New York Cycle, a Diaryby Catherine Cusset, an excerpt translated from the French by Armine Kotin Mortimer
Fifteen years later, New York has changed.
The twin towers no longer fill the view when you cycle down Fifth Avenue or rollerblade toward Downtown beside the Hudson. The East Village, Alphabet City, and the Lower East Side have gentrified. The Williamsburg Bridge has been repaired and now leads on both sides to neighborhoods inhabited by trendy young people. Midtown has almost lost its messengers, thanks to the progress of the internet. The construction of a park is under way along the Hudson, from Battery Park City to the Upper West Side. Since they have put in a bicycle lane beside the highway, it is now forbidden to ride at the water’s edge on the beautiful walkway reserved for pedestrians. Even at night or in the rain, when the promenade is deserted, white golf carts patrol it, driven by park rangers in khaki uniforms who threaten to fine any cyclist attracted to the twinkling of the city lights on the black water. New York has policed itself. Homosexuals and drag queens no longer meet during weekends on the piers at the end of Christopher Street. They have been expelled from those shores ever since the Richard Meier glass towers were constructed, where lofts cost ten million dollars. The rollerblade fad has passed. And I no longer have my old bike. I abandoned it—it wasn’t even stolen—because it was no longer gentle enough for my aging hips.
Something hasn’t changed: the light on the Hudson, the flaming sky at sunset, the beauty of the bridges, the energy of the city, the disagreements between couples, my anger at drivers who drift into bike lanes, the sadness of a white square on a pregnancy test when you want to have a child.
* * *
Yesterday evening at ten, we were heading down Fifth Avenue toward Washington Square. At the crosswalk at 9th Street, a yellow taxi slams on the brakes in front of us to let his client out. The taxi stops obliquely in front of a black car standing at the curb with lights on and wheels turned to the left, ready to drive off. Just as the door of the taxi is slammed shut, the 9th Street bus arrives at top speed and cuts in at an angle in front of the two cars. The black car is cornered by the taxi which is blocked by the bus, which blocks the street and prevents the other vehicles in the two lanes on 9th Street from passing. On the perpendicular avenue, the light changes to green: no one can move because of the cars blocked by the 9th Street bus. The result is a deafening concert of horns, which makes no impression on the driver of the bus. Without turning to look, he conscientiously counts one by one the coins a passenger has dropped into his transparent-sided fare box. My husband and I pass between the bus and the blocked cars. I laugh and I say New York is divided into categories: pedestrians, skaters, cyclists, cars, taxis, buses, trucks—and each thinks only one thing: fuck the others. Fuck the others, says my husband.
At the Sullivan Street bar, we meet up with Ben and James. With a shrill voice James tells me how today, on a Brooklyn sidewalk, he heard rollerblades approaching from behind. Right away he stopped moving, to avoid creating confusion. The skater, a woman, who arrived dancing from one leg to the other—James on his chair imitates her swinging hips—made a little jump to the side, zip!—James’s hips make a swerve to the left—to miss him. Fuck the rollerbladers, says James.
I ask him if he’s going to take up rollerblading. No. He doesn’t like the idea of being a beginner. What he would like is one of those little motorized scooters one sometimes sees in Central Park on Sundays. Vroom vroom! He imitates the noise of the motor with his lips pushed out, looking straight ahead, his hands on the imaginary handlebars.
James thinks skaters who ride both in the street and on the sidewalk and who appear out of nowhere are dangerous. He has no health insurance. I stare at him in amazement. Yet it’s not so surprising, James is writing his novel, which is already nine hundred pages, and in the meantime he doesn’t have steady work, just little jobs paid by the hour. And his daughter? He reassures me: she is on her mother’s insurance. As for him, an accident would be enough to put him on the street, indebted for life. James says all he has to do is think about that for two anguished minutes each day for nothing to happen. Together we touch the wooden table.
