On an unseasonably warm New York Sunday lunchtime I woke from a deep sleep to find myself lying on my back surrounded by a small crowd of anxious people. To my right there were subway tracks behind chain link fencing, uncharacteristically silent, to my left 350 feet below, I could just make out the slow progress of miniature boats and ferries on the surface of the East River which shimmered and danced in the midday sunshine. A few minutes before, I had been riding a Citi Bike across the Manhattan Bridge when I turned sharply behind to see if Mary was following but instead saw the path in front rushing towards me, an unoccupied bike skidding down the path, blackness, already fully alert to the moments absurdity. It was her voice that woke me, I moved fingers and toes, my neck, answered some questions being offered by an unknown cyclist while another was calling 911 and giving sharp directions to an ambulance crew. It all didn’t seem so bad to me, I felt they were all overreacting, I was simply a reluctant actor in this mini-drama and thanks to the shock not in any pain (that came days later), but when I used my i-phone camera to see my bloodied, mashed up face I understood everyone’s alarm for the first time. I don’t recall much about the hours we spent in the hospital, the conversations with nurses and doctors, but the one thing I think of most now was how quick we all were to blame the bicycle.
Sitting on the hospital gurney, I wanted to use my memory as much as possible, to show off its retention, as losing it is one of the obvious fears most associated with any head injury. Had I fallen off a bike before? There was an occasion, which must have been in 1992, Mary and I were not yet married and were enjoying a weekend together in Amsterdam. We had picked up bikes at a favorite rental store in the Jordon and sped through the cities lanes, obediently following the circuitous course of the canals, occasionally terrifying pedestrians. The lovely formality of the architecture, its decorative gables and handmade glass windows, the snugness and domesticity of the tall narrow houses; small, seventeenth century golden age bricks and dark green doors with the names of the occupants gracefully hand painted with an exuberant flourish. There was something, a confidence, that felt impenetrable and robust within these streets and waterways that defy their precarious sandy foundations, surviving floods and plaques, Nazis and financial catastrophes. Old, toy like church bells, half a millennia old reprimanded us for another hour wasted, their warning goes over our heads as we only have time for each other, and are swept down cobbled lanes and alleys to be blown out to sea. We had discovered by chance a cool café, with art students and crazily multicolored tiles; playing in the back ground was earthy, mournful music by a Peruvian folk guitarist. We left and found a road away from the town, a busy street, and that’s where my front wheel got caught in a tram lane and the bike went over. It was a silent movie moment and its black comedy cannot be ignored, passerby’s must have laughed at my hurry to pick myself up, as elegant as Buster Keaton, but the palms of my hands were bloodied. We found a nearby store where Mary got some damp paper towels and patted the wounds and I felt a warm charge of electricity being cared for like this, we had both just said goodbye to our twenties, were in love, and it was like a scene from an unknown but entirely possible future where we might end up looking after each other. But my hands stung with each touch no matter how gentle and this too seemed like some kind of metaphor, a warning sign, where I knew not everything would be easy, we were willingly committing to an unspoken quid pro quo, bringing me back down to the ground sharply, both aware of the things that would be lost as I limped back to the hotel.
And then I remembered another time ten or more years earlier, it had been while I was passionate about Motorcycles. I was at collage in Wales and would ride my Suzuki 250 the hundred or so miles back to my parent’s house at the end of each term. Today the size of the engine and the distance seem ridiculously small when I write from the USA, but in then in the UK with its narrow roads and complicated towns to traverse, a journey like this required patience and concentration, it was surprisingly exhausting. There was also the intimacy with the road itself and its impulsive temperament making me circumspect to its climate, humidity, sounds and scents. Passing an old Land Rover I could lock eyes with some playful children, bored in the back seat and on the edge of town the powerful floral aromas of Lilacs, Lily of The Valley, Roses could be overwhelming from well pruned gardens. Farm animals announced themselves through their stench, wails and cry’s long before they are seen, there is no escape from this sensual onslaught nor the winds that pull you sideways or slow forward progress when you are riding. A grey line on the horizon, or the oncoming traffic with headlights on would send foreboding waves of fear as this might signal that the road ahead would become slippery and a sudden disastrous loss of control.
