Thursday, June 18, 2009

Writing in the Rain

Summer 2009 has taken a rainy turn. I've begun to write a lot more, tying to capture life in New York in the moment, as it happens. Maybe try to compile all of these pieces into some sort of story down the line.

Here's a recent piece I wrote last week about biking to work in the morning:

So I wake up covered in sweat, two feet from the arched ceiling of the Domino's sugar factory. I stare at a dangling rusty chain hanging from the ceiling. The alarm clock beeps on a shelf that's hanging from tacks in the wall. I trace the extension cord above my head to where it's stapled to the wall over the doorframe. A maze of water and heating pipes weave through the air above me. I'm not sure which are still in use. I grab the red pipe directly above my head for leverage and search with my toes below the bed for the makeshift set of three steps used to climb into my loft bed. They're not quite high enough to reach the bed, and not quite aligned at the right angle. One slip and it's a six foot drop to the plywood floor. The pipe I am hanging from is actually in use, and if my force should break sealant inside, the sprinklers will turn on, ruining everything in the building.

I open the door and groggily stare out into the open space of the factory kitchen. I'm perched on the edge of a ten foot drop, with no railing or banister to prevent a fall to the cement floor. The cinder block walls stretch twenty feet up to the ceiling, a canopy of chains, pipes and beams extending across the open expanse. I descend the wooden staircase and enter the bathroom, a plywood room set off to the side of the kitchen. The shower is a giant round altar, set three feet above the ground and complete with mirrors along the far wall. It would be the most impressive and majestic structure in the entire living area if it weren't for the thick mildew and dirt around the edge. I kick the broken tile scraps and dirt from around the toilet. No one walks around here barefoot. Four feet away from the toilet is a miniature toilet, complete with Blues Clues seat cover. Apparently, it still works.

Emerging from the bathroom is the cleanest part of the day. It's all downhill after that. Sometimes I'll carry deodorant with me from all the sweat and dirt.

I grab the ragged black backpack I carry everywhere. The straps are frayed and it's splattered with white paint. It's an essential rucksack, carrying the basic necessities of one day away from home. There are days I won't be back until 2 A.M., and the extra apples are nice. A sweater and hat could come in handy if the weather gets back. The water bottle is nice, when I remember to refill it periodically. I like to pack a lunch as well. That peanut butter and jelly sandwich comes in handy if I work straight through my lunch break. It's also nice when I find that bag full of bagels in the dumpster a few blocks away. Extra fuel for weeks. The rucksack also harbors my portable toolbox. Riding to work on a bike requires almost as much gear as an overnight camping trip. It's safe to always have the following items:

Spare tubes
Tire lever
Hand pump
Set of allen keys
Spoke wrench
8 mm wrench
10 mm wrench
Pocket knife

I don the brimmed Bern skateboarding helmet I borrowed from Drew. Stick my mini Kryptonite U-Lock in my back pocket, and grab sunglasses. I'm ready.

I walk down the sticky tiled floor of the old sugar factory. The door on my left leads to another living space. The double doors on my right lead to the stage. Bands crowd this area almost every night of the week. I am often forced to step around synthesizers, drums, and guitar pedals when I go out at night. I push open the heavy front door and breathe in the warm Brooklyn air from the East River. A bulldozer sits in the middle of the street. Construction workers mill around me. I notice suspenders and curly locks dangling from the underside of the bright yellow hard hats. A few more blocks south and all the storefronts are completely Hebrew.

I walk my bike out to the middle of the street. I swing one leg over and lock my shoe into the toe clip. I take a deep breath, and then in one fluid motion, it starts.

Speed. The first thing you notice about a bike in the city. You're as fast as a car, and much more efficient. There's no stopping at stop signs, and most intersections can be bypassed with a quick glance left and right. You can weave through lanes and go down one-way streets in the opposite direction. Somehow, breaking traffic laws on a bike is allowed. Wythe Street, my first thorough way, is complete with a white painted bike lane. It's a nice comfort zone, but ultimately useless. After one block I weave around a parked taxi in the bike lane.

I reach the bridge and turn to ride under it. I can hear the cars above me. Old Hispanic men crowd the edge of the street, clad in wife beaters and smoking cigarettes. Two guys carry a refrigerator to the edge of the curb. After another block, I make the 180 degree turn to the base of the bridge. At the start of the turn, a white ghost bike sits chained to a sign. Tombstones littered all around New York.

