The other day I took the new Harley out for it’s first real run. Just a short ride around town, since it was the first day that we had both sun and temperatures in the high 50’s. I rode out of Fort Hamilton, down to Coney Island, and then out towards West Long Island. I was shocked at how delapidated Coney Island is; far from the amusement park glories of the past, it is now largely a collection of projects and rusting little businesses. Brighton Beach isn’t too bad, although I was sort of disappointed not to see any evidence of the Russian Mob that supposedly runs the place these days.
Further down the road, I stumbled across another relic from the past, Floyd Bennet Airfield. Opened in 1931, it was the first airport in the New York area, and at the time, was the most space age aerodrome in the country, with it’s concrete runways and electric lighting. Nowadays, it too is falling apart; supposedly operating as a heliport for the NYPD, nothing seemed to be there except for some ancient hangars and a squadron of resentful seagulls. I motored on.
I decided to cut across the north end of Brooklyn, and see if I could find the Brooklyn Bridge. In Germany, I would take off on the weekends, without a map, and do my best to get lost. Well, try to, anyway, I never really did, mostly due to the excellent German habit of dotting the landscape with very detailed and clearly marked road signs. That, and the internal cranial map that I’ve developed after a childhood of wilderness exploration and an adult life of land navigation courses. New York is a good test of this, though, particularly when you only have a fuzzy idea of the lay of the land.
It can be interesting, in a way that Germany wasn’t. I never found a ghetto in Bavaria, but here, where the neighborhoods can blend instantly from one extreme to another, you can find yourself in some pretty dicey areas with little or no warning. Between the ‘normal’ squalor of Canarsie, and the yuppie-fied brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, there are a couple of real gems to be found. Crown Heights. Bedford-Stuyvesant. Flatbush. East New York.
Last night, on duty, I asked a group of our D.A.C.P. officers, all of them retired NYPD, where I should absolutely not go, regardless of the time of day. They thought pensively for a minute, and then rattled off a couple of names. All of the ‘hoods above were on the list, with East New York the number one advisory.
Needless to say, I didn’t know this on the ride. I became aware that something was off, however, after a little bit. Looking at boarded-up storefronts and groups of tough looking guys on the street corners, it became apparent, in a Mozambique sort of way, that I was the only white person in sight. This, and the fact that I was sitting on a brand new 20,000 dollar motorcycle, dressed in full biker regalia, made me a little nervous–that, and the fact that a lot of people seemed to be staring at me. In a city where the Golden Rule is not to make eye contact. Traffic was thick, and the going was slow. The feeling reminded me of patroling Sadr City.
Relax, man, I thought. You’ve got 32 tattoos, and you’re a big guy. You’re a combat vet. You’ve explored most of Europe and a good chunk of Korea on a Harley. Besides, didn’t your mother always tell you that you could pull off just about anything if you look at ease and fully confident?
Suck in your gut. Stick out your chest. Light a cigarette, and smoke it with a sneer, like John Wayne on a Chopper. Or at least a cutrate version of Peter Fonda. Adopt the biker persona that let you party with Hell’s Angels in Austria just a few months ago. Yeah. I got this. I started feeling pretty good about myself, although I kept an eye on the rear view mirrors in case anyone tried to bumrush me from behind. I can do this. Just look like you belong here, or at least are some crazy whiteboy biker who no one in their right mind would mess with.
I stopped at the next traffic light, slowly exhaled a wreath of cigarette smoke in a Clint Eastwood snarl; a Western theme song in my head. “Wah wah-wah.” Which is when I heard a little voice to my side say, “Hey, Mister.”
I looked down, to the sidewalk on my right. There was this little black kid standing there, wrapped in a grubby bubble parka, clutching something that may have once been a candy bar. Five, maybe six years old. His eyes were clear and wide, without malice, but with the sure knowledge of someone who has seen more than I have. And he said, in that voice that all children have; y’know, the kind that you can hear above whatever traffic noises are around you–the sort of voice that everyone can hear:
“Are you lost?”