Late at night, the whine of motorcycle engines calls out to me from the city streets nearby. The sound beckons me, an invitation to come out to play. I answer the call by gearing up and heading out there myself. When I ride at night I stay on well-lit roads, those skirting the edge of the city and those within it. Gone are the man-made noises: the hum of mowers, the whir of weed-whackers. There are no semis rumbling over broken roads, no garbage trucks beeping as they back up. Even the birds are silent.
When I ride at night I am venturing into a land of mystery. My 2008 Triumph Bonneville has stock pipes and quietly purrs along the darkened streets from one lamplight beam to the next. I turn down streets lined with homes built a hundred years ago. At city speeds of 25mph, I ease past parked cars and beneath a tunnel of shadowy trees. Rooflines are furrowed brows watching me as I slip past. A cat darts from one car to another, hiding in the shadows. This is my city. These are my night rides.
At night, the bustle of the day dissolves into the darkness. Thoughts are like the pools of light I pass by on the street. There is room between them. They are black at the edges where I can’t quite get a hold of how they connect one to the other. There is just enough space around them, that I can see them more clearly. I have been out of work for six weeks now, downsized by the healthcare organization I worked for. I sleep more than I thought I would. I am less concerned with time: break time, meal time, bedtime. I eat when I’m hungry, nap when I’m tired. I can have a cup of coffee at 10:00PM and stay out late on a Wednesday. Sunday’s aren’t spent getting ready for Monday. And I can ride late into the night, without fear of sleeping through a morning alarm.
A recurring thought has crept in over the past few weeks: you should be scared; it’s a tough job market. This thought comes from outside me, as though from a stranger, yet it feels familiar. I am not afraid of being without work as a nurse. I am not afraid of losing my house or my livelihood, but this inner voice that continues to speak to me thinks I should be. Waking up from this thought is like waking up from a dream: that is not my life, this is. I am not afraid. I am relieved.
On the bike, I turn toward the business districts and ride between them, one after another. I start in Eastown, past the first Indian restaurant I ever dined at, with my friend Kate, who’d come from D.C. to visit. I turn and ride past Wolfgang’s, which will be open for breakfast in a few hours. Music reaches my ears as I pass Billy’s Nightclub, reminding me of a drummer I saw there last month. I venture on toward East Hills, past Gaia where I often meet Anita for brunch on Sunday. I turn up Diamond towards Fuller and past the building that housed the yoga studio where I practiced for eight years. It’s now a hair salon. I continue on, slipping into third gear as I head downhill into downtown. Even at this hour, on a weekday, the city is awake. I pass One Stop Coney Shop where I had dinner last Friday night, after an evening ride. I pass the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts, where I found my first writing group and met Amy, a woman who continues to challenge and inspire my writing. As I cross over the Grand River, I glance to my right and see one bridge after another lit up. Before the night is through, I will cross all of them except the pedestrian bridge. I cut through a corner of the university campus, where I provided HIV testing to students on World AIDS Day. I ride past museums I visit when family comes to town, before turning onto Pearl to cross another bridge. Left onto Monroe, I head north past Rosa Parks Circle, which hosts Blues on the Mall in summer, where other riders and I are welcomed with separate “motorcycle only” parking.
I came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, from the Flint area twelve years ago. I arrived here for a fresh start, and have found myself at home in this community, amid the buildings that chronicle my life. When I came here I didn’t know that I would settle here, that this city would settle into me. People ask if I will stay, now that I have no partner and no job tying me here. But I have lasting friends, those made through writing, yoga and motorcycling. I don’t know what my life will look like in six months or what work will fill the hours. But I know I will always be at home in this city and that I will continue to take comfort in these night rides.
Criss-crossing downtown streets to “ride the bridges” is the highlight of my late-night rides, the last thing I do before heading home. I take a left and ride onto the 6th Street bridge, a single-lane black iron structure. I am alone, so while midway across, I bring my bike to a stop and look out at the water flowing by below. I look up at the buildings that reach out of history—my own history—here in this city. And I look across the river at all the bridges I have crossed to get here.