Our ‘Facility of the Month’ website recently landed Deputy Chairman Jonathan Wood a weekend trip to Manhattan to contribute to David Byrne’s show ‘How New Yorkers Ride Bikes’ in the New Yorker Festival.
The festival is an annual event by the octogenarian intellectual publication, featuring readings by (this year) Steve Martin, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis,Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, to name five, performances such as David Byrne’s show and debates and walking tours.
When the e-mail from David Byrne came into ‘Any Other Business’ at the end of the June meeting we didn’t know it was either genuine, or from the Psycho Killer himself, not some other gentleman of the same moniker. In any case I leapt at the opportunity and got into pole position by volunteering. When Pete and Rod graciously passed up the opportunity in early September I started preparing my 10 minutes of Powerpoint. A couple of revisions later and on the morning of Friday 5th October I was off from home on a Brompton to Central station and thence to Manchester Airport. The previous day I took the train on business to Gloucester and back, to find myself listening to the tinny sound of David Byrne’s ‘Road to Nowhere’ over the I-Pod of the young guy next to me. I wondered whether I should mention that I was about to meet the great man himself but decided there would be no point. On the flight to Newark New Jersey I sat next to a couple from that state who told me they occasionally drive in to Manhattan t go to a show. It costs $50 (£25) to park for the evening! No wonder the Manhattan streets have so many taxis.
On arrival was picked up by a man with a board with my name on it by large car with chilled drinks, for the afternoon rush along the New Jersey Turnpike. Outside early October was a pleasant 30 Celsius. The area seemed to be mostly road paved with concrete until a tunnel brought us out suddenly into a recognisable street scene, Manhattan, almost at the Bryant Park Hotel. The hotel faces one of the most beautiful public spaces in New York and the Empire State building dominates the vertical. I found a bag of books, chocolate and aftershave and my ‘talent credentials’ to hang round my neck to get me into any festival event. As it transpired I picked the 2 most sought after, Steve Martin at the Director’s Guild on Saturday afternoon, and ‘Come Hungry’; Calvin Trillin’s gastronomic tour of Little Italy and Chinatown on Sunday.
My sister Vicky had come over from London with my niece, 13 year old Miranda, and with my sister I ordered a ‘Manhattan’ in the cellar bar at the Bryant Park, to be told by the cocktail waitress that it was a ‘girl’s drink’. For girls with some drinking form maybe. Later that evening I was picked up by car for the Friday night New Yorker drinks party in the rooftop garden of the Gramercy Park Hotel. I passed a pleasant evening trying a few new drinks with the other contributors to the festival.
I hardly slept during the weekend, with the time difference I found myself awake at 6am, so I went downtown on the subway, towards the south end of Manhattan. I got off too soon, on 4th Avenue and came out of the sweaty underground to find myself amongst garbage bags in a deserted and seemingly seedy part of town with a couple of homeless people further along the pavement. I walked purposefully, carrying my newspaper and dodged into doorways to consult my map. I shouldn’t have believed first impressions. The following afternoon I found myself in the same area thronged with people on the culinary tour, and it all proved to have been the west side of Greenwich Village, one of the most desirable places to aspire to live.
That Saturday morning I walked for a while and after a rather ordinary bacon sandwich I returned to the Bryant Park for another hour sleep, then steak and eggs in a diner around the corner with my travelling family. The next stop was Sid’s Bikes. I had e-mailed Sid’s from England requesting the hire of a bike, to get a reply that they would be pleased to lend me one, and to meet me, as they were coming to the show. The bike proved to be a New York special road bike with straight bars and the upright position I requested, a ripped saddle to deter thieves, and it came with a padlock and chain like you would find on the fence of a nuclear waste repository (Calvin Trillin’s description). I was off. Riding in New York on a hot sunny day is one of the most exhilarating experiences, better than skiing. The pavements are so full of people walking, and the wide canyons of streets so full of life, smells and sights that it’s a joy to zip through the traffic. I explored the lower west side and stopped in at Pete’s bar, before heading to the Town Hall theatre for my practice. I met David Byrne and the producer of our show, the double Tony award winning Gregory Mosher. I ran through my 10 minute piece and headed off to see Steve Martin at the Director’s Guild of America, up town near Central Park. My sister and niece were awaiting me, so we sat together and listened to Steve’s musings interspersed with a few clips for an hour. Much of it was brilliantly funny. At the end there was time for 4 questions, taken up by lame questions, someone who asked how to become a comedian, and someone else who asked how to become a writer. I went down afterwards and introduced myself to him and explained that I was going to be on stage with David Byrne, so I had to take the opportunity to ask him my question, Can he give me some directions how to get to the venue from here? He laughed.
Back on the bike and back to Bryant Park. Changed into a suit and ate rapidly in the Japanese fusion restaurant on the ground floor of the Bryant Park. Sashimi with a shiso leaf, something that blew me away, a totally new taste, bright and full of perfume, and a Japanese beer.