The Williamsburg Bridge. The two mile barrier between the calm and the storm. The obstacle course featuring joggers, commuters, and Hasidic women pushing strollers. It's a grueling one mile uphill, the best wake-up call. I push my legs to keep their speed, never allowing myself to slow down. At the crest of the bridge I see the skyline of Manhattan. Even from here, you can feel the energy. The city has no mercy. Slow down or show vulnerability and it will chew you up and spit you down on the trash-littered sidewalk. It's every man for himself. Life or death. Paradise.

Downhill now. The descent plunges into the heart of the beast, dodging people left and right, picking up speed as the city invites you into its veins. Awareness peaks. Adrenaline rushes. I've just become a rabbit in a race of hounds. I burst from the crowd and hurdle off the curb into the nearest lane of traffic. This is my favorite part of the day.

I turn around the back of a minivan, narrowly squeezing in front of the front bumper of a sedan. Got to get to the other side of this five-lane road. The potholes on the sides of the road look like the surface of the moon. Sleek metal sheets litter the road, covering bigger holes. Sometimes they're a few inches above the pavement. It's a miracle my bike doesn't fall to pieces every morning. First Avenue approaches and I hang a hard right, keeping up with the taxi on my left. If I slow down just a bit, he can cut in front of me to pick up pedestrians. Can't let that happen. At the next red light, I leave him behind and power on into Chinatown.

Here, the delivery drivers don't follow the rules. At least I ride with traffic most of the time. This Chinese guy is coming straight for me, riding the wrong way in the bike lane with two bags of delivery food hanging from his wobbly handlebars. There's nowhere to go. I'm trapped between traffic and parked cars. I speed up to cut in front of the first moving car, swerving back into the bike lane and just missing a General Tso's Collision.

As 14th Street approaches, pedestrians grow threateningly anxious. They step out further into the street to hail cabs. They cut across streets into oncoming traffic. They certainly don't give a shit about bike lanes. From my point of view, they're basically an intelligent obstacle. You never know what they're going to do. I breeze inches away from the extended hand of a business man, standing in the center of the bike lane. He doesn't flinch as he stares past me at the taxi approaching. People still don't notice bikes, even inches in front of them.

The 14th Street intersection is lined with crowds of people. “Hello sir! Would you like to donate to the homeless?” Sitting at the light, I see a business man rush to get past the soliciting. The homeless man waves his brochure at him, but he turns his head and ignores it. Green light. Time to go.

The taxis start here, greedily seeking out any idling figures. They swerve across lanes, as if attracted by an invisible magnet pulling from someone's waving hand. I see someone on my right hail a cab and immediately look to my left. Sure enough the cab speeds past me and cuts me off. I bank a hard left, cutting between the stopped cab and the oncoming bus. My bag hits the side view mirror as I pass. I think that's retribution enough.

The hospital is on my right now. Cabs, patients, ambulances, and NYU buses line the side of the street. Cars double-park to drop patients off, and slow moving senior citizens meander across the street at red lights. This is a steep decline, and with all the obstacles I feel like a downhill slalom skier.

At the bottom of the hill, the buildings on my right cut off and the sun glares in my face. I can see the Interstate, cutting across to Queens. This will be one of the few times this morning I will see the sun. Here, the buses stop more frequently. I trail one and bear left as it pulls to the curb. You don't want to get wedged between a bus and the curb. I ride the left edge of the bus lane, close to traffic. A limo is stopped up ahead, turning into the U.N. Headquarters. I snake around it, careful not to scratch the shiny finish with my bike. I glance right and see a half circle of flags. Hoards of people pour from a bus onto the cobblestone sidewalks and squint into the sun. They walk around with their necks craned upward, most of them wielding cameras. I could probably be seen somewhere wearing these dirty clothes, riding this makeshift bike, and carrying this ragged backpack in a photograph of a real Manhattan street.

Trump towers on my left. If I'm lucky, there will be a mass protest outside. The most effective protests are barricaded off into a one-block area and ignored by everyone. As long as you can designate a place for people to voice their opinion loudly, you can choose to ignore it. I cruise down the hill, gaining speed. Suddenly, a cab backs up into the middle of my lane. I brake hard and turn left. I pound on the side of the car as it drives me into traffic. The cab stops suddenly and I pop through the narrow gap between the cars.

As I cruise through the last twenty blocks of the Upper East Side, I can relax a bit. Only delivery trucks to hinder my route, parked in the center of the bike lane. I weave through women pushing strollers and walking small dogs with sweaters. Welcome to Yorkville. The food is expensive, the streets are clean, and the people are all pretty rich. I pull my dirty bike onto the curb and approach the door. I'm sweating and dirty already, and it's only 10 A.M. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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