I’m racing down Broadway to make the green light when I hear a shout. A car in front of me has slowed down just after the crosswalk and a man standing behind it gives a violent blow on the trunk with his fist. I thread my way to the right. Fuck you, fuck you! vociferates the man in the middle of the street, making a gesture that seems to invite the driver to get out of his car. He is well-built. He again smashes his fist into the trunk of the car, while the Asian driver, who had turned around as if to say he was sorry, ends up driving off. Motherfucker! the pedestrian screams at the top of his lungs, his fist in the air. A few people have stopped to watch the scene.
Today I went by bike to a little travel agency in the Empire State Building, at the intersection of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, where they sell inexpensive tickets on Pakistan Airlines. I took Sixth Avenue going back, the only one where there is a lane reserved for cyclists. Passing through Midtown on a Friday at four in the afternoon, or any day of the week at any hour, is a nightmare. A beige van drives into the bike lane and stops just in front of me; I have to brake. Impossible to pass on the left—the space between the van and the parked cars is too narrow; impossible to pass on the right: cars keep arriving at top speed right beside the bike lane. When I finally pass the van, I rap on the right side window of the cab; the driver, Indian or Pakistani, turns toward me, startled. Bike lane! I shout in a furious voice. He makes a gesture of helplessness or excuse. He doesn’t look like a mean guy—young, a little lost. I retake possession of the bike lane in front of him, it’s free for several blocks. It’s too bad I’m so tense, I tell myself. My back is going to start hurting again. And yet it’s a beautiful day, the first day of summer, I had to stop at a red light and take off my parka and my sweater and roll them up in my front basket. I was sweating. I don’t notice how fine the weather is, I am more and more stressed, aggravated, in a bad mood. Instead of the bright sunshine, the blue sky, and the mild air, it could just as well be pouring rain: for me that would change nothing. I try to calm down. On my right messengers, Chinese people, and others on bicycles and on rollerblades pass me constantly and seem indifferent to the cars stopped in a double row on the bike lane and even those who turn left without paying attention to the cyclists riding beside them. Those are the worst. I’d like to shoot the drivers. I’m going straight and as fast as possible, pedaling with all my strength to make the green light, and an imbecile on my right turns into the street on the left, cutting me off. I have to brake. I barely avoid crashing into his bumper and I miss the green light, while the car, which hasn’t even noticed me, calmly turns after having let pedestrians in the cross street pass.
As for the pedestrians who walk on the bike path to hail a taxi or to avoid the throngs on the sidewalk, I frankly would like to just run them over. From a distance I shout Be careful! with a horrible French accent. Sometimes I add in French, con, couillon (idiot, asshole). I have my hand on the brake but I make a point of riding as close to them as possible. When a woman gets frightened and jumps back, I’m happy. If a guy or some woman shouts an insult at me, I object with energy, sure of my rights: Bike lane!
I’m speeding up Sixth Avenue to cross at the green light and avoid the hill in Chelsea. A guy is planted in the middle of the bike lane. I shout Watch out! He sees me coming and doesn’t get out of the way. At the instant I pass by him, a violent pain makes me almost fall off my bike. I stop ten meters past him and look back. The guy is watching me, looking evil. I shout: You hit me! I can’t believe it, but the pain radiates up my arm and my shoulder. He must have hit me with all his strength. The rising adrenaline prevents me from thinking clearly. I make a U-turn and walk toward him pushing my bike. I’m going to call the police! The guy takes off at a run.
My husband says I’m crazy. Some day one of those guys to whom I yell Asshole! or simply Bike lane! will grab a revolver in his pocket and shoot me without even getting out of his car. This is New York. They would say I provoked it. Like the black boy who aimed a revolver at a white girl coming out of a building on the Lower East Side at three in the morning. “So what are you going to do now? Shoot?” she asked. He shot. She died.
