Concrete Jungle

On the Greenway

I moved to Minneapolis in May 2010, the year Bicycling named it the best cycling city in the country. That summer, unemployed, I sat on my girlfriend’s second-floor balcony and watched the bikes go by: Trek Antelopes, Surly Steamrollers, Specialized Allez’s, and legions of vintage 10-speeds: Raleighs, Fujis, Panasonics, Peugeots, Schwinns. Just three blocks from our building, I could join a stream of cyclists on the finest urban bike trail I’ve ever seen: the “great, vast Greenway,” in the words of the Bicycling writer. Essentially a super-highway for bikes, the Midtown Greenway connects the Twin Cities’ western suburbs to the Mississippi River. At the most congested section of the city, it enters a converted railroad trench and traverses the next 2.8 miles of busy roads and an interstate highway with exactly one street crossing and zero stop signs: a fifteen-minute ride. It takes 45 minutes or more to drive a car the same distance on Lake Street one block away.

In Milledgeville, Georgia, where I’d lived for the previous three years, I’d basically stopped riding beyond a three-mile radius of my home. Any further and I’d be funneled onto a two-lane county road with no margin and a 55-mph speed limit, or onto a four-lane shopping strip of fast food restaurants, payday loan offices, and auto parts stores. In Minneapolis, Liz and I cycled everywhere. A week after I moved in, we rode to a cookout in a neighborhood five miles away. It was a lovely ride, but by the end we felt the early dark and chilly wind of a thunderstorm. It was pouring when the party ended, and a friend gave us a ride home in her minivan. I was sitting in the back seat next to our bikes when my phone rang. It was my dad, calling to tell me my grandmother had just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.

That was the beginning of a difficult summer. I spent mornings on my laptop applying for jobs and afternoons working on a Cannondale mountain bike I’d begged for in high school, rarely rode, then trashed in college. I’d stripped it down to its aluminum frame, and I slowly rebuilt it. This routine was interrupted only by a two-week trip to my grandparents’ house on the coast of Maine, the only place I’d returned to every year of my life. I recorded an interview with my grandmother, shot videos of her, and touched one of the hard, ugly lumps under the skin of her back. Long ago, I’d created a series of index cards with instructions for using email. My grandmother had quickly become proficient, and for years had been sending a daily morning email to everyone in the family, with updates on where in the world we all were, what had happened on the Pemaquid Trail the day before, what was going to happen that day, and how the various New England sports teams had done. She loved the Red Sox and the Patriots, and had the true New England tendency to leaven every victory with skepticism, and endow each defeat with significance. I’m afraid this isn’t going to be the year for the Red Sox, she wouldn’t hesitate to announce in early May, though she had a bit more faith in Tom Brady and the Patriots.

That last summer, knowing I was alone in my apartment, she made a point of calling in the middle of the morning, and of sending me random, encouraging emails: We know you will eventually get a job that will be perfect for you. And eventually I did get a job, though it wasn’t perfect. Riding down the Greenway one day, I passed a moving company with a Now Hiring banner hanging above the loading dock. They brought me on in August, and I began making the ride every morning, cutting behind the K-Mart on Nicollet Avenue, taking the ramp onto the Greenway and cruising two glorious miles before having to stop for anything. This ride was usually the best part of the day, though I often had to retrace it less than an hour later after being sent home because there was no work for me. Sometimes I passed my girlfriend as she rode to a summer class at the University of Minnesota.

My grandmother had absolute faith that I would find a better job, and she was correct, though she didn’t see me get it. I was in the warehouse on a Sunday morning in January when my father called to tell me she had died at three in the morning. There were always more movers on hand than there was work, so the dispatcher had no problem sending me home. I wheeled my bike out of the warehouse and through deep snow to the Greenway, which was clear. The city plows it before it plows most streets. I rode carefully, ready to be overtaken by tears. For the last few months I’d worked hard to reframe the looming catastrophic loss into gratefulness for my grandmother’s life. But the rhythm of cycling sometimes lulled me into letting down my guard, and I’d find myself blinded by tears. This was simply embarrassing when I was among other riders on the Greenway, but it was downright dangerous on city streets, especially in winter. I didn’t cry that morning, though, and I didn’t cry when I gave the news to Liz. I didn’t cry for so long that I started to wonder what was wrong with me. The grief I expected just never came, and eventually I decided my reframing had been a success. We were able to joke, just days after the funeral, when the Patriots were unexpectedly humiliated in the first round of the NFL playoffs by their arch-rivals, the Jets, that it was a good thing Grammie hadn’t lived to see it. My father and his brothers had covered her in a Patriots blanket before they sealed up the coffin.

