I drop into the traffic at 6 Ave, running the red light that tries to moor me back from the surging waves of cabs and box trucks. I pedal hard, glancing over each shoulder while sliding between a bus and van, my shoulder grazing each in turn. I am a concrete surfer, the currents are metal and rubber, horns and windshields, unpredictable, and dangerous, seeking to drown me in a spectacular crash, ground to slime under spinning wheels and weight I can’t imagine. I slip through red lights, and push hard, I have the whole four lanes to myself, I zigzag and loop for the joy of it, just to show these cars, this city, that I am free, that there is a chaos here, roiling underneath, just below the surface, and I taunt it with my two wheels.
I left New York for Miami about 7 years ago. Part of the move was breaking down my Surly Steamroller, a fixed gear bike, and shipping it to my new home. I regretfully didn’t ride in Miami. It was too scary. For one people in Miami carry guns, for two it is a clash of driving cultures from across Latin America and the Caribbean, for three it is an insane place and hot all the time.
But now I am back, and I hate to be one of those people always saying, “Wow, twelve years ago that boutique was a crack house,” but I am (yes, there were that many crack houses that are now boutiques). Damn, the city has changed.
Where there once was open rode and the promise of a fight with cars there are bike paths, white lined and decorated with little stick figures of people on bikes.
Not only are there bike lanes, there are cyclist, a lot of cyclists. This isn’t like Amsterdam, but it is not the New York of 2005 let alone 2000 when I first glided through traffic on two wheels.
My roommate and I used to get up early in the winter. We’d sleepily crash into each other in the cramped kitchen of our Bed-Stuy garden apartment, him starting the oatmeal, me the coffee. We’d sit in the cave of a living room, shoulder to shoulder on a love seat and eat. Then we’d pull on our wool socks, thermal shirts, sweatshirts, jeans, and cycling shoes. We’d check or bags for our text pagers, our flat-fix kits, our snacks, and head out.
Stepping out the door was plunging into an icy lake, fingers went numb, your breathing quickened, your legs didn’t want to push pedals, and your hands didn’t want to grip handle bars. By the time we were climbing the Manhattan Bridge we’d be warm and sweating where our bags rested on our backs like lazy capes.
Those mornings were glorious and terrible woven together in the steam of coffee and the burning of cold air in my lungs.
One thing was always for sure, the bridge would be empty, not another soul on it. Sometimes we would see other messengers heading to lower Manhattan to start the day, we never saw a cyclist with panniers headed to work, or students with special bike laptop bags.
After a full day of dodging taxis, screaming “No breaks!” at dizzy pedestrians who stumbled in our paths, and dealing with power tripping doormen, we were bad asses. We were on the mean streets of New York with no promise of making it home. It was us against the rolling sea of cars. We were bike messengers, menaces to pedestrians, insane punks who hung our rebellion on our bikes like others hang diplomas in offices. We were hard working immigrants grinding out the days on a street bought steed. We were drunks who couldn’t get other jobs, battered old men who had stayed in the saddle too long. We were warriors, we were pioneers, we were surfers, we were outlaws, we were cowboys (my bike still has a sticker on the seat stay that says on a steel horse I ride). We were mystics adept at reading weather and traffic, and predicting the quick turn of cars.
In the us-against-them mentality and reality of cycling in the city back then (yes, back then) we had no regard for traffic laws. In fact I sought out opportunities to recklessly break them, and when someone else almost killed me I would get pissed. I regularly bombed intersections at full speed, narrowly swerving around bumpers and pedestrians.
Once riding south on the Bowery, or 2nd Ave, I glided through a red light. When a car, turning onto MY avenue from the left, almost hit me, I hopped off my bike, loosened the barbarian chain around my waist (used to secure my bike to anything and everything) walked back to the car, stood by the open window where the driver was yelling at me. I let the chain swing from my hand gently and calmly said:
Me: You almost hit me.
Him: You ran the light…
His eyes followed the tic-toc of the chain
Him: Are you fucking crazy?
Me – leaning close to his face and screaming: Of course I’m fucking crazy I’m riding a bike in New York City.
All of the adrenaline-spurred bravado was a real response to the dangers of riding in the city. My first month as a messenger, November 2000, I quit when a panel truck got too close and squeezed me against a parked van pulling me spinning forward and spitting me out into traffic after it passed. I was doored in Times Square, I was knocked off my bike countless times by taxis. Six months after I moved to Miami I heard about how Bronx John, a long time messenger, was ground to mush under the 16 wheels of a tractor trailer.
The constant danger was a part of the outsider-ness, the rebelliousness, the toughness that came with riding your bike in New York. And those of us who rode found ways to up the danger, to show how much we really challenged the city to try and crush us with it’s slow moving metal jaws as we darted around it’s jagged windshield teeth like fairies in a fast wind. I rode without breaks on my fixie. I road without lights, without a helmet. I took stupid risks, like holding impossible lines down the crags created by two swaying tractor-trailers. I rode drunk, for miles. I raced other messengers and cyclist, both organized and impromptu, through traffic and over bridges. I was so alive, made so much more real as I cycled on the razors edge, always in danger of tumbling to a painful and messy death.
I was a biker on a bicycle. Truly outlaw.
But like I said, New York has changed. Now when I hit the Manhattan bridge in the morning (commuting with a laptop bag and dress shoes in my basket – but on the same bike) there is a glut of cyclists, there is a line at the red light to get onto the bridge. And here is the thing: people wait for the light, orderly, like they are in a car. I’ve even seen cyclists make hand signals when they are turning or stopping.
This change is the hardest for me to get used to. Less crack houses more boutiques, I’ll deal. I don’t need to be the cool kid at the party who dodged death to get there. But obeying the laws that I used to break with abandon, that is hard.
One of my friends recently said to me, “If you are on a bike you should follow the law.” He was pissed about it. This is a former punk, a former trouble-maker, this is the author of Milo and the Calf. I was not surprised. He has been here, in New York, while I was away. He has lived the evolution, the changes. He also doesn’t blink when we go to a bar down the street from my house that used to be an abandoned brownstone.
But I came back to the mythic creature of the city. It was the city I loved, and the city I battled on my bike. Days started and ended with the peaks of bridges, and in between, navigating the grid, challenging cars in a zero-sum game, and seeing the whole mass of humanity and towering buildings unwind from the spinning spokes of my bike. The city, how it was and who it was, was packed into my muscles, burned into my eyes, caught in my nose as dust and grime. I knew the city with my body, held it in my heart, and on the day I left it froze for me, it stayed as it was.
So coming back has been an experiment in deconstructing myself, my own relationship to these streets, and relearning the city, and myself. This place is different and so am I.
But even as I re-discover my city on my bike I can’t accept red lights, I can’t accept stop signs, and double yellow lines or one way signs. I just can’t. I know now I am harming a new system that allows for cyclists, that doesn’t throw us to the side, that actually seeks to support our survival. I know now I am subverting a system that makes us all safer on our steel horses, one that Bronx John unfortunately and indirectly died for.
But I ride the way I do because I have to.
I ride because it brings out all the things I wish I was in my daily life: fearless to the point of stupidity, risk-seeking, confident, willing to fight a motherfucker from Jersey if he cuts me off, nimble and elegant in my movements.
I ride because there is no other way to know a place, to feel it inside you, to become a part of it’s simple order perched precariously on ridge above a roiling chaos that we all can feel, right there, waiting to swallow us.
I ride because I love my bicycle, the only object I own that I truly trust. I ride because I never feel so alive as when I drop into traffic, as a surfer drops into the sea, an outlaw drops out of the norm.