Frontier Psychiatrist

Posts Tagged ‘Breakfast Club

September air, sunny and chilly, makes me remember being 15: jockeying for friends, limitless possibilities, hormones. This year I realized that biking in New York is a lot like high school. (For one thing, the boys are always showing off.) The hierarchy of a city street is as mysterious, delicate, and deadly important as the rules of those echoing, locker-lined hallways.

You might think that in the hierarchy, bikes get respect from pedestrians. If you do, just try to bike across 30th street at 6:30 pm. This is when everyone is walking to their home-bound trains, crossing against the red, and they have all decided to ignore the bikes—10th grade girls who’ve secretly agreed that you get the silent treatment.

What's Your Damage?

There you are, sailing along toward Sixth Avenue, green lights ahead. The stream of office casual in the crosswalk doesn’t thin. You tentatively try your bell; they continue to check their cell phones. You call, “Excuse me!” but they don’t slow down, instead looking innocently in their purses for lip gloss. You’ve no choice but to stop, helplessly, and watch them go somewhere impossibly cool. I’ve lived this before in student council meetings. Cruel, cruel pedestrians.

Then there is the high school flirtation of the girl bike and the truck driver. I apologize for this luck-of-the-gender situation, but it is a necessity of survival. When I was a high school junior, I drove to school with two other girls, and at one point in the drive we had to cross three lanes of rush hour traffic in something like 200 feet. I learned to flirt on those three lanes: the smile and apologetic wave, the blown kiss if we got really stuck.

It’s the same wave and eyelash-y smile I now give to a FreshDirect truck that has the light and most of the street, to make sure I’m noticed and therefore not mown down. It’s a strategy that has gotten me safely to school, then and now.

If you get a ticket on a bike, you have been caught doing something that everyone is doing. You will probably feel resentment that you haven’t felt since being caught ditching senior year. Yes, I KNOW I should walk my bike on that lovely downhill stretch from Riverside Park to the river. But no one else dismounts, and I ride so slowly! One day a traffic cop hid around the corner to pick us off and make her quota. An older man on a mountain bike had already been busted.

My reaction was right out of The Breakfast Club—Molly Ringwald style: I didn’t see the sign! When did that sign get there? I have a perfect record! Would this go on my record? Right after me coasted a Judd Nelson on a Cannondale, wisecracking, trying to charm his way out of it. She was impassive. Finally we all sat balanced on our bikes, arms crossed, watching our tickets get written and silently agreeing with each other: this was BS.

Getting in trouble together is a great feeling. I wasn’t cool enough to get in any real trouble in the 90’s.

Last week I was crossing Manhattan on Reade Street. A truck was parked, full of pipes, maybe 20 feet long, and as I approached a worker unloaded one. Suddenly, oblivious to me, he swung the pipe across the road, about to clothesline me. I ducked and swerved—right into a sedan passing me on the right. I knocked his door with my handlebar and skidded safely away.

The car sped on; I turned back to confront the construction worker about safe pipe-unloading practice. I was mortified to find that I was sobbing. I refused his kind offer of a bottle of water, insisting helplessly, “I WILL BE FINE! BUT UNLOAD THEM PARALLEL!” That moment—heart hammering, stuck between dangerous choices, trying to look tough while crying—was more like high school than anything else I go through in New York City.

Teenage conflict always felt like life and death, but bike dynamics really are. Every time I see a ghost bike tied to a signpost, whitewashed in memory of a cyclist killed in traffic, I remember how complicated it is to survive the space between cars and pedestrians, how undefined our piece of the city can be. Like adolescents, we ride carefully between definitions, between parked cars and traffic. We declare ourselves present, but we’re not yet sure of our place.

Micaela Blei is a teacher and writer who lives in Brooklyn. She has written for Frontier Cyclist about Bike Nostalgia on Fire Island,  Bike Anthropology and a poem about bike commuting in New York. She rides a KHS Flite 220 Flatbar.


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