Ben Friedman in New York City, part 2

I’m not ready to talk about my internship at the Natural Resources Defense Council, even though I’m already more than 8 weeks in (good lord!), so I’ll write about biking to work in New York City. My commute is becoming one of the central parts of my summer and as my girlfriend Emily recently pointed out to me, I’ll likely remember it more vividly than my actual internship.

Each morning I bike from Boerum Hill, Brooklyn (ZIP code 11217) to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood (10011). I cycle through a handful of neighborhoods, over a bridge and a river, and I stare longingly at countless bagelries and coffee shops that I wish I had time to stop at. It’s about a 5.5 mile ride each way. There’s a shower at work and I have deodorant in my backpack.

A couple of days ago the official low in Central Park was 83. I know it’s not as hot as some other places FESers are this summer, but it is a sweaty ride. I bike with my work clothes in a backpack- they don’t get too wrinkly- and I wear the thinnest white t-shirt I can find and some mesh shorts. It feels cooler when I am biking over the Manhattan Bridge above the East River than when I am in Chelsea or Downtown Brooklyn, but it’s probably psychosomatic. I imagine a little thermometer attached to my bike; I watch the mercury plummet as I travel between the two urban heat islands. The river as a physical boundary, a thermal respite dividing the fiery city. Whatever helps to keep me cool as I bike the surprisingly steep incline up to the center of the Manhattan Bridge. The grand view of Midtown before me, with the spires of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings piercing the sky while tugboats and barges chug below, helps too.

The other thing I look forward to about the bridge is the D train. Facing Manhattan, the bridge’s bike lane is bounded on the right by a chain link fence that separates riders from a 135 foot drop to the river. Another fence follows the left side of the bike lane, dividing us bikers from the tracks of the D train. As I pedal up the path, I often get the chance to observe passengers crammed into the subway cars, peering out the dirty windows, following their own ritualized morning commute. A few things I’d like to point out, briefly: Their one-way commute is $2.50. Mine is free. They could tell you what their fellow passengers have had for breakfast and when the last time they showered was. All I can tell you is that it smells like fish right when I bike past the intersection of Grand and Chrystie in Chinatown, but when I’m on the bridge, the strongest sense I feel is the breeze on my skin. They look miserable. I smile from ear to ear as they pass.

That’s the thing about biking in this gargantuan city, packed to the gills with people. I am free. I can take whatever turn I want, I can stop to watch a sunset (I can SEE a sunset), I can smell and touch and see the city continuously. I feel proud to ride the elevator at the end of my commute all sweaty and chest heaving with these other commuters who go from their bedroom to the subway to their office chair. And New York City’s cultural history and legacy is so vivid- last week, biking home from drinks with friends, I found myself deep in the Hasidic neighborhood of South Williamsburg on Wythe, looking at the men with their peyos, and I take my turn South onto Bedford Avenue and blam I’m in Bed-Stuy and I’m in the birthplace of hip-hop and the black cultural epicenter of Brooklyn. SO COOL. Goodbye yarmulkes, hello flat-billed Yankees caps.

There was a recent article in the New York Times about finding solitude in the big city. Did you see it? Sonali Bhasin tweeted about it. The thing about New York is that it is so giant and so busy and so loud and so hot and so dang energetic, it makes its residents re-evaluate their valuation of personal space and of quietness. That article blew up on the Times’ webpage because it allowed New Yorkers to share and learn about a resource that is so scarce and so critical that when you find it, you cherish it like a childhood gift. Growing up in Manhattan, my place of solitude was the Arthur Ross Pinetum just off the great lawn in Central Park. Today, it’s my commute, zooming around on my bike watching adjacent neighborhoods blend together, escaping the scorching hell of dark subway platforms in favor of morning clouds and orange sunsets, and of course, the bridge.

I’ll close with the haiku I imagined recently one morning:

D Train prisoners

Stare with woe at my freedom

As I bike the bridge.

 P.S. Along with my German baguette, I devoured East of Eden. It is a monster of a book, but worth it. Sam Hamilton may be the most beautiful character I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting in a novel. If any of you have read it and want to talk about doomed brothers, the delicious evil of Cathy Ames, or the Salinas Valley, give me a holler.


  1. Pingback: Sage Magazine – School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Summer Blog ’13

  2. Mervis Bimph says:

    I applaud your refined appreciation for both baguettes and urban rolling. Nip some chubs for all us stuck in the wilderness!

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