The Cruelty of Umbrellas

6 June 2019

One afternoon this summer, I dragged myself out of the house to ride my bike along the Hudson River. It was hot and humid – not the moist, soothing humidity that softly caresses you in a tropical rainforest, but the heavy, burning-your-skin humidity that sits on top of you without asking and swirls the stench of garbage up your nose. But I had promised myself that I would learn to ride my bike with no hands, and my days of summer freedom were slipping away.

I rode steadily up the bike path, occasionally lifting my hands briefly before losing balance. I reached my favorite rest stop three miles from home. “What a Day for a Daydream” danced in my ears from my iPod, and I thought, Why, yes, it certainly is.

I parked my bike and lay down on a wooden bench. Curly gray clouds loomed across the river, but I decided I had time to rest before cycling home. Just as I got comfortable, a man appeared in my peripheral vision. When he spoke to me, I removed my earbuds and listened to his calm, thickly accented voice. “It looks like it’s going to rain,” he said.

As if that were all the permission they needed, the clouds released light raindrops that spotted the bench.

“I was just like you once,” the man continued. “One day a long time ago, I went for a bike ride and lay down on a bench, even though it started to rain. People walking by me probably thought I was crazy.”

In New York City, it is always a guessing game whether a stranger who talks to you is “crazy,” but I knew at that moment this man was not. I studied his gray mustache and wrinkles as he told me that the raindrops were like soft little fingers on his face.

“Rain is like therapy,” he said, “when you just lie there and let it fall on your face.” It was as though he was narrating my thoughts.

He continued to talk, and I imagined his home life. He had immigrated from a small town in eastern Europe, and he hung pots and pans on the wall in his kitchen. “You are from China?” he asked.

“Well, I am half Chinese,” I replied, surprised that for the first time in my life, a stranger could see my true ethnicity, instead of supposing I was Mexican, Hawaiian, or Filipino.

“I’m taking a tai chi class, and there’s this word, Kua, that means ‘Everything in the body is connected.’” He began to sway a little. “When the shoulders move, the hips move. Everything is connected.”

The rain fell harder, and lightning flashed like the gods were having a photo shoot. I told the man I’d better get home.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, and we called each other’s bikes beautiful before parting forever.

I had never ridden in the rain before. Would my bike skid and fall over? But riding on the wet pavement was surprisingly smooth. The raindrops smacked me so hard I wondered what I’d done wrong until I realized it was hail. I narrowed my eyes to see the path ahead of me and gripped the wet handlebars tightly. I was disheartened that I wouldn’t be able to practice my hands-free skills on the way home. But then a crazy thought crept into my mind … Why not?

And at that moment, I experienced one of the most liberating sensations of my life. The wind and icy summer rain whipped my face as my bent knees took turns being first and I raised my arms in the air, my balance holding strong. I yelled to no one in particular. I’d never been more truly in the moment. Everything was connected.

As soon as I reached my block, the clouds shriveled away. I had never experienced a more unusual afternoon. Normally I would have chalked the rain up to bad luck, but I remembered the man’s tai chi reference. Who cares if my clothes were soaked?

For the first time, I saw the cruelty of umbrellas for barricading us from the soft, therapeutic, tapping fingers. Like an umbrella, the codes of urban society prevent us from having contact with strangers. The danger is understandable, but the thrill of riding a bike with no handlebars and the refreshment of wise words from a mysterious stranger is worth getting a little wet.

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