I walked round to the theatre guarding my notes and entered the side door to go backstage. David was there and laughed at my story about Steve Martin and the lame questions. Also didn’t know whether to take me seriously when I said to him that I wasn’t sure about my going on at number 7 in the running order, and I thought I should probably open the show. We had snacks and drinks downstairs and chatted until the show opened at 19:30 with David riding onto stage preceded by a helmet-cam video of his journey there through time square. After locking up to a frame on the stage we were treated to a lock breaking show, then Calvin Trillin’s thoughts on being a cycling New Yorker (very funny) and Jan Gehl’s presentation on Copenhagen life and streets for people, not cars (very inspiring), then a passage from Beckett whilst I was waiting in the wings with the stage manager. I had no feel for how the show was going, having been down in the bunker. The latter segment seemed to go on for quite a long time and I paced back and forth for the first while, then calmed down. David introduced me and I was out from behind the curtain stage left and dazzled fortunately by the lights so I couldn’t make out too much of the 1200 strong audience. After thanks the now very familiar words came easily, I even managed a couple of ad-libs.
Once into the slides of facilities the timing came easily, I only had to wait for the laughter to abate enough to get a punch-line in, then abate, then another slide etc. I could make out someone wiping away tears. The serious point at the end about the only cycle facility worth a candle being a 20mph limit seemed well received and I signed off to a standing ovation from some in the audience. I could get used to that. David introduced the Young at Heart Chorus next to sing Bicycle Race, with the introduction that this was a song by another English friend of his, not one from Warrington this time. He was of course referring to the late Freddie Mercury. After some serious discussion David closed the show by accompanying the Chorus in singing a new composition of his, One Fine Day.
The theatre emptied, with a long queue reclaiming their bikes from the valet bicycle parking outside, and my travelling fans returned for the party at the Bryant Park. Gregory Mosher said to me ‘That Could Not Have Gone Better’ and Zadie Smith said ‘I knew you’d be great’. Rhonda Sherman, the editor of the New Yorker pulled strings to get me on the most prized event of the festival the following day’s culinary tour. For one evening I felt like I’d joined Manhattan’s elite. The review from streetfilms is very complimentary see;
Of course I didn’t want to go to bed, outlasted the party, then outlasted the downstairs nightclub, then wandered to Times Square. At some early hour I realised I was spontaneously going to sleep over a pint of Guinness so I found a pedicab to take me home. The driver was a very young and happy African guy, from the West African state of Burkina Faso. He let me drive and seemed made up to sit in the back. As we rolled up to the concierge of the Bryant Park I asked him how much I owed, to be told nothing, I drove. Nice people these Burkino Fasors, I paid him of course.
I awoke almost in time to leap back onto the bike and head south to the same place I had exited the subway for my food tour. A fabulous 3 hours of Little Italy and Chinatown, lots of great food and humour from our guide Calvin Trillin and plenty of photos. Note the young woman locking up her bike. Proper transport.
I learnt that there are only 20 tickets available for the whole of the US through ticketmaster, and they sell out instantaneously. My new friend Alan, a Real Estate magnate from northern California had come across the country because he had managed to get the last 2 tickets on sale, on the stroke of mid-day west coast time.
Some observations, some (to me) surprising;
- Manhattan is great to ride around, the road surfaces are widely believed to be full of giant potholes but in Manhattan in fact they seem better than Warrington’s,
- The drivers are relatively courteous (one beep in 4 hours, contrast Bridge Foot).
- New York streets are wide and many are one way, with none of the roundabout madness that is designed to keep car speed high.
- Modal share to private cars is small ( I think 15% commuters), still a lot of cars, but very few of them seem to be 4x4’s, not sure if I’d be right in ascribing better social conscience and good taste to this.
- Oddly, nobody I spoke to claimed to be too scared to ride, and many of the people weren’t regular cyclists, in Warrington maybe half would cite fear for not riding.
- On my return I rode across Warrington in a New York state of mind and thought ‘Why do we let these streets get us down? We should claim our bit of road and enjoy being the most rapid across town’. Within 2 days I’d enjoyed a reminder, within half a mile 2 lots of random abuse from our intelligentsia, car cultured young men from our lost generation who missed out on cycle training, and probably any other sort of training for that matter.
Star Man? George Bliss, the man who coined the phrase ‘Critical Mass’, Pedicab pioneer and bicycle designer. George regretted the omission of commercial cycling from our show, which he had attended, on the grounds that in America if there’s money to be made it will take off. Sounds good to me. More bikes on the road means more safety, so I’m all for Pedicabs. I met him by chance while we were both riding and we sat in the intersection of 5th avenue and some other street to chat, cars drove round and nobody swore or beeped. What a civilised place.
Jon Wood, 10th November 2007