And Then There Were Two
Our Town downtown
December 18, 2006
Second death on Hudson River bike path means first was no freak accident
It hit home when I read that Eric Ng, a 22-year-old NYU graduate who’d been biking home from a concert at the Knitting Factory, was mowed down by a guy who was so drunk he had failed to realize he was driving not on the highway, but on the bike path.
Six months ago, when I heard about the first death to take place on the Hudson River bike path, I filed it away as a statistic and hopped on my bike to ride to work. This time, the news sunk deeper.
I am starting to feel, when I’m on my bike, like a deer in Westchester. The ghost bikes memorializing dead cyclists that increasingly occupy our intersections remind me of road kill.
The Hudson River bike path, supposed to be one of the few places in Manhattan safe enough even for kids on training wheels, is now home to two ghost bikes.
The first death in the four-year history of the path seemed like it might have been a freak accident. Carl Nacht, a 56-year old doctor – my dad’s doctor, in fact – was biking with his wife when an NYPD tow truck turned from the highway into the tow pound at 38th Street and struck Nacht, throwing him onto the hood of another tow truck. After three days in intensive care, Nacht died of head injuries.
Freak accidents happen all the time in this city. When a crane falls off a building and crushes a taxi, when a man is attacked by a crazy guy with a chainsaw in the subway, we don’t cross the street to avoid walking under a crane, and we certainly don’t stop riding the subway.
But Ng’s death makes clear that Nacht’s was not a one in a million thing. Once two cranes fall, once two people get attacked with chainsaws, that’s when people start looking up, taking cabs.
And there’s another reason, too, why Ng’s death has stayed with me – to the point where I’ve started making excuses not to ride my bike to work (it’s cold, I don’t want to be sweaty, I want to relax and drink my coffee… it’s all only half-true. The other half is, I think, I don’t want to become a vegetable today.) It’s that Ng reminds me of me.
Dr. Carl Nacht was not my age, not someone I would have known well. No matter that he was a marathoner and an experienced cyclist, something deep-seated in my cocky unconscious swept the accident aside with the rationale that I, being younger and quicker, would have seen the tow truck turning and hit the brakes in time. How many close calls have left me pumped up on adrenaline, a little shaken, but ultimately reassured of my indestructibility?
But Ng was twenty-two (could have been me). He was on his way from the Knitting Factory to a party in the East Village (could have been me). He must have been cocksure, too, because he wasn’t wearing a helmet (could have been me) – not that it would have mattered, given how fast the car was moving when it hit him. (Nacht wasn’t wearing a helmet, either, but I didn’t take much notice of the circumstances surrounding his death).
What, I wondered, were other cyclists thinking? Maybe I was being a drama queen about the whole thing. Maybe I’d stopped riding to work because I was just getting lazy. It’s hard to pin down our own motivations.
So thirteen days after Ng’s death, I biked down to his memorial ghost bike, chained to a signpost just north of Clarkson Street on the Hudson River bike path. Flies buzzed around wilting flowers stuck through the spokes of the white bike. I read the notes – the ones that weren’t sealed – that were tucked in with the flowers and between the rocks piled into a cairn.
A Chinese delivery man headed south on his bike stopped to watch. He said something to me in Chinese, which he kept repeating. I couldn’t tell if it was a question (Did you know him?) or a statement. He clucked his tongue and shook his head, then biked off.
Amy Madden, her dog running alongside her bike, stopped, somber. “I think about getting hit by a car every single time I get on a bike,” she said. “It’s deplorable. The one place they’ve set aside for us to ride, and they can’t keep us safe.”
Ezra Caldwell, on a stripped-down road bike, dismounted to take a picture of the memorial, which he will post alongside photos of Nacht’s ghost bike on his Flickr page. He had just had an altercation with a city bus driver who had pulled right across the bike path in front of Caldwell. Caldwell rode after the driver and yelled at him – right in front of a cop car. The cops paid no attention.
Caldwell has been a courier for fifteen years, and while Ng’s death pisses him off, it doesn’t scare him.
“You learn to look up the road,” he said. “I’m a pretty defensive rider, I really pay attention.”
But two deaths, in six months, on this path alone? (Between 1996 and 2005, only one of the city’s 225 cyclist fatalities occurred when the cyclist was riding in a marked bike lane, according to a report by the city.)
“I find that freaky,” Caldwell said.