how to ride a bike in new york city: tips from a cowardly cyclist

I’m afraid of traffic. Because of fear, I didn’t learn to drive a car until I was forty. Whenever I have to drive to go upstate, I leave at five in the morning so I can avoid the traffic leaving the city. I white-knuckle it all the way up the FDR drive while listening to happy Motown music to soothe my nerves. So I decided that maybe riding a bike in the streets to work and back would dull some of that fear. A friend thought I was nuts, “Okay now, so because you’re afraid to drive, you are going to ride a bike in the streets of New York?”

The first time I rode a bike in NYC was during the blackout of August 2004 in search of food and adventure. The lights had gone out the afternoon before and that night the mood was festive in Loisaida. In Tompkins Square Park, people were dancing around bonfires. It was a balmy night, not too hot. In front of my building, a cluster of neighbors sat on beach chairs around a camping lantern and drank wine from Dixie cups. We swayed to the sound of the African drums coming from park.

By noon the next day, we were bored and hungry. I let Frank talk me into riding a bike over to the west side. I agreed because since the traffic lights weren’t working, the streets were devoid of cars. I hopped on one of my daughter’s bikes. It had a banana seat and high handlebars, just like the bike I had when I was a teenager. We rode all the way crosstown, from the East River to the Hudson. It was exhilarating to ride on the empty streets with my hair blowing in the breeze.

The bike lanes that started cropping up in the neighborhood got me to thinking I could do it again and now I ride my bike everywhere I can. I like knowing how long it will take me to get somewhere without being dependent on the arrival of trains or buses or fighting the crowds for a cab. I like the freedom of going here and there on my own. Bike commuting has saved me thousands of dollars. And it has helped lessen my fear of driving a car. Here are some things this cowardly cyclist has learned on these mean streets.

The #1 safety advice is: Be predictable and be visible.

Frank gave me the most logical and reassuring advice: “If you are in a spot where the traffic is aggressive, just get off the bike and walk it on the sidewalk till you get past the scary spot. Don’t soldier on.”

I wear a helmet – always. I do not want to end up a vegetable and burden my family with feeling like they have to visit me every weekend in a nursing home.

I use the bike lanes whenever possible. The more people use the bike lanes, the more bike lanes the city will create. Then more people will feel confident about cycling (like me). The more cyclists there are, the more drivers are forced to slow down, thus making the streets safer for everyone.

Don’t underestimate the determination and skill of bike thieves in New York City. It’s not for nothing that there is a bike lock named “fuggedaboutit”. Much as I might like that twee brass bike bell, it will call attention to my bike. I always lock it tight – both wheels and the frame. The seat is chained down and screwed into the frame. A thief will not risk spending time cutting your bike loose if it is not expensive and you’ve made it time consuming for them to try. They will bypass it in search of easier or more lucrative pickings.

As for drivers, I find cabbies to be the most careful – they know what to do. Be careful of drivers with Jersey plates out on a good weather Saturday, they don’t know how to drive with cyclists on the streets. Be wary around box trucks. Scariest of all are the death machines that are private garbage trucks – do not underestimate them.

When a pedestrian bumbles into the bike lane without looking (which happens a lot), the bike bell only works about 50% of the time in getting their attention. I find that shouting “Yo, heads up!” gets the best response. It’s a polite way of saying “Get the fuck out of the road”, but they think you are being helpful and usually move out of the way with a smile.

Don’t be an asshole and ride the wrong way on a one-way street and then make it worse by pushing the cyclist who is going the right way into car traffic.

Sometimes when you are bearing down on a pedestrian who is where they should not be, they get nervous and do a little backwards and forwards dance like a squirrel in the road so that you don’t know which way to aim your bike to avoid hitting them. I treat them like I would a dumb pigeon – I slow down and let them make their move.

my purple schwinn, purchased at Recycle-a-Bicycle on Loisaida Ave.

my purple Schwinn, purchased at Recycle-a-Bicycle on Loisaida Ave.

chalk 2014 – remembering the victims of the triangle factory fire

This is the second year that I’ve “chalked” as a remembrance of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. On March 25th in 1911, one hundred and forty six young workers, mostly immigrant young women and girls lost their lives in a horrific fire stoked in greed that galvanized a movement for the safety of workers.

For the past ten years, artist Ruth Sergel has organized CHALK, a memorial project where volunteers  “chalk” the names and ages of the victims on the sidewalks in front of their former homes.  The colorful chalk memorials are a beautiful and bright tribute to the young women at the place where they lived, laughed and dreamed. The chalk memorials are numerous in our historical neighborhood of immigrants. They are on every block. It is heartbreaking to see so many of them.

This year, I felt honored that my friend Rita Bobry, the proprietor of my neighborhood yarn store Downtown Yarns asked me to accompany her to chalk the memorial of her great-aunt who perished in the fire at age twenty-one. Her grandmother’s oldest sibling Necha Dryansky had immigrated from Poland and arrived in New York City alone at the age of sixteen. Like so many others, both then and now, she worked to support her family in the old country. Necha lived with a relative on the Lower East Side  and sent for her next youngest sister Sarah, who arrived in New York as a teenager just six months before her sister died in the factory fire.