Yesterday I witnessed a bicycle accident just across from my apartment. A taxi driver cut across the bike lane to drop off his passenger, who opened her door, knocking over a Chinese man on a bicycle who was arriving at that moment. The Chinese man did not lose consciousness, but he was totally pale. Sitting on the pavement, he put his hand on his chest as if it hurt. He didn’t speak a word of English. The taxi driver and his passenger waited, anxious and voluble. A fire truck and two ambulances with strident sirens took barely ten minutes to arrive. One of the ambulances took the man away, no doubt an illegal immigrant.
The first time I use my bike in New York, I don’t yet know about the lane for bicyclists on Sixth Avenue. I traverse Midtown to Central Park, taking Third Avenue. I have an appointment with the adjunct cultural counsellor at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to talk about Crébillon fils. I arrive at 78th Street exhausted and sweating. I tell the adjunct cultural counsellor, who invites me for coffee in the foyer of the Carlyle, that I have just bicycled through Midtown for the first time. This feat hardly seems to interest him. On the return, I go back down through Midtown on Second Avenue. The traffic is just as intense. I ride on the right, my eyes fixed on the parked cars, where there’s a risk a door may open at any second. Every two minutes a taxi or a bus cuts in front of me and I have to brake brutally. To get around it, I turn my head toward the back with a contortion that is giving me a stiff neck. There’s no way to pass—a flood of cars is arriving at top speed in several lanes. Ten times I feel I’m going to die. When I get home at six in the evening, I have a headache and a painful cramp in the muscles of my neck and back. I am so tired that I have to get into a hot bath and stay there for an hour without moving, eyes closed. What annoys me is to think that I really needn’t have fought for weeks with my husband who wanted to forbid me something I needed, on the pretext that our studio was too small for us to put in it an object as cumbersome and as ugly as a bike. I was already happy, but with my bike I would be even happier, completely happy, because for me, my bike is my freedom.
Passing through Midtown on my way to Herald Square to buy some pants at the Gap, I found myself cornered on the bike lane between a panel truck leaving its parking spot and a car stopped at a red light. When the light changed to green, the truck on my left started up slowly while the car on my right hadn’t moved yet. The truck could brush my leg; I was blocked; another centimeter, and its steel carcass would be touching me; one more centimeter, and it would crush my leg. The driver couldn’t see me; I was in his blind spot. I panicked and pounded with all my strength on the door, screaming. The guy heard the knocking or the shouting; he stopped. The car on my right started up. I continued on, but for the rest of the day my throat hurt. My screaming had inflamed my vocal cords.
I turn onto 11th Street. It’s early May, the air is mild. I’m returning from D’Agostino where I’ve bought a container of coffee-flavored Häagen-Dazs frozen yogurt. I glide under the trees where little fresh green leaves are finally burgeoning, and I smile, thinking that I am undoubtedly pregnant. A delay of ten days and not a single symptom announcing my period. It’s true that I also don’t have any symptoms of pregnancy, other than this sudden, irrepressible desire for coffee ice cream, but this time I know it’s worked—I can feel it.
There are miracles one obtains only at the cost of many tears. When my stomach is nicely swollen, it will be funny to remember our fight in April and my childish despair at not being able to produce something so simple and natural that it’s generally more difficult to prevent it than to achieve it. We’ll laugh about it. For my husband it will be the proof that, as usual, I exaggerated and panicked, but I will know that if I hadn’t cried like that and hadn’t made such a big deal about it, it would never have happened.
My bike glides on the new asphalt. I turn onto Fifth Avenue. Watch out, better not daydream. The taxis don’t see you, my body carrying you is so precious now.
The beige panel truck reappeared ten blocks farther down, near 25th Street, where there are plant stores; or rather, I’ve caught up with it. His tires were clearly impinging on the white line marking the bicycle path. When I reached the driver’s side window open on my right, I gave the driver a furious look, loaded with moral reprobation. He sensed my gaze and turned toward me: You again! This is a bike lane here, said I, it’s not for trucks. With a somewhat irritated tone of excuse, he replied, but, miss, there’s a lot of traffic, I do what I can but it’s impossible. It’s not impossible, I retorted with a severe voice, since there are some people who respect this white line. Some people: obviously he wasn’t one of them. I sensed that I had touched this young man; he must have been the kind, sensitive type; being harangued in the street made him feel culpable. There was a chance that in the future he wouldn’t impinge on the white line of the bicycle path.
