Friday, June 3, 2011
We will only do one thing today. That thing is a 15 mile bicycle ride. It will take us seven hours to complete it (yes, that averages out to just a little over two miles per hour--half our usual walking pace). We will be so exhausted by the end of the ride that we will not even have enough energy left to go out to dinner.
How is this possible? That is the wonder of riding the streets of New York!
We met our thirteen fellow riders and the two tour guides for our Bike the Big Apple tour in front of a very tiny (no more than twelve feet wide) bike shop at 10 a.m. Where they stored the sixty rental bikes parked out front after hours was a mystery we had little time to ponder, as we prepared to embark on our all day tour titled “Back to the Old Country - The Ethnic Apple Tour.” Our group was multi-ethnic to start with—five friends from France, a mother and daughter from Holland, a couple from England, and four Americans; our guide was a lifelong Brooklynite in his sixties, and his assistant was a college student from China.
After choosing our bikes, digging around in bins to find helmets that fit, and signing a release indicating that we understood that we were risking our lives by participating in the ride and would not sue Bike the Big Apple if the inevitable harm befell us, we joined our guide for a cursory lesson in rules for safe riding, which we are pretty sure that most of the French people in the group did not understand. Formalities attended to, our guide led us out onto the bustling streets of the Upper East Side, where we shared the road with crazy dodge ‘em taxi drivers, inhaled the exhaust of buses just inches from our noses, and had other unique new urban biking experiences.
It was not really very far (it only seemed that way at the time) to the aerial tram to Roosevelt Island. We loaded our bikes on the tram and soared high over the city and across the East River, touching down on blissfully nearly empty streets. Home to the city’s rejects back in the 1800s—the diseased, the insane, convicts, and indigents—it was called Welfare Island until its recent incarnation as a trendy place to live, with affordable (and astronomical) new apartments, lovely parks, a big community garden, and tranquility unavailable at any price in the boroughs on either side of the river from it.
Next we crossed into Queens, where we rode through a run-down district of factories and warehouses to reach a beautiful riverfront park built on the site of an old coal-loading facility. We rode to the end of a long pier there to enjoy spectacular views of Manhattan, including the United Nations Building across the river, setting the stage for the international experiences we would have for the rest of our ride.
In Brooklyn, we were back on busy streets, riding through a melting pot of ethnic restaurants and shops to a hip neighborhood with full bike racks in front of every bar and lots of young fit people racing around on their road bikes and skate boards. It was here that I was victim of what turned out to be the only accident of the trip. A speedy skate boarder rounded a corner, swerved to avoid a group of oblivious riders in front of me, and hit me squarely with his shopping bag while flailing his arms in a struggle to regain his balance (fortunately for me, the bag was full of clothing, not cans of soup). The impact was hard enough to stop, but not topple, both of us. We paused a moment to regroup, then were once again on our way, none the worse for our close encounter.
We rode around a Polish neighborhood in Greenpoint, and stopped for lunch at Polonia, a tiny Polish Restaurant. Our little group almost filled the dining room. Service was cafeteria style, and portions were massive enough to fill a Polish farm hand. A main course, two sides and a salad cost just $7. We knew the food was authentic, because we didn’t recognize any of it, other than the sauerkraut and stuffed cabbage rolls.
Then we were on our way to Williamsburg, home to a massive colony of Hassidic Jews. Because it was Friday, the streets were full of families relaxing and shopping to prepare for the Sabbath. It was a warm day, but all the men were in long black coats, the women in modest long-sleeved dresses with their heads covered. Even children had long sleeved shirts and long pants or dresses.
We stopped for pound cake at a busy Jewish bakery, then went across the street to a playground where women and men gathered separately to chat, while children played together. We learned about the culture of this interesting group of Eastern European immigrants who, like the Amish, work hard to maintain their culture and traditions in a wider society that is antithetical to their lifestyle. The average Hassidic Jewish family here has nine children. How they all fit in the average city apartment is a mystery we have yet to fathom. All the apartments in their neighborhood have bars on the windows—not for security from outside crime, but for the safety of the children inside.
We biked across the Williamsburg Bridge to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area of lots of tenement buildings, and vibrant streets lined with little restaurants and shops reflecting the ethnic diversity of the people who live there now. We noted some places we want to come back to explore, since we were only about half a mile from our apartment at this point.
We rode along a beautiful East River bike trail for a short sweet way, but then were spit back out into the traffic of Manhattan at rush hour. After a stop at the United Nations building, our guides decided we were ready for advanced riding. They told us we could no longer ride single file at the edge of the road, but instead were going to ride in a tight pack that was roughly the size and shape of a car. Conceptually, this way we would hold our lane against all the rush hour traffic that we faced as we fought our way uptown. In actuality, this was a terrifying prospect, because it added to the danger of being hit by a motorized vehicle the additional peril of being hit or forced into traffic by one of our unpredictable fellow bicyclists. Somehow we survived this leg of the trip, but it was enough to drain our adrenaline stocks dry.
We tipped our guide generously for bringing us back alive, then headed for the subway. Once we sat still for a few minutes, we realized we had reached our full capacity for excitement and adventure for the day. We used what remaining energy we had to pick up a few things for dinner at Fresh Market, then enjoyed a very quiet night at home.