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The Eye of the Cycle

Chapter 6 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles

The world lies right beyond the handlebars of any bicycle that I happen to be on anywhere from New York Bay to the Vallée de Chevreuse. Anywhere is high adventure, the walls come down, the cyclist is a loner, it is the only way for him to meet other loners. And it works. One seldom exchanges anything but curses or names of insurance companies with another driver, the car inhibits human contacts. The bicycle generates them; bikes talk to each other like dogs, they wag their wheels and tinkle their bells, the riders let their mounts mingle. On the road, you can join any club of cyclists in France, there is no membership fee. Stay with them on the hills and take your turn up front upwind, that's all the initiation ceremony there is.

It is wise to avoid racers. The best company is a mixed bag of all ages, youngsters for sprints, the fifties and even the sixties for endurance. I know one such group that meets at nine o'clock every Sunday morning at the Montrouge town hall just beyond Porte de Châtillon on the south side of Paris. Like so many hundreds of others on Sunday morning, they head out into the Chavreuse Valley, the closes countryside to the city. It has everything on a cycle scale: hills, plateaus, woods, plains, rivers, villages, steeples. If you want to see the Chevreuse Valley from a bicycle seat, just turn up at the Montrouge town hall and follow the crowd past Châtenay-Malabry where a statue of Voltaire smiles down on you, across Route 186 throwing its girdle of steel and smog around the outer suburbs of Paris, through the greenhouses and the orchards of Verrières le Buisson and then into the Chevreuse Valley.

Montrouge rolls winter and summer, rain or shine. On the Sunday that I joined them, the weather was cold and dry in Paris but, as soon as we got beyond Verrières, the roads ran wet with drainage from farms. The back wheel of my racing bike, stripped of its mudguard to gain an extra few ounces, was picking water from the road and, with every turn, sending it up my back, from fundament to the nape of my neck, a wet muddy swath along my spine. I looked as if I had been sitting on one of those superbidets used in Spain and Portugal according the the saw that the more Catholic the country, the stronger the sitz-plumbing.

At this point, we had reached the state of happy equilibrium that the cyclist achieves in winter when he is soaking wet with sweat, rain, and mud but he has heated the whole mixture to 98.4 degrees F. or so and it lubricates more than anything else. The merry men from Montrouge rolled merrily... until a shot rang out. It was one of our wheelmates blowing a tubular, a boyau, the French call it, the word means gut. You put about seventy pounds of pressure in it; when you blow a gut, you can hear it half a mile off.

We stopped. He unrolled his spare gut kept in a package under his seat. The wind that had been on our heels caught us, it blew through the sweat and the wet, it turned them to chill and slime. Our noses trickled and icicled, our hands froze red and blue as we stretched that tubular, almost tearing a gut, until we got it over the rim. Once it was in place, we helped him blow up his gut. Off we rolled, fifty yards, a hundred yards, we stopped again, the tire was coming off the rim. Tubulars should be cemented, we had no cement. We went through the stretch-and-freeze all over again, the tubular was back on the wheel, but it had to be treated warily. So we started slowly downhill, exerting no effort, building up no heat in our furnaces, while the wind tore at us with renewed glee and our noses ran as wet as the tar beneath our wheels.

It was there that, once again, I felt the barrier of a pane of glass. Automobiles went by, loaded with families sitting motionless in their warmth, huddled inside their wombs. We could have been on the moon and they on the earth, though only two or three feet separated us on the cold road. Our feet moved automatically, instinctively; we could not feel them any longer, they had been stuck out in a freezing mist for a couple of hours with no more protection than the skin-deep leather of cyclists' shoes the weight of ballet slippers and perhaps some newspaper. Round and round our feet churned; we could not have told you if our legs were driving the bicycles or the bicycles were driving the legs. Some of the auto nobility in the passing cars smiled at us, others ignored us the way I had always been taught to ignore cripples, beggars, unshaven men asking directions, staring at them as if they did not exist. On one and the same road, they were going out for Sunday dinner and we were trying to reach the North Pole over the ice floes and through the watery chasms. They would not have believed us if we had told them. They knew that the North Pole had already been discovered; they could not have known that it was just outside their windows in the Chevreuse Valley.

