By Mark Alpert
I used to bike in Central Park, but it got too crowded. The tourists, so blessedly oblivious, don’t look where they’re going. They step into the bike path, gawking at everything except the cyclist bearing down on them. You can try yelling, “Watch out!” but it never works. It only startles them. They stand there in the middle of the path with their eyes wide open and their mouths agape. After experiencing several near-collisions, I realized I was fighting a losing battle. So I started biking in Riverside Park instead.
The bike path in Riverside runs next to the Hudson. I ride about five miles north, from 72nd Street to the George Washington Bridge, then turn around. There are good views of the river and the Palisades on the New Jersey side. I can outrace the barges when they’re moving against the current (which sometimes goes north, sometimes south, depending on the tides). If I’m riding during rush hour, I blow past the cars stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, I find inspiration. Herman Melville was right: New Yorkers are obsessed with the water surrounding their city. “Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”
Last May I saw a corpse lying on the strip of grass between the bike path and the river. It was a Saturday evening and I was exhausted because I’d just gone fifty miles instead of my usual ten. My son’s baseball team (the New York Gothams, hooray!) had traveled to a tournament in Demarest, New Jersey, that morning, and I’d had the bright idea of biking there to watch the game. It didn’t look that far on the map. All I had to do was cross the George Washington Bridge and go up the bike path in Palisades Interstate Park. Suffice it to say, my knees were in great distress by the time I re-crossed the bridge and returned to the city. I just wanted to get home and lie down for the next 24 hours. But as I neared the part of Riverside Park that’s unofficially set aside for weekend barbecues (between 145th and 155thstreets, approximately) I saw a crowd of people standing around a heavyset, middle-aged African-American man who lay supine and motionless on the grass. There were several cops in the crowd but no paramedics. That’s a bad sign, I thought as I sped past. No one in the crowd knelt beside the supine man to give him CPR. They just stared at the body and kept their distance. My suspicions were confirmed a moment later when I saw a van marked MEDICAL EXAMINER parked about fifty feet farther down the path. I checked the newspapers the next day and didn’t find any mention of a homicide, so the man must’ve died from natural causes. Still, it freaked me out. Although I’ve finished off scads of unlucky characters in my novels, I haven’t seen more than half a dozen corpses in my life.
In August, Riverside Park gave me another piece of macabre inspiration, although I didn’t witness this incident firsthand. I read a newspaper story about a pack of muggers who’d strung a rope across the bike path, just south of the George Washington Bridge. They waited until they saw an expensive Cannondale bike come down the path, and then they pulled the rope taut to clothesline the cyclist, knocking him off the bike. He wasn’t badly hurt, but the muggers took his Cannondale, as well as his iPhone and the five hundred dollars he was carrying.
My first reaction to the story: Well, that could never happen to me. The victim was biking at 11 p.m. and I would never ride that late. Plus, no mugger would want to steal my bike because it’s a rusty, twenty-year-old piece of crap. And why the hell was the guy carrying so much money?
This reaction is so typically New York. Whenever anything bad happens in this city, we try to distance ourselves from it. We say to ourselves, “That guy got in trouble because he was an idiot. And I’m not an idiot, right?”
Just a few weeks later, another local news item shattered my complacency. An emotionally disturbed homeless man wielding a pair of scissors went on a rampage in Riverside Park near 65th Street. He slashed two joggers, a dog-walker, and a father pushing his two-year-old in a stroller. A bystander wrestled the man to the ground before he could attack anyone else. Luckily, no one was killed. My first reaction to the story: Thank God for New York’s gun-control laws. The carnage would’ve been a lot worse if the assailant had been carrying a semiautomatic.
It was much more difficult for me to distance myself from this crime. It happened at eight in the morning, less than a mile from my home. I could so easily see myself standing in the shoes of the father, throwing my body between the disturbed man with the scissors and the two-year-old in the stroller. I know that New York’s parks are, on average, very safe; that’s why the incidents got so much ink in the newspapers, because they were anomalies. Crime rates in New York have plunged to record lows over the past twenty years. Nevertheless, I felt a mixture of fear and fascination. And as we all know, those emotions are good fodder for thrillers.
Maybe I’ll start a novel with a scene in Riverside Park. “He didn’t see the rope until it snapped up to his neck.” “He didn’t realize he’d been stabbed until he saw the hole in his jacket.” Or maybe not. I’ll think about it some more the next time I go biking.