Biking in New York City is a magnificent thing and a terrifying thing and a thrilling thing and an infuriating thing. I’ve had my bike for four years now, and almost immediately upon buying it my relationship to the city changed. Instead of moving here and there underground — enduring the overcrowding, the train delays, and the angst — I could now get around in the open air. Underground, you have no sense of the place in between the places you love. They are points of interest connected by nothing more than a color-coded line. And yet: Up there (or down below, depending on which line you’re riding), there is certainly life.
At the beginning of the outbreak in NYC — when the cases were rising by the thousand every day, when the virus seemed to suddenly be everywhere — I dialed my outdoor activity down to zero. I stocked my cupboards with a 30-day supply of food in case I had to officially quarantine myself. I ordered indoor workout equipment. I began a seemingly endless routine of streaming TV shows in quick succession. I swore I would make progress through the backlog of books that I’d bought for now cancelled trips. I promised to do yoga. But none of those things really came to fruition. Instead, a deeply seeded inertia began moving from inside out — my small joys evaporated, my rituals went dark. What was happening was mourning, really — mourning the loss of motion that had supplanted my less-healthy coping mechanisms from so many years ago.
For those first few weeks, I was terrified to get on my bike. The paths along the waterfronts and over the bridges — the safest to use because they are generally guarded and separate from street traffic — were packed with like-minded people. Everyone needed a break from the tedium and claustrophobia of their tiny New York apartments. But in a city of 9 million, when everyone wants to go outside for just an hour or so a day, it’s impossible to safely stay away from anyone else. Those waterside bike paths fill with other bikers and joggers and pedestrian overflow from the sidewalks. You are only ever inhaling the exhalations of others. Who knows who has coughed just a few feet ahead of you? What pathogen is riding that breeze?
The crowds weren’t surprising — I had avoided those officially scenic bike routes before COVID for the same reason. I also knew that crowded streets were far less likely — even in good times — if I biked away from the river and deeper into the boroughs, which I’d done a few times over the years.
From my apartment, I went east, first across Bed-Stuy and then into Bushwick — that part I was certain about. After those neighborhoods, I knew was Queens, but I had no clear plan other than my sense of direction. Keeping track of my right turns and my left turns as necessary, I cut a crooked route that more or less became a long loop. I crossed streets I hadn’t heard of before — ones that bore the old names of the city. the Dutch ones like Onderdonk and Himrod. I passed small, beautiful parks with greens lined by cherry trees and magnolias. Panaderias with open doors revealing cases of pan dulce. Retail relics like the Liberty Department Store on Myrtle, its big red sign visible from blocks away. The scent of pastries coming from Grimaldi’s Bakery. In some places the huge old tenement buildings pressed almost right up to the street. In others, pretty brick row houses with bay windows sat back quietly from the road. Old Jewish synagogues. Massive churches. Pentecostal storefronts. Flower shops. Botánicas. VFWs.
When I got home I mapped my route to track the miles I’d logged. But really, I’ve always had a fascination with maps — drawing them and poring over road atlases as a kid, and staring at them for untold hours as an adult traveler in anticipation of a trip. From what I could tell, I’d cut across Bed-Stuy and Bushwick into Ridgewood. While I was familiar with certain parts of these neighborhoods — I live on the western border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill, my favorite Ethiopian restaurant is in Bushwick, and I’d gone to queer parties at venues in Ridgewood — my experience of them had, of course, been segmented. New York, as it always does, rendered these places as little satellites connected by underground tunnels. Your own interests in the context of regular life determine your internal map of the city, and this map is, by nature, exclusionary. The thing travel has always stirred in me, it seems, is forcing an acknowledgement that the fabric of any place is a more wholistic thing.
I expanded the map to see what was beyond Ridgewood. There was a belt of cemeteries to the southeast, with Highland Park and Cypress Hills beyond it. To the northeast, Glendale, Middle Village, and Forest Hills. Each afternoon or evening when I left my house on my bike, I went farther. I noted how the scenery changed. How the apartments shifted from massive apartment blocks in Bushwick and Ridgewood to single-story row-houses in Glendale to beautiful brick Tudor buildings in Forest Hills to the mansions of Highland Boulevard in Cypress Hills. You could see the character change in the businesses too: Italian bakeries and civic organizations along Myrtle Avenue in Glendale; Mexican speciality shops in Ridgewood; Dominican and Puerto Rican flags in Bushwick. The reggaeton, the trap, the bachata, the screeching wheels of the elevated trains, the nonstop sirens of our moment.You can see the neighborhoods that the city cares for and the ones it neglects — old-growth trees lining some streets and others without a shred of green.
The pleasure in all of this is the sense of discovery, which, of course, isn’t discovery at all. It’s happening upon a place that has been there all along and which, now known to you, can bring something into your life. You find these places at street level, not online. You get the texture and the sound and the sight all at once, without filters — no mitigating reviews of those who’ve already been; no curation by what photographs nicely; no algorithms trying to feed you what the computers think you’ll enjoy most. Like when travel is at its most perfect, when the serendipity hits just right. You stumble upon a place or a person or a thing that you’ll come to love. You catch a vibe.
If I happen to be biking a street I’ve already seen, I’ll go faster. Once I’ve hit the unknown, I slow down. I make mental notes of the places I’ll come back to when they’re open again. When I feel I’ve gone far enough, I turn around and try to untangle the streets, making my way back home. In my body, I notice some of the same feelings I’ve had when aimlessly wandering cities on other continents: that little clench in the gut that’s thrilling, the moment when you aren’t exactly lost, but when you’ve come to understand that you’re surrounded by newness, or at least something that is new to you in the most foreign way. This is the feeling that took the place of all of my worst habits. I suppose it saved my life.
For the foreseeable future, none of us are going anywhere. And so, the light at the end of the tunnel is that maybe these small shops, these bakeries and restaurants and cafes, will be there on the other side of this. And that until I can fly away from New York City, I’ll make do on my bike and the thrills that are here that I’d never thought to find.
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