Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Addicted to darkness

Ever since my Down Low Glow lights arrived, I've become completely addicted to nighttime cruising. I've always been a night person, and I love being outside at night, particularly on nights like tonight, when the air is like silk and the stars are out clearly, even in the city.

Night riding is completely different from daytime riding, and not just because it's dark. You see things in the city at night that you can't see when the sun is out. It's been my experience that most cities have two populations -- the folks who inhabit the office buildings by day and retreat to their pockets of suburban safety during the night, and the people for whom the city isn't even open until about 9 or 10 p.m. That's a broad-brush statement, of course, so please don't take offense.

I recently moved to Albany, NY, a small city with fewer than 100,000 people. Despite its size, the center of the city and the neighborhoods immediately around it resemble similar spots in most of the larger cities I've lived in. Folks sit out on stoops in the warm night breeze, relaxing with a drink and grilling mouth-watering food on small hibachis or on grills much too large for their porches. Professionals, many still dressed in their work clothes, walk dogs of all sizes, many of whom bark in what I believe to be admiration as my brightly lit bike passes.

Tonight I rode to Buckingham Lake, a small pocket of countryside right in the heart of Albany. Nestled at the end of several city streets, Buckingham Lake (which is really a small pond) has been a relaxing oasis for Albany residents since the colonial era. I went there for the first time the other day. In the sunshine, the lake was filled with ducks and geese. Mountain bikers rode around the one-mile trail that surrounds the lake, and families of all sizes and kinds walked along the shore or played at the playground.

At night, it was very different.

For one thing, it wasn't as dark as I'd hoped. There were quite a few lights on tall lamp posts around the edge of the lake, and the streets on both sides were lit up, too. I hopped on the gravel trail and passed two high-school-age couples walking the trail and -- to judge by the smell -- smoking pot. A businessman stood on the playground in front of an expensive car, talking on his cell phone. One picnic table was occupied by four or five people talking and laughing. Around the first bend in the trail, the light poles stopped and I got a bit of darkness. The far side of the pond was the brightest area, and then the trail dropped down a few feet to kiss the water. Here I actually needed my headlight to see well enough to avoid a late-night swim.

Leaving the lake, I rode around the circular roadway the surrounds New York State's Harriman Office Complex, and then headed over to cruise around the University of Albany. Given the gorgeous weather, the campus was surprisingly quiet. Maybe everyone was studying for finals. I did pass one large group waiting for the bus, and heard several comments about my glowing Xtracycle. ("That's sweet!" "That's f***king hot!" "Cool bike!" "You're going the wrong way!" That last one turned out to be true, but only for a few hundred feet.)

On the way back to my house I passed three young guys crossing West Lawrence. "That's a hot bike," one of them said to his friend. "I like your bike, man!" the friend yelled, raising one fist in the air. I thanked him and headed home.

I'm not a cool guy. Despite having several careers that people might consider cool -- including salsa and funk musician, radio DJ, foreign correspondent and hip hop label producer -- those cool vibes have never really rubbed off on me. I just got my first tattoo (a chainwheel with a peace sign in the middle), but I still look more like the Pillsbury Doughboy than a rebel without a cause. But at night, on the Xtracycle with the Down Low Glow, even I get a little taste of the hip life. And I'm not gonna lie, I dig it. I mean c'mon -- who wouldn't like to ride around with people actually cheering for your bicycle?

So I highly recommend some nighttime cruising on your bicycle. Just make sure you've got a lot of lights, and choose your route well. And be careful -- once you get out there at night a few times, you'll become addicted, too.

Jason Crane is a union organizer, jazz broadcaster and action dad. Find him online at and The Jazz Session.

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