Passion on a Bicycle
by Henry S. Resnik
I am obsessed with bicycling in New York. My passion began rather innocently in January, 1965, when I bought a brand-new Raleigh, equipped with a basket and a strident chromium bell. Frankly, though, it was still just a bicycle, and as I labored home over seventy blocks of surprisingly hilly avenue, I began to wonder if the bicycle wasn’t a mistake, like the accordion I bought when I was an avaricious, callow eighteen and which I sold to my avaricious, callow seventeenyear-old cousin a few months later.
I did not just wake up one day and think, Here’s a fun idea: I’m going to buy a bicycle! On the contrary, my purchase was riddled with ulterior motives. Like so many people who are afflicted with contemporary megalopolis-itis, I had been falling into a sedentary life that somehow managed to be as temptingly sweet as it was sedentary. I was gaining weight. I needed girth control, and if I hadn’t already made the resolution to get plenty of exercise, I probably would have returned the bicycle after that first ride.
But I didn’t. I pedaled relentlessly here and there, hating every minute of it, my hands numb, my old overcoat chewed by gears, my face scarlet for hours when I managed to get inside a building, my legs constantly tired and aching. I thought viciously of all the cyclists in the world, of their (doubtless) egomaniacal boasts of forty-mile, day-long rides, of their silly little hosteling trips and their substandard living conditions and their stale bread and cheese. Since I needed the overcoat for civilized occasions, I finally bought a ski parka, the most practical winter uniform for cycling but, to my childishly nonconformist mind, one of the most loathsome.
I had never been in better shape, however. I could have accomplished this by doing ten miles a day on an exercycle, I suppose, but since I have always associated physical fitness programs, even solitary ones, with shrill-whistling sadists in immaculate sweat clothes, I needed an elaborate rationale to keep me going. Thus, I consoled myself with frequent reminders about how convenient a bike was for visiting friends in the neighborhood, for minor shopping errands (in spite of bad experiences with a small filing cabinet, which I could not carry on the bike at all, and the New York Post, which blew away in sections before I reached home), and how useful it would be for impressing dates with my athletic qualities, riding to meet them and casually parking it in their apartments. By the time March arrived. with its great swords of wind, drawn, it seemed, in Ardsley or Nyack and gathering strength as they commuted to Manhattan. I had a cruising range that included Bloomingdale’s, the Plaza, homes of friends in the East Nineties, Lincoln Center, and the netherest regions of Columbia; I also had perpetually clenched teeth and an aching jaw — but no matter, I was healthy.
Spring came suddenly one day, and I shed my ski parka for a succession of expensive poor-boy turtlenecks, in which I cut a rather dashing figure as I streaked through Central Park, smiling my best Thomas P. F. Hoving smile and imagining that all the pedestrians could tell at a glance what a swinger I was. I was thin; I had strong legs, with more tendons than the average fellow; I had a completely new lease on life. At about this time I was also ready for a new lease on my apartment, and I decided to move to the Village. Every young man has to live in the Village before — or, as in my case, after — he settles down; my time had come. Filled with visions of great mounds of marijuana and blondes with straight hair down to the hems of their miniskirts, I boarded a subway bound for Sheridan Square.
My licentious fantasies might have come closer to realization if it weren’t for a charming librarian whom I happened to be dating at the time and who lived on West Ninety-third Street. I liked her very much; she was not the usual librarian. She was a modern librarian — young, good-looking, and thoroughly trained in library science. She even had a miniskirt, though she never wore it to work. Since things were not serious enough between us to warrant my moving to the West Nineties, however, I finally took a place on Thirteenth Street, not quite in the middle of what I thought to be the capital of sin, but close enough to make eternal damnation pleasantly imminent.
To be fair, I cannot blame the librarian, who was incapable of guile, her miniskirt notwithstanding. Nor can I be sure that eighty blocks made the heart grow fonder. I suppose the real cause of my disaster was the diabolical stage manager who has always lurked in the wings of my life, prompting me with the wrong cues at the most inappropriate moments. Whatever the reason (I prefer the stage-manager theory myself), I did not stop seeing my librarian; for weeks after the move, until the fatal evening, I commuted to her house by subway.
It was in June, and I clearly recall stepping on the scale that morning and shuddering to see that my weight had shot up two pounds over the ideal weight for my height and frame, according to the U.S. Health Service. Thoroughly depressed, I resigned myself to a dinner of stewed kale and an early, two-wheeled departure for Ninety-third Street.
The longest ride to date had been the seventy blocks home from the bicycle shop that first day. From my old apartment to Philharmonic Hall was approximately two miles, allowing for variations of route. But eighty blocks . . . well, eighty blocks was the big time, Marlboro country. If I was going against the wind, how many calories could I burn up riding eighty blocks? I left Thirteenth Street at 7:30, fully expecting to be a skeleton when I arrived at my destination a half hour later.
