There are all sorts of reasons to go for a ride. Sometimes you want to explore, and to mark the world with your tires like your bike is a cat and the road is someone's pant leg. Sometimes you want to challenge yourself on that big climb--or, even more pathetically, to challenge complete strangers via some social networking app like Strava. And sometimes you just wanna get naked.
Occasionally, however, you must answer a deeper call and heed the plaintive nagging of nostalgia by making a two-wheeled pilgrimage to someplace that has great meaning in your life--and for me that's the place where I first learned how to ride a bike.
After all, as a cyclist, what more formative moment is there than the one in which you learned to ride? Birth? Crawling? Walking? All of these were mere preludes to the first time you first went forth into the world unaided upon two wheels. Perhaps this is a happy memory for you, and you took flight like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Perhaps you stumbled like a fawn until you found your footing. Or, perhaps it was less joyfully cliché, and your father kicked you down a steep hill with his motorcycle boot because he didn't feel like putting down his beer.
No matter how it happened, this is the moment that made you the cyclist you are today.
Lately I've been pining to visit the streets upon which I first learned the ways of the bike, and recently I found myself with a free afternoon to do so. However, where I learned to ride a bike and where I live now are pretty much as far from each other as you can get in New York City without going to (gasp!) Staten Island. And I didn't have a lot of time.
Fortunately, not too long ago the good people at Brompton lent me a bicycle to try, so I decided to embark upon a foldable, multi-modal À la recherche du temps perdu
(Less perdu, more per-don't.)
Between the bike and our famously impeccable mass transit system I figured I could traverse the whole of New York City diagonally, visit Far Rockaway, and return home in time to spring my kid from school. So I unfolded the Brompton like it was a nail clipper and I was about to attack a particularly stubborn hangnail, then I hopped on and headed towards Manhattan via the Broadway Bridge:
When crossing the Broadway Bridge most people (including myself until recently) assume they're entering or leaving Manhattan, inasmuch as the borough is an island, but the truth is that the Broadway Bridge actually connects Manhattan with itself:
This is because the water in the picture above is a canal that was completed in 1895. Furthermore, this canal went right across the very northern tip of the island of Manhattan, effectively severing it. See, here
's what the tip of Manhattan looked like before the canal, when it was naturally separated from the mainland by Spuyten Duyvil Creek:
Then they basically circumcised it, and the foreskin became an island
Finally, in 1914 they just filled in the old Spuyten Duyvil Creek, thus grafting the island onto the mainland
Nevertheless, the Marble Hill neighborhood remains a part of the borough of Manhattan to this day, despite being seamlessly attached to the Bronx, and despite at least one highly awkward publicity stunt
On March 11, 1939, as a publicity stunt, Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons planted the Bronx County flag on the rocky promontory at 225th Street and Jacobus Place. Lyons proclaimed Marble Hill as a part of the Bronx and demanded the subservience of its residents to the Bronx, saying it was “the Bronx Sudetenland”, referencing Hitler’s 1938 annexation of a region of Czechoslovakia. The incident was met with boos and nose-thumbing by 50 residents of Marble Hill.
You had to be there.
Speaking of tips, here's one: if you visit Marble Hill, I'd avoid both Hitler impressions and
referring to it as "Manhattan's Foreskin," as I don't see either of those working out very well for you.
As for the creek that got filled in, that was spanned by the so-called "King's Bridge," which was built in 1693:
And remained in use in one form or another until 1914:
There's a Dunkin' Donuts there now.
Anyway, a short time later I'd reached the A train at 207th Street, which is the line's northern terminus:
And where at least one commuter had locked up his shopping cart:
I, however, deftly folded the Brompton like a snot-filled hanky and bounded down the stairs:
Where I confronted this iron maiden-style turnstile and dared to wonder: "Will it fit?"
Incredibly, the answer is yes, one (1) medium-sized human carrying one (1) Brompton and
a voluminous handlebar bag can indeed shuffle through one of these things without being trapped or killed:
Thus I avoided making the front page of the New York Post
under the headline "For Whom The Bell Folds: Stranded Commuter Trapped In Turnstile Eats Leather Saddle to Survive."
with your shopping cart.
Once inside the station I paused to appreciate this piece of art:
Which alludes to the fact that the A train's run from 207th Street to my ultimate destination, Far Rockaway, is the longest one in the New York City Subway system:
Note that the green arrows are merely "as the crow flies," and that when you account for the twists and turns of the actual route the trip on the A train is a whopping thirty-one American miles from here:
Not all A trains go to Far Rockaway though. There's also another one that goes elsewhere in Queens, to my dismay it just so happens that's the one that arrived:
If you spend a lot of time on the Internet you might be under the impression that "urban cycling" is the act of riding a fixed-gear bicycle through trendy neighborhoods while wearing fashionable clothing. However, the seasoned cyclist understands that the true measure of an urban cyclist is his or her ability to utilize every element of the cityscape to his or her advantage--and that includes threading his or her way through the city's bowels whilst carrying a folding bike, and jockeying thundering trains mighty enough to sever a straphanger's big toe:
This is why, when a non-Far Rockaway bound A arrived, I was utterly unfazed. Sure, an amateur might have stood around wasting precious time waiting for another A train, his big toe begging to be nibbled by rats or removed from his foot like Marble Hill from the tip of Manhattan. I, however, am a professional, and so I rode the non-Far Rockaway A train as far as Penn Station, where I flipped the Brompton into handtruck mode and defected for the Long Island Railroad:
(It seems to me with a few modifications a Brompton could also function as a scooter for use in train stations.)
