Commuter Profile: Hendrik Hertzberg

Readers of another New York-based publication will, no doubt, recognize the subject of this issue’s commuter profile. Hendrik Hertzberg is one of the sharpest political commentators at work today, a legend in the magazine business, a former speechwriter for President Carter, and a T.A. member who has renewed every year since 1973. He was kind enough to take some time away from writing to answer a few questions for Reclaim.

Age? 67

Occupation?
Staff writer and senior editor, The New Yorker.

How long have you been riding?
Riding since, like, 1950. Commuting in New York City since 1967. T.A. member since 1973 − with the bike shop discounts on parts and repairs, it pretty much pays for itself.

What's your commute?
From boyhood on I’ve always had the same kind of bike: a three-speed Raleigh. I’ve had four or five of them over the decades, the current one for the last fifteen years. It has everything an urban bicycle needs: fenders; a bell and a squeeze horn; regular handlebars instead of those weird ram’s-horn things; coaster brakes as well as hand brakes; a rear rack and folding baskets for briefcase, laptop, books, groceries, whatever. Three speeds is more than enough, plus you can shift while standing still. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want a ten- or fifteen-speed derailleur in flat Manhattan, especially one with no fenders. Who needs getting your pants wet every time you go over a puddle? My bike is heavy and clunky, but that’s a feature, not a bug. It just means I get more exercise per mile.

What about parking?
I’m lucky − our apartment building lets me take it up in the elevator. The Condé Nast building, where I work, has wall-mounted bike racks in the delivery bay, but they don’t accommodate bikes that have fenders. So I just lock my bike to a no-parking sign. Here’s my security system: a big padlock and three feet of heavy chain from the hardware store, stuffed into an old inner tube. I ride with the chain wrapped around the seat post. Also, I keep the seat covered with an old plastic bag. It looks gross, but my theory is that its very grossness discourages thieves. My other theory is that no one wants to steal a rusty, cruddy-looking, banged-up, ancient, deeply unfashionable two-wheeler anyway, especially in a heavily trafficked area like Times Square. One time I forgot to chain the bike up and just left it leaning against the no-parking sign. It was still there three days later.

Any tips for New Yorkers who have just started bike commuting?
Pretend you're invisible. Think of cars and buses as big, awkward animals that don’t mean any harm but have limited brainpower and eyesight. Watch out for car doors heedlessly opening − I don’t know if there are statistics on what causes accidents involving bicycles, but getting doored is the main thing I worry about. Be nice to pedestrians. They are not the enemy. If you startle one, make eye contact and apologize profusely. Take your time − it’s safer, and you won’t get all sweaty. Your ears are your radar dishes; they help you "see" what's out of your field of vision. So: no iPods, please, and for God’s sake no cellphones.

Ever have a crash?
In 1972, the pre-helmet era, I was zooming way too fast down Fifth Avenue. Between 35th and 34th, in front of the old B. Altman’s, I rode into a big pothole, pretzeled the front wheel, and went head first over the handlebars and smacked my skull on the pavement. I abandoned the wreckage and staggered into a taxi. All the way to St. Vincent’s the driver kept begging, “Please don’t bleed on my cab!” Ten stitches on my forehead; the scar is still visible. The accident didn’t faze me, though, because it was my own fault. If I had done nothing stupid and still got my head bashed in, I might’ve given up cycling.