To many, especially those steeped in the miserabilist aesthetic of Morrissey, the notion of a “seaside town” is unmistakably English, and refers to tatty, half-deserted resorts where holiday-making proletarians gamely ignore leaden skies and frigid winds to experience something distantly resembling a “day at the beach.” Bear in mind that many English “beaches” are devoid of the usual amenities such as, for example, sand. A “shingle beach” may sound vaguely exotic to Americans, but doesn’t disguise the reality that sunbathing (as if!) on one entails stretching out on a bed of stones.
Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to forget that New York City is also a seaside town, with long stretches of both Brooklyn and Queens facing directly on the same Atlantic Ocean that none too gently laps round England. The differences (we have sand, and at least three months or so of steaming hot weather) overwhelm most similarities, except perhaps on the last Sunday of March, when, buoyed by a hint of spring in the air, my friend John and I decided to take our bikes on a cross-Brooklyn ride to the fabled shores of Coney Island.
The previous day’s sunshine and beguilingly mild temperatures had vanished, but, we kept assuring ourselves, maybe the sky would clear up a bit later on. At any rate, the low 40s (say 5 or 6 degrees for our European cousins) would ensure that we didn’t get overheated on our longish (13+ miles each way, Google maps estimated) ride. Which was true; there was to be no overheating. Unfortunately, John thought it might be a good idea to wear shorts – which it had been during our previous Sunday’s ride – whereas I opted for the sort of clothing I used to wear for a day of hiking in the English countryside: long trousers, a wool-like (okay, polyester) hat, and a lined waterproof. My choice was to prove the more prescient.
The first part of our ride – through Bedford-Stuyvestant, the northern bit of Crown Heights, and into Prospect Park – went well. So did the next part, except that by the time we had exited the park and were trying to find our way to the dedicated bike path that led to Brighton Beach, it had started raining. Not a lot, just that fitful, nagging, more-than-a-drizzle-not-quite-a-downpour sort of rain to which years of living in England had made me almost oblivious. Unlike England, where rain of that sort can disappear (and of course return) as quickly as it came, this Brooklyn rain slowly but surely increased in intensity. Never to the point of being unbearable (John, who as I’ve noted was not dressed for it, might beg to differ), but enough to take some of the sheen off our otherwise exhilarating bike ride.
In a city that in recent years has dedicated itself (thanks, Mayor Bloomberg!) to creating hundreds of miles of bike lanes and paths, the Ocean Parkway path deserves special mention. With the briefest of interruptions (one block under construction), it carried us more than five miles, delivering us into the heart of Little Russia By The Sea (soon, according to the New Yorker, to be the setting of a Jersey Shore-style reality show). If it weren’t for having to cross numerous streets (hey, Mayor Bloomberg, could you find a way to make all those annoying cars drive in tunnels underground?), it would be like a bicycle expressway!
By the time we got to Brighton, John was so wet and cold that we detoured off our planned route to search the shops for something warme for him to wear. He wound up buying a jacket, gloves and hat from the very cheap and reasonably cheerful “Jackie’s Department Store” (John, a confirmed Manhattanite whose exposure to the quotidian realities of outer borough life, shall we say, limited, exited Jackie’s saying bemusedly, “So, apparently people actually buy clothes from places like this?”). Then we were off down the boardwalk to Coney Island, another place John had never seen before (“This is it?” was about all he had to say).
The most inveterate Coney Island fancier would have had to admit it was a grim spectacle. It was opening day for the tattered remnants of the once-proud amusement park, and apparently long queues had braved the elements earlier in the day for free rides on the venerable Cyclone (I rode it a couple times myself in May of 1964; I have no overwhelming desire to repeat the experience), but now only tiny knots of people remained, clustered around the handful of arcades that were open. One exception: just off the boardwalk, 25 or 30 Mexicans appeared to be celebrating some sort of family occasion, blithely indifferent to the weather.
The language may have been different, but otherwise it could have been Cleethorpes, Skegness, or Scarborough, with the wind whipping in from the North Sea, spitting shards of ice at our faces. We pedaled directly into it for the mile-long journey back to the Brighton Beach Bicycle Expressway, John giving voice to what I was only thinking: “It seemed an awful lot closer coming the other way.”
Once we turned toward home, the wind was at our backs, and though the rain hadn’t grown any gentler, it hadn’t gotten harder, either. With his new layers of clothing, John was relatively dry and content, and I was almost ecstatic, to the point where I wondered if I might be going crazy. Despite my years in England, I never fully embraced the concept of deliberately walking or riding around in the rain, but deliberately or not, I’d done quite a bit of it, and learned that after a certain point, being cold, wet and miserable can produce a sort of giddy hysteria. I suspect it comes from the simultaneous realization that a) no matter how unpleasant the weather is, you’re probably not going to die from it; and b) although you’re not going to die from it, you’ll spend a lot longer wishing you were before things are likely to improve.