Exploration comes easy on a bicycle, the unknown is everywhere. Once, with the photographer, I was cycling early in the morning over the black flat landscape of the Gatinais country just north of Orléans. We flicked out our lights, we could see better without them and the generators took too much of our strength. A bicycle headlight will only cover ten feet of road; even at fifteen miles an hour, that's not enough. So we used our lights as markers, starting the generators whenever we saw or heard a car, then back to darkness again. Without lights on a strange road, the sensation was almost of flying. We could see ahead, we could not see at our feet. We had to hope no boulders had been strewn in our path, that no New York-sized potholes pocked the way.

It was worth the risk. Villages in Gatinais are few and far between by French standards, one only every five miles or so. We steered from one farmhouse to the next, their lights standing out like those of an island in the sea. That day, I guess, we rounded Cape Horn by bicycle. We got as far as Bishop's Ford Pond, then we came back against the wind, through the Roaring Forties. The sun was up, we could see the houses now; the white sheets drying on the lines bellied like the sails of a square-rigger running downwind; we dipped our heads in salute as we beat our way back to town where housewives were sweeping the sidewalk in front of their doors, dipping their brooms into the water that had been sent coursing through the gutters from a municipal tap. All the women in town were out together at dawn, scrubbing their sidewalks. We tried to photograph them; it was too late by the time we had enough light, the tap had been turned off and the ball was over. We went to a café to breakfast on bread and black tea while the owner's dog leaped all over us. French country dogs are as nice as French country people, they have nothing in common with the yapping poodle or the trembling Mexican hairless native to Paris. The dogs are friendly in the little hotels that the bicycle sniffs out: Au Petit Chalet, Au Moulin Vert, the Relais du Saôsnois, the Hostellerie de la Vallée du Lunain; I keep their cards, occasionally their modest bills, just to remind myself that money isn't everything, that in fact it is nothing, it is a hurdle that makes the pursuit of happiness an obstacle course.

O blessed bicycles, they can scent out the places where I have no business---the pretentious dump on 42nd Street where there is no room to park a bike and the night clerk offers service with a snarl. I spent a night there, the next morning I straddled a bicycle and let it have its head. It took me round the edges of Manhattan, the frayed hem of what used to be the waterfront. Down to South Street, around Battery Park, once Castle Garden and the Aquarium now a beach for bums and others who want to be left alone. No one stares at them there except the binocular telescopes mounted on the rim of the park; their eyepieces eyes, their fittings facial expressions, you can cock them in their swivels to create attitudes for a photographer in the early morning. I rolled past the fireboat pier, pure 1900 Luna Park, past the big bollards where the tugs tie up and wait to taxi harbor pilots out to their ships. The express liners are gone, the great changing skyline of New York's waterfront---the four stacks of the Mauretania and the Aquitania, the grace of the Europa and the Bremen. We once sailed from the Battery on a tug to greet my dad on the Bremen when she lay off in quarantine. I remember the icebox cake on that tug; every time I roll by the Battery I always look into the galleys of the tugs tied up there to see what they are serving.

In 1967, I sailed past the Battery myself on the France outward bound; the Queen Elizabeth was following us a mile astern. Down the Hudson we paraded, no festive occasion, nothing more than an Atlantic crossing you could have got the passenger lists of both ships into a clutch of 747s. Off Sandy Hook, we slowed to drop the pilot. His cutter was waiting out there to pick up the pilots as they finished their runs, it was a trysting place for ships. The France lost way, she lay still, the pilot stepped into his bobbing boat; now the Queen Elizabeth was drawing near, coming up out of the haze. Our pilot was clear, the black smoke poured from the funnels of the France, scouring out the fuel oil that had clogged the pipes in port; she showed her derrière to Queen Elizabeth, Trafalgar was avenged. Now the Queen Elizabeth stopped to drop her pilot at the same spot chalked on the sea by the choreographer; we lost her from sight, we will never see her again, we will only see the phantoms of the city of stacks as we cycle up West Street past the shattered piers, up North River.

