Fire Island, New York
Here on Fire Island we must steer carefully around each other—and until this summer, I never saw anyone text on a bike.
Fire Island, as New Yorkers tend to know, is a sandbar south of Long Island. Few of us also know that it is connected to the mainland by a bridge that ends in a parking lot at Lighthouse Beach. Cars, with some exceptions, stop there. The ferry ride is part of the ritual: You’ll often hear people say that “Fire Island begins” when we’ve shuttled through the hurdles of traffic and crowded trains to get ourselves and our luggage onto a ferry, and leave shore.
Once here, we get around by water taxi—$32 round trip between the hamlet of Fair Harbor, where I stay, and the Sunken Forest, a national preserve—walk, or bike. The many hamlets tend to have one main paved street, which may give way to narrow boardwalks and patches of sand and must accommodate two-way traffic. These streets can clog up, especially when a ferry has landed. People pull luggage on wheels, jog, and bicycle, hugging a bag of groceries under one arm. Unwatched small children zig-zag unpredictably on foot and bikes.
The ferries do not carry bicycles—a sign reads “Don’t Ask”—so bikes here are weathered residents, rusty, with foot brakes and without gears. To Fire Islanders, our bad bikes are part of the charm.
One recent Monday I woke up in my rented room in a shared house on Fair Harbor, feeling anxious. Some people come to Fire Island to party; I come in a quest for peace. I returned in middle age remembering that my parents took me here as a child. That morning, I decided to bike, one of my most reliable cures.
I had a choice among a number of bad bikes: The best had a rusted kickstand and a thick rubber ribbon wrapped around the metal handlebars that was trailing off on one side. My feet could just barely reach the pedals but the foot brake worked, and so did the bell. Those were the essentials.
As I set out to bike, I felt the static of anxiety fade. Soon I was moving along not at my Manhattan pace but fast enough to feel my breathing deepen. That’s when I saw a boy, maybe 10 years old, pedaling with his left hand on his bike while staring at a phone in his right. He was coming my way. I rang my bell, veered to the side, and as I passed, called out, “That’s not safe!” He didn’t look up. Ahead of me were more children on bikes—a flock of them, all in motion and looking at phones. One was having a conversation. I stopped, awkwardly on the ill-fitting bike, and waited for them to pass. I biked a bit more, picking up a little speed for a block until I came to a child who was riding with no hands—and texting.
I passed him safely on the left. We were alone on the road. I almost called out “Not safe” again but decided it wouldn’t help. Yet inwardly I was fuming: “Where are the parents?” I thought to myself. The least we can do is teach children to look where they’re going. Then I saw a middle-aged woman riding toward me, gazing into a phone in her hand. As I approached, I glared at her, violating the etiquette of Fire Island, where strangers smile and wave. The woman looked up with what seemed to me a guilty expression before going back to her phone.
In Manhattan, I bike on the pathway along the Hudson River, where morning traffic can be fierce in its own way. If I pause or dawdle, fast cyclists will shout “Wake up!” or “What are you doing?” I’ve seen bicyclists with phones propped up on holders, or strapped on their arms; some wear headphones. But I’ve seen no texting. (The laws, by the way, are creeping up on us: Chicago and Flagstaff, Arizona, have passed laws banning texting while biking, and New York City has considered a fine. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a ban in California.)
Our highways are full of distracted and sleepy drivers. Nearly half of all high school students who drive, and some 30 percent of adults under 65, text or email while behind the car wheel. I suppose it should be no surprise that Fire Island, too, has been infected by smartphones.
As a toddler, I ran straight into the ocean, over and over, oblivious to waves, no matter how giant. A toddler’s glee is joyous; obliviousness in adults and older children is not. To me, Fire Island distills a modern idea of happiness as pleasure. It invites self-absorption. I have a friend who wants no more than to listen to music 18 hours a day, with time off to exercise and sleep. He’s the perfect man for the Internet age, as so many of us aspire to an American dream of doing nothing much, or engaging in our chosen pursuits, on our own schedules—magically well-rewarded or as secure retirees.