That's me on the bike in this illustration. Here's how it came to be.
Getting myself together after the dissolution of my first marriage resulted in an unintended, and welcome, consequence: bicycle riding. Neighbors of ours in upstate New York were building a home on Nantucket, and although it was only a shell, it was where I went to get my head together before striking out on my own. One escape I had in mind was to live and work on that island, and so I had set up an interview with a restaurant owner to apply for a bartending job.
During the half hour that it took me to ride my rented bike from the shell of the house to town, I started getting terrible “vibes.” The closer I got, the worse I felt. I knew something was wrong, but it wasn't physical. I got all the way to the door of the restaurant, and was shaking so much I actually fell over.
That little voice inside told me this was all wrong, that I didn't belong here, that this wasn't the answer. I got up, got back on the bike and rode back to the house, all the while trying to solve the problem, which I framed this way: “I feel good in Nantucket, but I can't stay in Nantucket. What can I bring back with me that will recreate that good mood?” It took me the entire half hour back to finally figure it out – it was right under my – well, under me – bike riding! It gave me my first feeling of freedom as a boy in Troy, and it was an inexpensive way to get that feeling back. I would return home, buy a bike and start riding. It worked.
So, ten years later, when I moved to the big city, I brought that three speed touring bike with me and braved the streets of Manhattan. And that led to my witnessing a scene in Central Park that I wrote about and submitted to the New York Times. And the one they chose to illustrate. And here it is.
Contributions to The Metropolitan Diary
Jacques Tati-type scenes are everywhere.
Jacques Tati was the comedian/film maker that the French should adore as much as they do Jerry Lewis. After all, he was one of their own, and he wrote, directed and starred in what I believe to be the funniest movie ever made -- Mr. Hulot's Holiday. The late "Dr. Hug," Leo Buscaglia, recalled an opening scene from Hulot's Holiday in one of his wonderful books -- the perfectly captured confusion, hysteria and sheep-like attitude of people waiting for a train, running from track to track after hearing totally unintelligible public address announcements, until they end up, exhausted, right back where they started.
Throughout this movie, and three or four others, Tati managed to see the humor in everyday scenes involving normal human activity. Once you've seen one of his movies, you'll start to see things that way, too. (There's a new documentary about to make the rounds, "The Magnificent Tati," and I hope it begins a re-discovery.)
Since the early eighties, one of my favorite sections of the New York Times has been the Metropolitan Diary -- a weekly selection of New York urban life stories sent in by readers. I've sent many in, two were published, and I'd like to share them with you, just as they appeared in the Times. The first one is called The Central Park Bike Path Roundup:
Central Park isn't exactly the Old West, despite the presence of horses and the persistent rumors that all those Western-cowboy cigarette ads were photographed near 90th Street next to the reservoir. Recently, however, the park -- not unlike Tombstone or Dodge City - was the setting for what can only be described as a roundup of strays by a posse. “There is nothing quite like riding your bicycle in Central Park on Sunday,” said Frank L. Visco of Manhattan, who is a frequent weekend visitor. “The park offers good exercise, beautiful scenery and few hazards.” Few, but some: Mr. Visco was pedaling along when suddenly he heard the noise of hoofbeats behind him. “I found myself pulling to the side of the road to allow two rider less horses to gallop by,” he said. There was more commotion. “The horses were followed by a motorized posse of policemen in several squad cars,” Mr. Visco reported. The policemen managed to catch up to the chargers; repeated shouts of “whoa!” seemed to have a definite calming effect. “Finally,” he said, “the horses slowed down and the cars managed to maneuver to block their path.” It was a happy ending to a brief amusement, Mr. Visco thought, as he mounted his bike again and began pedaling industriously. “I thought it was all over until I noticed another squad car heading for the horses,” he said. “The patrol car was escorting a taxicab.” Mr. Visco peered inside as the cab passed by. “In the back seat were two rather sheepish-looking people in riding attire.” The cab arrived at its destination. The riders stepped out and were reunited with their steeds. “A small gathering of joggers and bicyclists offered big smiles and sent up a cheer,'”said Mr. Visco, who promptly wheeled his own faithful mount out on the long trail a-windin'.
The second one was not printed as I submitted it. I wrote in verse about purchasing a copy of Woody Allen's film Manhattan, but the editor chose to “prose” it. (Prose it -- not a bad phrase, when you consider that back in the early eighties, the Times had a bottle of champagne delivered to the home of the contributor of each published story. Prosit! Now, unfortunately, the Times is in a less friendly mood, simply claiming ownership of everything that's submitted, for use in any media. So much for intellectual property rights.)
This one's called The Manhattan Purchase, and here it is in its entirety:
I was buying “Manhattan” for $29.95 at my local video store the other day when it occurred to me that I was paying only $5.95 more for it than the Dutch, who purchased it several hundred years ago.
Next time: Writers Digest starts something.