The red one.”
Leaned against the wall was an old (1950s, Carol said) Bianchi road bike.
“Though I don’t get it out much anymore.” She laughed.
I told her about my dad, how he had retired and started rebuilding and refurbishing bicycles in his spare time back in my small hometown of Lake Tapawingo, Missouri.
An ironworker for thirty-five years, my dad found himself restless, looking for a way to keep his hands busy. He refurbished a broken bicycle that he unearthed at a flea market, gave it away to a neighbor, and was hooked. Dozens and dozens of bike fixes later and my dad is now a staple of the local Craigslist, listing bicycle after bicycle, delivering them around the area in his van, buying low and reselling still pretty low, not interested in a profit.
Carol talked about riding her bike to Central Park in the summer while growing up, and riding to Coney Island with her friends. She told me she never wore a helmet, but was glad I did. Around the apartment were some bicycle wheels, a paint-less frame that she couldn’t remember the origin of, and a few piles of bike pedals, chains, and various other parts.
“I used to like to play with these things, my husband and I, but now the stuff is just sort of around,” she said.
I told her it made a nice decoration.
“If your dad ever brings up some bikes, you two look me up,” she said. I told her we could all go for a ride, and she laughed, thanking me one more time.
As I pedaled home, I thought about us riding together, with nothing in common, and yet so much. Carol and me and my dad and our bikes.
Kyle Ayers is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of small-town Missouri. In addition to writing, he performs live comedy around New York city on a regular basis.
Jon Chad lives and teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. He loves biking, hiking, drawing, and pinball!
* * *
The Law of Attachment
By Suzanne Guillette
Three and a half years ago, on a chilly November night, I received an early Christmas present: a black, European-style bicycle. I had first spotted it at a bicycle fashion show, which happened to be next door to my apartment, where models wore long, flowing dresses and suits as they pedaled around a cavernous bike shop in the West Village. Not long after, I was home getting ready for bed when my boyfriend called me and said, “Can you come downstairs for a minute?” I didn’t let the fact that I was barefoot and wearing a paper-thin silk robe deter me from taking my new bike for a quick spin down the block.
It was instant love. Even though it was practically winter, I rode the bike everywhere: to Tribeca, where I was teaching; to the pharmacy only a handful of blocks away; and along the Hudson River bike path, where I could see chunks of ice floating atop the water. My boyfriend insisted I park the bike inside every night so it didn’t get stolen. I complied.
Six months later, the bike and I were officially bonded, but my boyfriend and I were not. I packed up my half of the apartment and went to stay at a friend’s place uptown, leaving my beloved bike behind until I could find a more permanent place. A month later, when I was moving into a sublet, I picked up the bike from my old place and put it in a taxi with the rest of my belongings. When that taxi got into a car accident at the base of Williamsburg Bridge, I stepped out onto Delancey Street, barely able to balance the bike with the rest of my belongings as I inched my way toward the sidewalk. The hour nearing midnight, I couldn’t find another cab large enough to fit my bike, but the thought of leaving the bike locked on a signpost was unfathomable, so I stood there, for an hour, until a white stretch limo pulled over and offered to take me and my bicycle home.
Soon after, though, I realized that my overprotectiveness of the bike was not practical. I had to carry its heavy frame up two flights of stairs, which cost time and energy. One night, I threw caution to the wind and locked it on a signpost outside. When I peered out the kitchen window the next morning, I saw the bike, waiting for its next spin over the Williamsburg Bridge.
One month later, I moved to another apartment, where storing the bicycle inside was not an option. There was no room. Bike-riding friends urged me to find somewhere secure to leave it. Otherwise, they said, I would lose it—no question. I just shrugged and thought, maybe that’s not a bad idea. At this point, the bicycle was the only remaining link I had to my ex-boyfriend.
The end had been a long time coming, and by now I had successfully rid myself of other relationship remnants: hand-written cards, a souvenir from a fundraising event, pictures on my computer. All I had left was the bike. I didn’t feel the need to get rid of that, but I decided that if it got stolen, that would be O.K.