But most of my concentration was on the motorcycle itself which was not so easy to take command of; it was a foreign object, made so far away in Japan and therefore in possession of transoceanic mystery. Also, it was fabricated in that uncomfortable post war environment where an ancient eastern culture was being rapidly westernized and the end result was an attempt to predict a western customer’s appetite with highly variable, sometimes humorous, results. They were typically light weight and the sound made by the speedy two stroke engines were rasping and tinny, the very opposite of the heavy plodding English and American engines. So my attention that day was on the sounds and slips of the bike, I felt empathy as it strained up a steep hill and registered its apparent relief when going down one, it was as fickle and insubstantial as a spring lamb. Some people called them “Jap crap” but already we embraced them not just for the speed and affordability, but for the new internationalization of our lives, we recognized their foreignness and potential seeing this as a positive thing, something futuristic, thrilled to see little details like Japanese writing on the brake fluid tank this was, we told ourselves, modernity.
In Wiltshire I turned from the busy main road into a small lane surrounded by sublime flat farmland flanked by gentle wooded hills, a damp, darkening, increasingly grey day. Approaching a tight right turn the bike went down without warning, it slid to the other side of the road, showing its underside, an angle that I had never seen before and I myself bumped for a little on the tarmac before jumping up to examine my leg. As always these things happen rapidly but are recalled in slow motion, there was nothing serious; a tear in my jeans, a small cut above the knee. A farm hand walked over to help with the bike and we both looked silently down at the road to see what had caused the slippage but it was entirely mysterious, an act of a malevolent god. With all the riding I did and in all conditions those days, this fall was alarming because it made the least sense. There was nothing I could learn from it, no behavior to modify or to correct; that absorbed and worried me most, sometimes there is nothing you can do.
Bringing me back to where I am today, enjoying the attention too much. Perhaps the best part is walking to work down Park Avenue where all the commuters from Connecticut pour out of Grand Central, take one fearful glance at my scarred face and then allow plenty of room when I pass. There is something addictive about having the patina of a hard man for once in my life and I’m afraid I’m going to miss it a little. Interestingly the lovely African American ladies in the deli have refused to take my money for breakfast all week and ask me how I am each time I drop by, a curious form of bonding takes place when we recognize each other’s fallibilities. I’m already a little disappointed to say that the visual damage is being repaired and by the time I am in England in a few weeks I will be a standard, soft, pasty white guy again. But I’m also lying to myself a little, putting a brave face on it all, as in truth suddenly the streets of Manhattan have fresh hazards, a steep curb, an uneven sidewalk, the buses are too close, I fear the germination of an old persons anxiety and fear of the future.
I thought again about the hospital visit, these sterile places, rich repositories of utilitarian objects. We have a chair in our apartment made by Hans Coray on the eve of the Second World War, 1938, which Mary describes as our “hospital” chair because it reminded her of her late in life disabled father, who needed something like that to shower in. I suspect the designer might have been flattered. Made of aluminum, it is incredibly strong and light, has arms that help support your own and holes in the back and seat that will allow water to run away should it be left outside on a rainy day. It is the embodiment of logic, safety and form, for that reason alone I find it very beautiful but she hates it, and for perhaps the same reason. Its the firebrand of our relationship, these inexplicably opposing views, keeping the flame alive.
I feel like I am in a strange in-between, transient place with this injury, sleeping a little during the day, and lying awake at night whispering to Mary to see if she is awake. In the morning she demands to nurse, and I enjoy giving in; I sometimes tell people that it is better to surf the wave of her attentions than stand on the shore like King Canute demanding the tide retreats. She rubs a liquid onto the wounds and at times it’s painful but sometimes you have to give up control, relax and accept what might be coming.