Friday, July 20, 2007

Story - Lost in the City

Back in the day of living to race (more specifically, living to sprint), I looked forward to Tuesdays like Uncle Sam looks forward to April 15th. Tuesdays was "my" day. I got the valuable day off from the shop so I could go do sprints at SUNY Purchase.

Of course that meant waiting around till 4:30 PM. I'd just get more and more hyper waiting for the time to go to SUNY. So when a friend (and former teammate) called me up to see if I would do some sprints with him during lunch I jumped at the offer. We met up and did a loop which included some hills.

Hills?!

Yeah, even at my flyweight 130 lbs or so the little buggers wasted me. I think I did one good sprint but the rest were simply time trialing in an anaerobic state.

Whatever, I got an hour in, figured I'd be fine for the afternoon sprints, and I got rid of some nervous energy.

Once I got home I didn't have too much time to get ready so I mucked around, tried to figure out what to wear (I think it was early October), and finally got into my car to make the 40 minute drive to SUNY.

Although the temperatures were hovering around 55 degrees, I went out there in shorts, a short sleeve jersey, and a pair of gloves. My upper body felt a bit cold but it seemed reasonable. I don't remember too much about the sprints except I didn't win that many. My record was 16 wins so I might have won a couple. I was pretty into it and had gotten into the super-fatigued-but-found-a-second-wind stage when a teammate rolled up to the group in his car.

I was hoping the sprints would continue for a few more laps but it was getting late - about 7:00 PM - and I knew that guys would start peeling off like they do when the Tour hits the first big climb of the year.

It was kind of cool when my teammate came up next to the field. I felt like a pro talking to his director who'd just driven up to give some info to his rider. Except I wasn't getting time splits or advice on how to attack the field. The conversation was a bit more mundane.

"Want to go do a night ride in the City?"
"When?"
"Now."
"What do you mean, 'Now'?"
"I'm leaving now. I have to deliver a Velodyne to somebody in the City and I'm meeting him on the Tuesday night ride in the Park."
"I don't know, I'm kind of tired."
"C'mon, it'll be fun."
"How long?"
"30 miles... We'll skip the first lap if you like."
"Is it fast?"
"Well, some Cat 1s and 2s show up. You'll be fine."
"Okay..."

I rolled back to the car, grabbed my wind jacket, and hopped into my teammate's car. We zoomed off to the City.

I should point out that although I was born about 40 miles from the City and spent all my life from 13 years old and up living a town or two away from my birth town, I rarely went into the City. I went in once to take a bus from the "Port Authority". I went in a couple times to "Grand Central". And I went in a bunch of times to race in Central Park. I never drove so I didn't know the streets - I just tagged along (on foot, on the bike, or I got a ride) and managed to get back each time.

So we drove into this huge, chaotic metropolis, this unknown entity which I sometimes touch but never actually explored. He parked somewhere weird - meaning New York City is a grid-like place, but where we parked it was a U-shaped road. Obviously a unique part of the City.

He said we'd ride the ride, return to the car, deliver the Velodyne, and drive back to SUNY where I could get my car.

Since he was wearing a skinsuit and a wind jacket, he gave me the keys to the car. So I was carrying my keys, his keys, and my wallet - which had virtually nothing in it except a driver's license and a $20 bill. I stuffed my jacket in my middle back pocket - feeling every bit like a pro for doing that.

And we rolled off through a maze of identically busy roads filled with cabs, buses, cars, and pedestrians.

Somehow we managed to make it to Central Park and rolled easy on the loop. My teammate pointed out the group had already started so we'd go easy till they lapped us.

By now it was quite dark - I put my blinky light on but with no headlight it was a bit sketchy. The sporadic street lights on the Park circuit didn't help too much as it was really dark between the lights.

Suddenly my teammate gave a short warning.

"They're here!"

A bunch of guys streamed by, a couple with the blinkys going. I jumped hard, got on, and looked around - my teammate was there too. It was hard to pick out jerseys when you couldn't even tell if the guy was black or white - but after passing a few street lights I realized I was in some very elite company. I recognized a few Cat 1s and 2s and the ones I didn't recognize I figured were probably pretty good too.

We flew along at a good pace, punching it up the hill in perhaps a 54x15, sometimes the 14. On the flats I found myself in the 12 a few times - luckily I knew the loop and could push when I knew a rise was about to end. I even responded to attacks and such. It was getting pretty chilly so I kept up my efforts to stay warm, my fingers from going numb, etc.

For over an hour things were great.

But suddenly, on the last lap, on the hill, my legs simply stopped working. I was cold, tired, and with no food for something like 12 hours, simply ran out of gas.

I crawled up the hill.

I debated turning around but realized I'd have to climb the descent so I kept going. I could barely turn the 42x21 - a bad sign.

After something like 20 minutes I rode by some guys at Tavern on the Green - apparently there was a crash or something there. And rode up to the finish at Cat's Paw Hill.