In order to show John the way to the Williamsburg Bridge, I took a slightly different route, heading up Bedford Avenue through the heart of South Williamsburg’s Hasidic district, which has been the scene of a rather heated three-sided conflict involving the local Hasidim, bicyclists, and the City of New York. As near as I can piece things together, the city marked off a bike lane on Bedford, the Hasidim protested because it encouraged indecently dressed (in their view) cyclists to pedal through their neighborhood, and, possibly as a pre-election sop to potential voters, Mayor Bloomberg ordered the cycle markings removed.
Indignant cyclists then took it upon themselves to repaint (without permission) the cycle lane markings, at which point they were detained by anti-bicycle Hasidim, who turned them over to the police and blacked out the pavement markings again. Or at least that’s as accurate a version as I’ve been able to uncover. The media persist in casting it as a “Hasidim vs. Hipsters” struggle, and while I don’t begrudge them their facile use of alliteration, it’s not accurate: plenty of non-hipsters, John and yours truly among them, also ride bicycles and would like the protection that bicycle lanes confer.
In the past I’ve generally been a fan of the Hasidim, even though they sometimes give me the stink eye (if they deign to take notice of me at all) when I pass through their area, but this latest contretemps has sorely worked my nerves. Look, I don’t appreciate having to look at people in spandex shorts either (nor, for that matter, do I appreciate having to cross paths with hipsters in grotty beards and ill-fitting retreads from the 1970s, but this is Williamsburg, and it kind of goes with the territory.
So my advice to Hasids who don’t appreciate the sight of bicyclists on Bedford Avenue, scantily clad or otherwise, is akin to that offered by Divine in the immortal Pink Flamingos: “Don’t look if it makes you sick.” You have a right to believe whatever you want in terms of your religion, but you don’t have a right to impose it on the rest of us.
If it were just a case of erasing pavement markings, it would be an amusing nuisance, but what makes the Hasidim a more serious menace to cyclists is that they (okay, not all, but a significant number of them) simply refuse to acknowledge that cyclists even exist, let alone have a right to pedal through their community. South Williamsburg Hasids routinely double park their vans and cars in what still function, officially or not, as a bike lane, and will drive in front of, at, or into bicyclists as though they were invisible. I can’t even count how many times one of them walked out in front of me before stopping to look at his watch, open his car door, or talk on his cell phone, forcing me to slam on my brakes and/or veer out into traffic.
Even the women get in on the act, ushering their broods into the bike lane as though Moses himself had parted the tide of onrushing cyclists. At times I’ve wanted to shout at them, “Hey, you know a small child could be seriously injured or even killed by a bicycle,” but what’s the point? As far as they’re concerned, I’m not even there.
If you think I’m making an unnecessarily big deal out of this, consider that the two times in recent years that I’ve come closest to being injured or killed by a vehicle have both come in the past two weeks, both on Bedford Avenue, and both involving vans driven by Hasidic gentlemen. This recent Sunday, a black van pulled alongside and then turned left in front of me (no signal, no horn honk, nothing), and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting it. But because the pavement was wet, I skidded, and nearly went under his wheels.
Thankfully, this gentleman at least made an effort to stop (well, slow down, anyway) when he saw me about to fall, providing a margin of safety that allowed me to recover my footing. The previous week, a man driving a similar black van didn’t even make a pretense of slowing down or taking evasive action: if I wanted to avoid being knocked to kingdom come, that was up to me and none of his concern. That time, fortunately, the pavement was dry, allowing me to stop in time, if only barely.
This latest Sunday, my feelings about South Williamsburg weren’t helped any by the fact that my rear tire went flat just as we left the area, which meant I had to walk my bike the rest of the way home, and which capped my mileage at 26.2 instead of 27.4. At the bike shop, the repairman told me I’d run over a handful of wire staples. “They’re always throwing them out in the street these days,” he said, without explaining who “they” were or why such an odd behavior would have suddenly become fashionable (I can’t remember the last time I had a bunch of wire staples in my hand, let alone felt impelled to throw them into the street).
I was immediately inclined to believe that this was yet another tactic of the Hasidim aimed at eliminating bike traffic, but it didn’t make sense: wouldn’t handfuls of staples have a similarly deleterious effect on their car tires? At any rate, it was the first flat tire I’ve had in almost five years, and I wasn’t pleased. On the other hand, it could have happened when I was stuck out there on the chilly Coney Island boardwalk instead of when I was within walking distance of home, so no serious complaints.
This weekend John called and invited me to ride with him to Nyack, up in Rockland County. 35 miles. Each way. I wasn’t free on the day he had in mind, but I have a feeling this will be happening soon. Can spandex shorts be far behind?