This is a tale of a journey, perhaps worthy of the Greeks, maybe my own personal Odyssey, if you will. Within it there are acts of kindness, hubris, and moments of hope and hilarity, but also of pain, both physical and psychological.
I bought a bike on Monday. This was my first bike in over ten years, as up to 2007 I could walk to work. After moving to Ditmas Park with Craig, I noted that between myself and my workplace was a large, lovely park. Many of my coworkers live nearby and they bike to work. I thought I too can do this and kill many birds with this stone: less costs, more health, work off stress, see my city from another perceptive, and it could be fun. Or so I thought at the time.
Prior to my life in New York, I lived in Germany for 11 years, with Berlin always being my home base. Berlin is a city with bike paths to die for–bike paths as wide as a river and as smooth as a baby’s behind. After moving to New York in early 2000 I knew there were people who biked in this city, and I held these urban riders in great esteem. I considered them heros–people of great courage and skill. Only upon moving to Ditmas Park two years ago did I consider that I could join their ranks, maybe I too could navigate the byways of this great city upon a bike.
I looked for a bike for months. Maybe I should write “I looked for a bike shop for months”. I wanted to buy locally in Brooklyn. I wanted to be able to test the bike (not often an option, I found). I wanted to like the shop and the people who ran it, as I imagined I would need their advice and expertise in my biking future.
Coworkers, especially The Bike Expert and Bike Lover Peter, were of great aid and gave lots of encouragement. Peter mentioned a new shop had recently opened near BAM, Bespoke. And I saw that they had a great, old-fashioned sign. I went to Bespoke and immediately liked the atmosphere. They encouraged me to test the two bikes I liked in nearby Fort Greene Park. And test I did. They warned me that the Raleigh Alysa-FT1 had excellent brakes and to go easy so as not to fly over the handle bars. And, once I knew “this is my bike”, they lent me a bike helmet for my first ride home and perused a NY bike map to help find the best route. What a ride and how I peddled through Prospect Park, passing all the people waiting to hear David Byrne, flying home on my bike.
It rained the next day. The day after weather.com called for sunshine. I didn’t look out the window, nor stepped out on our balcony. I gathered my gear and went forth. After navigating the elevator and the doors, I was out of the building, my bike in hand.
My first hurdle was the light rain which settled little droplets of water on my glasses. “Must get contacts for biking”, I thought. But that did not deter my purpose. Next were the many one way streets in Ditmas Park. I pushed the bike two blocks to head north to BAM. I mounted the bike and then stopped three feet later as one of my two “saddle bags”–which I bought to facilitate local food shopping on Cortelyou Road–was caught in the back spokes. After adjusting the velcro straps, I was off again. This happened three times, until I got the velcro in place correctly. I hummed “if your gonna do it, do it right” under my breath. My spirits were still bright and undeterred by these early stumbling blocks. The streets of Ditmas Park are gorgeous, tree-lined, and wide enough for cars to easily pass on my left.
I made it to the south side of Prospect Park. I even discovered the secret passage-way in the fence–which other D’Park colleagues confirmed later, is a great short cut. I soared though the park with my fellow bikers, runners, walkers. I forgot to mention the time: I left my home close to 8 a.m., thinking it would be good to give myself more time for my First Bike Commute Ever.
It was peaceful in the park and intensely green. As I came upon The Great Hill, I felt ready with my 18 gears. I peddled, I shifted down…then all of a sudden I was peddling without resistance. The bike came to a stand still and was teetering. I forgot to mention I was wearing a dress. In my moment of hubris, I thought this dress–made by Patagonia, so it was sporty and stretchy–would be fine for the ride. The dress was several inches below my knees and made for precarious dismounts as I had no practice with seats and dresses. Later I would be thoughtfully advised to wear shorts underneath, making it easy to hike the dress up. And there was an ingenious suggestion by Clara to use a headband as a garter belt and use a safety pin to keep the dress up. But that was much later in the day.
