Breaking Away to the Next Red Light (from 1996)
This piece was originally published in Cake: The Nonmusic Music Magazine in 1996. It is, I think, the first article I published anywhere. I reproduced it here, because the original piece is not online.
Someone asked me to write about sports, but I’m like I don’t play any sports, I ride a bike, but that’s not a sport, that’s transportation. A sport is a physical activity that you do for fun or for a challenge. I don’t think that my bike riding qualities because I use my bike almost exclusively for transportation, but there’s sport to it.
The city is just the right size to ride a bike. Almost everywhere I go is less than 20 minutes by bike, twice as fast as by car and a lot quicker than public transportation. The city would be the perfect place to ride a bike, except it sucks. But, it only sucks because all those people who don’t realize that it’s the perfect place to ride a bike and insist on driving cars. Cars are too big and dirty for the city. Parking is impossible, they create traffic jams, and make the air really disgusting. Half the city has been plowed under to make extrawide streets and free parking spaces for cars, talk about government handouts. Still there’s not enough room for all the cars, but they keep driving in. At least they make biking sporting. My friends think it’s too scary to ride a bike in the city. But, to me, “scary” is walking home late at night risking violent death; risking accidental death trying to squeeze between two buses, that’s “sporting.”
Taxis are the worst, the natural enemy of the bike. They’ll honk at you for the crime of being in front of them. Then they’ll pass you and stop right in front of you with no apparent sense of irony. You can try is to get way over to the side of the road — typical rookie mistake. This saves you from getting honked at by people in a hurry to speed up to the red light in front of you, but it makes you vulnerable to all sorts of mishaps you can’t get in the center of the road. You can get driven off the street by cars making right turns, or buses and taxis stopping to pick up people, and, sooner or later, you’re going to get doored. One night a guy opened a taxi door right in front of me and clipped my handle bars. “Are you all right?” Next thing I knew I was lying face up on the pavement. The driver and the passenger both got out and stood over me, the passenger said, “Are you OK?” I was dazed and bruised and not quite cognizant.
“HOW ARE YOU?”
“I’m fine thanks.”
“He’s OK,” and they sped away.
Pedestrians can make for sport. As the light turns they leave from both sides of the street. Do you try to get through the center before the two groups come together or do you go behind a group on one side after the last one leaves the corner. Pedestrians and bikers get along OK. You stay out of their way; they stay out of your way: no problem. Except, for the deer people. Most people know that if their crossing the street and they see a bike heading strait for where they’re standing right now, that if they keep going they’ll be well away before the bike gets there. Not the deer people. They walk right out into the street, and stop right in your path. You wouldn’t think a primate could be that stupid. But, dodging them is a sport.
This is not to say that there are not a lot o’bad bicyclists out there, there are. There are enough that I wouldn’t blame pedestrians for being scared. There was this guy who used to ride his bike in full football padding, helmet, face mask, shoulder pads, the whole bit, outside his close. I’d be stopped at a red-light, waiting for a break in in traffic to go. He’d zoom past me into a break I didn’t see. I don’t see him around lately. I wonder if he’s still alive.
Red lights, there’s a sport. To bicyclists every traffic law is a suggestion. I mean I try to stay out of everybody’s way, but if nobody’s comin’, I’m goin’, full speed. What’re they gon’a do, take your license away? This is safe, as long as you look, there is no risk to it at all, but it’ll kill me eventually. Like that scene in “Slaughterhouse Five” where the guy says, “I’ve seen my death, I’ve been there many times…” In Manhattan almost every street is one way. Parents teach their children to, “Look one way before crossing the street.” Sooner or later I’ll be looking left when the cross traffic is coming from the right and I’ll be on the grill of a garbage truck.
Simply standing at red lights is its own sport, you try to balance yourself while you wait for a break. A bike can’t come to a complete stop and still stay balanced, the trick is to inch forward, pull yourself back, inch forward… You could stop and put your foot on the ground. There is no practical reason for balancing, it’s just a sport.
The most challenging sport in city biking is keeping it. Bike theft is incredible in the city, I’ve lost count of how many bike’s I’ve lost. Legend has it that thieves use liquid nitrogen to make locks brittle and easy to break. But, theft can be beaten. You got’a have the worst bike and the best lock. First I tried one of those U-locks that “guarantees” against theft. Quite the bluff, actually, they’re one of the easiest locks to break, you can’t make a claim unless the bike was registered, you have a police report, a receipt for the lock, a receipt for the bike, a recent assessment of the bike’s value, you have to recover the broken lock, and the guarantee is void in Manhattan away. I wonder if they’ve ever paid on one of those guarantees? Now I’ve got a five foot, double reinforced metal square link chain that weighs more and costs more than my twenty year old girls ten speed, purple frame, with florescent orange spray painted stripes. That heavy chain makes it a lot more difficult to get up those hills, but it’s worth it. Theft is not a sport, it’s just aggravation.
One big drawback of using your bike for transportation and sport is that you arrive everywhere right after your workout. You change close a lot. One summer I took a job as a bike messenger. The biking was great, the actual delivering the packages wasn’t so great. That summer there was this huge heat wave. One day it was 100 degrees with 100% humidity, and I had to take a package to the Chanel Perfume company on the 30th Floor of a Fifth Avenue high-rise. It looked like one of those banks that Dickens described in a Tale of Two cities, it had all this old looking wood everywhere, everything was extra-fancy. There was this giant bottle of Chanel No. 5 encased in glass. Of course, I’m dripping with sweat. I go up to the receptionist at a big oak desk she said, “I’m not signing for it, take it to receiving, on 31, one flight up.” I walk toward the Oak wood circular Staircase, “No, you can’t use the stairs, go back into the lobby and take the elevator.”
When I’m on my way back down, the elevator stops again on the 30th floor, a model gets in. She’s obviously just been shooting an ad. She’s wearing a long flowing black shoulder showing dress. I’m wearing shorts and a short sleeved shirt so soaked in sweat that you can’t tell that I haven’t just been swimming in the ocean with all my close on. I’ve accessorized with a clipboard and a messengers bag that’s held together with duct tape. She leans against the back wall and puts all her weight on her left leg as her right leg comes out of this enormous heretofore unseen slit in her dress. There are mirrors on all the walls and the door and the ceiling, so that wherever you look you see the beauty and swamp thing. She has long flowing light brown hair. I have sweat is flowing out of my crooked bicycle helmet. She shifts her weight. Her right leg disappears and her left leg emerges from another unseen slit. So I straightened my helmet.
-Karl Widerquist, New York, NY 1996