I’m going back down through Midtown after having bought my plane ticket. Reaching 23rd Street, I take the bicycle path on Fifth Avenue. If I can make all the green lights, I can ride all the way home without stopping. The street is open. I go fast on the smooth asphalt. Suddenly I see people on the pavement and I shout, very loud, without slowing down, Watch out! The people jump away. A guy on a large bike with a very high seat joins me, a Black man with a canvas bag and a heavy bike chain slung over his shoulder. He slows down beside me and looks at me. He flashes a broad smile that uncovers his teeth, some of which are missing. Don’t panic, he says, don’t panic, relax. I smile back. I don’t know how you manage, Midtown is horrible, and furthermore no one respects the bicycle path, not pedestrians, nor cars, nor taxis, nor buses, nor trucks. The Black man smiles: That’s true, but you shouldn’t panic, you should just see them coming, what you need is to anticipate. We ride side by side. He brakes to stay at my level; he leaves me the whole bicycle lane and rides on the avenue, not busy for the moment. I ask him if he’s a messenger; he says yes. Not too exhausting? Yes, but he gets a chance to rest his legs in the elevators, so it’s not too bad. And work that lets you be outside all the time, that’s great, I say. He replies yes, but not in the winter. He hasn’t yet experienced winter, he started his job recently. What he would like for the winter is a moped. I stop in front of my apartment building between 11th and 10th Streets. I live here, I say. A marquee in front of the entrance indicates that it’s a rich person’s building, and in any case when you live in that neighborhood you aren’t really poor. He stops and asks my name. We shake hands. He says he hopes we’ll see each other again on the street and that we might have a drink together. Gladly, I say. He leaves on his bike. Suddenly I am feeling really happy. That’s what I like with the bicycle: solidarity. It alone allows a lord of the bicycle to approach a white bourgeois woman to freely and without aggressiveness give her a bit of advice she would be wise to take: don’t panic, relax.
As soon as you’ve crossed West Side Highway, you can smell the sea. It’s windy and you can see the white caps on the water, where the setting sun is reflected after six o’clock. I love New York, the smell of the sea and the choppy waves where the lights sparkle. Riding along the Hudson, I sit up on my bike and look at the river and the sea to my right, on my left the warehouses and old apartment buildings bordering West Side Highway with the occasional recent construction or renovated buildings on which enormous banners proclaim “Luxury Rental,” and straight ahead the sight of the glass, steel, and brick buildings of TriBeCa and Wall Street. I scrutinize the vast glass walls of the residential buildings along West Side Highway, trying to make out the décor of the interiors and imagining life in the lofts with a view of the light and the sea.
With the coming of spring, they are resurfacing near us all the streets perpendicular to the avenues, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and now 12th Street, from Broadway to Seventh Avenue. When we returned from the night club Thursday night, my husband complained about the quality of the new asphalt: a lot of tar and not much stone. He compares it to the good asphalt, with a finer grain and much less black, on Fifth Avenue. Obviously, he says, it’s the stone that costs more. With the heat, the poor quality asphalt will melt. We already feel it’s soft underfoot. This summer it will be impossible to ride on it.
Today he tried rollerblading on the new surface. He came home delighted. He had been too quick to criticize: you glide like in a skating rink.
The newly tarred streets are paradise for skaters. For a bike, it’s less important. All the same, with my tires well pumped up and on the brand new asphalt, I too ride very fast and it’s very pleasant. The streets west of Fifth Avenue are quite pretty when the trees are covered with little green leaves at the beginning of May. It’s a delight to ride on a really smooth black road under a really smooth blue sky.
