Man the Mechanical Rabbit
Chapter 5 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles
I had to come a long way to get to Parly II on that piebald Peugeot PX-10 with its Reynolds steel frame from England and its Campagnolo pedals from Italy (a Paris dealer once bragged to me that nothing was French on his best French racing bike except the clip that held the rider's water bottle). I had come a long way from my old black-wheeled horse with the rubber saddle painted to look like leather and the built-in swerve to starboard every time I let go of the handlebars. It was long gone, sold to a friend's son and stolen thereafter. I was sad to hear of its loss. On it I had ventured to work a dozen years before in my little black ensemble: bicycle, raincoat, briefcase, outlook on life, all matching. That is the start of cyclotherapy, the first timid step, when the bike is just a better way to get to places that one should never go to at all.
Many cyclists in Paris never get beyond that stage. They bike by necessity, not choice; they have left no cars behind them to boost their egos at crossroads confrontations. They cycle religiously to their jobs as bank guards or post office clerks where they can take out their frustrations on the public. They use circle clips to keep their trousers clean and humble, they stop obediently at all traffic lights, they will press no more hardily on their pedals in order to respond to the challenge when you pass them. They are the Lumpenproletariat of traffic, prisoners on the bicycle chain gang.
My old black bicycle immediately placed me in their category. Those were the days before the minibike had been adopted at Saint-Tropez, thereby making it acceptable to miniminds in Paris. People unworthy of notice are never noticed by Parisians, a bicycle rider immediately becomes an invisible prole to most of them. Time and again, I would encounter a colleague and a secretary whiling away a lunch hour on Rue de la Gaîté in Montparnasse, but they looked right through me from behind the windows of his Merc. I let them go their gay way on Rue de la Gaîté (which has nothing to justify its name except for a self-service restaurant with the startling name of Self-Gaîté). I once turned up for work on a holiday and asked a guard for the key to an office, my own. The guard: "What for?" "Why, it's my office." The guard, hesitating, then: "Excuse me, monsieur, I always see you coming in on a bicycle, I thought you were manual." I assured him I was automatic and he gave me the key.
On Saturday afternoons I would roam the city with my son. He was still under fourteen, too young to ride a Velosolex, that combination of bicycle and motorcycle with all the disadvantages of both (the Velosolexist gets as little exercise as the motorist and as little protection as the cyclist). As soon as he became fourteen, I bought him a Solex and I didn't see him for five years. But in those days, we pedaled together through Paris. The city shrank before my eyes; gradually I realized how small its heart really is (the case of any large city where so much of the body is fat). From the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame on a Saturday afternoon with my son used to be a whole Saturday afternoon by car. It turned out to be only twenty minutes by bike. We crossed the Seine over to the Proustian gardens of the Champs-Elysées, then got through the traffic on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré by osmosis until the street lost its air and its Faubourg to become Rue Saint-Honore, bound for Les Halles napping in the afternoon. The markets were open then, now they have been put to sleep forever. From Les Halles, I could tow my son through forgotten alleys until we reached the Pont Neuf and the haven of Île de la Cité. We usually managed to take in the pet shops on the Right Bank---everything from monkeys to dyed chicks at Easter time---then the flower market on the island, before we got to Notre Dame.
By bicycle, that trip can be repeated time and again, it is never the same. I once made it with my niece and, lo and behold, there was a monkey up a tree on the edge of the flower market. Two firemen were up the tree with him, clambering about in their leather boots, shaking branches with a long stick while he clung for dear life until he let go to the gasps of the crowd, only to fall to safety onto a market shed. He could have skipped from shed to shed until the end of his days, but he was too much of a ham. He liked to hear the crowd gasp; he worked his way back to the tree that had become his territory while the firemen went after him again, encouraged by a brigadier who had gone up with them, all the better to survey the operation. My niece was only in Paris for a few weeks; I had trouble convincing her that I had not staged the whole thing as a happening for her benefit. She has grown up in one of the remote reaches of Queens, Long Island, known as Fresh Meadows, where there are no longer any meadows at all, fresh or stale. It is the kind of a place where the only thing that can happen is a happening.
I suppose that was what attracted me to the bicycle right from the start. It is not so much a way of getting somewhere as it is a setting for randomness; it makes every journey an unorganized tour. I remember one of the first days that I used it to go home to lunch. I was cutting down a wide avenue, with a mall in its middle, on market day. The market stalls were on the mall, the market men's trucks were parked diagonally to the curb, cars were backed up impatiently as a truck maneuvered out. I slithered by and got up to the truck. It was in the clear but the driver was talking to another marker, one of those Paris street conversations that drive waiting motorists to frenzy and their horns to crescendo. As I went by, the driver reached out to shake hands with his friend. I grabbed the dangling hand, shook it and went on. "Salut, mon petit," he said.
He, too, must have thought I was manual. In any case, he did not think I belonged to that race of Parisians so hell-bent on doing nothing that they will drive roughshod over anyone who gets in their way while he is engaged in doing something. It is so instructive to pull ahead of a lane of honking gars, mainly occupied by women late for their hairdressers or men late for their women, to weave through and find an Auvergnat unloading coal by the sack or a dairy truck discharging yogurt.
Only once did I escape the ninety-decibel blats of the leisured. I had fallen in with Louis Carao, a bicycle cop in the 6th arrondissement who can handle any situation from a family quarrel to a traffic incident with irreproachable aplomb. He had beaten me in a sprint up the bus lane on Rue de Rennes despite his uniform and his police-issue bicycle and it was good to know that the peace of our neighborhood was in such capable hands and feet. We were riding side by side on Rue Vavin; a file of cars crawled behind us meek as cows, not a peep, not a beep, not a moo, the sight of Louis under his képi left them speechless. We rode and we talked; pedaling stimulates Louis's talking as it does my writing. He is a Breton, I am somewhat in his country when I ride through the farms around Lanloup and greet all the other Bretons who have not yet gone to Paris. They are Celts like the Irish and the Welsh; they belong to that doomed race of poets who have refused to take on the ways of the Franks or the Angles and the Saxons. In Brittany, there are more cyclists than I have seen anywhere else in France. The Parisians might say it is because the Bretons are backward, I see nothing backward about the fine strapping women walking their bikes out of Lanvollon on market day, bread on the handlebars, meat and groceries on the back rack; the bike is a truck, a riding horse converted into a pack mule that has to be led.
It must be cycling that encouraged me to think as I do, to explore any turning that comes up, to take the unmarked roads to their end. That is the liberation that the bicycle can offer. I am more often for folkways than I am for bikeways. The bikeway is a start. It protects motor-man when he goes out for the first time without his tin shell. He feels so vulnerable; he can sense steel crushing his limbs the way it used to crush his fenders. But he should not stay too long on bicycle paths; there is no point in moving from one herd to another. The bicycle, in most places, is the only vehicle that does not carry a license plate. The cyclist has no "75" on his back in Paris, he need never display his social security number in Washington, he is considered so harmless that he is not required to carry insurance. Yet beware, a cyclist can go far. A few years back, a criminal involved in one of the unsuccessful attempts to assassinate de Gaulle managed to escape from his top-security prison on an island off the Channel coast. He got to the mainland; there a dragnet was cast for him. All roads were blocked, all cars were checked, the autoroutes coming into Paris were tied up for miles while police peered into trunks and pried under back seats. They never found their man; only later was it learned that he had reached Belgium by bicycle.
For the bicycle possesses ethereality, it floats along on those gossamer wheels that give themselves away only when they twinkle in the sun. The rider can violate the Heisenberg principle that the presence of the observer must necessarily change the phenomenon observed. The bicycle insinuates itself unseen into the innermost tissue of a large city where there is so, so much life that cannot be sensed through a windshield.
There are times in cities when they seem to emanate a flux. I have sensed it in Tokyo along lanes where cars have never entered, where the only vehicles were the two-wheeled trailers that the icemen towed behind their bicycles, stopping in front of the customer's door to saw off a cake for him. I would walk through festivals outside Shinto temples where the whole neighborhood was dancing to the sound of a drum mounted on a big wooden platform overhead, the drummer dancing as he swatted it. The bicycle had already taught me in Paris and New York that nothing could hurt me in places like this. I would venture into them for hours on end, never seeing a white face, thinking I had become yellow myself.