A good way up, well out of the desolation zone where the World Trade Center is encroaching on the river, I came across a place that proclaimed itself a motel. It didn't look like a motel, it looked like a scale model of the Flatiron Building, a sailors' rooming house, perhaps, that had somehow survived the departure of the sailors. On one side of its prow lay the piers, on the other a street of wholesale meat markets. I walked in; behind a pane of bulletproof glass, a spry little lady was sitting. I asked her if she had any rooms, and, in a Scottish accent that she had not lost if fifty years, she replied that she had. I could take my bicycle up there, too, for the same price. She apologized---I had to pay in advance. Up at 42nd Street, I had to pay in advance, too, but nobody apologized. That hotel was close to the United Nations, my motel was the United Nations: the manager was Iranian, the day clerk Scottish, the night clerk Filipino; there was good Cuban company among the butchers who took their dawn coffee at a diner a block away, a true diner not ashamed of its trolley-car lineage. The lady serving coffee was heavy and warm; she told of how she used to work uptown near the ships. All the sailors knew the place, they would invite her aboard the Normandie or the Andrea Doria for their Christmas parties in port. It was all gone, she said, the waterfront was a ghost town. I had bought a ticket for New York, I had ended up in Leadville, Colorado. The lady may have known the seamen who sailed my dad across, she may have known Yves, the old oiler on the Île de France who stays gently oiled on weekends at the Duvals' café in Brittany. Once he has got steam up, he tells all Lanloup what life is like in New York. The chickens drop into your hands already roasted from a slot in the wall; nobody buys a newspaper, they stand in the streets and read the news for nothing as it flashes in lights around a building. "Right, monsieur?" he asked me, his follow American. Right, I say, as I head away from the café on my bicycle.

I often start from cafés. The photographer and I know so many cafés in Paris that each must think it is our favorite. The owner of the Escurial on Boulevard Saint-Germain likes to talk to me about cycling as I wait for the photographer. I always park my bike next to his oyster stand, still deserted at six in the morning, so that I can keep an eye on both the bike and the street as I wait.

One morning as I talked to the owner, the photographer arrived, black slacks, black sweater, black parka (on really important occasions, she ties her hair with a red ribbon from a candy box), a white bike. I said good-bye to the owner and started to sprint for the saddle. "Ah, monsieur," he said, "cycling is truly your passion."

The photographer and I headed east along Boulevard Saint-Germain. She rode her bicycle as if she were gliding. Once she had got up speed, she spread her arms wide and moved them up and down as easily as a gull moves its wings. She was a bird, soaring along the boulevard, the light of her headlight dancing in the silvery spokes of her front wheel. The spokes chopped up the light to send it whirling in a gold-silvery sweep. A remote cousin of mine once told me he saw something like that when he looked at the spray from the hose on the lawn of his parents' suburban home in New Jersey after he had taken acid. I like bike trips myself.

The photographer was a big black bird on her bicycle. Or she was a mahout. She told me that when she held the handlebars, the round white rubber grips with the little holes at their ends, they felt like an elephant's trunk. She was a mahout, leading two elephants down Boulevard Saint-Germain. I rode at her side, trying to protect her from the odd car speeding down the boulevard at this odd hour.

We kept riding east, into the rising sun that was lined up perfectly with the street as if Boulevard Saint-Germain had been constructed by worshippers of Ra. In truth, it had been built by Baron Haussmann, the great city planner of the 1860s who put the urban freeways of his day into the city of Paris. Boulevard Saint-Germain is one of the clearways that the security-minded Haussmann tore through old Paris, too wide to be barricaded and ruler-straight to give artillery an easy shot at the mob.

