When I announced to my father that a friend and I were planning on biking seven miles downtown to Greenwich Village, he was not pleased.
“I biked in the city only once,” he said, “and gave away my bike the next day.” Craving an adventure, I played all my usual 2020 cards (“I never get to see her anymore!” “I haven’t been downtown since March…”). He agreed to let me go.
I met Safia at 96th Street, where she greeted me with a helmet and her dad’s bike, and we were off—flying down an enormous hill, through a tunnel and into Riverside Park, gliding along the bike path that runs adjacent to the Hudson River. The late afternoon air was warm but not uncomfortable or sticky, and the gentle breeze coming from the river made me feel weightless. It was one of those Perks of Being a Wallflower car tunnel moments: the kind that makes you want to let go of the handlebars, stretch out your arms, and, for a moment, be infinite.
The path snaked through basketball courts and baseball fields, and suddenly a pack of Lance Armstrong-esque men in spandex bike shorts appeared out of nowhere. They zipped by and swerved directly in front of us, stopping without warning to let cars and pedestrians pass when the path began to connect with the West Side Highway. Safia and I were shaky on the thin-wheeled bikes and not nearly skilled enough to avoid the sudden stops. I came scarily close to crashing into a gate, and Safia confidently led us into oncoming traffic—a move that nearly landed us in the Hudson River. We ventured into unknown territory where the streets aren’t numbered, and then got off our bikes and ran, like idiots, across the highway just as the light started to turn.
We started toward Washington Square Park, and God, am I obsessed with the Village. The cobblestone streets and old buildings are magical. Although the neighborhood has been rapidly gentrified since its peak in the counterculture movement of the ‘60s, it’s hard not to fall in love with the old-fashioned restaurants and tea rooms that spill out onto the streets, not to mention romanticize this place that’s enacted so much artistic, literary, and social change.
I’ve always hoped that (in the event that I make enough money) I’ll live out my days as an eccentric writer in a fourth-floor walk-up on the Upper West Side. But my bike trip to the Village totally bewitched me: I want to be the next Allen Ginsberg, performing my work at Café Wha? on the corner of Minetta Lane. Or even, less ambitiously, just a normal person who frequents bars and restaurants where the musicians and activists of the future hang out. Clearly, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of over-romanticizing the Village—but how can I help it?
Safia and I struggled to push our bikes along crowded streets, weaving past outdoor restaurants and street musicians with our pedals hitting our ankles. Distracted by our own conversation, we crashed into lamp posts and laughed hysterically at our own idiocy. Once we got into the park, a man with a guitar and a shaky voice sang “Harvest Moon” to a crowd of spectators as skaters whizzed around the fountain and couples talked under the Arch. If we hadn’t been wearing masks, it would have felt like pre-pandemic times.
Hypnotized by everything around us, we didn’t even realize that night was rapidly falling. And, if you’re from New York, you know that neither Washington Square Park nor the Hudson River are ideal places to be at night. So we hopped on our bikes and drove west through traffic, hoping to avoid a seven-mile bike ride in total darkness.
Once on the bike path and mostly out of danger, we pedaled as hard as we could. Our legs burned as we passed by glass high-rises in Chelsea, the moonlight reflecting off them in an eerie, apocalyptic way. We panicked as we rode under a deserted overpass, expecting somebody to leap out of the shadows and attack us. Irritable, hot, and lost in the dark, we bickered like an old married couple for the last five miles. At 96th Street, we climbed off our bikes, chugged water like we never had before, and walked out of the park on wobbly legs in silence. She texted me almost immediately after we parted ways: “I think we’ll look back on this in a few days and laugh.”
As scary and stressful as the journey was, I felt free for the first time since the pandemic began. It was just me, Safia, New York, and an element of thrilling unpredictability I’d been craving since March. Our bike ride allowed us to connect with other humans for the first time in ages. For a few hours, I was back in the New York I love so much. And yes, I returned home with my entire body bruised and my legs aching. But for a couple hours of human-to-human connection and a hint of normalcy, it was worth it.
By Sophia Peyser
Photo by Hilary Swift for The New York Times