Three hundred times a year, give or take, I ride my bicycle past a sign that reads: Oy Vey! Leaving Brooklyn over the East River into Manhattan. It’s like downhill skiing with ambulatory trees, or sex on a bed of razor blades dipped in ricin – intense, exhilarating and potentially deadly. Better with practice and if you know which rules to break.
When I imagine my friends and myself as criminals, I’m the most violent and insane. These being fantasies, time and consequences are nonfactors; several friends have been burned at the stake for witchcraft. There’ve been treasonous knights, philosophical kleptomaniacs, digital cabal leaders, swindlers and serial poisoners eliminating autocrats, misogynists and puritans. I like my mother best as a Prohibition bootlegger, the queenpin of a network trafficking in clear liquors and persuasion.
She’s a vice president at an insurance company.
I could never be a criminal. I don’t even kill spiders. But in my mental fictions I murder without pattern or expectation of recognition. I live alone, isolated from acquaintances (not in an apartment with my roommates and their cats) and keep no trophies form crimes that provide me neither solace nor release. My evil goes unnoticed and unpunished.
I’m a writer.
Could be I want to feel special, if deranged. My competing theory is that city riders like me may fall under or near the scary, shady label of psychopathy. Commuting by bicycle in a U.S. city is ridiculous, paradoxical and dangerous and those of us who do it, week after week, through toxic humidity and winter bluster, are, in my experience, crazy people.
As I write this, my right hand is wrapped like a boxer’s. My thumb is a cheery lilac and there are stitches between the upper knuckles of my index and middle fingers. Typing feels like old world classroom discipline, a punishment for a transgression so much a part of my daily life that it’s unclear if or how I’ve sinned. This isn’t the first time a collision with an automobile has sent me to the ER bleeding. I’ve been hit harder and more hilariously: once by a Hasidic man in a motorized wheelchair.
In Boston I got into an accident on the same corner where the guy I was seeing had been crunched a month earlier. Waiting for the woman who opened her door and hit me to stop yelling, “Oh my god, I hit a biker. Oh my god, let me call you back,” into her phone, I noted the stains of his blood on the sidewalk next to the drops of mine that were falling. Razor blades, folks. Razor blades. Altogether though, my body hasn’t been damaged nearly as much as my sense of myself as a rational human being.
City biking combines strength and vulnerability in a pinched world of physical exertion and swift decision-making. Perception is flooded but attention is focused. It’s a battle proxy state, I think, having never been in a battle, because it’s like an athletic competition that could kill you. Certainly it’s an uncommon way to experience the world, and while otherness itself isn’t pathological, it can open doors.
Cyclists confront a city’s moving thinking (or unthinking) pieces and flaws while their brains are at the mercy of exercise-induced endorphins. You can’t really turn those feel-good chemicals off but you have to try. One of my worst spills was the result of me singing enthusiastically while riding and misjudging a Brooklyn-sized pothole.
After that crash, as soon as I ditched the crutches, I started riding again with a renewed sense of vigilance and was back in the ER a year later almost to the day with this hand injury, joking with the medical residents and having to take a pregnancy test before I could get in for an x-ray.
There isn’t a one to one correspondence but this estrangement from pain and regret, impulsivity, extreme self-deception, and avoidance of responsibility are among the hallmarks of psychopathy.
Commuting by bike is also lonely in practice and socially alienating. While others get ready to go out, walk together to the subway or bus stop, maybe catch a cab, talk, laugh and show up looking the way they left the house, I travel alone and arrive sweaty. In winter it’s a layers game, too many on a long commute and you’re the smelly one in the room.
I like to be alone and yearn for solitude when I don’t have it, like a pet anxiously awaiting its master’s return from the workday. While riding, I plan stories I may never write, laugh loud, look, listen to the city, discover fun word combinations and play the would-be criminal game. When I see police cars driving through red lights or other riders clipped by swerving taxis, I spit dramatically onto the asphalt, but not too close to the cops, for obvious reasons.
To survive the lawlessness and moral relativism of New York City streets, you develop a code of behavior – an MO, much like the psychopath. Urban riding is: physical, solitary, impetuous, it requires an insensitivity or attraction to deviant behavior, a facility for deception and lack remorse, mostly for self-injury.
The butt-padded Lycra wearing, triathlete types are different, and at the opposite end of the spectrum – all bike messengers are insane. Everyone knows, even them. I once saw a man riding 20 miles per hour down Second Avenue in Manhattan, packages cable-tied to his back, pull out a glass pipe and a lighter, puff, re-stow, wave at me, cut across three lanes of traffic, then turn the wrong way down a one-way street. Remember, he’s at work. What this guy does to “let loose” or what he’s capable of … I don’t know. I am confident, however, that messengers, drivers, walkers and straphangers, are different types of would-be criminals.
Often as a show of support people tell me that biking is great exercise or good for the planet. I don’t mind if they think I’m fit and altruistic and yes, the practical data is attractive (my daily ride is 22 minutes to SoHo, the subway takes 50ish; I can bike to the ocean from my house in the same amount of time it takes by train) but it’s nearly impossible to remain a city rider solely for these reasons.
Riding a bike in a city is having a key to its secrets and shortcuts and an escape from its many souls. It’s liberating and direct. It’s for the curious and the obstinate. Those who don’t hear or can suppress the voice of good sense. While you’re underground, I’m flying (as safely as possible, wearing a helmet.) I can manufacture fresh air. I can induce an elevated mood and braid it inseparably with the city I live in.
Biking gives you unfiltered reality at a speed faster than walking but still controlled by your own two legs; it’s a simple, guileless thing, something we learn as young children, and yet, it if you do it the city, you have to be slightly nuts. Sometimes I feel like one of those people who bought a beehive for a little raw honey and a healthy garden, and years later spends all her time in a giant white suit talking about breeding queens with fetishistic delight.
Maybe I’m that girl. I live like this, in warm, defiant embrace of a practice I know to be aberrant and unsafe. Other people do too. As a member of the city bike community, I hope that you will judge us with compassion, and be warned that we may or may not be psychopaths.