Technology caught up with Haussmann when overturned cars and buses blocked his sociological fire lanes in May 1968 as thoroughly as they do right side up in every other month and year. He had not reckoned with a society that would provide its protesters not only with the raw material to erect instant barricades but the gasoline to convert them at will into fire bombs. The cops finally got their counterdeterrent, an armored bulldozer that sliced through the piled-up cars, doing only slightly more damage than if the students had been allowed to use up their energy in futile shadowboxing.

No barricade withstood such assaults in May and June 1968, no barricade save one that I saw outside the medical school on Rue des Saints-Pères that intersects Boulevard Saint-Germain. The medical students there had parked a loaded garbage truck across the street, sealing it off. The police didn't dare overturn the stewing marinating mess (something really must be rotten before a Parisian will throw it out) and, a fortiori, the students didn't go near it, either. It was the absolute defense against riot control but, as happens usually and fortunately in such cases, its deterrent power was so awesome that it never had to be used. Since the police didn't go near it, there was no riot. When no one was looking the students drove it away before the sun and the garbage got too high.

The photographer and I rode past Rue des Saints-Pères and followed Boulevard Saint-Germain as it imperceptibly changes the lift of its eyebrows and the tilt of its nostrils from Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the Latin Quarter. All these changes are measured in yards. We rode past a little hotel where the manager is Vietnamese; the price is outrageous but there is a sixth-floor room with a balcony where you can see the sun rise along the axis of Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The boulevard runs near the Seine. But it is straight and the Seine winds, so the two must meet somewhere. They do, at Pont Sully right below Pont D'Austerlitz (the reason why so few new bridges are built in Paris is that there haven't been too many victories since Austerlitz). Pont Sully hops across the Seine, using the end of Île Saint-Louis, as a stepping stone. I like the way Paris built its old bridges. They move gingerly over the river in their stone boots, suspicious of water (both salt and fresh, as all Frenchmen are except the seafaring Bretons). When the Seine grows high, the boots become boats, breasting the current with a foaming bow wave.

The photographer and I turned left where Boulevard Saint-Germain drowns itself in the Seine. We started to cross Pont Sully, named after Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully (1559-1641), minister of King Henri IV (1553-1610). In death as well as life, Sully serves his sovereign. Pont Sully leads into Boulevard Henri IV, which ends at the Bastille just as the Ancien Régime did. The word régime also means " a diet" in French, which may help you to understand a slogan I once saw painted on a wall near the Sorbonne: REGIME GAULLIST = REGIME AMAIGRISSANT.

Amaigrissant means thinning, the verb is the root of our word "meager." It is amazing how many English words now entering French as despised "Franglais" originally came from French, words like le management that is only the good French word ménager in disguise. But no Franglais is needed on the walls of Paris, French is alive there. Right near the Sorbonne wall where I saw the comment about the Gaullist regime I spotted another that said, "POMPIDOU IS A DIRTY CAPITALIST." An editor had come along to make a change: he crossed out "dirty" and wrote in "clean." The walls have voices, I can hear them in Paris when I try to get to work on my bicycle.

This is not always easy. My bike hates to go to work. It is an aquaphile, it prefers to follow the water---rivers and canals inland, hard sand on tidal beaches by the sea. The grades are easier there, hill-climbing is no problem along a waterfront or a canal. Life began along the rivers, it prospered with the canals. Much of that life is still preserved there even around cities the size of Paris or New York or Washington. Canals are smack in the middle of the eighteenth century, they belong to Louis XV or George Washington. They carry their life with them; their people are isolated high up on the levees, lock-keepers in lonely houses, the towpath running under the trees, the bike swishing through gravel where horses once plodded.

