You’ve been indoors, dressed up, balancing a cocktail, mingling. Then seated in a gilded ballroom, for hours, attentive to speeches and conversation with table companions, forking a kale salad and a comely filet and surrendering to a slice of chocolate cake.
Your energy flags as you tip-tap in your high heels across the marble floors of the hotel. The path to the exit leads through the Palm Court and past an illuminated portrait. It is a painting of a self-possessed, six-year-old girl accompanied by her plump canine sidekick Weenie and turtle Skipperdee, all born here at The Plaza Hotel in the imaginations of Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight. Eloise.
Eloise, who fueled your Midwestern childhood fantasies of big-city sophistication — and mischief. You pause for an instant before being swept along by your friends.
You push through the revolving doors, past the liveried doormen and down the red carpeted stairs. The Manhattan night air is spring-brisk, the skies clear. You awaken.
And Eloise speaks to you. As your companions take the first steps toward a taxi, you bolt.
“I’ll ride a Citi Bike home. Who wants to join?”
Finding no takers (to be fair, one was willing, but lacked his membership key), you thread between idling limos and Ubers, to the expansive bike share station that faces the hotel.
“You’ll probably get home before I do,” one friend shouts, as you liberate one of the two available Citi Bikes from the station and wave goodbye.
You position the ball of your foot on the pedal and push off, gliding into the night, past the tiered Pulitzer Fountain on Grand Army Plaza and the Paris Theatre and onto Fifth Avenue, which on this night is filled with traffic.
You are snug in an evening coat, a half dozen inches of embroidered black tulle peeking out from beneath, fluttering.
The windows of Bergdorf Goodman, filled with silver dresses to celebrate the Manus x Machina exhibition at the Costume Institute of The Met, catch your eye, as do the colorful spring displays at the towering Louis Vuitton flagship across the street. You pedal past Tiffany & Co., which ignites another fond flash of memory. Audrey in her black sheath and sunglasses.
Just north of Rockefeller Center the burnt rubber smell of hot tar assaults your nose. Traffic has come to a halt. A swell of angry car horns erupts as cops wave drivers off the avenue; section has been cordoned off for overnight repaving.
At a traffic light, you look up.
The spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as brightly lit as day, tower over you — their Gothic Revival details rendered in exquisite detail by the dramatic contrast of light and dark.
You turn east on a side street, jump the curb onto the sidewalk because there is no room to squeeze past the cars, and make your way past a line of parking garage attendants out for a smoke.
As you ride south on Park Avenue toward the glow of the Met Life Building, the traffic is equally dense, but the wide boulevard opens the night sky above you, giving you room to breath. You turn, cutting south onto Vanderbilt Place on the flank of Grand Central Terminal, where an oncoming black livery car, carelessly passing others, surprises you by swinging for a moment into your lane.
Never mind. You turn west again, hoping to have circumnavigated the street repairs. You emerge back onto Fifth Avenue in the 40s, and although the paving parade is north of you, the surface of the avenue has been scarified. Even with wide and forgiving tires, the roughed up-pavement delivers a thumping. It’s back onto the sidewalk for a few blocks until the road smoothes out.
Now, your eyes are drawn skyward again, this time by the Empire State Building, its stepped crown bathed in red, the moon shining across its shoulder. Focusing, you are mesmerized by the light, until your bike suddenly picks up momentum and coasts downhill above 34th Street.
For a moment it’s all effortless speed and breeze, with your dress fluttering, your drop earrings swaying and your hair blown back. The feeling is sublime.
As you approach Madison Square Park, the aroma of spring blossoms engulfs you and you feel a subtle coolness, a shift in the microclimate from all that urban greenery.
A convertible full of young guys approaches at the light.
“You’re killing it,” they yell.
You smile. You point at them, calling them out. You give them a thumbs up. Because you feel playful. Never mind that, in the dark, they can’t quite make out that you are their mother on a bicycle. Or maybe they can.
“We love what you are doing.” And they speed past.
Who else is accompanying you on this night ride? Other Citi Bike riders pedaling briskly home from work or dinner. Working cyclists carrying messenger bags. You marvel at the killer track stands they can execute at traffic lights for minutes on end, willing their bikes to uprightness with the tiniest manipulations of their handlebars and toe-clipped pedals.
North of the Flatiron Building, where Broadway crosses Fifth a taxi taps on its horn. You point with your hand to show him you will continue on Fifth, and you signal thumbs-up when he yields.
Just before reaching the Citi Bike station nearest your apartment building, you encounter one final stretch of scarified pavement. It jostles you back to another world. The one that is stationary.
You travel up in the elevator to find your husband in the kitchen, coat still buttoned. “I just got home,” he grumbles. “Traffic in Midtown was a nightmare.”
Not for you. For you it was a nocturnal fairytale, a few miles of adventure and romance on the streets of Manhattan. It’s everything you love about city bike riding after dark.
And you know, Eloise would have approved.
Top photo: Thanks Trevor; Empire State Building, velojoy