28 September 2015

Back on the Bike in New York

I've survived my first few bike rides back in New York City. After a year biking in Cambridge, where the streets are narrow and twisty but the cars are tiny and move slowly and the drivers accustomed to yielding to cyclists and pedestrians alike, I was feeling a little squirrelly.

It's great to be back on my Brompton (which cost me more than my first car, a ten-year-old Datsun purchased back in the 1980s) but there's also something to be said for being able to park a bike and run errands while being confident that the bike, and all its parts, will still be there when I return.

The new 25 mph speed limit is a huge improvement. Most of the cars actually seem to be doing that speed, as opposed to pushing the old 30 mph limit to 35 or 40, and it makes a difference. The traffic lights have been re-timed accordingly and it means that cyclists don't get shut out by red lights, block after block after block.

I ended up on Houston Street by accident because I forgot which one-way streets went which direction, and discovered the new bike lane feels quite safe. Until it's blocked in its entirety by delivery trucks, taxis, and livery cabs. There's a web site where you can report blocked lanes, but when I heard about it I actually laughed: I had just ridden from the Lower East Side to Penn Station and found blockages on every street I rode on, and almost every block.

The joy I felt when I saw one police officer giving a ticket to one truck parked in a bike lane was not schadenfreude. It was self-preservation.

Cars turning across the bike lanes are also still a major problem: they don't yield for bikes, but they do yield for pedestrians, so they cut you off and then stop suddenly, diagonally across the bike lane. Pedestrians stepping into the street while absorbed with their smartphones are also an on-going problem, and I've nearly been in two pile-ups as a result, when one cyclist slams on the brakes and then the next several have to react.

Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero plan is a huge boon for pedestrians and cyclists alike, but there's still a lot to be done to make New York truly safe for cyclists.

But to brighten your day, here's Gianni riding in style with Elizabeth:

11 September 2015

Editing at Sea

I came home from a year's sabbatical at Cambridge on the Queen Mary 2 -- the dream of a lifetime. I've spent a lot of time on the Maine coast. You can see ferries and cargo ships far out at sea, and I yearned to traveling on one of them, feeling the swell of waves, smelling the clean salt air, watching sun glint off water or storms whip up whitecaps.

I'd printed out my book manuscript, and my plan was to spend the voyage line-editing while watching the sea and its life slide by beyond the ship's rails. 

I was editing the chapter on Anglo-Saxon imagination and the sea, sitting in the ship's library and looking out at the fog, as repeated announcements asked a crew member to report to his supervisor in the kitchen. The ship was searched and he was determined to be missing; the captain turned the ship back. Eventually shipboard video was located that showed the crew member slipping overboard several hours before; given the water temperature, it was clear the search was for a corpse.

I joined crew members and other passengers on deck, squinting against the fog, trying to peer into the gray-blue sheet that was the water many feet below. At dusk, the captain reversed course once again, giving up the search.

The crew sails together for six months at a time, working seven days a week, 12 or 15 hours a day, then getting two months off before the next shift. They live in close quarters, share bunkrooms, get to know one another very well. They were rattled and upset. But the show -- and life aboard the Queen Mary 2 is nothing if not a show of opulence, service, entertainment, constant attention to the wants and whims of passengers -- went on.

After that, I sat in the library, concentration shot and editing abandoned, peering again into the fog, craving a sight of land, another ship, a whale (a few passengers had seen them) -- anything but the shifting liquid light that had surrounded us since we left England.

When we arrived in Halifax for a day on land, I eagerly inhaled the air and its odors: pine trees, hot sun on asphalt, decaying seaweed, truck exhaust. Coffee shops and human bodies and grassy earth. 

When we sailed into New York Harbor two days later, I awoke at 4 a.m. to take photographs of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. I suspect I was the only passenger also photographing the Port of Elizabeth and gazing with longing at the Shore Parkway, watching the late-night/early-morning traffic pulsing like the city's heartbeat.

Back on land, we went to Maine to visit family, as I've done every summer. I watched the big ferries and the cargo ships creep by on the water, barely visible far in the distance. And I was glad to be grounded.