Whenever I start my motorcycle, I contemplate the line between life and death. Kickstand up, clutch in, engine on—and acknowledge the myriad of things that could go violently wrong while riding my bike.
Our mission tonight has amplified that reality tenfold. It’s Saturday, March 21, at 9:15 p.m. I’m at an undisclosed location in Bed-Stuy with three other bikers: John, an Instagram buddy that I’ve met only once before, last summer; and his friends Ryan, our squad leader, and Crü, both of whom I’ve never met. You don’t meet new people in New York City these days—not when the city is under siege from COVID-19, when I've been working from home for weeks; when all the bars and parks are closed, and the closest thing to social interaction is a FaceTime call with your friend whose apartment is within a walkable distance.
But we’re not here to socialize. We’re here to pick up 160 N95 respirator masks, hazmat suits, goggles, gloves, and medical-grade sanitizer from a van, and deliver them directly to medical professionals. The need for PPE (personal protective equipment) here is dire: At the time of this writing, there are 37,258 confirmed cases of the virus in New York State; 21,394 are those in New York City alone. We’re volunteers for Masks For Docs, a rapidly growing group of 1,000+ volunteers from the tech, business, and design community with the singular goal of getting critical protective equipment, like masks and hand sanitizer, into the hands of doctors on the frontlines of the current global pandemic.
Generally, on my bike, I only think about death as it pertains to me. If the novel coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that what we do right now isn’t just about us; it’s about everyone else, too. The success of tonight’s ride might make a difference in whether a sick person—or the doctor who’s taking care of them—lives or dies.
Reginé is coming from Montauk with the donated supplies, and she’s running late.** When it comes to pickups and drop-offs, we motorcyclists are flexible. Our role within Masks For Docs is to move those supplies as quickly as possible. The organization handles the coordination between hospitals that need supplies and donors who have them, whether that’s a veterinary office, nail salon, construction supply warehouse, art school, or individual who panic-bought supplies at the start of the pandemic. They vet the donations; we transport them.
Bikes parked, we stand on the side of a too-quiet Bed-Stuy street, six feet apart, gloves and helmets on, masks donned beneath the latter. We chat about our appraisal of Governor Cuomo’s response to the situation; all the friends we know who lost their jobs in the past week; our shared feeling of helplessness and the profound need to do something; and the universal truth of it’s a really fucking weird time to be alive.
At 9:28 p.m., Reginé and her partner pull onto the street in a nondescript white van. “Hang on,” Reginé says, out the window. “We need to park this thing.”
Aside from the ability to easily load up and park a motorcycle, the main advantage of driving one is that they’re simply faster. We accelerate faster, brake faster, and of the utmost importance for tonight, we can load and unload faster than Reginé’s van or a typical supply truck. From the back of the van, we procure a storage bin of bagged hazmat suits, boxed N95 masks, industrial bottles of medical-grade sanitizer, and in the span of five minutes, we’ve divided it up evenly between our four bikes.
The supplies are going to two different doctors working for major hospitals in the city, who will then share the supplies with their colleagues. In the interest of anonymity, neither doctor nor their affiliated hospitals will be named here. We’re meeting the first doctor at his house in TriBeCa tonight, and delivering half of our stock to the second doctor tomorrow—but Ryan is already texting with the latter about his availability, and everything is subject to change. Another advantage motorcycles have over cars is that we can split up if need be: if the second doctor is free tonight, we might be able to complete both deliveries before midnight.
Using a bungee net, I strap my backpack—stuffed with three boxes of N95 respirators and two bottles of sanitizer—to the tail of my bike. Ryan confirms the address for our first drop-off in TriBeCa. Each of us puts it into our respective GPS mount and we throttle out into the crisp, cloudless night.
The Manhattan Bridge is wide open. Ryan, a self-professed big believer in hand signals, waves me forward ahead of him, and we take the bridge at 70 miles per hour. The city is even quieter than Brooklyn: With the exception of a few cars at the bottom of the bridge, it’s dead. Something leaden and electric lodges itself in the pit of my stomach—the dystopian, apocalyptic nature of our current reality is a bit easier to mitigate from my apartment, where my roommates and I have hunkered down for 10 days and counting. Here, on Canal Street, it’s harder to ignore. There’s no traffic, no honking, no people on the sidewalk. The fact that it’s Saturday only makes it more jarring.
It’s 10:03 p.m. when we pull onto the doctor’s dimly lit one-way street. We ride straight onto the sidewalk and start unloading. Ryan texts the doctor, and he appears a few minutes later, sporting a baseball cap and a grey hoodie.
“This is amazing,” he says, as we place boxes of masks and gloves onto the ground so he can pick them up and put them into a black garbage bag. We make a point of not touching hands, even if we’re all wearing gloves. “This is truly amazing. I’m going to pull my car up.”
My eyes are stinging. We shrug it off and thank him instead. The doctor puts the bag in the trunk of his car and goes back inside.
Ryan announces that the next recipient is ready to go tonight, not tomorrow, and that we can meet him in Queens. As he waits for the exact address, we kill time. John, a photographer, snaps photos of Crü—an empty Manhattan street at night makes for an eerie backdrop. I shuffle my feet and stretch to keep warm; we’ve been outside for over an hour now, hitting the wind on our bikes, and I don’t have heated gloves like the others do.
Four floors up, in a loft apartment with bay windows, I see two silhouettes pressed against the glass, looking down at us. I wave up at them. The man shrugs at me, as if to ask, what are you doing?
Ryan relays the address for the next drop. Looking back at the watchers in the window, I point to my face mask, motion to the bikes, and give them a thumbs up. He gives one back, although he clearly has no idea what I’m trying to convey.
We take the Williamsburg Bridge to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. My hands are starting to get numb, even though I try to heat them up by holding them up to my engine at the red lights along the way to the bridge.
Once we’re on the highway, the boys sprint off without me. I’m a newer rider and it’s technically my first time taking the BQE, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous. Fortunately, the expressway is virtually empty, since no one is commuting or going out tonight, and it feels good to open the throttle and let my 900cc engine rip.
In addition to ATGATT—all the gear, all the time—a core teaching amongst motorcyclists is ride your own ride. In other words, don’t ride above your skill level and do what you need to do to be safe on the road. I keep it at 65 miles per hour and I pull up next to the boys right after they’ve parked. “Sorry,” John says, as I get off my bike. “I couldn’t let him beat me on a 250.”
It’s 10:47 p.m. when the doctor and his girlfriend meet us in the street. We introduce ourselves from a safe distance and proceed to drop the remaining batch into the garbage bag he holds out. “That’s amazing,” he says, wide-eyed. “This is awesome. This is amazing. Thank you guys so much!”
The mission is complete. We elbow-bump and take a group photo with our bikes. John’s battery dies immediately thereafter, but otherwise it’s been a remarkably smooth night for a civilian operation that took root only 12 hours earlier.
Two days later, I call Ryan on the phone. We talk about my availability for upcoming missions and revisit how smoothly the first one went.
“This is exactly what we need to be doing,” he says. “We did it, we enjoyed doing it, and they needed it. It’s not just thinking about what to do—it’s doing it.”
He adds that our squad has grown from the four of us to nearly 60 volunteer riders across NYC, and an LA chapter is in the process of self-organizing. “This is what the motorcycle community excels at. They want to be a part of it. We’re a squad. We have a squad of people who are ready.”
To learn more about the Masks For Docs motorcycle squad, go here.
Meredith Balkus is the Associate Managing Editor, Digital at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.