There was no wind at all that evening, however. The city was at the beginning of a two-month heat wave, and after five blocks of puffing up Eighth Avenue I was already beginning to tap my supply of emergency rationalizations. But I knew myself well enough to have made the evening’s plans so rushed that I could not possibly take the time to go back and turn the bike in for a subway token. Small rivulets of sweat blew behind me like streamers as I rode, and my shirt was soaking by the time I reached what used to be the back of Penn Station.
The city has never seemed uglier to me than it was during the first half of that ride. Odors of soot, burned fuel, and Chinese-Latin cooking caromed off my nostrils, and I contemplated giving the bike away, or possibly making a quick sale at Times Square before I hopped the I.R.T. express. The clock on the Franklin Savings Bank at Eighth Avenue and Forty-second Street said 7:45. I began to think that the desirability of being thin was a huge fraud perpetrated by Madison Avenue hucksters, that I had submitted to their tricks like some ludicrous puppet. I realized, as I started up the long hill leading to a misty view of Columbus Circle, that I was destined to turn into a portly middle-aged man. I had been duped by subliminal Pepsi-generationism, and I had a moral obligation to grow old and fat as soon as possible; it was all I could do to advance the cause of individual rights.
By this time I was breathing the great wheezing gasps that used to overtake me when I ran for a moment in my smoking days. My vision, blurred by sweat, revealed a surrealistic cityscape, twisted and menacing. I saw green and red lights, heard the sound of angry horns, witnessed dark shapes advancing on me. My bike wobbled, but, letting out a shrill cry of “Aieeee!” or something of that kind, I forced a burst of speed and managed to cross Forty-seventh Street just in time to escape an onslaught of automobile and pedestrian traffic. I was congratulating myself on having gotten out of the whole thing alive when suddenly a bus rumbled past me, having also rushed the light, and missed me by no more than a few inches. As if to show me what it was capable of, the bus swerved toward the curb in front of me and stopped, forcing me to head for the sidewalk. Instead of crashing into the sidewalk and splitting my head open after tumbling over the handlebars, however, I steered between the monolithic intruder and the curbstone, skimmed several terrified ladies about to board, executed an incredible two-foot double turn between the front of the bus and a car parked directly in my path, and emerged . . .
Well, I certainly don’t think I am overly boastful in saying that I emerged triumphant, that in those few moments I had proved myself a cyclist of such enormous cool, such dazzling technique, that I knew I would never again slow down for an advancing truck, veer to avoid a threatening limousine, or hesitate to plunge into the midst of a pedestrian phalanx. I had tasted blood, and now I knew what all those pillar-legged hostelers felt as they sat around their campfires, recalling the encounters and skirmishes of the day. Now I knew what this whole cycling business was really about. And to think that only a moment before my triumph I was actually thinking about giving it up. Dizzy with dreams of the Tour de France, I virtually flew to Ninety-third Strent in a matter of minutes. When I reached the familiar brownstone. I lifted my Raleigh with one powerful hand and bore it up the four flights as if it were the beacon of the future.
Since then my cycling career has been all, so to speak, uphill. I continued to make the four-mile ride to Ninety-third Street and back throughout the summer until I met a high school teacher who lived in Boston. But by that time I was such a fanatic that I would get up at 7:00 just to have the streets more or less to myself, ride up Eighth Avenue to the park drive, make the entire circle of the park back to Seventh Avenue, and get home in time to catch part of Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club.
Every great passion reaches a moment, of course, when it seems purer, more intense than it has ever been before or ever can be again; for me this moment came when I discovered third gear. It was Emily who introduced me to third gear. We met on the Sheep Meadow, late on a Constable sort of morning in July. I had been doing my circuit of the park when I suddenly heard music. I slowed down. It was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and unless someone had a superb hi-fi system or a live orchestra, I was even more insane than I had begun to think. I followed the music to the meadow, saw the temporary shell in which the New York Philharmonic was rehearsing for a performance that evening, prepared to stay for a while, and then . . . two wheels . . . a basket . . . and Emily!
Emily, wherever you are (and I assume that you are with your husband somewhere), I will not betray the rest of that rapturous morning The ride on the mall. The secret paths you showed me near the Bethesda Fountain. The lemonade we sipped while our two bikes a boy bike and a girl bike — shone in the sun nearby. I will not betray it except to say that as we raced up the hill near the Tavern on the Green you saw that I began to lag and called out with such kindness and tenderness and womanly feeling, “Why don’t you try third gear — it’s faster!” Farewell, Emily, thank you, and . . . whenever you shift gears, think of me.