Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A SoHo epiphany, a South London mugging - and the loneliness of the small-hours cyclist

It was around 12.45 in the early hours of last Thursday morning, as I bounced and dodged along the rutted, uneven surface of Grand St, my new route home through SoHo, that I came across and obstacle of the kind one’s apt to encounter at that time of night in a big city. Workmen had closed the street as they moved equipment into and out of the work sites that have been dotted along much of that street for the last year or so. A big sewer underneath is being replaced. I picked up my bike and, eager to get home after a 16-and-a-half hour work day, wheeled it along the sidewalk past the obstruction. Then I got back on, cycled a block and waited for a red light.
 
A late-night workman bars my way by London's Southwark
Cathedral: similar to my Grand St experience,
if less poetically picturesque
As I paused, however, I experienced one of those moments on a bike that takes the mind racing off to all kinds of other places. To my left, peering into one of the holes for the sewer, was a safety-helmeted workman. The man, who looked to be of Amerindian descent, looked weather-beaten and sad. I could see his wizened, resigned face in minute detail because of the lights shining up from the work site down in the hole. The expression and unusual lighting gave the picture a timeless feeling. The scene I was witnessing on a New York city street in 2013 could almost as easily have been from some 17th century painting depicting shepherds peering from the dark into a lit stable to adore the newborn Christ.

It was also, it occurred to me, the kind of encounter that’s more common when one’s cycling very late at night or very, very early in the morning – the times when one’s out on one’s bike and most of the rest of the world is asleep. The few people one sees are out for some specific purpose – fixing the streets or transit system, disposing of yesterday’s detritus, delivering the coming day’s food, continuing a celebration that started the previous evening or ensuring public safety. The encounters take on a far more intense flavour than the countless interactions of a bike journey at a more normal time of day. I’ve had things thrown at me at those times of day, helped a mugging victim and come upon a lone woman jogging through an entirely darkened city park.
 
Cycling late at night can feel ghostly quiet. But I've never
felt quite as ethereal as I made this Copenhagen cyclist look.
However, my main memories are of the peculiar euphoria that comes from rushing (as one often can) through a city that’s so calm and devoid of its usual sounds as to seem like an entirely different place.

It’s a form of riding of which I have disproportionate experience. Early in my career, when I worked for The Scotsman in Edinburgh, I had bursts of working as the late-shift reporter. I’d come into the office for 6pm, work until the paper’s final edition was done at 1am then head home by bike through the Scottish capital’s old town. I remember bowling across the Meadows – a rough Edinburgh mixture of Central Park and Boston Common, American readers – on crisp, clear nights, along lines of trees, speeding towards home.
 
A lit-up building by Park Lane: a scene
I'd witness looming across the road at me
as I cycled early morning or late at night
to or from Paddington Station.
When I moved later to London, I often had to catch early-morning trains or flights. Quite the most challenging were the times I had to go to Paris for the day and catch the 5:25am train from St Pancras, eight miles from my house, checking in at 4.55am. I’d dash across town in the early morning quiet, down roads that a few hours later would be prohibitively busy, at a steady 20mph. On arrival, I’d often wonder that I’d dared go as fast as I had, given the load of laptop, washbag and so on often weighing down my panniers, threatening to pitch me into the road if I hit a pothole.

On such journeys, the loudest sound to be heard was often the long rattle as some early morning shopkeeper or underground station manager lifted up his security roller shutter. The rat-a-rat-a-rat-a-rat-a sound would echo off the face of the opposite buildings, disturbing the dawn stillness. There was also sometimes, on side streets, the distinctive hum-and-rattling-bottles of a British electric milk float doing its rounds.

Other than that, there was a strange feeling that this was a world with its mute button on. Police vans or ambulances would often rush by, at speed, but on empty roads only the lights would flash and the engine emit the slightly higher-pitched hurry-hurry-hurry sound that says the driver has his foot firmly to the floor. There would be a gentle “whoosh!” sound as the vehicle passed, then a resumption of the quiet.

But one would also come upon people. One frosty morning in February 2006, I cycled from Brixton to Shepherd’s Bush to give a 6.30am interview at BBC Television Centre. As I rode shortly after 5am through a pitch-black Battersea Park, I was surprised to find I was not alone. There, running along entirely unlit roads, was a woman I took to be London’s most dedicated fitness fanatic.

