Pedaling a new vision of a more bike-friendly city
June 4, 2008
By Laurie Mittelmann
The space caught my eye before the building number. Large posters with pictures of people dancing around cars adorned the giant glass doors along with signs reading, “I don’t need a war to power my bicycle!” Baskets of fliers for bike rides and radical propaganda rested on the windowsills.
When I walked into that storefront — 17 and newly freed from braces — I found both the environmental group Time’s Up! and the community of fellow bicyclists I yearned for in my New Jersey hometown. Over the next two years we would rove the city on two wheels, promoting nonpolluting transportation, freeing bike lanes, kicking cars out of Central Park and finding feasts in dumpsters.
As I crossed the room, I saw two girls on an old yellow couch, cooing and gently tracing bruises on their legs as they related different falls.
“A guy getting out of a taxi on Bowery opened the door without looking and hit me,” one of them said.
The other winced. “I could take the impact, but he knocked me into an oncoming car.”
Their pant legs were stained. While hair and eye colors could not testify to a familial bond, it seemed that bike grease blackened everyone’s skin after several hours of working with mechanics in the Time’s Up! basement.
“Could you take out the garbage?” Bill Di Paola asked, sending them in different directions. As the executive director, he assigns tasks to volunteers who maintain order in the space and organize events that often attract more police officers than participants.
It happened once last year during what we called a Police Disco. That was typical of the Critical Mass ride, a romp through evening traffic that is usually one of the biggest events on the Time’s Up! monthly calendar.
I was chatting with Roger the shirtless Rollerblader when the pulse of red and blue lights from a line of cruisers got the riders’ hearts beating faster. Bicyclists danced between them as they filed into the park, sirens adding to the fever.
On my first ride, people donned helmets lined with fuzzy white fabric and pointed ears because they said the cops made them feel like sheep sent to slaughter. They made me feel like I was going to get run over as their scooters whizzed past.
I was confused by the antagonism between cops and bikers such as myself, but I wanted to support the mission to cycle. I clipped on the kooky gear and headed out to receive my first ticket, $30 for lack of a bell — an equipment violation.
Other apparent lawbreakers snapped at officers as their friends balanced video cameras on handlebars and recorded the disputes. It was clear that police could resent us for stopping traffic with what they must have thought maddening behavior.
We did everything we could to avoid them. By circulating whispers one night, we agreed to ride the subway to get the jump on the law with a new starting location. Bill purchased subway fare and admitted many riders who lifted their bicycles through the turnstiles.
The Critical Mass ride typically leads itself. There is no standard route and the pack simply follows the whimsy of whoever happens to be at the front. Time’s Up! supports the effort with fliers and creative additions to the cause.
The event meets on the last Friday of the month in Union Square and that’s always a convenient place for passing out the next month’s calendar. That colored half sheet — diligently folded in three by volunteer hands — lists repair workshops, movie nights and numerous themed rides.
On the Peace Ride one warm Sunday, I maneuvered through throngs of popcorn-and-camera-bearing tourists in line for the ferry at Battery Park. The ride’s creator, Nadette, guided us to the Labyrinth, where a guest speaker explained its history and how we might relax with a walk along the spiral.
On the Central Park Moonlight Ride, I held hands on water breaks and found stars in a cloudy sky. On the Coney Island Cyclone Ride, I made my way to lemonade celebrated with sandy feet.
We walked the city for weeks last spring dropping fliers on locked bikes to draw more people to the Future Sea Level Ride, which went underneath the waves of a future ocean raised from melting polar ice caps.
I tightened a bikini top over my shirt, pulled underwater goggles over my eyes, and bit down on the plastic snorkel. My flippers hit the spokes as we hit the streets.
“Kermit’s the leader!” Bill yelled as Nadette took to the front carrying the green frog on the back of her bike. Bill taught me that cops try to discern the leader of an action — this time he decided to make it easy for them.
The ride was part of a worldwide global warming protest and I continued it the next morning on my walk back to the Port Authority bus terminal. As rain fell, I plodded north in scuba gear, explaining my preparation for the rising waters to the gawkers demanding photos.
We also use elaborate costumes to periodically clear city bike lanes of idling vehicles. As clowns, several volunteers and I press red noses against windows and hand out big orange tickets explaining the violation that police typically overlook.
No vehicle got past us, especially one so obnoxious as an oversized tow truck on Sixth Ave. We pounded our fists against it, collapsing to the pavement and crying. Babs the clown kicked the back of it as the driver reluctantly pulled it forward.
“Bicycle! Bicycle!” the Time’s Up! sound bike blasted the Queen lyrics over the honking of cars. “I want to ride my bicycle.”
That liberation ride ended on Ninth Ave. at the newly constructed bike path, which is protected from traffic by a concrete median and a line of parked cars. There we cut a ribbon stretched across the fresh asphalt, stomped on a cardboard car and toasted with sparkling apple cider.
Twenty-four vegan cupcakes iced everyone’s lips as they chomped down and raved about human-powered transportation between bites. I’d prepared the animal-friendly treats at 4 that morning using pumpkin purée and soy milk curdled with apple cider vinegar.
As I dispensed the confections, other clowns inquired about my baking methods. It was a contrast to the lack of attention I got with the same goods in my high school. I fluffed up with soy margarine pride.