The Brakes



The most irritating thing cyclists do? Wear their helmets indoors, of course. A few years ago I wrote about the folks who shopped for groceries with their helmets on (“What, you’re going to crash into the tomatoes?!”). A friend who had read my essay came over for dinner one evening and began to chop vegetables at our sink, with his helmet on. Ha ha. I was uncorking a bottle of wine, so I wadded up the metal foil top and threw it at my friend’s head/helmet.

I missed, barely. The metal wad hit him right between the eyes. He didn’t need stitches, but he bled all night during dinner. And he took off his bike helmet.

I was thinking about this recently when considering the various irritations of cycling. There are so many! Other bikers, bike wrecks, bike lane fights, bike theft.

Sometimes, I fear that I actually enjoy the irritations. At least, the overcome irritation: the averted pothole, the opening taxicab door, the wrong-way messenger. The irritation becomes almost pleasurable. Like scratching a scab, or cursing a headline. An endorphin rush provided daily (me against the city). In-the-game proof that we are New Yorkers.

But cycling here, at its best, is better than mere annoyance. It can give us, for want of a better word, beauty. We sail down a street—alert and porous—and see the city anew. It speeds up, or smoothes out. We are in a movie seen by wheel, and we are stars in this movie (me and the city), and the city becomes something small and beautiful that we could almost tuck in our pocket.

And while it is hard if not impossible to write about beauty (“The sunset was pretty.” “The sex was nice.” “The painting was good.”), each week on my bike I have a moment of such indescribable beauty that I will nevertheless attempt to describe one here:

I am biking through Brooklyn in the rain. I have spent the morning writing and in the afternoon I will pick up my daughters from school. I am in that space between then and now, and my wheels are sliding over the glistening pavement, and the brownstones of Fort Greene are flashing by like playing cards revealing just enough to make me wonder about the lives inside, and I keep going, past factories and junkyards and backyards and then the Williamsburg Bridge looms to my left and I start to climb, and the rain stops and I look over the East River where a tugboat is cleaving the water into angles of gray and blue, and then the skyline of Manhattan rises ahead of me, in shadowed browns and glinting silvers, appearing both huge and small, and I am in it and above it and flying toward it and there is no place in the world I would rather be.