We’re thrilled to take a break from our original format this week to present an excerpt from the forthcoming New York City Beach Guide by Gordon MacRae and Caitlin Seymour.
It never seemed the most obvious way to spend a Sunday, but we kept talking about it until the idea became inevitable and the inevitable became a plan: to cycle 26 miles on a crisp, cold February afternoon to a New York City beach.
Whenever I talk to people back home about living in New York, everyone has a different image in their head. People have their own checklist of landmarks: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station, and of course the big one, the building that was used for exterior shots in Friends.
But when people ask me what I like about living in this city, the first thing I tell them is that I can cycle to the beach from my house. I’ve lived here for a little over a year and it’s still a novelty that there’s a strip of sand at the end of the subway line.
So here we are, Elise and I, in the afternoon light of a Fort Greene apartment, hunched over an iPhone screen as we plot our route to Fort Tilden. Thirteen miles there. Thirteen miles back. It’s certainly not a famous beach destination, not a place people mention in the same breath as ‘Ipanema’ or ‘South Beach’, but it’s nonetheless a small dose of the natural world within reach of the concrete valleys of this city.
Elise McCave, one of the best conversationalists you’ll ever meet, is my cousin. But today she’s also my travel companion (travel companion, n. – someone who doesn’t know any better than you).
We pack a bag. Sandwiches, a banana, an apple and a Cliff bar. We also pack two thermoses filled with cold water, not hot tea. An idea that seems smart at the time but that we’ll later look back on with deep pangs of regret.
We ride south through Park Slope. Elise’s bike is an old one-speed with a fetching basket that adds character but doesn’t help her get up hills. My bike is a 16-speed Raleigh. The type that demands special clothes with unnecessary air vents.
We roll into Prospect Park, talking about family, ill-fated girlfriends, and how to make friends in a new city. The hill carries us fast and smooth to Ocean Avenue and a bug flies in my mouth. We turn south towards the sea.
The weather changes. Gray clouds loom high to our left and we pick up the pace. We ride two abreast on the single-track cycle lane. A car forces us back into single-file. We’re shouting now, hearing only fragments of each other.
“…when people ask me what I like about living in this city, the first thing I tell them is that I can cycle to the beach from my house.”
Me: “The snow…. there was a money-thing.”
Elise: “We won’t get any more snow, right? It’s not… the shape of this season… is it?”
It’s a still winter afternoon and our voices carry in the air. We drift left on to Avenue N. Now we’re really flying, down empty side streets towards the looming sea. Elise’s scarf blows behind her like a wind-sock.
Elise: “I was cycling through Parkhead one night last summer and I realised I was wearing a Rangers scarf.”
Me: “There’s never a good time to realise that in Glasgow.”
Elise steers with one hand while reading directions on her phone. We glide past Brooklyn College and blow down Avenue N into the pseudo-suburbs of Midwood and Madison. The wind picks up, the temperature drops. I’ve lost sensation in my toes. I’m wearing a black pair of converse which, in hindsight, are arguably ill-suited for a bike trip in February in New York City.
We cycle fast through low streets, Ryder, Kimball, Coleman. We’re side by side again, weaving between parked cars and hoping neither of us get doored.
We make a quick right out onto Flatbush Avenue, a full-throttle dynamo of a highway. We mount the sidewalk and catch a breath of salty sea air. Out here the sidewalk is cracked and hazardous. Paving stones jut at odd angles and fallen branches conceal puddles of broken glass.
Me: “Some of the real estate out here is bizarre, the most bizarre in New York. Over there in Mill Basin they listed a house for $35m.”
Elise: “It looks proper mafia.”
We climb upwards over Marine Parkway Bridge and the ocean slides out beneath us. Jamaica Bay is on our left and Dead Horse Bay on our right; we’re up with the seagulls. We sprint with burning legs down the other side and into Jacob Riis Park.
We come to ground on Rockaway Point Boulevard and cross the highway into Fort Tilden. A lonely runner jogs past a vacant-looking fire station. There’s graffiti on the pavement by the boardwalk: “Hipsters Go Home”.
Elise: “You know what I’d love? A nice warm cup of weak tea and a packet of crisps.”
Me: “I can almost guarantee nothing is open down here. And even if it is, they won’t have a clue what ‘crisps’ means.”
Elise: “Let’s just see if there’s a tearoom in that building.”
The building in question is a low, squat crescent. In the summer it houses a bustling open-air market, but today, on a dreary February afternoon, it looks half-asleep. We lock our bikes outside and peer through the window. A young couple pushes through the door, a warm blast of air follows them outside. Incredible! It’s open. We’re hopping from foot to foot to get sensation back in our toes. We hurry inside.
The bar staff wear wool hats and bemused expressions. As if to say: “We know it makes no financial sense that we’re open. But let’s just enjoy the ride.” We give them enthusiastic smiles in return.
“Behind us is a city of 8 million people speaking 800 languages in an area of 300 square miles. And we’re at the beach.”
We order ciders spiked with Sailor Jerry. I recognise the barman from a bar in Greenpoint. As mandated by law in New York City, he starts talking about his rent. He tells me how little he pays out here.
Barman: “$750 a month for a huge studio apartment, right on the beach. I walk to work.”
The sun breaks through on the windswept promenade, and all of a sudden it could be spring. Inside we talk about marriage and eat a plate of greasy chips. We finish our drinks, jump on our bikes, and race up and down the boardwalk. Behind us is a city of 8 million people speaking 800 languages in an area of 300 square miles. And we’re at the beach.
Elise: “Don’t cycle through frozen snowdrifts. You should put that in your article. They will puncture your tyres.”
As we bike north, back over the Marine Parkway Bridge, we catch a faded glimpse of Manhattan in the orange dusk. It’s colder now than when we started, not more than three hours ago, in what feels like a different, more innocent time.
Above our heads planes rip the sky apart on their descent into JFK. We cycle up the southern tip of Bedford Avenue, the sun dipping below Eastern Parkway as we crest the hill. I haven’t cycled in four months and after twenty-five miles the saddle sore defies belief.
It’s the Super Bowl tonight; young boys and their fathers hurry along the sidewalk clad head to foot in orange. It strikes me how peculiar it is for grown men to wear full sports kit. We dart and weave through traffic, shooting into southern Williamsburg.
We say our goodbyes at a traffic light but cycle two abreast for two more blocks before Elise ducks down Lincoln Place, across a red light, in front of a parked police cruiser. The cops barely raise an eyebrow between them. I continue north and smile to myself, doing my best to ignore the burning sensation in my thighs, only weeping slightly. It’ll pass.
Sometimes it’s not about the most epic adventure you can imagine. Sometimes it’s enough to make a plan, get on your bike, and cycle until you get tired. Then turn around again and come home. Not every trip has to be Instagram-perfect. Sometimes the best stories lie in the cracks in the pavement, the cracks in between daily life. In the small slices of adventure you can carve out of a crisp February afternoon.
This story appeared in the 3/3/2016 edition of our newsletter.