New York, New York

Sebastian Errazuriz, Complete, 2002. Courtesy the artist and Cristina Grajales Gallery.

The Cyclist’s Dilemma

Afternoons in the big city are terrible. Sunsets are horrifying, nights are long and anxious. Other people have choices, but not you. Then suddenly, a bicycle.

I had been afraid of the dusk my entire life. Every afternoon right before the sun was about to set, always and without fail, an inexplicable feeling of dread would creep up from my stomach and into my chest, and I’d find it difficult to breathe. 

When I moved to New York City for grad school and started living by myself, the sunset problem got worse. Every sunset was a threat to my well-being. When I went to see a therapist about it, he nodded, confused. “How unfortunate,” he said, “that the sun must set every day.” As per his job, he dutifully poked around and spelunked into my past. Except for this anomaly, I insisted, I had a happy childhood, free of trauma.

Since there was no real solution to this sunset problem, my therapist suggested—naturally—that I start exercising. Obediently, I went to the gym and swam, week after week. But this only made me look toned. I was just as messy inside. Then one day, someone, I don’t remember who, suggested that I start riding a bike.

The bike was just a normal bike. It wasn’t stylish but it wasn’t broken. And I always wore a helmet, an afterthought from some Wal-Mart, years ago. It was so cheap it was more like an accessory than a life-saving device. I wasn’t counting on it to save me, anyway.

One morning on my computer I read a news item about a food delivery guy who got run over by a bus uptown. He’d fallen at the intersection and couldn’t get up fast enough. The bus driver had no idea he’d run someone over and just kept driving. I imagined the fallen man would have felt like a speed bump, uncomfortable but unalarming.

After reading that item, I didn’t bike for awhile. The road could be slippery in deceptive ways. Once I slipped on a patch of black ice resembling a pool of water. Then as I was trying to veer away from a baby I skidded into a salt pile. For my own safety and everyone else’s I thought I would just stay off the bike.

Everyone carries their stowaways. At the airport, a woman walks through the metal detector and an alarm sounds. On the monitor, X-Ray technicians discover there are surgical tools lodged inside her belly. Who put this here? Was it after that abdominal surgery? Stumbling upon a fear is like this: before its discovery, it was not causing any problems. The woman claws at her skin, but flesh has grown over the scalpels.

Maybe a few weeks passed. The air warmed and slushy snow mixed with sand from the road, creating a textured surface that seemed safer to fall on, like a river bank. Then after a long rain one weekend the last of the dirty snow dissolved. The air felt alive, like an exhalation. Eaves shed their icicles and daffodils dotted the city with yellow. I decided that it would be okay to start biking again.

We must think there is something corrosive about knowledge, because sometimes when we say that someone is “experienced” we mean that a person has been wasted or sullied by their experience. It doesn’t always connote wisdom.

I wish I had known earlier how fun it is to bike around the city. I began to map out the streets more accurately in my mind. There were new things to see all the time. The daily dilemmas of people at every street corner. The storefronts and their displays. Biking felt like traveling—of the unknown becoming known.

Sometimes alarmed pedestrians or fast cyclists would shout things at me, like “Watch it!” or “What are you doing!” or “Hey! Your bag’s open!” and I would feel very bad for about two blocks. I’d bike away, full of shame. But then a feeling of elation would come rushing through, like a drug. I couldn’t understand this elation at all. Maybe it had something to do with what Schopenhauer said, that pleasure was just the absence of pain?

Since I often biked to my therapist’s, he took note of my helmet and asked how my new exercise regimen was going. It’s going great! I said. I love it! I wish I’d known earlier that I ought to bike. Now I hated going underground. It was like the death instinct to go underground, into the subway. I never realized I hated it so utterly until I didn’t have to do it anymore. In a way it was better not to have a choice. Because now whenever I had to go underground I would hover around the subway entrance, approaching, retreating, like a dog afraid to step off a curb.

He said that it was always better to have a choice. That in experiments with rats, rats always prefer to have a choice. Yoke two rats together so that an electric shock affects both equally; the rat controlling the duration of the shock will feel less helpless than the rat without control.

Perhaps biking gave me the impression of controlling my fear. Because the effects of biking on my anxiety levels at dusk were generally positive. Usually around late afternoon I felt ripe for panic but if I biked a lot that day, I wouldn’t feel it.

Was it because when I biked I put so much value on my body that this concern carried over into ordinary, un-dangerous life, so that the terror of biking outweighed the terror of the afternoon? That the natural impulse to protect my body became temporarily stronger than the impulse to self-destruct?