Necha Dryansky

Necha Dryansky

Rita and I began by chalking memorials for three young women who’d lived on East 5th Street. We were silent as we worked, smearing the chalk on the sidewalk. None of the buildings where these girls lived remained, but their addresses did. We chalked their names exactly where their homes stood once long ago. We wondered if they were friends and had walked to work together. They lived so close to each other and they were the only three on that block.

Fannie Rosen, 21 years old. Born in Russia, had lived in the US for 6 months

Fannie Rosen, 21 years old. Born in Russia, had lived in the US for 6 months

Violet or Velye, born in Russia, 21 years old. 9 years in the US. Union member

Violet or Velye, Schochet, born in Russia, 21 years old. 9 years in the US. Union member

Annie Pack, born in Austria. 18 years old. Lived in the US for 6 years. Union member.

Annie Pack, born in Austria. 18 years old. Lived in the US for 6 years. Union member.

Our last stop was the former home of Necha Dryansky, Rita’s great aunt. Necha lived at 104 Monroe Street. It was hard to find because that address no longer existed. The last number of Monroe Street that Rita and I found was No. 73. Then it turned into a pedestrian walkway for a housing project. There was a beautiful view of the East River. We could see glints of gold morning sunlight in the grey water. We remarked how in the early 1900’s, this place was full of tenement buildings and that people swam in the East River in the summer.

chalkmemorialtrianglefactoryfireflyerR Rita chalked the memorial to her great-aunt and I feel privileged to have helped a little bit with outlining in contrast colors.

Rita Bobry chalking a memorial for her great-aunt Necha

Rita Bobry chalking a memorial for her great-aunt Necha

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My post from last year’s Triangle Factory Fire Chalk Project is here.

the back bedroom

The back bedroom has always been the children’s room. When our building got its certificate of occupancy and we were cleared to move in, Camelia was a toddler. I’d just learned how to do stucco veneziano (venetian plaster) and the room was one of my first projects in the apartment. The first color for Camelia’s brand new bedroom was a beautiful peachy pink, very soft and not all at sugary. A perfect color for a little girl. The walls gave off a rosy light at night. In the morning, the room glowed golden from the sunlight coming in from the eastern facing window.

When we were homesteading our building in the 1980’s, there was a lot of drug dealing in the neighborhood (see my Pigeon Wars post for the backstory). Junkies broke into the squatter’s buildings and stole tools and pipes and anything that they could rip out to sell. It was near impossible to completely fortify the entire building against theft, there were too many spots where crumbling brick or boards could be pried loose. All you could do was to make it harder for them. During that time, the back bedroom became our tool room. We framed it out and created temporary walls of double thick plywood. The door was locked with a fat metal chain. That was the secure room, the place where we kept anything the junkies might want to walk off with.

Homesteader Jay Goodson at the tool room which became our back bedroom

Homesteader Jay Goodson at the tool room which became our back bedroom

The room grew up with the girls. After the babyish pink came a sophisticated light royal blue when the girls were in  elementary school. Then came a rich green right before Camelia left for college. Now, at the time of Oona’s going to college, I decided to re-do the stucco in a pale greyish lavender. Oona said “Mom, you always want to re-do the room when we are leaving for college”. Maybe it is my way of trying to entice them to stay home.

Oona applying stucco veneziano

Oona applying stucco veneziano

The old green being covered

The old green being covered

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This is a work-in-progress, stay tuned for updates.

lampost art

The snow has finally melted away uncovering the sidewalks and revealing things. I’ve always found it curious that people like to use the bases of lamposts as a canvas. In our neighborhood, it is a common sight to see embellished lamposts.

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I liked that the bike chain left on the post was covered in pink velvet

I liked that the bike chain left on the post was covered in pink velvet

Elaborate lampost art on the Mosaic Trail on the left. And a whimsical Harry Potter tag on the right

Elaborate lampost art on the Mosaic Trail on the left. And a whimsical Harry Potter tag on the right

The master of the adorned lampost is Jim Power, aka, the Mosaic Man. Jim is a neighborhood artist that has been working in the community for decades. You can learn about him and support his on-going project by going to The Mosaic Man – Jim Power and his Mosaic Trail.

I ran into Jim last summer while he was out working on the Mosaic Trail

I ran into Jim last summer while he was out working on the Mosaic Trail

loisaida in hipstamatic

I’m happy for photography apps and camera phones. Some people might say,  “oh, there is no skill in that, no art, its just point and shoot”. Who cares? What is art? I’m just having fun.