I prefer the tortuous layout of the streets of Paris to the geometrical design of Manhattan. But in Paris the Seine and its banks do not provide such openness. What I expect from a city can be summarized like this: the crowds and the thousands of possibilities of a cosmopolitan place, of which I’ll no doubt exploit none; and a place to roam in the afternoon to take a break from work. No other location rises to the level of a seaside where you can go biking. Never mind that you can hear the roar of the cars driving along West Side Highway on the left. What matters are the wind and the smell of the sea, and the vast, moving gray-blue expanse, with its thousands of points scintillating like so many diamonds.
The sea? Ben pulls a face: it’s just a little river that stinks and trundles garbage from the city. He thinks I idealize. Ben comes from Los Angeles, he knows what a sea is.
It’s true there is no unlimited horizon, you can always see, on the other side, the shores of New Jersey, Brooklyn, or Staten Island. But it’s not just a river. The water laps and undulates like the sea. And the smell is the smell of the sea. I insist on it.
From Battery Park City, New York is infinitely beautiful, much more beautiful than Paris. I am sitting beside my bicycle on a bright green lawn under a bright blue cloudless sky, in front of the bright blue SEA with behind me all the granite, brick, and polished glass towers of TriBeCa and the Financial World Center, which reflect the pinks and the blues of the setting sun. New York is a pink city.
No doubt life is better in the country or at a real seaside, far from a city. But there, at nightfall, I am gripped by anxiety.
On the bike and rollerblade trail between the Hudson and West Side Highway, there is only one spot with trees. They are planted in concrete planter basins painted cobalt blue. Each of the eight basins contains three or four trees of different sizes; some are real trees with real green foliage, others are stunted trunks. The dirt in the basins is covered either with grass, or moss and clover, or dust and wood chips, with empty beer bottles and soda cans mixed in. These planters are at the level of Christopher Street, the street that specializes in gay sex shops, gay porn video clubs, and shops of erotic lingerie and gadgets. On nice days, especially on weekends, large numbers gather there, sitting on the edge of the basins in the shade of the trees or on the sidewalk at the foot of the railing along the Hudson. Some dance with headphones on their ears. Others argue, laugh, or kiss. A black drag queen sings between two of the planters, dressed in a spectacular slinky dress with bright red sequins, her chest adorned with a large fake pearl necklace that flies around when she gesticulates with her mike like a star. She’s there every Saturday and Sunday, devoted to her public. The curious stop and watch her. The boys you find here every evening wear sleeveless tee-shirts that reveal their very muscular arms and their tattooed shoulders. Many have their nostrils or their lips pierced with little golden rings. Seeking greater privacy, they go out on one of the piers where “Danger” signs forbid passage, climbing through the holes in the barriers. At the very end of the pier, where here and there tufts of wild grass grow in the cracks in the concrete, you really get the impression that you’re at the seaside.
When I am more than four months pregnant, what will I do with my bike? Throwing it away is out of the question. Our building has neither basement nor bicycle storage space. Hang it in a closet? We’d have to get rid of half our clothes. Put it in storage somewhere? That would quickly come to more than the price of the bike. My husband would like me to throw it away. We’ll have an argument. If I’m reasonable, we’ll get rid of it. I’d like to keep it for afterwards, when the baby will be two or three and has his bike with training wheels and all three of us, on Sundays, will take 11th Street on the sidewalk, paying careful attention, down to the river. We will ride together at the water’s edge among other New Yorkers on their bikes and their rollerblades. On our return, he will be tired.
It’s a really old Phillips, a black one that my boyfriend bought for five dollars in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and patched up. He used it for the whole year when he was there. I took it back after he left. It’s thanks to him that I was able to survive the weeks of hell with the American man I had fallen in love with. When I returned to the United States a year later and saw my American again, I found the old bike in his yard where I had left it, covered with dead leaves and spider webs. Then I used it during each of my stays, at Christmas, in February, at Easter, during the year before we got married. When we lived in Coolidge Hill, I used it all year. Without it Cambridge would have seemed even gloomier. Then it followed us to Milford. And from Connecticut to New York.
