Day of Biking by Thaddeus Rutkowski

When I went out, I looked around to see who was wearing a mask. Not many people had their face covered; most were cavalier about risk. I pulled on my mask and swung onto my bicycle saddle. The bike rolled smoothly, and the cloth covering didn’t bother me; I could almost forget about the face patch as I rode.

I passed through the Lower East Side and reached the paved pathway along the East River. There, I saw that more of the open area—the former park—had been bulldozed. The construction zone had been expanded, cutting off another paved path and forcing me to ride across a playing field, itself redivided with a rubber walkway.

I rode along the estuary, now flowing toward the harbor. I passed propped-up fishing rods, their lines connected to bait sunk to the river bottom. All of the anglers were barefaced. I hoped a caught fish or crab wouldn’t make anyone sick. The river water didn’t look too clean. However, I’d eaten seafood bought from an ice-covered table on the sidewalk—crabs that might have been caught in this same river—and I would do it again.




I came to a place where a few trees still stood and remembered sitting on the ground there earlier in the summer. My daughter had been sitting on the grass nearby. We had no masks in the fresh air.

She was drawing in a sketchbook with colored pencils and a pen. I didn’t look at her, because if I did she might have asked, “Why are you looking at me?”

Instead, I’d stayed in my spot and looked at the abandoned buildings across the water. On the river, I spotted an occasional seabird, a passing freight ship, and a single bobbing buoy. Presently, my daughter came to me and showed me her sketch. She had drawn a picture of me sitting, not looking at her. The lines and colors were strong and clear. I could tell who the figure was; there was no mistaking the bowed head, the graying hair, the Asian-skinned eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses.




I rode along the edge of the wasteland. The ground was uniformly bare, and cranes rose over piles of debris. However, a small red-brick building was still standing. The building must have had some historical value; maybe it had been a maritime guardhouse or a border customhouse. It must have been too solid, too beautiful in its way, for developers to crush into rubble.

At the end of the debris field, I came to a long pier that wasn’t closed—a couple of sightseeing ships were docked at its side. In the parking area, a vendor was struggling with his food cart. He couldn’t detach it from his pickup truck. When he saw me, he asked, “Can you stand on one end of the cart? ”

I doubted that I could climb onto the metal frame and hold myself there, but I said, “I’ll try.”

I stepped onto a metal lip and hung onto the top of the cart with one hand. The vehicle tipped back toward me. The vendor lifted the coupler from its anchor on the truck and pulled the cart free.

“Let me give you something,” he said, and pulled a large bottle of soda from an ice-filled bin. It wasn’t a drink I liked very much, but I was grateful anyway.




Beyond the construction, I came to a paved area under an elevated expressway and noticed a young woman looking through her phone lens at something on the ground. I couldn’t tell what she was focusing on—it could have been a fallen leaf. But when I slowed and stopped, I saw that she was photographing a butterfly, a medium-size specimen with large eyespots on its wings. The butterfly was in perfect shape, but how long would it survive? We were already into the fall. Would it have enough time to find an other-gendered butterfly and mate before the temperature dropped below freezing?

The butterfly might have been looking for some kind of nectar. Maybe it was sipping Gatorade or fruit juice spilled on the ground.




I made a loop around the end of Manhattan and arrived at Ground Zero. Unexpectedly, I lost the path. I had to carry my bike up a flight of stairs and over a footbridge to get to the far side, where the way was open. On the bridge, I looked over to where the World Trade Center had stood. A new skyscraper was anchored near the original basins, now filled with fountains and pools. I looked up and imagined Philippe Petit on his tightrope, dancing between the towers and taunting the police. Now, a tightrope walker would have nothing to attach one end of his cable to.




I came back up the other side of Manhattan and stopped at a supermarket. At a vegetable bin, a woman started yelling at me. “You’re digging in your nose and touching the tomatoes!” she said.

“I’m wearing a mask,” I said. “I can’t dig in my nose.”

“You’re a nasty person,” she said.

I turned to face her. “What are you going to do? Call security?”

“Security!” she yelled.

When a guard arrived, she said, “He was digging in his nose and grabbing the tomatoes.”

“I don’t think I was digging in my nose,” I said.

“Look,” the man said to me, “just take it easy, OK?”




When I arrived at my apartment building, I was carrying a bag of tomatoes and pushing my bike. A young resident was going in, so I waited while he unlocked the door.

“Who are you delivering to?” he asked.

“I’m not delivering. I’m going to park my bike in the basement.”

He nodded and winked—and let me in.




Later, I told my wife about the incident.

“Who was he?” she asked.

“I don’t know. He was a young guy, with dark hair.”

My wife snorted. “I’ll talk to him later,” she said.

I hoped she would find him and give him what for, but she didn’t need to do that on my account. She didn’t need to do that at all.



Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of eight books, most recently Safe Colors, a novel in short fictions. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and Columbia University and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.