A week later, I was offered a job at a nonprofit downtown. My new commute took me up the Hiawatha Trail, which runs North-South beside the light rail line and is almost certainly the ugliest bike trail in the country.

My father came to visit in the spring, and we went for a thirty-mile ride on our last day together. I wanted to show off the Greenway. We started talking about the smell of different seasons. Dad told me that when he was a boy and the house in Maine was only a summer cabin, they would drive up the day after school ended in Massachusetts and stay until the day before school started. On the final morning, my dad would walk down to the beach and take one last swim, and, magically, that day was always the first day of fall. It had that fall smell. “What was the smell?” I asked. He thought for a minute. It was the smell, he said, of riding in the car beside his mother to buy corn on the cob at Uhlman’s Farm. Then we left the Greenway, and couldn’t ride side by side anymore.

Liz and I moved at the end of the summer. Now my commute is shorter, barely a mile, straight down Third Avenue through the downtown street grid. I don’t even have a bike lane, much less a trail. It takes ten minutes, about a quarter of the time it used to, and yet the ride feels longer. I seem to hit every light. I get a pleasant adrenaline buzz from maneuvering among city buses and angry commuters prone to running red lights, but by the end of most workdays I long for a stretch of unbroken asphalt where I can pedal away the cramped agitation that builds during hours of sitting in a basement cubicle absorbing the internet and filling out online forms. I rarely use the bike trails anymore. There is almost always a more direct way to get where I need to go.

One of the last times I used the Greenway was the night of the Super Bowl. My father and brother in Virginia, my aunt in New Hampshire, my uncles in Ukraine and France, and my cousins in New York and Ghana had exchanged well over 100 emails as the Patriots advanced through the playoffs, our longest communication since my grandmother’s death one year before. Liz and I went to a party at our friends’ apartment, but I set a chair three feet from the screen and experienced the game in a tunnel of anxiety and concentration. As soon as Tom Brady’s final, desperate pass bounced in the endzone, I stood, said a general goodbye, pulled on my winter cycling things, and went to my bike. Instead of riding straight home on Lyndale or Bryant, I turned south. Our friends’ building was just a block from a ramp onto the Greenway. I hadn’t said goodbye to Liz. I sent her a text: I’m going to ride for a while.

The Greenway was empty. It had been a mild winter, but patches of slick, choppy ice covered the trail below the viaducts that crossed over at every block. I hadn’t expected the game to affect me this strongly. Each time a dropped catch or a missed tackle replayed in my head, I shouted, “Fuck.” The word echoed off the stone embankments and the concrete overpasses. It was 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. The temperature was well below freezing. A few weeks before, a woman had been assaulted on this stretch of the Greenway. Instead of just robbing her, the two men beat her in the face and tried to drag her into the shadows. She was saved when a passing cyclist heard her screams and pedaled toward them, brandishing his U-lock as a weapon. These things happen on the Greenway. That night, I wanted someone to jump me.

I’d never lived with a girlfriend or in a large city, and I liked being with people. But as I rode down the Greenway, I realized that in the last year I’d barely ever felt alone, or at least not alone enough to scream at the top of my lungs, which was something, I realized, I’d been needing to do for a long time. So I opened my lungs and throat and screamed my way down the Greenway. When I reached the Olav Sabo bridge, I realized I wasn’t done yet, so I turned onto the Hiawatha Trail and rode north. I abandoned all pretense of having anything coherent to scream, and simply screamed. I screamed all the way downtown, and turned onto the Mississippi River Trail—part of the Grand Rounds, a fifty-mile circuit of the city. There was pale ice at the edges of the river, but strings of light rippled on the open black current at the center. I wasn’t screaming. I was just saying the same thing over and over. I was saying, “It’s been a hard year.” I chanted, “It’s been a hard year,” up the river for a mile. By the time I turned toward home on the Cedar Lake Trail, I’d started crying hard, and I was so blind as I passed under the Twins stadium that I missed the ramp onto First Avenue and had to double back. I was close to home now, and to Liz, and I’d had enough of being alone. I pedaled hard down the center of the empty streets and ran all the red lights, but it wasn’t the same as riding on the Greenway. I couldn’t ride blind anymore.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.