I took these photos with my Iphone and the Hipstamatic app. (this is not a sponsored post). I love Hipstamatic because it reminds me of film. I do know real film. I learned to edit movie film, with a splicer. I touched it. My best time was helping a friend organize the edit of his 16mm feature film. We worked in his studio in a loft in Tribeca back when artists could afford lofts in Tribeca. We worked till late in the night, listening to good music. There were many canvas bins on wheels with metal frames. On the frames were hooks where we hung the ribbons of film. Each ribbon was a numbered scene. Some were short strips, others so long they became coiled bundles in the canvas bins. We spliced the scene ribbons together by hand. You had to clean the film first and when you pulled the splicing tape over the film, you had to make sure the two cut pieces were straight and as close together as possible to avoid a cut that the viewer would notice. Once you’d laid the splicing tape down on the film, you rubbed your finger over it to smooth all the air bubbles out. It was like working with clay.

Hipstamatic lets you switch up their digital lenses and films. You choose the lens and you choose the film, and you take the shot. You wait “for the print to develop”. Then you get what you get, except faster than if you had film developed. I like the sometimes unexpected results when you see the “print”. The Hipstamatic Field Guide illustrates the different film and lenses available.

I took most of these photographs on East 7th Street between Ave C. (Loisaida Avenue) and Ave D. It is a block of stately homes from the 1800’s that is lined with very old street trees. I used the Hipstamatic Tinto 1884 Lens (befitting of my neighborhood) and both the C-Type Plate film, which has a color wash to it and the D-Type Plate film that is black & white. This lens and film combination was tricky with light. Too much sunlight and the contrast was extreme. Too little light and you got a blotchy photo. The best result was on a bright but overcast day.

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Tompkins Square Park

Tompkins Square Park

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Tompkins Square Park

Tompkins Square Park

the equestrian chronicles part II

I recently returned from visiting my oldest daughter in Wellington Florida where she is working and training during the Winter Equestrian Festival. I pretty much just marvel at what she does the whole time I’m there.

Camelia has a good eye with horses. Once when she was just sixteen and a junior in high school, she was asking horse questions of two mounted policemen in Greenwich Village and she asked one of officers if he knew that his horse’s foreleg was swollen. The officers just looked at each other, kind of shocked that this city kid would notice that. “We just iced the leg”, they said and asked if she was studying veterinary medicine at the nearby NYU.

I took this series of photographs in the fall when Camelia competed for the first time as an adult professional at a horse show in Connecticut. The horse is Essex. Camelia and Essex are exactly the same age. Camelia is young in life, but Essex is old in horse years and so she stretches him and does bodywork to keep him supple. It was a lyrical dance on the ground between horse and rider that I felt privileged to witness and record on my humble camera phone.

Camelia and Essex are competing together in Wellington this winter. Please wish them luck!

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Camelia Montalvo is an assistant instructor and trainer at Frog Hollow Farm Stables in New York. She is currently a working student for Jennifer Baumert of Cloverlea Dressage in Wellington, FL for the winter season. The Equestrian Chronicles Part I is here

for the birds

Deep winter. I walk the dogs at the start of the latest snowstorm. Soft wet snowflakes brush my face like the whisper of a child. The sparkly holidays lights are down and everything is just dark and grey and cold. Icy winds rake the skin on my forehead and frozen sidewalks chill my toes even through thick wool socks. The dogs want to hurry back inside. Seems like its been forever that we’ve been traversing slush puddles and blocks of grey ice while eternally wearing our snow boots.

After the first polar vortex I decided to set out a window feeder for the birds that inhabit the community garden outside my building. “They must be starving”, I thought. Over the years, the garden has become home to wilder species of birds outside of the rock pigeon, starlings and house sparrows of the urban landscape. We now see robins, thrushes, cardinals and blue jays. Occasionally, a red-tailed hawk will visit and swoop from tree to tree, teasing the squirrels and then perching on the fallen trunk of a willow tree to majestically survey the territory.

Backyard Boys Woodworking tray feeder.

Backyard Boys Woodworking tray feeder.

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I bought a window tray feeder because part of the fun was to see the birds up close. I did a little research because I did not want my window inundated with pigeons. I learned that pigeons don’t like black oil sunflower seeds and that it is a good high-fat, high-energy food for a wide variety of birds. I bought those and a block of suet. The songbirds need fat for energy in the winter because they don’t have insects to eat.

Mourning doves

Mourning doves

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The tray with the sunflower seeds is dominated by Mourning doves. I’m a fan of doves and even have a pet one, so I enjoy seeing these guys even though they bully the smaller birds. Mourning doves are so named because they make a cooing sound like a lament and when they take off in flight they emit a whistling sound that makes you think, “this is what a helicopter would sound like if it were small and had feathers”. They have soulful black eyes and dots on their velvet brown cheeks. The suet block is visited by “cling feeders”, birds that like to hang from it to get at the seeds and suet. I have seen cardinals, blue jays, a woodpecker and something wild and brown that I couldn’t identify.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker

The sameness of my grey winter mornings is ruffled and brightened by the feeding frenzy outside my window. I’m happy for that, because spring seems so far away.