That is why my bicycle always heads over Pont Sully towards the Bastille, then east on Rue de Charenton toward the Marne. The Seine is a big river for Paris; the city stretches for miles along its banks, you need a car to get away. Not the Marne; it is winding and secretive; the barges avoid part of it by taking a canal that runs through a tunnel just outside Paris. That leaves the river pretty much to its own resources. Distances along the Marne are within a cyclist's reach. About fifteen minutes from the Latin Quarter and he is in the Bois de Vincennes, the eastern pendant of the Bois de Boulogne, but stark and deserted by those who want to be seen because they would not be seen dead in the Bois de Vincennes. Consequently, the Bois de Vincennes is alive with kite-flyers, cyclists, skippers of model yachts, wild duck colonies, rugby teams, cross-country runners, trotting horses, bettors, rookie cops in training, a rundown cartridge factory used as a theater for touring troupes, a military firing range, a vast hidden statue of Beethoven, quite a bois. On its far side, Nogent-sur-Marne starts, a suburb that thinks it's a beach resort, it even looks like a beach resort. It has a yacht harbor all its own with a lighthouse and a stretch of gravel beach much quieter than the Croisette at Cannes. The Marne is not recommended for swimming around Nogent, but I wouldn't recommend the Mediterranean around Cannes, either. The same process that destroyed river beaches a skip away from the city of Paris and drove swimmers to the sea has now worked its way to the sea itself.

Just before Nogent, the barges come back to the Marne after their tunnel. I know a road along the Marne, in some places it is tarred, in others it is a muddy path, that follows the barges as they buck the river east of Paris. On winter mornings, I can watch them from shore on my bike just above the mist laid over the water like icing on a cake. Like almonds in the icing, the pilothouses of the barges stick up from the mist, disembodied superstructures without hulls.

I can follow the barges about six miles up the river. Coming into Bry-sur-Marne, there is an island in the middle of the river, Ile des Loups, Wolves' Island. The houses along its banks are magnificent, they stand in splendid isolation, accessible only by boat. There are no roads on the island, a railroad viaduct puts one leg of an arch on the west end, but islanders cannot cross on the tracks. The shore of the island is screened by trees. When they are in leaf, the houses are gone. There is only a sliver of forest in mid-Marne, that was why wolves lived on Wolves' Island.

One day in November---it was on one of those long five-day weekends that the French school system sets aside to keep children in their parents' hair---a barge went by a brown-hulled barge running close to the shore of the island, almost under the trees. Up at the bow, a little girl was skipping rope. She was dressed in a pleated navy-blue skirt and a matching sweater; those were her holiday clothes. She had come home to the barge from her boarding school for the vacation, and her mother had told her to go out and play in the yard where her father could keep an eye on her from the pilot house as he steered the family house. The green mansions of Wolves' Island slip by the brown-hulled barge and the little girl in navy blue as she skipped rope. Round and round the rope flew under her feet and over her head, thwacking the deck, keeping time perhaps to the beat of the propeller that was thrashing away in the stern, thwacking the Marne as a housewife thwacks her laundry. I followed her a while from the bank, making no noise, stealthy as a wolf, watching the little girl on her moving playground, the rope flying, her feet never missing a skip. Then the river turned into a mess of muddled ruts and I had to look down at my wheels as the barge sailed away from me on the smooth Marne, the little girl and her jump rope still in the bow.

At Bry-sur-Marne, there is an iron footbridge that was built in 1894, so the plaque at its base reads, by the local mayor whose name has long since vanished from nearly everywhere else on the face of the earth. You climb a flight of stone steps to the top of the bridge. It is no great feat to take a racing bike up the steps with you. For those riding heavier mounts, there is a strip of cement next to the steps, just wide enough to fit the wheels of a Velosolex or a light Honda. A boathouse is boarded up, the name of its proprietor has turned a pastel whitish-pink; he probably went out of the boating business as the Marne lost its fresh bloom of youth. When the fish start floating belly up in a river, nobody wants to swim in it face down. So the boathouse closed and so did the swimming dock at the foot of the footbridge. Too bad, there is a fine little beach down there, soft sand and an easy slope into the water.