My blasé attitude didn’t diminish the pleasure I got from riding it. In fact, this may have increased my joy. Every morning, when I would walk to the place where I’d locked my bike, I had no expectation that it would be there. Zero. But it always was, and when I spotted it, I’d cheer a silent, “Hooray! No subway!” before hopping on it and sailing down city streets. Once, when running a quick errand near Canal Street, I saw a group of men clustered nearby. One whispered, “Chanel, Prada,” as he pointed to a black plastic bag at his feet. “No, thanks,” I said. “But can you watch my bike?” Only when I went inside did I realize how absurd this was, entrusting the care of my bike to a man selling stolen goods.
After that, I started just leaving the bike outside, unlocked, whenever I was running errands. I don’t know how to explain it, but I always had a sense, even when stuck in a long post office line, that the bike would be there when I came out. And it always was. Maybe would-be thieves saw it and assumed there must be secret cameras rolling. Why else would someone leave a nice bike unattended in New York City?
Another time, I lent it to a friend while I was away. When I came home, she told me that she left it in Union Square, an area known for bike thefts. Sure the bike was a goner, I went to check on it anyway. And there it was.
Last fall, I left it outside Penn Station for a couple weeks. I walked there with a friend, again thinking, There’s no way it will still be there. Sure enough, my bike was propped up on a street sign, right where I had left it. I turned to my friend and said, “This is proof positive: the things we don’t cling to never leave us.” My ex might not have belonged to me, nor I to him, but that bike was unequivocally mine.
But then one day, after visiting a friend for a few hours, I stepped on to Sixth Avenue and looked around. My bike was nowhere to be found. I checked and double-checked the post where I usually lock it up. No bike. This was bound to happen sooner or later.
I thought of all the great adventures I’d had with the bike. Once I even got a ticket for riding outside of the bike lane on Sixth Avenue. What should have been annoying—getting stopped on my way to an important meeting—seemed like a grand adventure. That day, all day, I had an ear-to-ear grin, telling anyone and everyone I met that, for a split second, I thought my bike violation was going to send me to jail (because I’d received another ticket months earlier).
This bike had carried me over three bridges, on countless trips down to Battery Park City, down country roads in Long Island. Apparently, our time had come to an end. C’est la vie, I thought, shrugging, before turning my attention to my hungry stomach.
Then I walked by down the block, where weeks earlier, a friend had whizzed by in a cab and spotted me smiling widely on my bike at a stoplight. I couldn’t recall why I was so happy that day. She said, laughing, “I think you just love your bike.”
I sure did.
I remembered that episode, contemplating spaghetti and meatballs, then walked down the block, toward a grocery store. I looked across the intersection, and, surprised, saw my bike. It had never left, I had just forgotten that I had locked it in a different spot.
That was funny.
Suzanne Guillette is the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment (Atria, 2009) which chronicles the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories on New York City streets.
Joseph Lambert is a cartoonist and lives in Vermont. He is the author of I Will Bite You!, and Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. See more of his work at SubmarineSubmarine.com.
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Training Wheels in the Big City
By Molly Korab
As many who have experienced it know, living in New York can be a stressful form of existence. As the cliché wants, you work, sleep, consume overpriced coffee, commute. That last activity—commute—was what I, as a newbie New Yorker, dreaded the most. Snaking underground, two hours every day (from Gates Ave in Brooklyn to 68th Street in Manhattan and back), at the mercy of the glaring, hot breath of strangers—I dreaded the long, claustrophobic periods when the train would stop dead in the tunnel, and practiced my breathing techniques as time seemed to stand still in between stations.
I had originally moved to New York to attend Hunter College, expecting to love the busy and the crazy of everything, having lived a smaller piece of that in my hometown of D.C. But I was wrong. Not long after I moved to the city, I found myself steering clear of the subway, and soon thereafter, perhaps by virtue of the fact that I found the subway to be a near-perfect expression of the city as a whole, I somehow withdrew from New York. I only caught glimpses of the city from the walking portions of my commute, or from the windows of a Greyhound bus on my way out on the weekends.
