Bike service

I’m itching to invest in a rickshaw. A pedicab. Maybe just a big old adult trike.

all aboard!

This is what I think while I pedal my twelve-year-old daughter Anna to volleyball practice three mornings a week at 7 am. We head south, first down Center Market or Mulberry through Little Italy, which at the moment is strung with an abundance of red, green, and white Christmas decorations: “SEASONS GREETINGS SORRENTO CHEESE!” Then we cut a block to the east and head down the rest of the way through Chinatown. Mott Street is still quiet enough at 7 am, at least below Canal, that the ride is rather uneventful. But above Canal we run the risk of getting stuck behind trucks unloading produce and fish, and so until we’re below Canal we stick to the sleepier, Italian side of the tracks.

In recent years the morning bike ride has been something I’ve shared more often with my younger daughter, Molly, pedaling her through near-empty streets across lower Manhattan to her school in Tribeca. It was a simple ride — maybe ten minutes — cutting through City Hall Park. 

Since our move to SoHo the ride to Tribeca has been trickier. The major arteries, Center and Lafayette, are either too heavily trafficked or running in the wrong direction. We tried Broadway a couple days — personally, I prefer zipping down Broadway to just about anywhere in New York when I’m biking alone — but one close brush with a city bus a week or so ago left us a little rattled. We’ve since worked out what we think will be our route. It involves more sidewalk riding than we’re used to, though; the bohemian-pastoral quality of our morning ritual has without question been marred by the move.

For most of the last year I’d given up on riding Anna, my older daughter, to school, though it had never really been part of our routine. Gangly and still growing, she didn’t seem to fit on the bike the way Molly still could. Besides, her newfound independence about midway through sixth grade meant that she and a neighborhood friend took themselves to school — either via bus or on foot, a fifteen- or twenty-minute walk.

Since the move separated us from her travel buddy, and since she now needs to be to school earlier than ever, we decided to give the bike a go again, at least until she’s acclimated to the neighborhood. And for whatever reason it’s worked pretty well — with the exception of one sweats-leg-stuck-in-the-chain incident.

Anna perches herself on my seat; I stand and do all the hard work pedaling. The technical term for this, at least from my childhood, was giving someone a “pump.” The ride can be exciting, in part because my brakes need to be tightened. Occasionally a car behind us, anxious about passing, will blow its horn, and I’m always tempted to give them the finger. But for the most part the streets are quiet this time of morning.

At the bottom of Mott Street we cross Bowery, jump the curb into Chatham Square, where the statue of the origingal Drug Czar reigns. Piles of flowers mark the memorial to Chinese-Americans who died in foreign wars. When we hit the Square, pigeons scatter in front of us the way they do in TV commercials. Pedestrians step aside. There’s a secret thrill for the next few minutes while we’re on the sidewalk, cutting a corner, as if we were only seconds away from getting a ticket.

We drop back onto the pavement again on Catherine Street. Some mornings we pass a father and son on their way to school — the kid’s maybe 5 or 6 — heading the opposite direction. The kid inevitably rings a bell on a bike that’s always parked on the corner, chained to a street sign. The dad inevitably says, “Why you always do that?” We inevitably laugh to ourselves the rest of the way down the hill to the school.

Once we’re on Catherine Street it’s coasting. The Brooklyn Bridge looms ahead, the distant tower, the one closer to the Brooklyn side. Catherine Street is narrow at first, a sliver edging the produce and fish stalls on narrow sidewalks. If there’s a red light, we have to slip carefully beside the stalled traffic. We hold our breath. School buses and delivery trucks cut a little too close to us for comfort.

But before long I pull up to the curb in front of the school — close enough to be seen, far away enough not to be seen: it’s never been clear to me which one Anna actually wants. Is this an embarrassing way to get to school, or is her dad simply younger and cooler than the others? On occasion we’re caught by a teacher or volleyball coach, mostly kids in their 20s and early 30s. To my eyes, they grin with approval, maybe even with envy. That’s a seriously cool kid I’ve got there.