It was deserted.

I thought, well, maybe they're doing a cool down lap. So, exhausted, I just stopped.

And waited.

It was about 10 or 10:30. The era of crack cocaine. Shootings. And of course the bogey man hung out in Central Park and captured and ate lost cyclists.

So when someone whose silhouette resembled Freddy Kreuger (minus the claws) started staggering towards me I quickly got into my pedals and rode about a half mile away. I found myself another light and waited more.

I started getting a bit scared.

There are times when things stop being fun or interesting or "let's see what happens" and start becoming serious. It's happened to me when I got lost in Holland, when I'm driving in really bad conditions sort of far from home, and it happened that night.

I started thinking of surviving till the next day.

I decided to stay under street lights. I'd use my mobility to escape any marauders. And at some point I'd probably have to get home.

First, though, I had to eat. I was literally shaking with hunger, weak, and I had this odd taste in my mouth from being so hungry.

I rode out to the big street next to the park and started riding down it, looking down each side street to see if there were any stores. It was sort of late and most of the streets looked pretty dark and residential, but one street had a food type store, complete with a kid reading a book in front of it.

I rode over and the kid jumped up and asked if he could help me. I couldn't help but notice he was studying Chemistry.

I asked if they had food.

He looked at me like I'd just landed from Mars.

He pointed into the store so I went in. They had a bunch of hot food ready to serve as well as shelves of snacks and stuff. So I bought two bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies (because they're local and they're good) and some fried chicken with steak fries. The total was $10, half my money.

I went outside with my stuff, put the cookies in my pockets, and grabbed one of two drumsticks. I stuck the whole thing in my mouth, pulled the bone out, and practically swallowed everything whole.

I repeated with the other drumstick.

And then stuffed my face with fries.

I looked up to see the kid, wide-eyed, staring at me.

I paused, my mouth full of food. The kid realized he was staring and quickly looked at his book. I swallowed the rest of the fries.

Then, for good measure, I ate a bag of cookies. For the record I got the chessmen - I don't remember my rational for buying them but I did.

I saved the other, I figured it would be good at 5 in the morning, just in case. I tossed the empty container and cookie bag inside and rode away. My eyes took a bit of time to adjust to the darkness and I realized just how dark it was out there.

I got back to Cat's Paw Hill and camped out a bit. I had to move a couple times but I finally saw a cop. I rode up to him and asked him where the car was, which, in retrospect, must have set off "This is a crack addict" alarm bells.

"Excuse me, could you tell me where there's a U-shaped road around here?"
"What?"
"A U-shaped road. See my car is on a U-shaped road but I don't know where it is."
"Well, is it in mid-town? Downtown? Maybe the Bronx?"
"Um... I don't know where those places are."
"Look, I'm sorry but I don't think I can help you."

He walked away. I rode away.

It was getting really late now - I was actually sleepy, even with my "I'm scared" adrenaline coursing through my body. I decided I had to get out of the city.

I figured I'd find the train station ("Grand Central"), find a train that goes to Purchase, and ride to my car. Failing that I'd just sleep in the station.

So I rode around the perimeter of the park, looking for someone, anyone, that I could ask for directions. Lo and behold, a police car with two cops!

I rolled up to them and one rolled down his window.

"Excuse me, I have two questions. Do you know if they let bikes on trains and if they do, could you tell me where Grand Central is?"

The two cops looked at each other. Then the one close to me looked my way.

"See this road here?", he enunciated slowly and carefully, as if I didn't speak English.
"Yeah."
"Okay, so you go down THIS way," he gestured going straight with wide motions with his hands, "and you look up there," now he was pointing up at a lamp post, "and when you see FOUR TWO you go THAT way." Meaning left.
"Okay"

Man, I was just lost. Not deaf or retarded. Jeez.

He repeated the directions a few times till I told him I got it. And I took off.

Man, they must put something in their chicken, that place, because I was flying.

I zoomed down this big road (which I later found out was probably 5th Ave), dodging in and out of traffic, and had an absolute blast. I think the adrenaline and bag of cookies helped but still, it was a lot of fun. All traffic went one direction (i.e. big draft), the lights were synchronized, and they went about 30-something mph. Perfect! I promised myself that if I made it home alive I'd come back and ride here on my own terms.

All too quickly I got to FOUR TWO and took a left as instructed. And there I saw the golden doors to Grand Central. Of course it was an entrance I'd never seen before but that was okay. I found my way down to the ticket booths. I checked out the schedule and saw that a train (probably the last one) was leaving in about 20 minutes. Knowing what I know now, it was probably around 12:30, half past midnight. I saw that a train went to Port Chester. And knowing that Port Chester was sort of close to the border of Connecticut, I decided that would be good.

Luckily one booth was open. I went up to it and a tired looking attendant asked what I needed.

