12 June 2015

Not Lost, Only Moved

In previous posts, I've said that I've never regretted going on a bike ride.  I've also said that I never felt worse after a ride than I did when I started it.  Oh, I've felt tired, in pain and had other physical maladies. But they all healed, probably because riding my bike relieves me, at least for a time, of mental and emotional stresses.

Although I've never wished I hadn't gone on a ride or felt less happy than I was before I took the ride, that's not to say that I don't experience things that make me sad.  I've gone to favorite cafes, bookstores and even bike shops, only to find they'd closed. I've also ridden to some place or another only to find that a lovely, or simply tranquil, piece of land has been turned into a shopping mall or tract housing, or that some other place has been changed beyond recognition.

Of course, some changes--like the closure of a deli or restaurant--are inevitable.  Actually, in the grand scheme of things, change is the only thing you can count on.  As Lao Tsu wrote, "Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.  Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow."

Well, while riding late this afternoon, I saw a change that I simply can't resist.  It's something that's been done, and there's no turning back.  So, according to Lao, I won't create sorrow.  But I'm feeling some now.

That change involves something that was as important to my childhood as the places in which we lived.  I was pedaling up and down residential streets in Queens and Brooklyn, in and out of neighborhoods where hipsters and Hasidim and Hispanics--and people with all sorts of other identities--live.  I skirted the edges of the neighborhoods--Borough Park and Bensonhurst--in which I grew up.  I found myself on Ditmas Avenue, at East Fourth Street, where I saw this:

If you've been in that part of Brooklyn, you might think it looks like any number of catering or event halls.  As a matter of fact, that's what that building was--before I entered it.  Long before I entered it, in fact.  

By the time my family moved to Dahill Road, about half a dozen blocks away, that building had become a place where I would spend almost as much time as I spent in the house or in school.  In fact, during the summer, I would spend hours there that, during the rest of the year, I would have passed in school.

It was the Kensington Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.  Everyone knew how much I loved to read, but in my family (immediate and extended) there weren't many books nor much money for them.  (Also, I think that the strains of blue-collar jobs and child-rearing didn't leave my parents, or other adults in our circle, with much energy for reading, to themselves or with kids.)  But that library, it seemed, had an endless supply.  And the librarians were happy to see a kid whose reading didn't consist only of school assignments.

Plus, going to the library was one thing neither my mother nor anyone else questioned.  If I wanted to go anywhere else, I had to say what I planned to do there, who would be there and who would go with me.  When I went to the library, she said only, "Just be home for supper."

Usually, I would take a few books--story or poetry collections, histories or books about exotic and faraway places--and browse them at one of the tables.  Most days, I succeeded in getting a seat at the table by the center window:

Now, from that window, one could see only up and down Ditmas Avenue, East Fourth Street and a few nearby streets--and over the rows of houses.  But I could see far enough that all of those things eventually faded into a scrim of cirrus clouds, a wall of rain or a vista of twilight.  The world opened out in front of that window, just as world opened with the books I took from the shelves of the Kensington Branch.

Seeing it closed, I feared the worst, since the library budget seems not to have increased since the days when I was using that branch.  But, in riding along, I found out that the Kensington Branch had merely moved to another location, about the same distance--though in another direction--from the house in which I lived.  In other words, I could have walked there just as easily.  And my mother probably would have told me just to remember to be home in time for supper.


  1. So much of my early life too was spent in the public library filling my head with all the things "school" was failing to provide. Of course with a four mile return the bike was the only sensible option and it often just refused to take any logical way home...

    I have never found a compelling reason why "progress" involves the destruction of everything we held dear and the creation of so few places to replace them. So few places are better than they ever were.

  2. Of course one of the main reasons is that so few with any power over our environment travel on two wheels in the heightened state of euphoria which it can create. They rarely experience anywhere except in a blur of speed, they do not taste the air, absorb the scents of nature or examine the world in fine detail. Their world is one of a blur of speed from one parking place to another...

  3. Coline--I get the feeling that you're thinking what I'm thinking: If more decision-makers were cyclists, we might not lose so much of what is dear to us in the name of "progress".

    I think that when people experience things in the intimate way we do when we cycle, they better appreciate what matters to people and aren't so quick to destroy it.