A plank walk crosses the top of the bridge, then there are the same steps leading down the other side. There is a restaurant on the left bank run by a big cheerful man in overall who sympathizes with my lot as a cyclist because he used to be a motorcycle cop. His restaurant reminds me of one of those old ocean liners with three or four classes. You can stand in the bar and match Pernods with the boss, you can dine in one of the more elegant rooms where the locals come with their dressed-up wives and their fed-up children, or you can eat with the regulars at one of the tables in the bar, table d'hôte, no menu.

Often, on Sundays, I ride out through the Bois de Vincennes and I make the restaurant at Bry in an easy hour or so, thereby solving such multifarious problems as where to eat Sunday dinner, where to go for a Sunday ride, and how to get back home without Sunday traffic. The regulars at their single tables sit in a row facing the bar, their backs to the Marne outside the big glass doors.

When the weather is good, you can eat out in the garden on steel tables and chairs right next to your bicycle. I took the photographer there once. We crossed the footbridge, parked our bikes in the garden next to the river and sat down while the waitress took our orders. As she was serving the pâté, a barge hove in sight.

The photographer raced up the stairs of the footbridge to look at the barge. Barges must be seen from above as well as from the side. Nearly every one that goes by has a collection of hens, roosters, and rabbits in its cargo of sand. The hens peck, the roosters crow, the rabbits hop, and the whole barnyard sails past the towers of Notre Dame, the turrets of the Conciergerie, the cold elegance of the Quai d'Orsay, the pricey heights of Passy looking down on the rest of the city form their lofty standard of living, the new riverfront quarter of Beaugrenelle with its fifteen-story "skyscraper" apartment houses, identical in shape, identical in size. The Parlysians keep putting up buildings that look like troops standing at attention for years, never batting a Venetian blind as the sooty rain acidly etches into their concrete, streaking the walls, cracking the cornices, the same buildings all over the city and the suburbs, at Beaugrenelle on the Seine, at Bois d'Arcy and Ris-Orangis where the Bronx has been transplanted to farmers' fields with cows all around, at Bagnolet for workers, at Garches for young executives, on the hills of Belleville and Ménilmontant in what was once the cocky tarty Paris that Maurice Chevalier sang.

These are the ideas that can come to mind as I sit in a river garden and watch a barge pass. I nibbled at the pâté, waiting for the photographer to come down from the bridge. She didn't come down; I finished the pâté, mine and some of hers, I took a sip of wine from the earthenware pitcher. Still she didn't come down. What was left of her pâté was getting warm, soon the waitress would bring out the roast pork and it would be getting cold.

I got up from the table, crossed the road, and walked up the steps of the bridge. She was not at the railing, she was on all fours in the middle of the plank walk, her rear in the air, the little stump of her ponytail jutting up like a tuft of tough grass.

"It's terrible!" she called out to me. "Come look! Quick!" I got down on all fours next to her and put my eye up against a crevice between two planks. Nothing, just the green Marne. I started to get up, the position was already straining my joints, but she said: "No, stay there! A barge is coming!" I creaked back down on the boards, hoping that we were facing Mecca so that any body passing by on the bridge would think we were Moslems at prayer and not call the wagon. The barge came up, I looked down at it through the lens of the crevice.

It was terrible. The colors of the barge, black bow, tan sand, red and blue laundry, cream roof, green funnel, black stern, flashed by under my eyes like a film, one color jammed against the other, flicking on and off the screen bounded by the edges of my lens until there was only the turmoil of the barge's wake in the Marne, white turning back into green.

Another barge was just nosing around the bend downstream. I put my head down and watched the scene again, seeing for the first time the way the photographer sees all the time. I would like to get a movie camera on that footbridge at Bry-sur-Marne, I am curious to learn if a machine can see the way she taught me to see.

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Chapter 7, The Digestive Cycle

 

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