"Ticket to Port Chester please."
"Okay. That'll be $4.55"

Phew. I had $10 to my name. I gave the guy my $10.

"Is that a bike there?"
"Yeah."
"Do you have a bike pass?"
"A bike pass?"
"A bike pass."
"No..."
"Well you need to get one."
"Um, where do I get one?"
"There's a booth at the end, there's a sign above it that says Bike Passes here"
I looked. I could have sworn all the booths were closed. And it was.

"Yeah but it's closed."
"You're going to have to go there and wait then."
"But my train leaves in ..."
He glared at me so I shut up.

I click clacked over to the booth. Still closed. The big clock was moving way too fast.

Suddenly I heard some noise. The little window thing slid up.

It was the same guy.

"Can I help you?"

I looked at him in astonishment.

"Can I help you?", a little more forcefully.
"Yeah. I need a bike pass."
"Okay, fill this out. It'll be $5."

Jeepers. I had less than a dollar left. I filled out the thing and got my bike pass. He duly stamped it and gave it back to me.

"Platform such and such, over there."
"Thanks."

The window slid shut.

The conductor asked where I was going and I told him. He opened a train for me so I could have the area by the doors for myself and my bike.

I ate half the second bag of cookies. These were the round ones with strawberry (or raspberry) stuff in the middle.

The train set off and I looked glumly out the window. I was exhausted but I felt like I was getting out of the danger zone. The warm train lulled me a bit - my skin wasn't numb with cold anymore.

The train stopped at Port Chester, the conductor nice enough to come over to me before the stop to let me know that my stop was coming up.

The platform was really high above street level and I had to walk down a lot of steps. And it was cold. Did I mention it was October?

Then I saw a sign for Route 120.

This was a good sign, so to speak. I took the Route 120 exit off the Merritt to get to SUNY Purchase.

Of course I could go one direction or the other. Which direction?

I looked one way. Lots of lights and stuff. Port Chester. I looked the other way. Pitch black. Not Port Chester. That's what I wanted. I clipped in and headed out.

The road quickly became pitch black. When I say pitch black, I mean there were no lights, no moon, no houses, nothing. I rode slowly until I heard sand or gravel and then adjusted my trajectory. A couple times cars would approach, I could see where I was on the road, I'd veer to the shoulder, and they'd fly by.

On one dark stretch my wheel went off the shoulder into dirt. I put a foot down before I crashed. I walked left to get back on the road - and went into a bush.

I'd just gone off the left side of the road.

I walked right, got to the road, and got on.

And kept riding.

This unnerving riding continued for a few miles. I was going perhaps walking pace and rode slow enough that even if I hit a rock wall I wouldn't get too hurt. Finally, near the Merritt, there were more lights and stuff. I picked up the pace. When I passed the Merritt I knew where I was and started riding faster. I rode to the entrance of the campus and noticed that, for the first time ever, the gate was down.

When you think it's all over...

Luckily there was a guard in the gatehouse. I told him that I was picking up a car and if it was okay to leave now. He mumbled yes.

Phew.

I got to my car, got my shoes on, and drove home. I got there about 4 AM, exhausted, my throat sore. I fell asleep.

I woke to my phone ringing. I answered, bleary eyed. It was 6 AM. Who the heck?

It was my teammate. He started screaming in joy when I answered the phone. It took a while but he told me what happened on his end.

They got to the finish of the ride and I wasn't there. Since they finished at the back they figured I'd gone to the car. Just in case though, they waited for fifteen minutes... at Tavern on the Green (!).

Then, figuring I'd have ridden up by now, they went to the car. Nothing. They rode back. Nothing.

My teammate always kept an extra key in the trunk so they went to the Velodyne guy's apartment, got a screwdriver, and broke into the trunk of the car.

My teammate forgot that he'd just gotten a new car and didn't have a key stashed away.

They brought the Velodyne upstairs (the car was outside the apartment - Tudor City area) and thought of what they could do. The Velodyne guy had a car in long term storage - so they went and got it out. That cost a lot of money but they finally got the car out and drove it around the Park.

Nothing.

I was probably buying food at this point. Or riding to the train station.

They drove to the Central Park Precinct (I didn't know there were such things). They reported a lost person - a short Asian guy with black short, red shirt, and a yellow nylon wind breaker. On a bike. In October.

The cop sort of chuckled and told my teammate that they'd keep an eye out.

As they walked away the cop yelled out, "Hey it's your lucky day!"

They turned around, thinking I'd just walked in.

"What?", they asked.

"Well, no one's gotten killed in the Park so far tonight!", the cop joked.

My teammate wasn't too happy.

"I think we killed Aki", he said.

Finally, after driving around for hours, they, on a lark, decided to try my house. They woke up another teammate to get my number and then called.

Luckily for me, I was there.

Many years later, like I promised myself, I returned to the City to do some genuine downtown night sprints.

And it was a blast.

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