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New York, New York

Credit: Gavin Bunner

The City of Right Angles

When your daily commute to the office means speeding on two wheels up busy avenues, a meeting with a crosstown taxi cab can change your life. But sometimes being a New Yorker requires taking the city head on.

I have no memory of the crash, so I am able to reconstruct what happened only from the police report. On the morning of March 5, 2012, according to the report, the “bicyclist”—that would be me—was traveling northbound in the First Avenue bike lane in Manhattan. Having reached the corner of East 35th Street, the report states, I had proceeded into the intersection, “disregarding [a] light”—a red one, presumably—and collided with “vehicle #1,” a westbound taxicab. I was treated, the report continues, at the scene by EMTs—this would mean attempts to revive me to consciousness—and then transported to Bellevue Hospital for “further treatment,” which would come to include surgery to repair a dislocated elbow, care and observation for head injuries, and the repair of various lacerations to my forehead, mouth, lips, and nose. Two witnesses were interviewed and found to “concur” with this version of events. The “cost of repairs of any one vehicle” involved in the accident was estimated not to exceed $1,000, an assertion that I can neither verify nor contradict; I was unable to recover my bicycle, and I made no effort to reach the taxi driver and inquire as to the condition of his car. 

The late journalist Murray Kempton, famous for traveling the city by bicycle, once said that, “the faces in New York remind me of people who played a game and lost,” and for a time after the accident, that seemed an apt description of me. Happily, most of my injuries have healed, and I’ve come to identify more with Pete Hamill’s notion of a “city of right angles and tough, damaged people.”

For the better part of seven years I commuted to work from Brooklyn. It represented most of my exercise (about 100 miles a week to and from my current midtown office), a fair portion of my mental solitude (when I wasn’t shouting at erratically operated taxis—irony!), and no small measure of my identity as a New Yorker. I was one of those obnoxious people one sees pedaling uptown in dead winter, cheeks flush with the cold, bluff as if nothing bothered me, batting aside risks. What’s more, I looked down on subway riders (and no, I never for a moment considered the bus, which now, to my chagrin, I must ride to my physical therapy appointments) who submitted meekly to the jostling elbows, the melodramas and romantic comedies of seat acquisition, the foolish security theater of bag checks, the mysterious delays, the insouciantly defiant vermin. The subway was for people who lacked the interest, willingness, or fitness to connect meaningfully to the urban experience. To get on the bike and enter traffic meant embracing New York’s frustrations and limitations, its amusements and amazements, in a deeper, more powerful, way. 

For the better part of seven years I commuted to work from Brooklyn. It represented most of my exercise, a fair portion of my mental solitude, and no small measure of my identity as a New Yorker.

I did not always believe this. I began riding the subway to school, from the West Village to the Upper West Side, when I was twelve years old. This was the mid-1980s, not the darkest era in the city’s history of safety, efficiency, and resource triage, but not a proud one either. New York felt a fierce and treacherous place, one that obliged its residents—no, its natives—to be self-reliant and resourceful, to be intuitive, to know without hesitation whether a situation promised safety or spelled danger. Nowhere did this seem truer than on the subway. There were panhandlers, graffiti-bombers, pickpockets, toughs, thugs, gangsters, con artists, violent delusionals, and more, mixing with very few, it seemed to me, good Samaritans and even fewer police. To grow comfortable in this environment, as I did, required more than the development of some nebulous “street smarts.” It demanded an understanding of one’s place in an unregulated, uncontrollable, natural hierarchy. I’ll brave the clichéd description of the city as a jungle, and say that one learned to reckon with predators, with invasive flora, unscrupulous fauna.

As a seventeen-year-old in 1990, I was robbed at gunpoint across the street from what is now a Marc Jacobs store. Could that happen to me there today? Yes. But would I see it as I did then, as a normal, far from notable occurrence, not worth reporting to the police? I doubt it. That same year, I saw the body of a man who had been shot and killed lying on the street outside my school. I gawked, no doubt, but I made it to my history class on time. I left New York not long after, for college and the lost years of travel, self-indulgence, and failed writing that comprised my twenties. By the time I returned I was married, the children not long in coming, and my acute sense of the city’s menacing rhythms had been blunted. But that no longer mattered. In this New York, grass grows on the Great Lawn in Central Park, the squeegee men have been banished, and the broken windows have been re-glazed. The city I knew, the one on whose streets and subway platforms my survival instincts were honed, no longer exists.

I offer no opinions on the net value of the changes brought to this city under mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg (or, as Kevin Baker has persuasively argued in Harper’s Magazine, the Honorable David Dinkins, the only one of the three for whom I voted). Such debates are an entertainment for people either smarter or dumber than I. I do know that I will never be able to afford to raise my children in the neighborhood in which I was raised. It is dominated, in its current incarnation, by Hollywood celebrities pining for anonymity, finance titans unbowed by the recession, and geriatric rent-control beneficiaries (or cheats). I have fallen in love with my new neighborhood in Brooklyn, despite the fact that my gentrifying presence may one day displace someone else’s child.

Of late, concerned friends and family often ask if I intend ever to get back on my bike. (Not my mother; she told me that if I rode again she’d finish the westbound taxi driver’s work herself.) I tell them that I do, when my arm is well enough to allow it. But it will be for pleasure and not daily transport. Like the city of my youth, those days, I concede, are gone.

A short time ago, I returned to Bellevue to have a doctor examine my elbow. Afterwards, I was late for work, so I hailed a taxi and headed to my office, speeding up First Avenue and passing, for the first time, the site of my wreck. There was no trauma in this moment, only traffic and construction, bikers in the bike lane, pedestrians ambling on the pavement, cars hurtling toward open space, and nothing more. But still, I felt a sense of loss.

I have never consciously permitted myself to regret the fading of New York’s wildness. But my accident made me realize that riding was for me a way to commune with that extinct urban nature, to a degree not possible on today’s subway. I have been forced to a safe remove from the ungovernable tumult of the city. I am at a distance, a place where no New Yorker would ever wish to be.

Theodore Ross’s first book, Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, will be published in September by Hudson Street Press. More by Theodore Ross