Philadelphia Metropolis

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Alleycat Racer

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It hadn't been four months since I started as a bike courier. Bossman said I was doing well, and I guess it was true. In those early months, there were few thrills greater than tearing around City Hall, weaving between cars like a mouse through a maze. Often, the urgency with which I rode surpassed that of the delivery being made.

After my first month of courier work, I entered my first alleycat. Thrown periodically by groups of couriers, these are grueling races for couriers--and any other daring city cyclists--to test speed, endurance, and knowledge of the city's streets while riding through traffic. Dangerous and irresponsible? Definitely. No one is forced to enter these races. After what was one of the most intense 90-minute intervals of my life, I was floored to learn that I had won second place--a high honor for an unknown rookie. There were a few small prizes awarded, but the true spoil was the recognition that came with high rank.

bike-courier.jpgI began craving for the next alleycat. Each one presented new routes to be plotted--usually while simultaneously rocketing through narrow Philadelphia streets. Unlike the yuppies found training on MLK Drive, alleycat racers depend on instant, instinctive decision-making and encyclopedic knowledge of city streets as much as speed. No performance-enhancing drug will get you from Walnut Hill to Washington Avenue if you don't know where you're going. If the light at 34th and Gray's Ferry is yellow and you're 50 feet from the intersection, you better have a plan. I usually had a plan, so I usually did well.

I had just entered a 'triple crown' race--Summer Slam 2007. The last three Saturdays of August would feature an alleycat, and there would be overall winners as well as individual race winners. I took first place at the first one, and third place at the second. I was feeling great. At stake, in addition to the tattooed, beer-soaked glory of victory, was a voucher for a brand-new bike frame, custom made in Philadelphia by frame builder Chris Wright. I needed to clinch first place in the third race to win it all. The day--August 25--turned out to be the hottest day of the summer.

The race began at Love Park, where it would later end. From there, the pack shot up 16th Street and then turned east down--appropriately --Race Street. The red light at Broad Street separated the rookies from the lifers. An ex-courier once told me that you're either a lifer or a rookie for life--and you don't want to be a lifer. That day, I rode like a lifer. We chewed through Chinatown like a carton of Kung Pao chicken and spilled out southbound onto Delaware Avenue, in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge. From there, we moved towards Washington Avenue, across the Schuylkill, and into West Philly: hill country.

I have little recollection beyond sprinting across the South Street Bridge. I knew there were two racers ahead of me, because unlike most alleycats, there was a necessary route that had to be followed. With a heart like a fistfight, I pushed on. The soupy August air punished my skin relentlessly. I had just tackled the entire length of Washington Avenue--from Delaware Avenue to Gray's Ferry--without slowing down for a red light or stopping for a drink of water. Many folks would think running a red light would be the greater danger, but that's kind of the bread and butter of a courier. However, neglecting water--particularly on a day featuring the worst of Philly heat and humidity--brought dire consequences.

My last memory is falling down and getting back on my bike on Spruce Street, after climbing the unforgiving hill just west of 43rd Street. According to a friend who had been working the checkpoint at 46th and Spruce, I arrived delirious. I'm told I got off my bike, mumbled about water, stumbled, and fell. Later, the paramedics told me that my body temperature at that point matched the August air--105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Acute renal failure, often symptomatic of heat stroke, involves the kidneys shutting down as the body prepares to die. I learned this shortly after opening my eyes, about five hours later. I woke up with tubes down my nose and throat, surrounded by frantic doctors. I quickly decided that I was in a hospital, but had no idea what had happened. I was high on lorazepam, which flowed through an IV to quell the panic they knew would ensue should I regain consciousness.

Nine liters of saline had been pumped into my arm. A nurse asked if I knew my name or what day it was, but I didn't understand her questions. All I could do was glance from face to face, my eyes communicating drugged terror. Later, I told a nurse I felt like I was peeing. She told me that I was peeing; a catheter had been inserted to monitor my internal body temperature. Gradually, spotty memories began returning. Not just of the day's events, but of basic information. Names, places, and images had all escaped me. As I began to understand what was being said to me, a young doctor told me that he had been uncertain if I would recover, but was now fairly sure that I would be fine. I was kept overnight in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Shortly after my discharge the following day, I learned that the other racers were abuzz with my story. What really happened? Had I survived? My courier friends were eager to be the first to tell me that despite not finishing the third race, I still ranked second overall, and had been awarded a brand-new set of shiny Phil Wood Track Hubs--a $200 value.

Many of my coworkers proposed to buy the hubs--pure profit for me. But, I smiled and rejected each offer. This bounty signified far more than any prize could. While that race garnered some temporary acclaim for my name, the glory of victory was, for me, put out of mind by the humility of survival.

 

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