My husband holds the door while I get my bike out, then follows me on his rollerblades and locks the door. As I’m about to press the button for the elevator, I ask him: Do you think I should go back? Absolutely, he replies calmly. He puts the key back in the lock and opens the door. He holds my bike and leans against the wall in the entrance while I run to the bathroom. I just went barely three minutes ago, but it’s always the same: just as I’m leaving I am visited by anxiety. My husband has a hard time understanding how it’s possible to pee two or three times in a row, but he accepts this phenomenon with his habitual tolerance. One day when he was in the bathroom at the same time as I was, he asked why expressions of effort appear on my face while I’m urinating. Well, it’s so I can relax, I said, so the pee comes out. He burst out laughing and exclaimed: So that’s the explanation of the mystery!
I tore open the paper with impatience, with what is called a “contained emotion.” I already knew. I had known ever since I had that revelation a few days earlier while riding my bike in the gentle spring air. I got my excitement under control, took care to study the instructions so as not to risk making a mistake. It was the moment of truth. I removed the left leg of my pants and my underpants so I could spread my legs more easily. I pissed on my fingers and on the white plastic rectangle. Immediately, the little white squares turned purple. My heart jumped and started to beat wildly. So: yes. I looked at the instructions again. They don’t talk about two purple squares—just one, the second one, the control box, which verifies that the test is working, and a purple line in the first square, which is white. Maybe in my case it’s so true that the test got excited and filled the first square entirely with purple to shout out this truth? Or maybe the process is not finished. If the instructions say to wait three minutes, there must be a reason. I wait. From second to second, the color in the first square changes. The purple turns paler and paler. I’m clenching the white plastic packaging in my hand; I’m turning pale too, my heart sinks. The box is pale pink, and now white. Perhaps this is the normal process: perhaps now the test is going to start. We have to wait patiently for the time indicated in the instructions—still two minutes.
I set the tube on the edge of the sink and leave the bathroom. I sit on the bed in our room. My husband is working on his computer. I explain what I’m doing. He is moved, a bit; he stops typing. You said three minutes? Face to face, we wait. He looks at his watch. Okay. We both get up. I’m sure it’s going to be white, I say, it’s always white. We walk fast. I reach the bathroom first. I glance at the sink: You see, I told you so. With my fingers I pick up the white plastic rectangle. I observe the first box, which earlier had turned purple before turning white again. It’s entirely white, with no trace of a pink line. The test has worked since the second box has stayed purple. My husband folds me in his arms.
I free myself. Oh well, it’s better this way. I’m not in such a hurry. There are other things to do in life, and ours is quite full. I’m not ready to lose my freedom this coming December. In any case, this desire for a baby is only a biological trap, I’m annoyed at falling into it, and this way I’ll still be able to ride my bike this fall.
Catherine Cusset, PhD, born in Paris in 1963, taught eighteenth-century French literature at Yale for twelve years. She is the author of thirteen novels published mostly by Gallimard between 1990 and 2018, and she is translated into eighteen languages. Cusset’s thirteenth novel, the 2018 Vie de David Hockney, has already attracted immense praise from a broad range of critics in the French press and has won the Anaïs Nin prize; an English translation will be published by Other Press. New York, journal d’un cycle, a nonfiction work, was published in 2009. Catherine Cusset lives in Manhattan. See also catherinecusset.comArmine Kotin Mortimer
Armine Kotin Mortimer was awarded the Palmes académiques honor in recognition of her distinguished work on behalf of French culture. She holds a PhD from Yale and is the author of numerous scholarly publications, including seven books. She has published translations of three French books, The Enchanted Clock by Julia Kristeva and Mysterious Mozart and Casanova the Irresistible by Philippe Sollers. Excerpts from twelve other literary translations have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, The Cossack Review, Asymptote, Black Sun Lit, The Peacock Journal, The Critical Flame, The Northwest Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Lunch Ticket, and AGNI. CV available at www.frit.illinois.edu/people/armine