The Rollin' To The River Fest is an annual fund raiser to extend the biking greenway through Fort Tryon Park to the tip of Manhattan. A good cause; and the ride was described as about 15 miles each way, with a few steep hills, "But don't worry, we will take them gently," said the breezy description. I am learning to take these descriptions with a grain of salt, and am hearing increasingly about "moderate" rides that are anything but. Nonetheless, we'd signed up and we were going.
I packed a PB&J and some water, and met M in the 23rd Street subway station, Lucille sliding with her usual grace right under the turnstile. We joined the group at the 59th St Entrance to Central Park.
We rode a little slowly for my taste, but M and I marveled that we went places we would never have found on our own: lush forested trails, long stretches on the bluffs above the Hudson, breath taking views.
Until the stairs.
These were quietly understated in the trip description: two very steep flights where we had to huff our bikes up. Nobody (with the possible exception of Lucille who relishes a free ride) was happy about this. As wonderful as the trip was up to this point, next time I will be perfectly happy to just turn around right here. But I digress.
Eventually we got to the outskirts of Riverdale and were expertly guided through various twists and turns until we got to Broadway.
In 1989, I lost a dear friend on a bike. His name was Jamie Johnson. He taught at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, and commuted by bike from Washington Heights.
I don't know much about the accident or whether he was wearing a helmet. I was told he was pushed into the opposing lane of traffic and bled to death, 10 blocks from Montefiore Hospital. He was 38 years old.
For 25 years, I have felt an aversion to biking in New York City that I could not shake. But things have changed so much here. We have bike lanes and Citi Bikes; we have a greenway on the West Side, and protected areas in Central Park. And timing is everything in love: Lucille came along at a time of my life when we were just right for each other.
I never knew exactly where the accident happened. But when we came to Broadway in Riverdale, I had a horrific vision of it. Our group became separated as the light changed. We were under elevated tracks, with traffic coming from behind us and towards us off to the left, turning in either direction at the intersection. In spite of the lights, it was impossible to make sense of the traffic pattern. Our leader waited for the light and pedaled forward; but she was not only watching out for herself, she was also guiding us. As she turned around towards us, I saw a bus coming at her from behind. I called out. The second time, she heard me, saw the bus and got out of the way. Only to be in the way of a car turning into the intersection.
Eventually, our group moved through the intersection, but the vision of Jamie haunted me powerfully for the first time since his death. If it happened anywhere, it happened here.
After we caught up, we passed the Fieldston school where he had taught. And then unexpectedly an even darker shadow yawed forth from the deepest recesses of memory, for we were approaching my personal childhood Gates Of Hell: The Riverdale Country Day School. It took me completely by surprise - I had not seen it in over 55 years.
My single mother, knowing I was terrified of NYC at age 8, had arranged for me to go to a school in the "country." Ah the country... Home to fields and streams, squirrels and birds. And unchecked yahoo behavior (think "Lord of the Flies"). The moment I got on the bus to school, I was mercilessly teased by the older kids (I was the youngest). Once I arrived, I faced the same hazing treatment from my classmates (I was the only kid from the City). At the end of the day, back on the bus!
Things came to such a pass that I developed a psychosomatic illness to keep from getting on the bus (kids are brilliant, aren't they?). My homeroom teacher came to visit us in NYC to discuss "my problem" with my mother who was mystified. I missed almost a year of school. I never told my mother the reason. Laura Gore, Alex Wylie, Janet Fairbrother remain immortalized in my personal scrapbook of evil.
Like the clowns in a Stephen King novel, Riverdale had everything to keep a child happy on the outside. Except for the horror inside. I let the group move ahead to take this photo. It looks exactly the same.
The thing about hills is, you can take them fast, you can take them slowly (and you can add them more accurately to the trip description for next time, thank you very much), but you can't get around 'em. The last hill was Fiend's Hill times four. I made it up, with my last breath (and my last good nerve). By the end of it, pure physical effort had brought the present firmly back into focus, leaving the past behind where no monsters could reach me.
The Fest was a family friendly affair (translate: let's stay to catch our breath, then beat it out of here), with live performances for kids, vendors selling knick knacks, demonstrations on jousting ("It's really hard to tell who's attractive under those helmets," remarked M, who's antennae for the opposite sex is much more finely tuned than mine), and making fire:
Both options included stairs. Big stairs. We weren't doing 'em.
Fortunately, I struck up a conversation with a guy at the gate who knew the route to a subway with an elevator. Eureka! After a failed attempt by M to persuade the festival jitney driver to take four of us defectors - and our bikes - up the entry hill (M is fearless about using her feminine wiles, but even she could not persuade the driver to make room for us all in a small school bus) we followed our new biking instructions and were soon on the subway home.
I decided to get out at 200th St and ride back down the Hudson. I knew the journey by then - no hills and no steps - and could set my own pace.
Years ago, I heard someone refer to denial as a wall of bricks holding back the sea. A certain amount is healthy and enables us to function. As we are ready, brick by brick we take it down; it is a work in progress.
I had never intended to revisit Riverdale and all that it represented. But at the end of the ride, I felt a sense of accomplishment to have made it through so well, and grateful for the help of my two-wheeled friend, the stalwart and fearless Lucille. It just goes to show: hell can be survived, and even transformed, with a few good hills - and a really great bike.
Named after these brave guys: