A Biker in the City

by Thomas Beller


193 W 48th St, NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

For some people, a bicycle is something to be taken out for a pleasant jaunt in the park on weekends, an opportunity to feel the breeze in your hair and to coast alongside novice roller bladers whose eyes are wide with terror. Then there are the brave souls who use it to make a living, the bicycle messengers, a group I once belonged to. For others, however, myself now included, a bicycle is simply the best way to get around the city, and it’s the best way to see the city as well.

Everything is an indistinguishable blur when seen from a car, and walking has a terribly land locked quality–you can never just disappear from wherever it is you are like you can on a bicycle. Only a bicycle can provide the ideal perspective on the quilt of neighborhoods that meld seamlessly into one another. “Neighborhood” is not even the correct word–biking through the city is liking moving through a series of moods.

And looking at people is different when you’re on a bicycle. Whereas most New Yorkers shun anything more than fleeting eye contact while walking down the street, a pedestrian and bike rider can engage in the kind of languorous exchange of glances that are usually reserved for people looking at each other from opposite sides of a pane of glass.

The downside is the way that biking around town implicates you–suddenly and without warning–in the ugly confrontational energy that seems to rise off our sidewalks like heat.

I was recently biking down Broadway, enjoying the burst of speed that begins with the incline at Fifty Fourth Street, when a brand new blue sports car pulled up beside me, its multiple antennas bristling in various directions. It was a crisp bright morning, around that time of year when Spring is no longer tentative, and pale green fronds are sprouting all over the place, even in Mid-town Manhattan. I was wearing my old bike messenger bag–it’s an blue thing with a little red patch with the maker’s logo–a Manhattan skyline-and name, Manhattan Portage. The Manhattan Portage bike messenger bag as become very fashionable, which is weird if you got yours for the purpose of actually being a bike messenger. I’m proud of mine. I enjoy having it on my back as I bike around town in much the same way an ex-soldier might enjoy wearing a beat up army jacket. But it also puts me in my old combative mood, and so I did not take kindly to this shiny sports car a few inches from my left leg.

I was in the bicycle lane–more a formality than anything, but a comforting one–and for a moment the car was right beside me. I was about to glance into the window, to see who was driving, but it suddenly jumped ahead and made a sharp left onto Forty Eighth street, cutting me off badly and sending me into a skid. For a second I was outside the scene, watching myself from a distance as my brakes locked and the car’s rear bumper brushed my leg. Then I was back in the moment, safe and undamaged, my own antenna bristling.

Common sense, civility, and sheer survival instinct should have dictated that I go on my way, but I was in the grip of something else–my old bike messenger persona, perhaps, or maybe just spring. The blue car rolled to a stop at a red light down the block. I headed off after it, furious. As I approached, an ambulance came up behind me, on its way to or from some other catastrophe, its sirens wailing at a volume designed to cut through the mid-town din. It was an appropriately apocalyptic soundtrack to the moment, and as I came up next to the car, shimmering in its newness, I administered a violent kick to its side. The resulting sound was similar to that of a piece of paper being crumpled up, which surprised me for some reason. There was something about the way the metal gave way so innocently that struck a chord within me. It was the exhausted capitulation of the New to the forces of Decay and Destruction, of which, at that moment, I was an agent.

I coasted past the car and turned to make a vehement and obscene gesture at the driver who, obligingly, was already in the midst vehemently making the same gesture at me. At this moment I glimpsed, through the glare of the windshield, what appeared to be a well dressed man jumping up and down in his seat in a manner that reminded me, for some reason, of Evander Holyfield just after Mike Tyson bit off a piece of his ear.

It made me smile. It’s a tricky thing though, this documenting of revenge, because though it satisfies one impulse, it invariably creates a whole new problem, transforming the enemy from an abstract machine into a human being with bills and lovers and parents and so forth who look funny jumping up and down in the front seat.

The ambulance slowed beside the car. Then a voice emanated from the ambulance, tremendously amplified, you could hear it for blocks, yet conversational in tone, almost tender. It said, “I think he damaged your car.”

Damaged! What had I done? I scampered down Seventh Avenue, cutting through the side streets like a fugitive, remorse already building within me. Contemplating my unpleasant behavior with hindsight, I’ve concluded that biking in the city entails a kind of Faustian bargain with its streets: you can float above them, see the city from the safe distance of the voyeur, but every now and then, it becomes part of you.


Originally in the New Yorker, 1993

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