Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Remembrance of Bike Rides Past

Feb 2005, "The Gates" 
A recent NYC history blog post about a statue fragment - more on that in a moment - reminded me how much a simple half-bike attachment (pictured above) ended up playing a key role in my maintaining a connection to my daughters after my divorce.

As a freelancer working at home whose wife worked full-time, I'd been more involved as a caregiver than most Dads. I bought a tag-along for my bike, and installed a seat on the front bar for my younger daughter, and we often tooled around the city to appointments on it -- in those pre-bikelane days often riding on side streets and even sidewalks to avoid traffic.


Central Park dogs
The rides were filled with adventures we wouldn't have had any other ways; once, we passed a parked bus, and the driver used his PA system to inform me that my daughter was not pedaling and simply taking a free ride, shaming her into action.

Weather permitting, I'd take my older daughter across the park to her school on the east side, and we would count the numbers of dogs we passed (once we hit 100!) or clock the number of different state license plates we spied.

After moving out, I wanted to do everything I could to provide continuity and stability. But all I could afford was a one-bedroom sublet -- on alternate weekends they gamely slept on the pullout couch -- and then I got a TV writing job in L.A., which would help me pay for their schooling, but pull me even farther from them.

The kids were able to visit me, and took a quick shine to year-round beach weather and showbiz; my older daughter even made an impromptu cameo in an episode of West Wing. (That's her smiling at Bartlet as he takes the stage around the one minute mark.)
But I didn't want to lose a foothold of their real lives back in New York.  My younger daughter was just starting kindergarten.  Luckily, my boss let me take a few three day weekends to return to the city to maintain custody.  Unbenownst to my kids, those visits also usually included a trip to lawyers' offices or court to hammer out the divorce details, so it was important to me as well to have as much normalcy outside those difficult hours.

The bike came in handy as a way to extend our too-brief time together -- instead of putting them on a school bus, we'd have the adventure and conversation during the trip. (It also, it turned out, absolved my older daughter of the social discomfort of explaining to busmates why she wasn't getting on the bus at her usual stop, something I hadn't anticipated.) The "tag-along," as we christened it, gave us an identity, even a community; we'd excitedly point out other parent-child bike combos en route.

So even after my sublet ended, and I stayed in hotel rooms and apartment swaps, I still kept the bike around and took them to school on it when weather permitted. We fell into a regular route across the park and then emerged at Fifth Avenue south of the Met, and trial and error taught me the least-travelled street was East 80th. We started to look forward to the regular sights as reassuring talismans: the "Doggie Gym" on First Avenue (right) became so popular we'd actually leave for school earlier so we could stop and watch through the windows.

But our most beloved marker along the route was a head. A lopped-off statue head, sitting idly next to some trash cans outside a brownstone just east of Madison Ave. on 80th street. We became so fond of it we would wave and yell "Hi, head!" We had no idea where it was from, or what it was doing there, but it was definitely one of those "only in New York" sights.
Of course, the girls grew up. My younger daughter moved from the front-seat to the tag-along, and my older daughter rode her own bike (see photo up top, at Christo's remarkable Gates exhibit).

The tag-along was not without its mishaps: in 2005, I was  trying to be safe by riding my daughter to school on a sidewalk, I was surprised by a car pulling out of a recessed garage (left). I stopped short, and the whole weight of the bike and a half and its two riders -- landed on my ankle, tearing a ligament.

I limped her the rest of the way to school and then straight to the orthopedists. It was the beginning of the end of the era.

Trying to keep the three of us together, I did briefly own a tandem bike that I tried to hook the tag-along to, but it was laughably unwieldy.

Eventually I passed the tag-along to a neighbor with an age-appropriate daughter. I've moved back and forth to LA a half-dozen times for work my kids are now in high school and college, and now if I am lucky enough to grab either for a bike ride it's on adult bikes.

But yesterday I got an email from the Ephemeral New York about the sculpture head that brought me back -- and made me wonder about its magic powers. It turns out the New York Times' architecture critic Chritopher Gray had explained its origin in 2004 -- right around when I was doing my school shleps.
The house at No. 52...was owned until 1998 by Jerry Hammer, a theatrical producer, who now lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., but left the statue when he sold the house. Mr. Hammer said that in the 1960’s he was riding in a limousine with the developer Zachary Fisher, who motioned to the old Ziegfeld Theater, at 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas, and said he was going to demolish it for a new office building.
Mr. Hammer said he pointed to a limestone head on the front of the building and asked Mr. Fisher for it as a joke. “Then,” he said, “about four months later, I hear noises outside, and it’s a truck with a crane, and a head, and they ask me where I want it.”
So the head came from the Joseph Urban facade of the old Ziegfeld theater -- built in 1927, financed by William Randolph Hearst, first home to the musical Showboat, later a movie theater and then a TV studio (Perry Como and the Emmys both broadcast from it.)

I think the woman is one of the two flanking the upper part.
So what's the magic power? All these years later, both my daughters are firmly ensconced in the theater, both at their schools and in their lives. Maybe that head was an augur.

4 comments:

Lee Verner said...

Lucky daughters to have a Dad who makes commutes into adventures, and a city that never disappoints!
Lee

Jon Shear said...

I love everything about this David except the damage to your ligament. And it gave truth to a memory of mine when you and I were starting college. That fall, I exited the Yard to see a father and son on a tandem bike and identified, for the first time, not with the boy but with the dad. And wanted, maybe for the first time, to be the one taking care, not being cared for. Congrats David on growing up to be the one responsible and being able to describe that experience with such beauty and joy.

Profesora said...

The head's magic power extends to you too, David! You cite the story of the head, told by Jerry Hammer-- and Hammer worked as a storyteller in many media and formats, just as you do.

But what a head!!! After reading the essays in the catalogue you link (on Urban), I see the head as a "superconductive antenna" (as in Ghostbusters). It channels the energies of what seems to be another dimension entirely, where the european ideas promoted so differently by Florenz Ziegfeld and Joseph Urban crackled in places like Vienna, Paris and Indiana before gathering in New York into an explosive ZAP! of design, architecture and celebrity.
--Rebecca

Jason said...

What a beautifully wistful, poignant, and lovely piece. It's like a modern "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" - "A Bike Rides in Manhattan." Goodbye, Francie. Hi, Head!