How Switching to Two Wheels Helped Me See Philly With New Eyes

I never realized how little I knew my city till I started biking it.

Illustration by Tim Parker

Illustration by Tim Parker

Before you get the wrong idea, this is not a love story.

There have been plenty of those penned about the joys and merits of cycling in the city. Especially in this city, where — in case you haven’t noticed — the ever-widening, constantly creeping bike lanes are suddenly packed with everyone from die-hard daily commuters to meandering tourists on rented wheels.

But this, well, this isn’t one of those stories.

This is a story of sweating and settling. Of last resorts and fresh regrets. Of pulling over on I-95 and not recognizing the person staring back at you in the rearview mirror.

So actually, yes, perhaps this is a love story after all.

I’M NOT THE KIND of person you expect to see riding a bike through the city.

I’ve owned the same pair of sneakers for the past five years, and they easily have another five left in their pristine, barely worn treads. That woman who took the elevator to the mezzanine? That was me.

Although I’d like to think I care about the environment, the Dunkin’ Donuts cup graveyard in the back of my car tells a different story. As does my thermostat — which I was disappointed to discover bicycles don’t have.

And while I don’t know what, exactly, “bike culture” is, I do know that mentioning it on your OkCupid profile gives me the creeps. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t consider puppet collections or ferrets to be automatic deal-breakers.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that I don’t particularly like riding a bike — especially in gridlock.

It’s not that I never tried. I experimented, briefly, with biking in my early 20s, when I was just out of college with a degree in the I-don’t-want-nice-things-in-this-life arts and a car was so far out of my budget that I never considered it. At the time, a bike suited my 22-year-old needs perfectly: work, happy hour, pizza, happier hour, dodgy “loft” in “Northern Liberties,” repeat.

But even then, eight years and 20 pounds ago, I was always looking for an excuse to take a cab. And then came the accident.

I can still remember the sound a powder-pink Schwinn makes when it face-plants into the door of a parked Ford Explorer: metal on metal, metal on asphalt, Monica on metal. I was lucky to escape with little more than skinned knees and shaky hands, but I took the accident as a sign from above, as absolution from one more summer of matted bangs and sweaty, chafed thighs. I didn’t get back on a bike for the rest of my 20s, and I can’t really say that I missed it.

But the 30s — it looked like the 30s would have to be different, because I very much wanted to spend them in Philadelphia, and that seemed less and less likely the longer I relied on a car to get around this place.

A relationship to the city is like any relationship. You have to be present to appreciate it, grow with it, negotiate with it. You have to really roll up your sleeves and participate if you want to remember — especially at the end of a long, humid week — why you shacked up with it in the first place. When I’m strolling down Walnut Street with my shih tzus, this is effortless. Even when I’m on the El, packed in with my fellow weirdos, Philadelphia and I have a good thing going.

But a couple years ago, I bought my first car and began driving to a new job at the Navy Yard. The change was subtle at first, but I did notice that I spent a lot of time talking about — and then screaming into the void about — parking. A few months in, I wondered if my distaste for the PPA had crossed an unhealthy, obsessive line. After a year, I had to acknowledge that I had developed something close to road rage as I fantasized about tossing Nissans over guardrails during my morning commute. By the time I became a Preston & Steve fangirl, I feared there was no going back.

It was, quite clearly, time to revisit bicycling.

THIS TIME AROUND, biking in the city is considerably different.

Instead of going from my job at an alt-weekly newspaper to drag night at Bob & Barbara’s, I’m pedaling from a marketing gig to yoga class. I’ve picked up some late-stage-millennial back pain since last time around, and my new Schwinn — a trusty little three-speed named Tammy — trades swagger for a cushy seat and a decent pair of brakes.

It’s true that you never forget how to ride a bike. You can, however, very easily forget how to ride a bike without looking like an idiot. But after a couple false starts — and one downed window box, which I still feel guilty about — it didn’t take me long to figure it all out again, to tune in to that secret frequency Philly reveals when you’re on two wheels.

