03 June 2010
The Freedom to Find Order
Today I didn't ride my bike. Hopefully, I'll get to ride tomorrow. But I had a good, if not long, ride yesterday.
It was something I used to do in the old days: I started with no plan or destination. I just got on Arielle--my Mercian road bike-- and I could practically hear her asking me, "Where have you been?"
I found myself zigging and zagging between Queens and Brooklyn, mainly on side streets. Most people wouldn't know whether they were in one or the other, but having lived for so many years in them (I can't believe I've been in Queens for almost eight years already!), I can see and feel the differences when I'm riding.
Back when I was writing for the Ridgewood Times, I routinely rode the five miles or so along Gates Avenue from Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn to Fresh Pond Road in Queens. From Vanderbilt, the first few blocks of Gates are lined with some lovely brownstones and other graceful old buildings. But, after one crosses Nostrand Avenue, the condition of the houses begins to deteriorate somewhat. Then, by the time Gates crosses under the tracks of the "J" train, the street is lined with cheerless tenement buildings on one side and auto body shops on the other. Then Gates crosses under another set of tracks, for the "M" train. A couple of blocks later, the small portals of those houses and apartment grow, as if they've been filled with light, and become tall glass doorways framed in dark wood and etched with gold-gilt numbers. These are not brownstones, but they are attractive and sturdy in a similar sort of way--and more orderly, as if those houses themselves were arranged by a grid pattern like the one that guides the streets themselves.
When I saw those houses, I knew I was in Queens. And I was happier to be there than I wanted to admit. All right, I'll admit it: I really liked seeing those pretty, well-kept houses. They don't have the cookie-cutter sort of architecture one finds in too many developments today. They have character; they are interesting and unique. But they are also very precise and orderly, and--to me, anyway--it's no surprise they were built by German immigrants who settled the neighborhood a century ago.
How is it that whenever I look for freedom, or simply run away from something, I end up finding order and embracing it? It occurs to me that I experienced exactly that when I took my first bike trip to Europe. Five days after I graduated from Rutgers, I got on a Laker Skytrain flight to London. I brought my bike, a pair of panniers, a handlebar bag, a couple of changes of clothes, a sleeping bag, a camera and a bunch of rolls of film, two blank notebooks and a few packets of condoms. I had no set itinerary, save that I expected to be in France and possibly another European country at some point.
But I gave my parents, and anyone else who asked, a more detailed itinerary than I actually planned to follow. The truth was that I was taking that trip because none of them wanted me to take it and, frankly, I didn't know where else to go or what else to do with myself--and I didn't want to find out. If I wanted to do anything, I wanted to show them that I didn't need a plan and that I would survive in spite of everything everyone tried to scare or warn me about. I wasn't going to follow the rules and schedules that bound them: I would have nothing more than myself, my bike, the road and the surprises of the world unfolding before me.
And what did I embrace? The friendliness and politeness of people I met. I actually liked that French people addressed each other as "Monsieur," "Madame" or "Mademoiselle" and appended their requests and sentences with "s'il vous plait." I liked the order of London and Paris streets: Even the plane trees that lined them seemed to have an erect, dignified bearing to them.
That trip was not the first or last time I would get on my bike in search of freedom and would find order--and embrace it. That's what I did, again, late this afternoon, when I steered my bike onto a street lined with neat brick houses trimmed with deep red, violet and yellow flowers. I opened the door to one of those houses and wheeled my bike in. Charlie and Max were waiting for me.