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City Desk

Not-So-Mean Streets

by Richard Brookhiser

This is no city for cars. Taxis, yes, of course: We depend on them. But for personal cars it is a struggle — a feral struggle. Garaging one here is like renting a second tiny apartment. Driving here belongs with blood sports, fox-hunting or running the bulls at Pamplona, when it isn’t rush-hour slow-dance. Now and again I see a princely car, a Maserati or a Lamborghini, crawling along in car hell. I own a car myself but I park it 90 miles away. I would not keep it an inch nearer.

Our last mayor tried to convert the city to bicycles. What makes bicycles morally uplifting? One of the selling points of the strange Sixties/Seventies cult of Mao was that all his subjects bicycled. Sure, he killed 40 million of them, but the survivors got their exercise. The old mayor made a deal with a bank, and queues of blue bicycles appeared on every third street (there is one on my street, beside the school named for Washington Irving). The bicycles seem sturdy — built for potholes — and deliberately dowdy, as if to discourage theft. You release their front wheels from the slots in which they stand nestled by swiping a card, then away you go. People do use them, or did until the retreat-from-Moscow winter set in.

Whenever the arctic cold abated, it snowed. My friend, the witty cosmopolitan atheist, assured me that the bike program would be a great success, they love it in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is on the North Sea, so it must get rain, but surely its winters are not as lousy as New Amsterdam’s. Now spring has come and the snards have gone; we shall see.

Bicycles for everyone have diluted a subculture of the city’s streets. Before they became a badge of good citizenship, bicycles were the chariots of daredevils. The symbol of urban excitement and anarchy was the bicycle messenger, some lean, probably strung-out young man, astride a racing bike whippet-thin as himself, slipping and shooting through traffic, giving an occasional slap/push-off to the many-ton monsters roaring around him. For the pedestrian about to step into his flight path, there was a whistle blast or a shouted Yo! They still careen, though there seem to be fewer of them; no doubt the cops have cracked down. I recently saw a young man on 14th Street, a big two-way boulevard, sitting on his handlebars, back foremost, pedaling with a reverse motion. This was affectation merely. But soon thereafter I saw another freewheeler pedaling up Sixth Avenue with an easel strapped to his back. He was a hero of old, performing a job. The easel swayed back and forth with every leg pump, threatening to throw him off balance and under someone else’s wheels. Still he forged on. I can’t imagine anything, short of a full-grown pig, harder to carry on a bicycle than an easel. I worshiped that man.

The vehicles that make the city work are trucks and vans. They are our red blood cells and leukocytes. Any product that is bulkier than virtual they bring in, and all detritus that is larger than flushable they carry away. When they clog the streets in front of supermarkets with their double parking, think: They are feeding me. When they fill the night with racket just at sleep-fall, think: They are cleaning up after me. Take them away and in a few weeks we would all be corpses on a midden (we would still have Wi-Fi though, LOL).

Their help is not without cost. The transit of so many trucks and vans exacerbates asthma. One of the local congressmen has made a crusade of bringing light rail into the city, in order to diminish the miasma of exhaust. Good luck with that. At the rate that the Second Avenue subway has been dug, if we turn the first shovel for a light-rail network today it will be finished about the time Russia leaves Ukraine.

Trucks and vans are the entertainment, the folk-art gallery and magazine rack, for slow taxi rides. Look out, read the view. U-Haul decorates its vehicles with regional American scenes; each van is like a page from The Golden Book Encyclopedia. Produce trucks depict their contents: families of gigantic fruit; medieval boar’s heads, tusks rampant; placid cattle; seafood of all kinds, from leaping swordfish to lobsters to lugubrious bass. For some reason pigs are often shown in chef’s hats, as if they collude in their own demise; it is I suppose a backhanded tribute to their intelligence — if they got the upper hand, they would grill us.

Tools are another popular motif: hammers, saws, screwdrivers. Some stand upright on little tool legs, complete with feet and shoes; others are carried back and forth by miniature workmen. Specialists in AC and heating advertise the results of their work: snowmen, sweating suns. One such company, a step more abstract, uses a winking owl: He knows just where to set the dial.

When there are no pictures there is text: queries about the driver’s driving, with a number to call if he has been driving like Mad Max; addresses in Brooklyn on streets you have never heard of and will never visit; townlets on Long Island, once Dutch or Yankee communities, now epiphytes on the trunk of the city; Chinese. It looks like art to non-speakers; in the absence of meaning we make beauty.

The plague of the city when I moved here was graffiti. It lived in the subways, but it spread everywhere. Thousands of tags, one message: Punks rule. You think you own something, or, as a taxpayer, you have a stake in it. No: It’s mine. After years of hard work and years more of regular maintenance the plague has been contained. One entrepreneur who frequents my neighborhood has, as is his right, made his truck a canvas of graffiti’d imagery: smudgy drawings, under a veil of smudgy lettering. One such almost looks interesting. Let it be lonely.

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