Instead, I found myself oscillating between elation and terror during biking—or rather, I found myself navigating these opposing sensations so well that the transition became seamless and then a bit enjoyable. If the elation just kept going on and on, it would eventually peter out into a boredom, wouldn’t it?

Soon, a few of my routes became familiar and started to bore me. I thought how I should not be so focused on commuting; instead, I should be focused on journeying. And everything that is implied by the verb “to journey.” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote: “I went on a journey, and of course, immediately everything was new.”

The Situationists, too, had urged people to wander, to leap up and grab the city by the hand and explore it like a new lover. The Situationist exercise—the dérive—was inspired by the work of sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, who once recorded a Parisian student’s movements over a period of time to show how she moved in a small triangle that went inalterably from her house to the university to her piano teacher’s house. These findings rattled Debord. How could our movements be so fixed and predictable? Didn’t we discover continents; go to Antarctica; send things into the air?

For a few days, I made a point to take unknown roads. I stayed away from the bike path. I willfully biked down Bowery, even though aggressive delivery trucks slam by you and the road is so riddled with holes, so sutured and carelessly patched, I referred to it as Frankenstein Ave. If I turned a corner and accidentally hit a bike path I would ride on the other side of it, going in the wrong direction.

Eventually this project got me in trouble. While weaving through Houston Street in the rain, I steered my bike into a pothole so large it was like a small well. Half the bike was submerged. I gashed my chin on a craggy rib of tar. A bar bouncer rushed into the street and helped me up. He lifted my bike effortlessly out of the hole and propped it up against a lamp post. For a second I thought he was trying to steal it.

I never before thought of myself as having the gift of perseverance.

“You’ll have to get those spokes readjusted,” he said. “Are you OK?”

I got the bike spokes readjusted at a shop. The guy who did it looked like he was playing the harp. He bent over the spokes and tuned them with a round tool. He put a palm over the spokes to feel for a hum. He spun the wheel and closed one eye to check that it was spinning straight.

I biked through Central Park on the Transverse with barely a shoulder. I biked to the Bronx where the cars drove especially fast and sometimes would drive up on to the sidewalk, where I was attempting to seek refuge. The police cars did this especially often. And then I merged on to FDR Drive. When I told my partner’s father what I had done, he bought me a set of expensive bike lights.

We must think there is something corrosive about knowledge, because sometimes when we say that someone is “experienced” we mean that a person has been wasted or sullied by their experience. It doesn’t always connote wisdom. Sometimes we say that someone is burdened by their knowledge. Think of the London cab drivers, whose hippocampus—the stem of the brain where navigation is stored—were found to be oversized, bulging, literally stuffed to the brim with streets.

One day, biking the wrong way down Grand, I hit an old Chinese lady. When we collided she screamed “Ai yah!” and then stared silently at me from where she lay on the ground. I think she put a death curse on me, was how intense and wild her rage was. I helped her up and apologized but quickly sped away. Several blocks later I felt myself trembling. I merged on to the green bike lane on Allen and sat down on a bench in the median. I wasn’t qualified to do such a dangerous activity. I called my mom.

“I hit an old lady and she put a death curse on me,” I said. “How will I get home?”

She said, “It’s OK. I lift the curse. You are safe.”

This made me feel better, but not really, unconvinced by her curse-lifting ability. I thought I just had to make it home. I biked very slowly down Allen to cross Canal, because the bike light had turned green. Just then, a car in the far lane lunged forward, making an erratic left turn. I heard someone shout “Jesus fuck!” or at least that is what it sounded like. But the car—get this—it was a hearse!

That happened so quickly, I thought. Movies are wrong: these things don’t happen in slow motion. I understood that my mom’s anti-death curse had worked.

Sometimes a mind can be a windowless room, can be whipping post and executioner inside this room. But sometimes a mind can be beneficent. In that moment, my mind had gathered all my limbs into an embrace and said: I want to live.

I never before thought of myself as having the gift of perseverance. I always thought of myself as being incapable of suffering. That if I ever got significantly hurt, and obstacles multiplied, I would want to die. But I found something else that day—padded inside all those squishy layers of inconsequential matter, the storage and partitions and Styrofoam peanuts of ourselves—the thing that forces your heart to beat when everything else wants to quit.

Anelise Chen earned her MFA in fiction at NYU. Born in Taipei and raised in Los Angeles, she lives in Manhattan’s Chinatown. She is at work on a novel. More by Anelise Chen