On the way home I think about that cycle rickshaw I want to buy. For one thing, we no longer have a gym in our building. Maybe my workouts could be recuperated if I started giving all my family members — Stephanie included — rides around town. All three at once! It would cut down on our taxi spending, and I have no intention to get a car. Maybe I’ll import the wheelbarrow bike from Amsterdam instead: Ride my kids to school in the front, which I could also use to cart my groceries on Saturdays.


Heading home weekday mornings, I cut back through Chatham Square, where the lady traffic cop waves me through and warns me if there’s a bus on my back. From there I head up Mulberry. South of Canal, Mulberry’s still part of Chinatown. (Canal marks the traditional line between Chinatown and Little Italy; if you want to mark the line by smell, Chinatown in the morning smells like unloading fish trucks while Little Italy has the acrid smell of sidewalks being scrubbed with bleach.) Chinese funeral houses line the street to the right of me. On my left, in Columbus Park, groups of old people unfold exercise routines in unison, like a field of opening flowers, even in the cold. An all-female phalanx whips fans open and closed as they go: step and reach and fan and close and … except it’s all done in a seamless flow. One of the groups has music warbling through a set of old radio speakers, the sound of another country.

here comes the sun

The ride back home seems colder, winter wind whipping my face. I dodge potholes and sidewalk sweepings and wonder what this routine will mean to my daughters when they are grown.

9 responses to “Bike service”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    I will never be able to replace my bike rides through San Francisco. It’s amazing, the things that one can experience from the saddle, which one would miss from the bus or avoid while on foot.

    Often waking up in the middle of the night, instead of tossing and turning, I’d just hop on my bike and ride through the seediest parts of town. For this activity, bicycles are the perfect, covert mode of transportation. One can get just close enough to hear conversations between pimps and pushers about whose business should control the corner; between desperate hookers and even more desperate johns, haggling over the fair price of a blowjob; between junkie couples, fighting about just about anything, ah, those were the days.

    Thanks for bringing us along on a tour of your NYC.

  2. Trixie Honeycups says:

    great post, bryan.
    our friend stephen builds tricycles that would perfectly suit your needs. check out his website. you will probably meet him when you are here next week…
    love trixie
    ps speaking of next week, i am planning on responding to comments on my post from last week. sorry it’s taking me so long.

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    Bryan, I love this post, and love the image of you and Anna zipping through the streets of lower Manhattan. I’m an inveterate biker too, and am always so happy to avoid the car or metro. What better way to see the world than with the wind in your face and tinkling your bike bell?

  4. when i started saying some weeks ago that i wanted a non-traditional bike to fetch groceries and cart kids around, i was mostly joking. but i’m really starting to get serious now. it would have to sit outside, which kind of sucks weather-damage wise, but this morning on my way to drop anna off we noticed a guy in chinatown riding an oversized trike with a big bed in the back full of produce. i was jealous!

  5. WW says:

    I love the post, the lyrical image of you and your daughter swishing through town, and especially love the juxtaposition of this with Scott’s down and dirty memories, which, of course, have their own lyricism.

  6. J-man says:

    I love that you bike your daughter to school, and that you have no intention of getting a car. Would that Tim and I lived in a city where this was more feasible! We did get rid of one car, though, so that’s a start, and now Tim bikes to work, rain or shine. My next goal is to get a bike with a basket so I can at least do local grocery shopping etc. on weekends. Unfortunately I still have a long commute to work, probably too long to bike daily. Not impossible, but certainly a challenge in this city.

  7. Bill says:

    Bryan- Thanks for your wonderful post today. Your images make me long for my bike rides down broadway from the park to the bridge this summer. Those miles of potholes and cab-cutoffs are some of the best of my life. All the better from Paris – which has to be one of the most bike-unfriendly cities in the modern world. I imagine a parisien driver wouldn’t think even once about running over a young american bike rider – although they would probably signal first just to be pompous about it.

  8. Lisa Tremain says:

    John has been trying to hide the fact that he got me a bike for xmas, but it’s in the back of his van. With a basket!

    I’m gonna be cruisin’ Glendale and Eagle Rock come December 26 and will think of you fondly.

  9. celia says:

    my favorite post of yours yet. i love the last line. through the whole post i kept thinking that your daughters have childhood experiences/memories one would see in the movies. so vastly different than our childhood life experiences in small town AZ.