A couple of years before, cycling home late on a Friday night through Camberwell, South London, I noticed a woman hunched over on the pavement by the roadside shouting, “They got all my money!” Looking down the road, I saw the silhouettes of three young men running away across the street. I talked to her and took her into a neighbouring ambulance station while we waited for the police. The incident – along with the time I heard the smash of a thrown bottle that had just missed me at midnight in a public housing estate – persuaded me to stick mainly to main roads at such times of the night.

The ambulance crews offered the woman tea and very British calming words as she sobbed hysterically about how she was meant to be at a friend’s wedding the next day. It was another scene played out in a mixture of darkness and the warm light from inside the ambulance station. The picture – the ambulance drivers gathered in quiet concern round the seated, weeping victim – had an Old Master timelessness similar to the scene I would much later witness by the hole in Grand St.
 
A night-time church spire in Carroll Gardens,
Brooklyn: home - who knows - to depictions
of magical scenes similar to those the
Invisible Visible Man has encountered late
at night on New York's streets
But the level of activity I encountered last week on Grand St – and the fact I was also recently stopped there late at night for a filmshoot – illustrate something rather different about cycling late at night in New York. The subways don’t stop just after midnight as the London Underground does. One’s apt to come upon sudden busy scenes even in the small hours of the morning. A couple of times recently, I've cycled across the Manhattan Bridge at 12.30am and seen below me three lanes of traffic on FDR Drive. How strange, it seems to me, cycling on my own a hundred feet above them, to be stuck as 1am approaches, staring at the rear lights of the car in front.

There are, however, subtle signs in New York when it’s late. One’s more likely to pass a work train rumbling behind a diesel engine along the Manhattan Bridge subway tracks than during the day. The garbage trucks are more likely to be private operators picking up restaurants’ potato peelings and empty bottles than city trucks picking up every house’s refuse.
 
A late-night New York City skyline: fine fingers of Art Deco
elegance from the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
But there is still a special magic about riding when most people are sleeping, even in the city that itself never does so. I saw one woman striding down Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn at 11.30pm, holding a small child’s hand and yelling accusations desperately at whoever was on the other end of her cellphone. There was the guy I encountered one night recently so drunk that I feared I’d be obliged to accompany him all the way home.

The most striking moments, however, are the ones where the dark and the shafts of light interact to pick out a startling detail. One’s eye will catch the lights on the Chrysler Building’s spire, fine fingers of art deco elegance pointing into the night sky. Or one will find a man who’s peering into a sewer - but providing for a brief moment a reminder of some of the most sublime moments in western art.

8 comments:

  1. Riding at night is the best, especially in NYC. You feel like you own the street. It's your private playground. I love the solitude. I used to ride from midtown to LES at night for an old job and it'd always be so great to stretch out after a long day sitting at a desk. So peaceful and relaxing, which aren't sentiments frequently attributed to NYC.

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    Replies
    1. JarekAF,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I think part of the fun in New York is that it's easier at night to feel lost amid the city's vast scale. I love riding along with all those skyscrapers towering over me.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Night riding is either the best or worst riding around. It can change from one to the other in an instant.

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    Replies
    1. Steve,

      It's an excellent point (as ever, I might add, sycophantically). I've focused mainly on the positive in the post but it can certainly be different - particularly in the less bike-accustomed bits of the countryside.

      My recent night-time cycling nadir was during our Cape Cod vacation during the summer. Seeking late-night takeout, I asked for recommendations from our motel's night staff. One pointed me towards a nearby Italian restaurant, off the nearby US 6 Highway. He assured me it was fine to cycle down there at night. After 100 yards in the pitch dark with cars buzzing by far too fast, I realised that it emphatically was not, turned round and gave up.

      I suspect the staff member had never tried that stretch of highway in anything smaller than a pick-up truck,

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. OTOH, cycling home from my parents' home earlier tonight was VERY pleasant...

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    Replies
    1. Steve,

      It's great when a bike ride surprises one with joy like that, isn't it?

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. London cycling at night can only be bettered by cycling round the City of London on a Sunday (or better still Christmas morning). You've got the whole place to yourself, and it feels like another world.

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    Replies
    1. Bailey,

      That's very true. I love the City at pretty much any point - the crazy mixture of ultra-modern buildings and little 16th century or older churches or rows of houses makes it feel like pretty much nowhere else on earth. But it's superb at the weekend. When we lived in London, we'd sometimes go to the Museum of London on Saturdays or on Sundays to visit my sister-in-law in the Barbican. It was always a treat.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete