The Road Leveler

Chapter 8 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles

At Easter and Christmas in Paris, the leisurites (as distinguished from the laborites) go away for a week or two with their cars. The life of the city continues without death at every doorstep. Midtown Manhattan does as much work as any place in the world. Ride up the Empire State Building on a clear afternoon, then look back down on the street. There are no cars, just buses, taxis, and trucks going about the city's business. The private cars are all filed away for future reference, pigeonholed in their parking lots until the evening rush. The commuter who drives to Manhattan thinks the city is eternally throttled by cars. Not at all, it breathes almost easily as long as he stays in his office, it is he who throttles it.

Our children grow up in fear. They learn that relative safety lies in getting off the street and into a car. Then the danger becomes more manageable, a knight in armor has more chance than a barefoot peasant against another knight. At least it looks that way, until fear comes from another quarter. Our knight is afraid to move without his tin armor, he has no strength without his purchased muscles. Outside his car, power-man is like a turtle without a shell. Where he cannot take his car, he is afraid.

He becomes afraid in the city. He fears the wide lifeless avenues where he has destroyed all life. He locks up his car when he drives through the city. He locks himself up; his car is a social compartment, a cell isolated from other cells. This is the disease of Paris that is spreading to American middle-class suburbs. It is a shame, too, we almost made it in America, we came closer than anyone else did. Parisianization is setting in here and there, the automobile that brought us together when we were rural is now rending us as we become urban.

Fear in cities is not just a police problem. Both the overcrowded American city and the undercrowded suburb are artificial communities, their cohesiveness destroyed to a large extent by the automobile. Without such cohesiveness, they do not have the will to police themselves. Their very geography makes it all but impossible for the professional to do a proper job. We can't expect the cops to make Times Square safe twenty-four hours a day for fun-loving pornophiliacs unless they are to put on the same show that the police stage on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin near the old Halles in Paris. All the girls are whores there, but every other pimp is a cop in plain clothes.

My American acquaintances always loved to drive down Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, watching the street sights from my car as if they were staring through a rigged mirror in a circus. I now take my younger acquaintances through the same quarter by bicycle. The street is full of furtive men, but they are not interested in bicycles. They window-shop past bars and the doorways and the corners where the girls stand at parade rest. In the age of the mini and the bra-burner, it is hard to see how a girl in a door can get the idea across that she is more available than the girl next door, but she manages somehow on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin.

The cyclist goes unnoticed here. This is still a workingman's quarter and the bicycle does not clash with it. In Paris not so long ago the workingman used to get around by bicycle. Now, as he looks at us, it reminds him of his younger days; he smiles, perhaps condescendingly, but still he smiles. And then, the bicycle itself is a form of manual labor. The cyclist turns out his miles by hand and foot. He knows sweat and wet; ditchdiggers ducking under canvas feel sorry for him as he sloshes by in a rainstorm, the social barriers dome down.

A cyclist with a load of Le Mondes on his handlebars asks me how much I paid for my black bike, the one that a bike racer's son made up for me for city riding and occasional country sprinting, not a Ferrari but still an Alfa. I tell him; he thinks I got a good buy. A Portuguese laborer catches me on the squirrel cage at Longchamp; I speed up, we go round together, he asks me where I am riding next Sunday. We have a lot in common, we are both cyclists, we are both foreigners. I sneak up on a young man in the Bois de Vincennes. I get into his slipstream, then I race by him in the hope that he won't be able to get into mine, but he does. He's a salesman, it's not an easy life, he has heard that things are better in America. I give him the embassy's phone number.

On the banks of the Yonne, seventy miles from Paris, I stop to look at the river from a paved section of the towpath. A cyclist, an older man with young blue eyes, is looking at it, too. We talk about the river and our bikes. He lives three miles away along my route. We ride together, he invites me in for a glass of white wine; it comes from a friend, a retired colonel, who grows it himself. We make a date to ride again. He is a coal miner's son from the south of France; he came up to Paris as a mason's helper, a hod carrier. He went into plumbing and came out on top or, at least, high enough to be comfortable. A few apartment houses here and there, a country house, a modest car but a beautiful bicycle, a wide range of reading, the self-educated man who does not stop his education when he stops going to school. It was he who taught me the first law of cycling: on a bicycle, you never have the wind with you---either it is against you or you're having a good day.

He is one of my best friends in France. When he married off his daughter, I turned up with the photographer, who covered the wedding, starting when the mother dressed the bride. We spent the interlude between the ceremony and the wedding supper at a place on the road to Melun that is a sort of do-it-yourself amusement park. One can have a drink and rent trick bikes, tricycles, pedal-propelled rickshaws, bikes with pentagonal wheels, a tandem with one rider facing forward at the handlebars and the other looking backward and pedaling like hell. No brakes, just screams.

I get along well with French independent craftsmen. Many are cyclists; perhaps it is because they find identity in their work and see no reason to seek it in antiroll bars. Léon was one of the first I knew, he was an electrician in my neighborhood and he lived half a block away. He had been gassed during the First World War but he had enough strength left to cycle about his trade. Though he bought a big Renault for his son-in-law, he stayed on two wheels himself. One day, I saw him setting off with his helper (I prefer the French word, compagnon, it's got a guild ring to it), the two of them on their old bikes. He was going to Saint-Denis, a suburb to the north. I didn't believe he'd ever get there. It used to take me nearly an hour to make Saint-Denis by car before the Autoroute du Nord was opened. (Now it only takes ten minutes, but there's hardly anything left of Saint-Denis because the autoroute goes spang through the heart of it, eight lanes wide.) I never rode with Léon on those business trips of his. I was not a cyclist in those days, I was running a French Ford V-8. By the time I was on a bike, Léon was off his. The mustard gas and the Gauloises were getting the best of him. He had to have an operation that cost him a lung, but he went on five years or so, using a light motorcycle, working here and there. He had all the money he needed, his work was just his way of living. He had come out of the war with a crushed nose and the skin under his arm crumpled like rumpled onionskin paper, a gas burn that let him in for a lifetime of skin grafts. He died prematurely at seventy-three. Léon was one tough Frenchman. Léon did not look scared when he pedaled through Paris, he had seen worse in the trenches.

Socially, one can go anywhere by bicycle. I once made and lost the acquaintance of a mailman in Copenhagen that way. I caught him while he was delivering the mail and I was riding to some forgettable international conference. He had an unbelievable clunker. Danish bikes are heavy; the highest point in the country is only about a hundred feet above sea level so there's no need for lightweight hill-climbers. When I passed the mailman, I thought nothing of it. Then I heard some blasphemies in Eskimo or Lapp or whatever the local dialect might have been, and he was up to me. The two of us belted away at the pedals, his mailbag flying behind him, my briefcase trying to keep up with me. We had a good time at it, then he got ahead of me. We both laughed and I saw no more of him.

He was a young mailman, that was why he outsprinted me. Biking is like running, the longer the distance, the better the chances of age over beauty. In a Paris bike shop one day, a young American and I got talking and I offered to take him for a ride in the Chevreuse valley. I lent him a bike, purposely a heavy one, but he left me flat on the first hill. "Come on, old man," he told me gently, once he got to the top. Two hours later, I was encouraging him just as gently at every traffic light in Paris where I rested on the handlebars while he crawled up to me. He did some social traveling that day. Under questioning, he admitted he was the son of a former borough president in New York City.

Take automobiles off the street and the pedestrian, too, becomes a friend to his fellowman. This is not always apparent in European shopping streets and nightlife quarters closed to traffic so that salesmen and cabaret touts can pick off their game without competition from the cars. I prefer carless places where nobody does any business, places like the new Paris bridge that connects Ile Saint-Louis and Ile de la Cité. It was built wide enough for motor traffic but closed off following protests by the Saint-Louis islanders, an underprivileged lot whose number once included the late Helena Rubinstein. The only wheeled traffic on the bridge is provided by children roller-skating. Whenever I go by, they latch onto my back wheel the way I used to hitch the Eighth Avenue buses. First one kid, then another, then five or six as I slave over the hump of the bridge in the lowest of my ten speeds. My kind of city traffic does not frighten kids, they never miss me when I cross the bridge.

It takes an unusual event to realize what we miss in a motor city. A pedestrian mall is not enough, even if we need only bar the car to recognize air once again. Life must be able to jump the bounds of a pedestrian ghetto, it must strike the dominant note as it does when entire towns are given a reprieve from the gas barrage and the tank charges that are their daily lot. At Tréguier in Brittany, a pardon is celebrated every nineteenth of May to honor Saint Yves, patron saint of lawyers, sailors, and Bretons. He can truly work miracles; he clears cars from the streets of Tréguier and the cathedral square the way Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. Then the square is ablaze with the stands of a market fair; pinwheels catch the sun, bagpipe music comes from a stall selling records. Bells boom out over all this when the procession emerges from the cathedral, women in their sabots, farmers in their Sunday clothes, the pallor of their foreheads marking how they wear their berets in the fields; Saint Yves in wood, borne on two poles, a statue with eyes alive; a flock of choir boys as white and rowdy as geese; then the relics of Saint Yves, his skull in its glass reliquary carried reverentially on the shoulders of important-looking attorneys, one of them in rimless glasses, his round red face as fat as his fees, mouth serious, a bored wink behind the glasses when he sees a friend in the crowd, mouth still serious under the grinning teeth and unwinking eyes of the skull of Saint Yves.

The Bretons carry their saint through the hedgerows to a village a mile and a half away and then back to his resting place in the cathedral. Tréguier is alive, medieval Tréguier is back. You can sit in the cathedral square and lunch on crêpes wrapping ham, cheese, eggs, chocolate, the whole show at your feet. An American couple sits at an adjoining table, they are from Los Angeles. Just how bad is that smog?

"Do you see the cathedral? If this were L.A. on a bad day, you wouldn't."


Chapter 9, When Paris was a Pedestrian Mall...