Completed in 1910, the original Pennsylvania Station was an architectural masterpiece that fed the souls of the commuters who passed through it:
However, that was demolished in 1963, and the current Penn Station is an abject shithole:
Back in the 1990s they attempted to renovate Penn Station, but to little avail, and they even had the nerve to adorn it with these awful bas-reliefs that look like they're made out of styrofoam:
I can only assume they got a discount on this crap when it was rejected by Pizza Hut.
Indeed, so oppressive is this perdition of mediocrity that I very nearly retreated into the adjoining Kmart in order to beat myself to death with the pool noodles:
Nevertheless, bravely I pressed on and surveyed the array of exotic locales the Long Island Railroad made available to me:
There it was, Far Rockaway:
I had a few minutes to spare, so I took the Brompton to the restroom to relieve itself:
You know how it is with folding bikes: they say they're fine, then as soon as the train doors close they're all like, "I have to make!," and next thing you know there's an embarrassing wet spot on the floor and the conductor blames it on you.
Once we'd taken care of our business we descended to the platform along with these dark-suited Reservoir Dorks:
And settled in for our ride, which took us through Queens::
(That's the other Kew Gardens.)
Then into Nassau County, where the train crosses at grade:
And the doors open into suburban idyll:
And finally back into Queens, but just barely, at the decidedly inauspicious Far Rockaway terminal:
I had about an an hour before my return train, so I had to move fast.
Due to its location at the extreme edge of the city, Far Rockaway is to a certain extent a land forgotten by time:
While the western end of the Rockaway Peninsula has recently been discovered by the "urban cycling" (as in fixies and fashionable clothing) set owing to its sandy white beaches and easy bike access from Brooklyn, Far Rockaway lies on the far more suburban eastern end where such people have little reason to tread--though it does boast this attractive yet grammatically incorrect sign:
I was tempted to Spackle and paint that gratuitous apostrophe out of existence, but it might just be easier to go "all the way" and add a pair of "unnecessary quotation marks
Apart from being a bit rustier this sign has not changed since I was a child, and which is a mere two or three years away from transcending "decrepit" and qualifying for landmark status:
Here's the subway terminal, from which I would have emerged had I taken the subway the whole way:
It's a long ride on the A, and those plastic seats don't compare to the Long Island Railroad's lavishly upholstered vinyl, so my posterior thanked me profusely for opting for the latter.
From "town" I continued on into the obscure sub-neighborhood of Bayswater, which is also virtually unchanged from my childhood:
And kept going until I reached this gate:
Back when the area was a seasonable retreat for the wealthy there used to be a mansion here:
When I was a child this mansion (or some semblance of it) was still in use for institutional purposes, but now it's gone and the only indication of what lies beyond the gates is this modest sign:
It's as peaceful and secluded back here as anyplace within the New York City limits:
But I know from personal experience as a youth traipsing through the marshland that it's also a great place to get ticks:
Be careful where you relieve yourself is what I'm saying.
At the end of the path you come to the water, which opens up into Jamaica Bay:
To the east you've got a panoramic view of the operations at JFK airport:
And way, way off in the distance is the Manhattan skyline, which is echoed by the decaying pier just behind the diminutive Brompton:
After checking myself thoroughly for ticks, I headed to the very street where I first learned to ride a bike:
At the time this almost imperceptibly gentle slope felt like a mountain, and we'd go flying down it and lay down big flat skids at the bottom--unless it was flooded down there, which it often was, in which case we'd kick up a big wake instead.
The neighborhood is very far from its beginnings as a fancy-schmancy summer retreat:
Yet it's still recognizable well over a century later:
Next I visited the street we used to play in when children were still allowed to play in the street:
As well as the sweet singletrack across the street from my grandparents' house, still bereft of a sidewalk all these decades later:
I distinctly remember tearing down it and then launching myself off these steps, though I may have imagined these heroics, because even now I find the idea of doing so highly daunting:
Nevertheless I couldn't resist getting the Brompton up to speed and approaching the launchpad:
Though at the last moment I aborted the mission, broke left, and took the "woosie
" line instead:
I also swung by the school I briefly attended until, apparently, one day I returned home and reported that my fellow students had peed on me in the restroom:
It must have been fairly traumatic since I've blocked it from my memory, but to this day the first thing I do when I walk into the men's room is go into a karate stance.
As my train's departure grew nigh I headed back towards "town:"
I figured I'd buy myself a little time by catching the train a bit further upstream, and so I turned onto this faded and improbable bike lane:
Which is New York City's final "screw you" before you cross over into Nassau County, which is where we moved when I was older:
I had one final bit of business there, which involved stopping by the rear of the hardware store where I worked as a teenager:
The store is no longer there, but I spent many hours back here breaking down boxes, carrying packages to customers' cars, hiding from the boss, and generally lamenting my lot in life--especially on beautiful days like this one.
So large does this period of servitude loom in my psyche that I still have dreams about it, and many is the morning I awake and cry tears of joy into my Froot Loops that those days are now behind me. Therefore, it was important to me to swing by in order to relish the fact that I no longer work there, and it was doubly sweet to do so on a bike--even if it was just a folding bike.
All of this says less about the job, which really wasn't that bad, then it does about me and my deep, abiding aversion to actual work.
Finally, I made it to the station with just enough time to break down the Brompton and head back into the city:
They say you can't go home again, but with a folding bike and a train schedule it's actually pretty easy, and in one day I managed to do it twice.