I fell in love with riding a bicycle when I lived in New Orleans. This city is completely flat, it’s compact, and you can bike anywhere in 30 minutes or less. More than that, though, it was the right place for me at the right time with the right bicycles, and four years of riding my way all over this place helped me feel at home in a way I had never felt before.
And I need to feel at home right now. We’re coming up on the anniversary of my father’s death, killed by a left turning driver who claimed he couldn’t see my dad in the crosswalk because his windshield was fogged by his morning tea. It has been a year of learning how to get done and undone by grief, and I’m tired. I miss him, and among many, many other things, I miss how happy it made him to watch me be so happy on my bike. I miss that we’ll never take that tour he was planning for us, that I’ll never get one of those texts from him asking if he can send me some gear, that I’ll never get to call him from somewhere beautiful I reached on the bicycle he bought for me in early 2009 just to say thank you, thank you for helping me figure out how to see this. Like this.
And so here I am, vacationing with the folding bike he found a little bit ridiculous in New Orleans, the place that helped me find this love, and with it the sense of curiosity and attention that sustains me.
My first ride was a short one around the neighborhood where my dear friend S. lives. She lived in Treme for years, and her new spot out near the Gentilly bike lane requires some reorientation. I headed out with vague directions to turn left and then left again, and followed streets with familiar names until I ended up in City Park, flush with memories. I had forgotten, though, how much time you have to spend looking down at pocked and seamed asphalt here–remember to look up and down, straight and over the shoulder. I replied around the new gold course, had some Feelings about that, and then headed back. I wasn’t sure exactly how to do that, but I figured I’d go on feel. That’s a strategy that doesn’t work all that often, but on this day it did.
The next day started with a ride in a bike lane toward the Quarter for beignets. Circle Foods is open now, and there’s a new streetcar line with tracks that can’t be trusted on a bike. The Quarter is filled with out of state license plates and people carrying cameras and maps, heading just where I was. The beignets are still sweet, the coffee too, and then it was uptown via Baronne, how-you-doin’s all the way.
I’ve made that ride hundreds of times, and it was the same, except for the partially protected bike lane. The house falling down just past MLK is still falling down, but the fork embedded in the intersection right there is gone–there’s a patch over that asphalt. The fancy new condos are still there, right next to old homes being eaten down by overgrowth. Just past Jackson is still off-roading. I zigged and zagged my around construction, walked up Magazine for awhile, ended up in a bike lane on Charles, and all the up to Carrollton for lunch and a haircut.
I took another way home–over to the bike path along Jefferson Davis (yep) and back to Bayou St. John. I stopped to snap this picture of the Lafitte Greenway. This was in the planning stages when I left, and now it’s here. And it is beautiful. I choked back tears–I am a crybaby–as I felt the anxiety of negotiating with cars lift. So many memories of riding this way, and here it is, I’m still riding this way.
And then I took a left on Broad, into another bike lane. I remember when New Orleans got its very first bike lane on St. Claude, in 2008, I think. Here we are, 8 years later, and bike lanes are everywhere. I know from following the news that the lanes don’t keep people safe, and that cars are still killing cyclists and pedestrians at devastating rates. My dad was killed in a crosswalk. No amount of striping will protect us from inattentive drivers, and paint can’t magically transform an unsafe street into a safe one.
But it’s not nothing. For the first couple of years after the out in the lane on St. Claude, cyclists were riding just to the left of it. Turns out people have to learn how to recognize and use new infrastructure. I hope everyone learned to use and respect the lanes here.
And then I was back, I folded up the bike, and felt grateful for the reminders that things change, but I still love riding a bicycle around New Orleans. Gratitude.