Luckily I was able to maintain my balance and dismount. I pushed the bike up the long and somewhat steep hill. Only at the top of the hill, ready to set forth did I see–through my rainy glasses–that the chain had popped off. I saw this as a challenge I could surmount. I couldn’t find my cell phone to call for advice. I vaguely remembered people turning bikes over to fix chains. I took a drink of water, undid the velcro, turned the bike over–thank god I choose the aluminum frame bike, as it was very light–and fiddled with the chain, getting it back on. Then I had to search for a way to clean my hands–finally just wiping them on my legs–and for a way to dry my seat as it got wet on the grass. A photo copy of a press clip did the trick. I was ready to ride again and for the next leg of my trip as I was near Grand Army Plaza. Getting to Vanderbilt took some walking as GA Plaza is intimidating and I knew Flatbush would be the death of me.
Vanderbilt Avenue has gorgeous new pavemen with a clear and wide bike lane delineated by a wonderfully thick white line. And it’s all down hill. It’s a speedy ride. But I was careful heeding Peter’s wise words of not looking at the cars, but rather the space between them. Fellow bikers were behind me when a large, rectangular New York Post delivery truck cut me off. We cursed them together and I felt a part of a Band of Bikers. As I neared the corner of Vanderbilt and Atlantic, seeing the Williamsburg Bank Clock Tower to my far left, I felt in my heart that the conclusion of my journey was near. Near this busy intersection, I noted that the red hand of the pedestrian signal was flashing. I decided to pull on to the sidewalk with the intention to dismount and walk across this rather wide traffic river.
I pulled off via the entrance to the gas station. I slowed to a stop and tried to dismount. And I fell. In slow motion. I fell on my elbow and laid akimbo with my bike tangled between my legs and dress. I began to cry. I cried and cried.
Two men–who I couldn’t see well as my glasses were in my hands–came over immediately. One helped pull me and my bike upright. And led me to a little curb-like piece of cement next to the McDonald’s on the corner–to sit and gather my wits. I told them–between my sobs–that I was fine. That I was just a bit shocked and shaken up. I sat and cried my eyes out for the stupidity of it, for the hubris of wearing a dress as this fall was caused by my clothes getting hooked on the bike seat as I tried to get off the bike.
Then a wonderful and kind Taxi Driver, who had stopped on the corner, called to me saying he had rubbing alcohol and band-aids, asking whether I could use help. I walked over to his open window, still crying, and I stuck in my bleeding elbow and he cleaned and bandaged the wound. I profusely thanked him as he offered me a pile of napkins to wipe my face. I don’t know what he looked like as I didn’t have my glasses on, but I deeply felt the kindness of another human and it felt very good.
Soon after, two middle-aged men, who had earlier cursed the NY Post truck with me, came over to see how I was and we had a very friendly, thoughtful, and funny chat about biking and the how tos of being a beginner. They had both been bike couriers in a previous life and I asked them, with wonder, how they had survived. They were so very kind, funny, and encouraging.
I walked the rest of the way to work, and left my bike there for the evening. I called a car service that night to take me home, as I was exhausted from my adventures on the road and that day at work.
I am not worried about my next excursion. I am excited to get back on the road and apply the lessons learned.
(I was considering the following title for this blog post: My Bike Life…or How I Got Into An Accident. But it wasn’t really an accident. If you don’t know the films of Arnaud Desplechin, such as My Sex Life…or How I Got Into And Argument or Esther Kahn or my, at the moment fav, Kings and Queen, Please Do Give Him a Try.
Desplechin is coming to BAM as a part of the BAMcinemaFEST five-day Sidebar for BAMcinematek’s Tenth Anniversay, aka BAMcinematekalogue. We can Not wait to see him and hear him speak, as he can weave a sentence around such disparate topics as Einstein, Apples, and The Simpsons (my examples) in one breath. He’s not to be missed. This is on July 1 and will sell out.)