Hey Baby, Can I Get a Ride?

I started biking in earnest the summer after I graduated from college. I had learned to ride a bike as a child, on a purple, banana-seated garage sale find that had sparkly tassels coming out of the handle bars. It had cost five bucks, and I enjoyed riding it around the block. I didn’t venture much further than that, since it was around that time that Kevin Collins disappeared from our city’s streets and reappeared forlornly on the city’s milk cartons.

I biked through New York once on a legendary, all-night bike tour led by historian Ken Jackson. I was a student, but not in Jackson’s class, though my friend in his class was going and told me that the ride would leave at 11 pm that night, and to find a bike and come along! So I rode all night on a way-too-small BMX bike with a hundred or so other college kids, through Times Square, down to the foot of the island and back, taking in the whirl of color and sound and smell that is New York at any time of day or year. The excitement of seeing the Stock Exchange in the wee hours of the night, or being on the Staten Island ferry at sunrise is something I won’t soon forget.

So when I started dating an ex-bike mechanic who lived in the East Village, and who gave me my first city bike, I was stoked. Our first bike ride, I followed him from Williamsburg to Inwood, and watched as he cut through traffic, ran red lights, and jumped curbs. I tried to do the same and wiped out a few times, but always got right back up. I haven’t stopped riding since.

I used to regularly ride from my place in Harlem to his on east 3rd and avenue C. Riding through Harlem is pretty fun, once you get used to catcalls.

“”Hey Baby, can I get a ride?” This is by far the most common.

“Hey Snowflake!”

“Looking good!”

“Hey hot stuff!” or honey, or sweetie, or beautiful…

“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Yeah, I don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do- that’s why I’m riding my bike so fast! Getting nowhere quick!

Or the more direct,

“Get off that bike and come over to my house!”

Or more vulgar,

“Come here and sit on this!”

Any possible threat of anything other than verbal harassment has always been mitigated by my speed on two wheels. So I’ve learned to, most of the time, if I’m in a good mood and feeling generous, accept this form of communication as a compliment- I’m still looking good! I sure as hell can’t stop it from happening to me or other women, though it is a cultural phenomenon, more accepted in some cities and countries than others.

When I was a student in NYC, I used to walk across the city regularly, uptown downtown and back, west side to east side, through Soho, wherever. The energy is electric, the people watching is great, and its often the quickest way between two points. It can also be a great meditation. Whatever might be troubling you, solvitur ambulando: it is solved by walking.

I would get harassed on those walks, too.

“Hey, nice tits,” or even one time,

“Nice nipples!” one suit-wearing jerk said to me on Canal Street. No, I was not topless. I was indeed wearing a shirt. I flushed as if he had actually touched me and felt immediately and simultaneously admired and debased. I sometimes wonder if men’s breast obsession is profoundly sexist or profoundly goddess-worshipping.

The few times I ever said anything in angry response to these unsolicited comments, I always got surprised indignation in return, as in,

“What’s the big deal? Why so uptight?” You’re on the street, so it’s our right to size you up, express our approval, stake our claim.

I had a very beautiful blond friend who moved from California to New York after college. She lived near the north end of Central Park, in a mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood. She would go jogging in her sports bra and bike shorts through Harlem and come back enraged at the comments. I told her, that’s life in the city, and

“At least you know you’re still hot. When you’re old, you’ll probably miss the attention.”

She didn’t like me saying that.

So I moved back to San Francisco this year, back to a place where catcalling is not part of the general culture or fabric of street life. I hadn’t missed being called out. But last night I got my fix. At 3:30 am, my kid woke me up.

“Mommy, my ear hurts!”

She’s not often sick, so I had no children’s tylenol at home. I thought about giving her aspirin, but apparently it’s risky for kids to take it. Ugh. I drag myself out of bed, groggily hop onto my bike, and zip down to the Safeway on Market Street that’s open 24 hours.

Most of the city is sleeping at that time of night, but there are a lot of homeless people in San Francisco in general, and a big contingent hangs out around that store. There’s a bike path behind the building, and there are always people there, sitting, sleeping, smoking pot, even shooting dope into their arms in broad daylight.

Three homeless guys greet me and eye my bike as I lock it up and go in to buy the berry-flavored medicine. Mission accomplished, I unlock my bike and get on, headed home. As I pedal past the Safeway entrance, one of the gentlemen of the night walks back outside to continue his nocturnal activities.

“Hey Baby, can I get a ride?”