Since I got back on the saddle in the spring, I’ve discovered a maze of tiny off-the-grid streets that I suspect appear just for me when rush-hour traffic gets out of my league. And happening across the clusters of honeysuckle that bookend the Italian Market is a welcome reward for making it past the fishmongers in high summer. A surprise storm led me to seek shelter in V Street, where I can only assume God was making the tacos that evening.

It was an accidental shortcut that uncovered my new favorite nook of the city, St. Peter’s churchyard. Although I had driven past it countless times, I had never felt the weighty shade of its trees or taken the time to read its crumbling story. I had never listened to its resident crickets.

Other revelations about the city I thought I knew so well have been less charming.

When you bike past the makeshift homeless encampment under 1-95, you look at your apartment differently.

When you stop next to the man asking for change on Broad and catch his eye, you look at yourself differently.

I had seen him before, plenty of times, from behind my windshield, but I’m embarrassed to admit that he had become invisible at some point. When I was wrapped in the cocoon of my car, he was worlds away, just another part of the quickly moving scenery, a soon-to-be ghost of my commute. But out in the open air, it was plain to see: He’d made a couple different turns, sure, but at the end of the ride, we’re exactly the same.

I’M FINDING THAT every neighborhood has its own biking personality.

While I adore South Philly for its slow-moving neighborhood traffic, it’s completely indifferent to me, deftly assimilating one more moving part into its dense, busy grid. It didn’t judge me when I forgot Tammy at the Cantina after a long night, and it didn’t applaud me when I figured out how to balance water ice, ever so briefly, on her handlebars.

I can’t figure out how I lived in West Philly for so many years without a bike, the preferred (sometimes loudly, obnoxiously preferred) method of transportation on the other side of the Schuylkill. I always suspected this enclave was keeping some secrets, and when I smell the grass at Clark Park after a sun-shower, I can’t quite remember why I ever left my creaky old porch nearby. When I smell the guy on the fixed-gear next to me, it’s perfectly clear.

As for Fairmount, I was pleased to discover that I find it impossible to navigate no matter how many wheels I’m on. Some things change; some things stay insufferable. Tammy came home in the back of an Uber SUV that night, clearly dejected.

I DIDN’T SEE IT coming, but my favorite part of Philadelphia to bike through has turned out to be the Northeast. Whereas a bike is expected in some parts of the city — and is even a status symbol over in Fishtown — it requires some explaining on Cottman Avenue.

In the Northeast, two types of people ride bikes: children, and down-on-their-luck adults whose licenses have been revoked. I used to be self-conscious pedaling down the streets I grew up on, but I’ve found that there’s actually something freeing about pulling up to Wawa and letting everyone wonder what happened to me.

In reality, nothing happened. As in, absolutely nothing: I went to school here, puttered the rest of a decade away, found a cubicle with my name on it and called it a day. But in theory, I could be on probation after a drunk cross-country bank-robbing spree, laying low at my parents’ house while I mastermind my next scheme over raspberry iced tea.

I look like the harmless, out-of-breath writer I am in Graduate Hospital. In Fox Chase, people give me and Tammy a little space.

BUT EVEN ON MY best biking day, when I think about giving up my keys entirely, I can’t help but feel a little remorseful. There’s nothing special about my car — it’s just a banged-up little Volvo adopted off Craigslist, perfectly forgettable from bumper to dented bumper. Still, it’s my first car, and it’s been with me through a lot.

Over the past couple years, it’s moved me to four different addresses in three different neighborhoods. I’ve slept in it, cried in it, survived a You Bet Your Garden marathon in it. I cradled Hailey in the passenger seat on the way to what would be her last vet appointment, and I signed my divorce papers on the sun-bleached dashboard. It has dutifully ushered me up and down the East Coast without once questioning the number of Jack Johnson CDs in the glove compartment.

It’s been a good car. A great car. Maybe even the perfect car.

Still, I can’t help but notice that I never gave it a name or tucked a sprig of honeysuckle in its wheels.

Originally published as “Recycling” in the August 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.