Sunday, July 30, 2006

Who Rides a Bike to Costco?

I rode to the Costco in Queens on my bike today — it’s about seven miles from my uptown address. People warned me of heatstroke and called me crazy to try such a stunt in this weather, but the trip was pleasant and without mishap. After years of driving everywhere and a lifetime of failing to use the bridges that link Manhattan to the rest of the world, little voyages like this are part of my post-automotive rediscovery of exploration. It's not normal to ride a bike to Costco, of all places, and make purchase decisions based on whether items will fit in a daypack, but it was a fun excursion.

After climbing to the middle of the 59th St. Bridge, I found myself coasting down into Queens from well above the rooftops and leafy trees. It was a peaceful entry, like dropping through a green cloud cover, until a subway train rumbled past to my left, descending in the opposite direction toward a tunnel; at the same moment, a noise-damping bulwark on my right disappeared, revealing how near and loud the cars were racing at and past me onto the bridge. Kind of thrilling.

After I hit terra firma, the ride north to Costco was brief and uneventful. I had never before ridden a bike in Queens. Apart from trips to the airport and a couple museum expeditions, I had never even been in Queens. The Clash's "Safe European Home" came to mind as it often does when I leave my usual range for terra semi-cognita, but I don't think Long Island City -- even its scruffier precincts -- remotely qualifies as a "place where every white face is an invitation to robbery." It was very benign, if run-down, and those buildings that haven’t been absurdly defaced with affordable materials were charming and impressive. And rare.

Rolling through the parking lot, I was surprised to discover a bike rack. And even more surprised to find that I wasn't the only person using it. A youthful, white-haired couple was already there chaining up, and we all laughed at the unlikelihood of finding others just as quixotic. His bike was a shocking antique: an ancient Raleigh with rod brakes and a full chain guard. The original black paint was almost invisible under rust, and the rear fender was actually rotting and falling apart.

"When, how did you get that bike?" I asked, wide-eyed.

He smiled and said slowly, "I received it for my ninth birthday." The bike was a museum piece, about half a century old. I could tell by his accent that he was from Holland, so I unleashed my usual Dutch palaver, which is remarkable in the way that a talking horse would be remarkable; it's not what the horse says but that he says anything at all. Dutch is among the least useful languages on Earth, not because it lacks great literature or movies or fine conversationalists, but because most every Dutch person you meet speaks English. And probably French and German too. So when a non-Dutchman spreekt Nederlands, the native speakers are unfailingly tickled and full of compliments for even a rudimentary fluency. Incidentally, the Dutch are committed cyclists, a national trait reinforced by the almost universal flatness of their country.

"My daughter won't ride with me. She's embarrassed by my bike," he said proudly. His wife's bicycle was also older and, like her, made in America. She seemed amused by his opportunity to speak Dutch and talk about his prize bike. We wished each other restraint in the aisles and said goodbye.

The store wasn't as well-organized or maintained as its L.A. counterparts, but it was basically the same experience, if a little smaller. Where it differs from the branches I've seen out West is how it's almost integrated into its neighborhood; true, it’s just a cluster of huge shiny warehouses plopped next to lower-middle-class houses and grubby low factory buildings, but it’s right on the East River, and it bears a passing resemblance to a picturesque cannery. A modest esplanade divides the parking lot and the river, providing benches where people speaking five or six different languages were recovering from shopping while taking the late afternoon air. Two guys had three fishing poles propped on the railing, near a fence where someone had hung a hand-written sign touting "Bait for sale."

Away from the water, heading back to Vernon Ave., a row of mature mulberry trees borders the parking lot, and the bright red berries are starting to darken and fall. If all that local color isn’t enough, the Noguchi Museum is right across the street, suggesting that after a spasm of consumption one might counter with culture. If one arrived early enough.

(I won't bore you with my shopping list, but everything I bought fit into the daypack with a little room to spare.)

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