In Paris I once had the same feeling on an autumn afternoon near the Dugommier Métro station where an old man was running a merry-go-round. I had spotted him a few days before as I cruised by on my way to ride along the banks of the Marne. He had come with a wooden truck and trailer painted ever so long ago a robin's-egg blue. The truck went back to the war, the Great War, as the English call it, the days of 1914. The next time I rode by, the trailer had disappeared, its strange semi-circular sides had become the base of the merry-go-round, the little ride was all set up. Children in the neighborhood were sitting on Mickey Mouse or turning the wheel of a speedboat or honking the horn of a runabout while the merry-go-round spun round under the eyes of the old man, his skin bronzed by a lifetime outdoors on Place Dugommier or Boulevard de Belleville. There was a little park across the street on Rue de Charenton, the sun came slanting through the trees in the park, the merry-go-round and the park were one, held together by the sunbeams.
I talked to the old man and so did my friend the photographer. She was from the country around Tours in the valley of the Loire. He knew her country, he had played Touraine with his great airplane ride in 1912. He gave us his address and, on another day, we rode out there. He lived in Montrouge, a suburb on the southern border of Paris, one of the old suburbs where the country laps on the edge of the city, small houses and yards with chickens pecking in the dust and rabbits quietly fattening in their cages seven minutes by bicycle from Montparnasse. We recognized his place at once. The wood fence outside was the faded robin's-egg blue of the old Berliet truck, inside he lived in one of those circus trailers, a house on wheels. He was surrounded by all the trailers he had used in his life, they rusted and peeled as they grew old with him. He was well into his seventies, his hands trembled, but they could crank up the old chain-drive Berliet and put the Mickey Mouse figures into place on the merry-go-round. He was a stout house built long ago and still standing. When I returned to the trailer later to give him prints of the pictures we had taken, his daughter was there. She came once a week to clean the place. She told me her father had been a very strong man, she had seen him pick up an automobile and move it by himself.
His merry-go-round comes and goes on Place Dugommier when I ride by, it is part of the circuit that both of us ride through the forgotten quarters of Paris. I had lived twenty years in the city without ever seeing Place Dugommier and the merry-go-round. Inside a car in a city, your eyes are on the level of the garbage cans, they can see nothing else. Place Dugommier lies on Rue de Charenton, precisely the sort of street that the shrewd driver avoids. Rue de Charenton is clogged from early morning, when the garbage trucks come by with their tail of crawling cars, through the rest of the day as the furniture trucks load. It is one of the main streets of Faubourg Saint-Antoine, a part of Paris reputed for manufacturing dining-room sets and revolutions. Just off Rue de Charenton lies what must be the best market in Paris now that Les Halles are gone. Every day except Monday on Rue D'Aligre and Place d'Aligre, the pushcarts and the stands come out, their proprietors evenly divided between Algerian Arabs and former European settlers from Algeria, living together here with their shared memories. On Place d'Aligre, there is a café-tabac which, since it sells alcohol and cigarettes, is naturally the headquarters of the local sports club. I often come there for coffee in the morning, early in the morning when the cafés in Montparnasse are still asleep behind their barricades of chairs upended on tables. On Place d'Aligre, the market men and women arrive early; some breakfast on steaks, others on white wine. The café-tabac is open on Mondays as well, but then I have it almost to myself, sharing it with hand-truck drivers keeping their tanks topped up with wine. I never see Parlysian Parisians on Place d'Aligre and seldom on Rue de Charenton. They are too busy driving to their offices where they can work eleven months a year and dream of a month of picturesque living in a Club Mediterranée village only a few jet hours away on the shores of Morocco where there is an Arab quarter outside the well-guarded gate. They can see the Arabs, but the Arabs can't see them. The Club knows who its customers are. Every year when the weather gets hot and the traffic starts to stench in Paris, the big green city buses blossom out with signs on their rear ends: "Ah, if only you were with the Club Mediterranée..." Perhaps the Club pays the bus driver to squirt a little more diesel smoke when he carries the ad? It can be seen best from a following car. Pedestrians never look at it; on a bike, you never stay behind the bus long enough to get the message.
The bike in the city is ubiquitous. At one moment it can be on Place d'Aligre, at the next it can be on the Longchamp circuit in the Bois de Boulogne where the racers meet. That is also the meeting place of the same sort of semicyclist that one finds in Central Park in New York. He must take his racing bike to a bike path by car, he is afraid that he might be taken for carless if he did not. Yet Longchamp has its charms. You start riding until you catch someone or someone catches you. That does not take too long; the circuit is about two miles long around the outer fence of the Longchamp racetrack. You take turns slipstreaming, each of you pushing along at top speed, until you catch up with someone. Then the two cyclists become a trio, the trio becomes a quartet and und so weiter until all the riders on the Longchamp circuit have been gathered up into a big flashing flock, their stockinged legs, blue, red, green, pumping up and down, up and down, like pistons; their feet attached to the pedals so that their ankles work like bearings, the big wheels with the chrome spokes winking at the sun, sending motes over blue, green, red stockings. It is almost impossible to shake off a cyclist once he's in your wake; you fight the wind, he just goes along for the ride.
There is one little fellow at Longchamp who can leave me behind. He uses a liniment to warm up his thigh muscles and it lays a barrage of reek right behind his rear wheel. No one can get near him; he rushes around Longchamp at the head of the flock, invincible in his liniment. We can only pick him up on the backstretch where the wind turns; now it buoys us along, we whir at twenty-five miles per hour as if we were sitting in our living rooms; the air is still, the Flying Skunk loses most of his advantage, we can put him behind.
But if there is no wind, then I usually let him have Longchamp all to himself. I spin out at the Porte de Boulogne, I fight the nonorganic exhaust stink on Saint-Cloud bridge leading to the Autoroute de l'Ouest and, from there, I head straight up into the Parc de Saint-Cloud, one of the handsome vestiges of the royal forests that used to stretch from Paris to Versailles and beyond. The Parc de Saint-Cloud is certainly the quietest, wildest, and yet the most beautiful park on the western end of Paris (a situation that is to be remedied by cutting a new freeway through an area where only the squirrels can protest).
It is a favorite haunt of Parisian drivers and their dogs. Many automobilistes tend to travel with gigantic mastiffs in the car, a fashion probably set by women cab drivers. These beasts glare at you from the back seat; one deterred me from passing his master in a tight spot because he had all his fangs bared, waiting to tear a piece out of an unwary cyclist just as the shark keeps an eye out for the passing scuba diver. When the car stops, the Parisian leaves his dog inside. He does not believe in such Anglo-Saxon nonsense as being kind to animals unless his girl friend happens to be wearing some. Thanks to man's best friend, the parked car can be noisier in Paris than the moving car when a pent-up dog begins to growl, then to howl. He wakes up the neighborhood, he's as bad as a stuck horn but with a difference: the stuck horn won't take your finger off if you try to fix it. The poor dog yowls inside the car until his master drives him off to a restaurant where he can then howl, growl, and yowl from under the table at all the other hungry dogs in the establishment. In a Parisian restaurant, dogs go hungry, there are no doggy bags, the lords and masters wolf all the food, there are no leftovers. Some Parisian dog lovers, appalled at the Biafra-like misery at their feet, have trained their animals to snap up Camembert rinds. Restaurants have a way of getting quieter about the time of the cheese course.
