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#317 Between the Haves and Have-Nots

A getaway to Harlem triggers thoughts of what “privilege” actually means.

Privilege. I am reminded of it as I maneuver a 1,000cc motorcycle through traffic and obstacles, seeing the world from a perspective others simply don’t share. It’s pure joy that I feel while riding a motorcycle on a hot sunny day.
I am privileged, and I know it. Not everyone has a motorcycle. Not all can afford one, along with the driver’s training school, gear, annual licensing fees, maintenance and insurance. Not everyone can balance a bike, shift gears and use brakes automatically, or operate hand controls like clutch and front brake levers all while watching the world go by, then suddenly braking for a squirrel, plastic bag or load slipping off a truck ahead. It can be quite a challenge some days just to ride. One’s home turf is the most predictable, but the unknown is exciting.
I just did that thing again. I cheated and flew in the peak of riding season. But I flew to another bike, spending my time riding there instead of riding to get there. This time my friend’s spare bike is the same as her regular ride. In the past I’ve ridden my wide BMW boxer or borrowed her old Suzuki that was lost to Hurricane Sandy, or that EX500 that seized a while back. (I didn’t do it!) So we got to sprint around town on bikes geared the same, with the same throttle and brake response. I’ve never been able to keep up with her before, still can’t, if truth be known. She could lose me in half a New York minute.
Cheryl Stewart is a track instructor. I enjoy having her do some of the thinking for me as I follow. She knows the best routes, the alternate ones if one gets plugged with traffic or construction. It’s great to wiz around New York City like a native.
Sometimes I just want to jump on the back and leave the driving to her. That way I get to enjoy the scenery and don’t have to pay attention. And we get there faster. But I also like to go alone. So I take the Yamaha FZ1 for a ride, head out in a direction with a stop in mind, with the option of changing my route as I go. In a city the size of New York, that’s no problem. I will never run out of options or ideas.
This time I went riding around Harlem. I hadn’t been there in over 20 years and couldn’t believe the changes. Friends of mine have bought in Harlem, now one of the few “affordable” places that they couldn’t have safely lived in 10 years ago. Like my Leslieville neighbourhood in Toronto, it’s been “gentrified,” which means a whole lot of squeezing out “undesirables” and replacing them with mortgage paying individuals. The demographic has changed.
I use to ride through Harlem day or night, but on a motorcycle I could pass quickly, take in a full view, and be relatively safe as a moving target. In the 1990s, you wouldn’t stop for a red light. You’d treat it with caution and proceed. Even a cop (if there was one) sitting in a car wouldn’t stop a solo rider for yielding at a red. You’d be a sitting duck. Someone would spring from the sidewalk. And you would lose your wallet, your bag, and maybe your bike. It was that kind of unsafe. I never felt afraid physically but then again, maybe that’s because I was riding a bike, a perfect get away vehicle (equally easy to be grabbed and pulled from if you let anyone get that close).
So much has changed in my lifetime. There were many boarded up buildings in the past. Long ago CB printed a picture of an abandoned building on 118th Street covered in stuffed animals, used to attract attention and picture taking which discouraged drug dealers on that block. Those derelict squats have been renovated back to their former glory, the beauties reminiscent of the days when Harlem was the place to go for the best music in town. New roofs, bricks washed, new windows installed. Now the only places boarded up are located between two recently renovated buildings, next in line to get a beauty treatment. And people weren’t hanging out in the street like I recall.
It was Labour Day Weekend, and stiflingly hot. I stopped at a bodega and stayed inside for 10minutes, drinking an OJ, grateful for the AC. I’d been sweating in my helmet, which almost never happens. Back on the bike, my instincts took over and I found myself looking for shade.
I saw trees down a street and headed for what turned out to be a small public park against a long hill. I chatted with some locals on park benches, then decided to take the risk of leaving a helmet and bag on the ground behind me and stepped into a playground sprinkler. There were no children in it at the time. Some were playing on swings at the other end. I soaked myself with cold water. A little boy helped me turn the drinking fountain on. And I let a little girl climb on the bike while her mother took her picture on her first ever motorcycle.
Back to privilege. Sometimes we forget how two wheels and an engine give us mobility that can transport us to adventure. At least it does for me. I’d not have known Harlem if it wasn’t for riding through Central Park at night, and then heading up the road to where I was staying in Washington Heights. I’d not have known it if I didn’t take the adventurous route downtown in the day. I’d not have known so much if it weren’t for a motorcycle. And it gets me there. In tight city traffic we can get there in half the time, using side lanes that cars can’t fit through that give us ‘front of the line’ privilege.
Back home, my vintage BMW fit like a glove, a bit slow on take off, but it got me there just fine, and felt good, and so did I. Not everyone gets to fly places and ride other bikes. Then again, some have more than one in their shed to choose from. We don’t all have the same disposable income, but all of us who have a bike on the road are privileged.

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