Health

Biking in New York Traffic Forced Me to Learn to Take Up Space

Bicycling in the city, however dangerous, reminds me that I have a body.

by Tiana Reid
Jul 1 2019, 3:32pm

Photo via Tiana Reid

This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the highly personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Tiana Reid swerves into traffic on her bike in order to stave off self-consciousness. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.

Almost every day, I desire a life other than the one what I already have. I don’t mean I want more money or better clothes (though that might be nice). Mostly, I just want to feel free. I want to be unburdened from the expectations I set for myself, which, on a given day, may include “get out of bed” and “write that dissertation chapter.” Often, this means I try to act free. I try to fake free.

I always thought my drive to get things done was a result of ambition, but after years of therapy—and years of lying to therapists—it turns out I’m just a big people-pleaser. When I was 12, I got my first job. Well, two—both were paper routes. The first: delivering a free weekly with flyers I self-inserted on the floor of my living room, careful not to get ink everywhere as I organized ads for chicken thighs, stockings, and bus tours.

The second was more intense: delivering the Sunday Toronto Star, one of Canada’s most-circulated newspapers. I woke up at 4 AM to complete my route by 7. Its last house belonged to a total curmudgeon: a white man who complained that the previous deliverer reached him by 5:15 AM, and that I was lazy. I stuttered in the face of his complaints, running back to my mom in tears. I wish I had screamed at him.

I wasn't technically late, but I thought this guy could get me fired. I woke up earlier and changed my route to make the old man happy. Over 15 years later, I remember the pit in my stomach when I saw him peering through the screen door in a bathrobe at dawn.

It’s been like that ever since. I want to do everything right, and what’s most frightening is that sometimes I think I can manage it. I hold myself back enough to operate and even succeed in neoliberal America: I move countries, go to grad school, teach, publish, run a few times a week, occasionally quit smoking. Instead of telling others when I feel uncomfortable, I smile.

Behind a good-on-paper life, I shield a certain turbulence. As I grew up, I began to experiment with what untethering myself to weird authority figures might look like. I craved disorder. (“I feel like you secretly love mess,” my friend Elleza texted after I told her I was entertaining fucking a friend who was also fucking a mutual.)

I find small ways to refuse feeling trapped and shattered by how unfree life feels because I am bound to some idea of the non-existent Right Thing. I want to be free—but not too free—so I seek out things that are permissible, but feel like bad behavior. One of them is getting on a bike and riding through traffic in a place that loves to put you in harm's way for trying. Bicycling through New York City, however dangerous, brings me back to life by reminding me that I have a body—and that it can get in people’s way; that it's fallible. The monotony of everyday life melts into the asphalt, where my main interest is self-protection, and my brain strips away to reveal the threat and promise of my immediate physical surroundings.

That hasn't always worked out for me, but after a year off of my single-speed bicycle due to a couple lowkey accidents, a six-hour emergency room wait, a sprained shoulder, a concussion, a tetanus shot, and the highkey fear that all of the above produced, I'm biking around Manhattan again. I love the sensation of flying: my feet whirling, riding no-handed, my life flashing before my eyes.

How exhilarating the immediacy of being flung through traffic is. With every car edging too close, every out-of-place pedestrian I swerve past, every skid of my wheels, I have a concurrent vision of catastrophe: my head slamming into a windshield, my arm crushed under a delivery truck, my body flipping over a car door, then diving face-first into the pavement.

On my bike, I feel like a different person. I've long considered myself shy. I make myself small in public. I disappear into people I've just met, taking on their desires and preferences. I hide so well behind these affectations that others describe me as “chill.” They're wrong: I only get warm, wild, and weird if I know someone really well, or on a bike, where I become that person almost immediately.

My priorities, biking through traffic, are not a matter of pleasing people, or even meeting my own expectations, but protecting myself. I don’t overthink—I have to be extremely aware of my shifting surroundings. I stand on my pedals to make myself more noticeable. I clear space for myself on the road; become defensive. I make eye contact with car drivers, sing Ariana Grande out loud, and wear a beaded triangle bikini top instead of a shirt while riding southbound on through the bike lane–less heavy-traffic spectacle that is Midtown's Fifth Avenue.

There is a reason that New York's former mayor Ed Koch wanted to ban daytime bicycling on three East Side avenues: too much freedom. Cyclists at the time—the late 1980s—responded by gathering by the hundreds to parade down the streets on their bikes, unpermitted. (This obviously speaks to me.)

Even as I saw Koch as a rulemonger who made life less livable not only for cyclists, but also for those targeted by police, the homeless, environmentalists, and gay people—and though I quite clearly have complicated feelings about whether rules apply to me—I also believe in enforcing rules when they interfere with my personal and physical boundaries.

“You’re in a bike lane!!!” I once snarled at someone dragging a suitcase through my lane in Times Square.

“I know,” they said calmly. I was stunned by the flat honesty—the total disregard for the city’s complicated, congested roadways. Still, I hadn't shied from a conflict. I did the right thing, I thought—so unlike all the times when I smoothed things over or didn’t say what I meant. And yet! They didn’t even care! I was reminded that the city’s people have their own anxieties, which was OK, too. It evinced a kind of relationship to people that offered independence while being wholly in and among the world.

Danger helps me confront a sense of foreboding that comes more than it goes. On days when I don’t want to leave the house because I know I don’t have it in me to erect a shield between me and everyone else, but have agreed to meet someone somewhere, it is only the promise of soaring down the chaotic streets on my bike that pushes me to put on deodorant, lipstick, shoes. I just want to feel alive. In order to do that, I need to feel "aliveness" as a risk. Biking gets me there quickest.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.