To keep his dog in trim, the Parisian takes him to the Parc de Saint-Cloud. He doesn't walk him, he drives him. I witnessed the process one Sunday morning in the parc. On a pleasant stretch where a one-lane road climbs through birch woods, I was tooted and passed by a little red Fiat station wagon. Behind the little red Fiat bounded a little white fox terrier. He passed me, too; I labored up the hill after shifting down about seven or eight speeds. I thought I could catch him once I began to run downhill. I wheezed over the summit, fiddled with the gearshift levers and soon I was helling downhill on my private asphalt ski run, bent way over the handlebars to cut the wind resistance. When I really want to go fast, I bow my head. I don't know if this streamlines me, but I don't get the wind in my eyes and so I think I'm fighting it less. A friend of mine who used to do some amateur racing can get his head down so far that his backside is higher than his neck, giving him that egg shape so sought after by schussers. I'm too tall and stiff, I can't get any closer than a scrambled egg. At any rate, I egged myself on down the hill, down I tore, not a sign of the Fiat through the bare birches on that winter Sunday. I leaned into a curve to take it without braking. That's the most fearsome part of running downhill. If you lean far enough, you can go around anything, but your whole body screams that it doesn't want to lean. You must sneak up on it, tip it by surprise, don't watch the outer edge of the asphalt or you'll break up.
The road came out of the birches into a clearing. The little red Fiat was parked on the shoulder, a little blue man in a blue track suit was getting out to jog, the little white fox terrier was standing next to a log, not even breathing hard. As I went by, he cocked a leg up to show what he thought of his competition.
I coasted to the bottom of the hill, I started to climb again. Once more a toot, a deeper note, a big gray Citroën with a hound of some sort loping behind it like a footman behind a royal coach. This time, the driver took the whole circuit and I caught him just at the bottom of the hill where he had opened the lid of the trunk to put the dog back in.
I stopped, smiled, and said: "Don't you think you need the exercise as much as your chien does?"
He stopped, smiled, and said: "But, monsieur, I am now going off to jog five kilometers at the Racing Club. And this is a chienne." He didn't have to tell me, any fool could have seen that, just looking at the dog. I smiled, and said: "I know, monsieur, but I am an American and I always mix my genders in French." That excused everything; he confided to me with pride in English that his bitch could keep up twenty-five kilometers an hour for nearly five kilometers. I congratulation him, I petted the dog, and I cycled off humbled. You must hand it to the Parisians, they've found a way for man to replace the mechanical rabbit. Such are the discoveries that are needed in our time if we are to give people something to do in between vacations.
In my cycling through Central Park in New York, I have never met anyone pacing a small dog with a large car. The trails of the park near 59th Street are not recommended for cycling in the early morning. They are filled by people walking dogs, big dogs; you have the impression that somebody opened the cages in the zoo. These dogs are as useful to the Manhattan city dweller as their ancestors were to the caveman. Big and fierce enough to stop a young urban riot on the strength of their appearance alone, they allow their owners to feel perfectly safe walking in Central Park. Such dogs, of course, must be walked in Central Park if they are to keep in the kind of shape required to awe the indigenous fauna. This keeps their masters in shape; here we find man and animal living harmoniously, like the pilot fish and the shark, the little bird that likes rhinoceroses, the dog and the flea.
I quickly became discouraged while riding through this menagerie in Central Park, the dogs sizing me up, the masters tugging back at the reins as if they were trying to stop runaway horses. Only once has anyone ever looked at me in Paris the way those dogs scrutinized me in New York. With my bicycle, I had wandered into the meat shed at Les Halles, just for the sake of wandering. I liked the sight of those clean white and red carcasses on their hooks in long straight ranks, looking like soldiers standing formation except that they are already dead. As I stopped at the head of a row to take it all in, a wholesaler looked at me. He was one of those men with small eyes and big bellies native to the meat shed at Les Halles. He looked me in the eye, he looked at my feet, and, suddenly, I had the feeling that he was calculating how much I would fetch, skinned and dressed. Not very much; he soon turned away.
In New York, too, I prowl the city in the early hours. Before the cars are out, there is not that much difference between Paris and New York. There is the same rich core only a few minutes in diameter by bicycle. From Herald Square to the Battery is only twenty minutes and at least five different cultures: Big Town, Chinatown, Little Italy, Spanishtown on 14th Street, Georgetown over the West Village.
I would start a trip to the Battery at five in the morning. I would rise stealthily and, without awakening my mother in whose Park Avenue apartment I was staying, I would take my bicycle from her seventh-floor balcony and go out the door. I had been told by all concerned, superintendent, doormen, elevator men (it's one of those Manhattan buildings, all it lacks is a drawbridge and a password) that I would be foolhardy to leave the bike in the cellar or the lobby. So I took it upstairs every night, the way people used to do in Paris during the Occupation. Around dinnertime, there would usually be people in the elevator and the bike made a fine conversation piece, especially if there were four or five other passengers and I had to stand it on its back wheel to make room for them. While the back wheel of the bike fraternized with their dogs, I would chat with the owners.
"That sure beats the
traffic, doesn't it?"
"It sure does."
"Oh, I get off here, 'night."
The quality of the night elevator man's conversation was much higher. He puzzled me, the way he used words accurately, almost artificially. Early the next morning, when I came down with the bike, I happened to mention to him that I had a better bike in France where I lived.
"Oh, you live in France?
"Yes, my name is John Martin... Jean Martin."
We slipped into French. He explained to me he had no intention of going back to France. He was earning over a hundred dollars a week as a liftier de nuit, his wife was earning the same. They had been able to go on spending like Frenchmen while earning like Americans, la vie was belle. Jean-John Martin didn't mind running an elevator up and down as long as he didn't have to run around in circles. He was a contented man.
"You know what Merleau-Ponty told Sarte at the Café des Deux Magots, don't you?" Monsieur Martin asked me. I remembered vaguely that Merleau-Ponty had played high priest to Sartre's pope when existentialism flowered in Saint-Germain-of-the-Meadows. Sartre was and still is the leader of the Left Bank, the militant minks, the starving intellectuals (no potatoes, no bread, no starches, no sauces, no fats, just beautiful bones), the last-ditch fighters against Yankee imperialism who boldly snap their fingers at decadent plutocratic racist Uncle Sam by driving Lancias and BMWs instead of Chevrolets of Mustangs.
I didn't know what Merleau-Ponty told Sartre at the Café des Deux Magots... unless he was trying to get him to pick up the check. I shook my head as we reached the ground floor and started to wheel my bike out through the lobby.
"He said: 'Do you
know what I'll do if the Communists ever take over in France?'
"Sartre said: 'No, what will you do?'
"And Merleau-Ponty said: 'I'll go to New York and become an elevator man.' "
Monsieur Martin looked around expansively at the building lobby, the engravings of old Murray Hill, the carpet, not a soul in sight, the world dark and empty outside the plate-glass doors.
"Eh bien, me voilà!"
I left him in his air-conditioned reverie and headed south along Fifth Avenue at half past five in the morning. A very safe time to be in the streets of New York, the traffic isn't out and the muggers are all in. Cycling is pleasant, you need only keep a weather eye out for the privately owned garbage trucks that rumble and race through the streets with their cargoes of expensive aromas from the restaurants of lower Manhattan. They are big bruising hulking vehicles with the bulk of a tank and the acceleration of a Honda. I gave them plenty of room as they made their U-turns to go the wrong way down one-way streets.
South I rode along Fifth Avenue, then onto Broadway where the twain met. The streets got into the low numbers. I didn't have to worry about directions, I let Broadway find the way. I just kept my head down, not for speed but for safety. My eyes were glued to the surface; there are holes in the streets of New York, holes the like of which I have never seen elsewhere. They could swallow up a small Citroën, they would not even make a tidbit of a large bicycle. In the United States, country roads are smooth and manicured, the cities are full of holes. In France, it is Paris that enjoys hand-paved streets while the peasants bounce along the ruts and crevasses that break out on all roads except those where tolls are charged. In New York, too, there are gratings over sewers where the gap between the bars is narrow enough to let a bus go over them safely, but easily wide enough to gulp the front wheel of a bike. All the hazards of New York are on such a scale.
At Union Square, there was an island of slight activity, bums stirring on the benches, a jogger or two stamping around the park. Then back to the dark again, the numbers on the streets changing to names, down through the incredible no man's land between Lower Fifth Avenue and Lower Manhattan---seedy sleazy lofts, blocks and blocks, the world's crummiest structures next to the world's most expensive real estate, discount houses and Army and Navy stores, the Peaceful Army and Navy Store.
From the Empire State Building to the Battery is a quick run at half past five in the morning or at any time of the day. Infiltrating traffic is easy in New York; in Paris you must keep an alert eye for the door that suddenly opens in your face. Sometimes it is attached to the high cab of a truck at the level of your neck and calculated to leave you rolling down to the next traffic light, a headless torso, blood spouting from the stump in a neat many-streamed fountain.
Americans never open their car doors in New York. They go through the city locked into their Apollo spaceships, air conditioners turned on to preserve the temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and political opinions of Westchester, air conditioners leaving a searing wake of heat behind their cars like the exhaust from a Saturn booster; dark glass on their windshields to protect them from looking the facts of urban life straight in the eye.
At the Battery that morning, I rode up to the car lane of the Staten Island Ferry. The black man in the ticket window gave me change for a dollar, all in nickels. When I asked him when the next boat would leave, he told me to look at the schedule posted outside.
I knew it would happen, New York had been invaded by the Parisians.
I rode to the head of the car lanes as I always do, there's never a wait for the cyclist at the Staten Island Ferry. That morning, only two trucks were on line, their drivers asleep over their wheels. A ferry was in and unloading. A minute later, the gates were open and I slipped aboard, riding through the tunnel of the empty car hold until I reached the bow. There, I locked the bike to a stanchion. At one time, I thought the Staten Island Ferry was the only place in New York where you could leave a bike unlocked with a fair chance of finding it when you came back, but a deck hand disagreed. "Better chain that thing up, one of those juiceheads might come along and throw it overboard."
I went topside and, at the food stand, I took a large orange juice in a paper cup and went out on deck. There, standing at the rail, I toasted the rising sun, the towers of Manhattan, the Verrazano Bridge, the Con Ed smokestack that was just sneaking out its first oily layers of blackish smoke to flatten against the hot sky when no one was awake to look. I toasted Governor's Island, Ellis Island, a tugboat named Moran, a railroad-car ferry, the Statue of Liberty. I got to feeling possessive about that ferry. I used to take it almost every morning when I was in New York for a short visit. A little later on another morning, I was drinking my orange juice next to a little boy. I breathed the air of New York Bay, not too deeply because the wind was coming from New Jersey. I turned to him and I said: "You know, this is my yacht."
The wheels began to click in his head. He looked out at the water, he looked back at Manhattan on fire in the sun, his eyes caught the Statue of Liberty, then he turned to me and he said: "It's mine, too."
He was a lot smarter than another kid about the same age who was making the trip with his daddy. This little boy noticed a long spar that might have been a flagpole except that it happened to be jutting out at a forty-five-degree angle from the base of the pilothouse.
His father, an Irishman, squinted up and produced an immediate answer: "Oh, that's their harpoon. They carry it just in case they see a whale in the bay."
I wasn't as dumb as that kid. When the ferry was pulling in, I asked the first mate what was that big stick up there. He said it was a steering staff: since a ferry has no bow, somebody had to put a fixed point in front of the pilot so he could line his ship up on where he was going.
Ferryboats are conducive to conversation if the ride lasts long enough, as it does on New York Boy. On still another occasion, I was standing up forward with my bike. A young man had just gotten out of his car, a red Opel. He was unhappy because he had missed the previous boat; they hadn't held it for him and now he was going to be late for his job driving a big semi-trailer for the U.S. Post Office up on 33rd Street.
He didn't mind the job, but the pay wasn't too good, he couldn't afford more than an Opel. He had already passed the examination for the Department of Sanitation and he was waiting for the first opening so that he could make the change. It wasn't as bad as it looked, he explained. On a garbage truck, there are three men, all drivers. Each one takes his turn driving every third day. The other two days, he rides along on the back.
"It's a Civil Service job, just like the Post Office, but you can go out on strike. And it pays way over ten thousand a year." A pause. "The only trouble is, two days out of three, you've got to handle that garbage."
Chapter 6, The Eye of the Cycle
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