The subway was a small and stifling space that activated my panic center, but so was the city. Tall buildings blocking out the sky, constant buzzing on the ground, a horizon of concrete and steel framing this never-ending chaos—the city was getting under my skin, gently tugging at my neuroses to come out and play.
So I decided to find some alternative to the tortured commute. My salvation lay in an old, rickety bike from Target that had been gathering dust in my closet, never before used.
My first day on the bike I started at six in the morning without any sort of breakfast, and ended up nearly fainting in Midtown Manhattan. But I was ready to try anything aside from the subway, and so kept on biking with a fierce determination.
Huffing and puffing my way across a city of snarling traffic was somehow, in my twisted perspective, a welcome relief compared to two hours underground. My commute went through Brooklyn, straight down Broadway, battling delivery trucks, potholes, and exhaust with the train rattling overhead, until the Williamsburg Bridge (which turned out to be a welcome breath of fresh air and skyline every morning). From there I went up First Avenue (whose bike lane mysteriously disappears somewhere around the exit ramp of the Queensborough Bridge, leaving you in the midst of screaming traffic) until I landed on the Upper East Side.
Scary? Mind-numbingly. Exhilarating? Absolutely. Being sideswiped by delivery trucks can only happen so many times before you stop worrying about imminent death and instead start thinking about how to mark your territory.
I soon grew more comfortable with the city’s streets, finding myself bending the rules of the road, running red lights to get ahead of traffic in order to ride in the middle of the street, and avoiding the long line of potholes on the side that I would otherwise be delegated to. I stopped getting so annoyed at delivery men going the wrong way down one-way streets, because I did it too. Taxis and pedestrians became my mortal enemies.
What I discovered—after my legs grew stronger and the initial exhaustion wore off—was The City. What I once saw as a mess of crowded and stifling streets became, from this new perspective, my playground.
Such a thrilling adventure on a daily basis opened up New York in ways that riding the subway or even walking could never do for me. Neighborhoods change quickly as you zoom down Second Avenue, from the controlled chaos of Midtown to the unprovoked merriment of the East Village. The world slows down as it speeds up; details pop, the scenery softens—the rhythm of the city becomes far more apparent.
I even started to feel a kind of camaraderie with my fellow bikers. Sometimes I engaged in imaginary races with them, seeing who could get to the next light first. Another fun one was seeing who could manage the traffic better. Waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic around the Queensborough Tunnel, I liked to see if I could weave through the cars better than others (usually I couldn’t, although my finesse did improve over time).
New York, instead of a vague and distant threat provoking my long-dormant neuroses, became a lively and unpredictable force of personality (another cliché that people love to roll out, but that holds its own). Occasionally the city can bite back. But once you’ve fallen in love with it, as I did, those bites don’t hurt for too long. On my way to one of my final exams, I fell off my bike as I was zooming down the Williamsburg Bridge in the rain, normally one of the most pleasurable parts of my day. An older man ran over to pick me up, fixed my chain, and checked out my arm, as well as assessing my psyche, which was pretty shaken up. He later walked me down the bridge, telling me stories of his upbringing in Brooklyn and all about his landlord. I ended up late for my exam with a bruised arm and damaged ego, but love for the city intact.
In an odd way, biking in the city became a means of escape from its chaos. When I found the madness and constant movement of New York to be overwhelming or stressful, instead of shying away from it as I once did, I jumped right into it. I became part of the madness—another asshole on a bike, indiscriminately whizzing down the street with little regard for traffic laws and cursing all those standing in my way.
I couldn’t love New York in the way I had dreamed of. Instead, I ended up loving it by becoming part of it, by being the city I once hated.
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Molly Korab later moved to Montreal for love, where she is now a student at McGill University. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Naomi Elliott is a freelance illustrator and lover of paper who lives and works in London. She studied at Goldsmiths College, University of London and since graduating has been working on lots of new and exciting projects.