Around the Corner of Loss

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New York Times

Published: Mar, 29 2012 (...)

The corner of McGuinness and Kent, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has
undergone a minor face-lift in the seven years since my aunt Liz was
struck and killed there. The Budget Rental Center that occupied the east
corner is now an Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and there’s a new BP service
station across the street from it, in what used to be a vacant lot. You
can no longer park on the east side of McGuinness, because the gas
station’s driveway flows out into the street there. Seven years ago,
before the gas station, a row of parked trucks lined the curb, and it is
for that reason that the driver of the Budget rental van, turning left
onto Kent, was unable to see Liz as she rode her bike from the sidewalk
to the street.

A few months later, a group of activists chained a
white-painted bicycle to a signpost across the street from the site of
the accident. Above it, a plaque states her name and the day she died,
and how: “killed by truck.” You can see these “ghost bikes” all around
the city, wherever cyclists lost their lives.

A mass of colors painted on the ghost of a 10-speed bike.

first saw the memorial in person, along with my aunts and an uncle in
January 2008. It was my first trip to New York. We huddled around the
bike, which was draped in flowers, dozens of them, some bright, some
wilted, some still in bouquets. No one cried. We made observations about
the bike, the plaque, the white paint and the flowers, and wondered who
was responsible for the upkeep. It was cold and sad and we didn’t stay

I visited the bike a second time in July of that year. I had
just graduated from college and I was in New York for job interviews
and to look at an apartment to rent in Williamsburg, the neighborhood
next to Greenpoint. After checking out the place and deciding to sign
the lease, I walked north, and by the time I was two blocks away I could
see it — with even more flowers than before, it was a great thing, a
mass of colors painted on the ghost of a 10-speed bike.

I remember
thinking that it would have made Liz proud. She had studied at Cooper
Union and then worked as a graphic designer. We all knew she painted in
her spare time, but no one knew how much. After she died, we inherited
hundreds of her paintings, everything from huge geometric designs to
small oil portraits, decades worth of work. Now they fill every room in
my grandparents’ house and the overflow is stacked in the attic.

Ryan Peltier

saw the bike for a third time a week later. I had left the city for
three days and returned with my father and a car full of boxes. We drove
15 hours from St. Louis, then spent the night with my cousin in New
Jersey. That morning, I mentioned in passing to my dad that his sister’s
memorial was near my new place. He had seen photographs, but had yet to
see it in person, and I didn’t want to be there when he did. I didn’t
want him to see me cry.

But the GPS took us right there. I
realized what was going on as we turned onto McGuinness Boulevard. If I
had known the city better, I might have suggested a different route.
Instead, the automated voice navigated us to the site of the accident,
one turn at a time. The light turned red as we pulled up to the
intersection. We both stared at the bike.

“It’s covered in flowers,” he said. Behind his sunglasses, my father began to cry. He didn’t linger when the light changed.

years later, in 2010, my father visited the city for a second time. I
had made a place here by that point: I traded Williamsburg for the East
Village, acquired jobs, went to grad school. I was 24; I finally felt
like a grown-up. I was excited to show him that I’d made it, that I was
at least in the process of making it.

My father, in those two
years, had been through a lot, too. For one thing, my mother had left
him and initiated a rather contentious divorce. He left his job to deal
with the proceedings; he was a management consultant, and it was the
summer of 2008 — he was convinced he’d easily find work again when he
was ready for it. Then the stock market tanked. No one was hiring. He
burned through his savings, sold all of his stocks. My father learned
how to let me go, and I learned how to be self sufficient.

in the spring of 2010, he landed a job at IBM. His work was in
Hartford, but he was living in his parents’ house in St. Louis. He flew
out every Monday and flew back on Friday. But he decided to spend one
weekend in November on the East Coast, and came to stay with me. It was a
triumphant visit for both of us, that first real taste of mutual
financial security. We ate steak both nights.

On Saturday, we
walked up to Liz’s ghost bike, to that corner in Greenpoint, cold and
barren but for the flowers hanging from her spokes. Neither of us cried
this time — we had had plenty of blocks to steel ourselves for the sight
of it — but we did stand there in silence for longer than men are
usually silent with each other. “What a waste,” he said, as we were
about to leave. I wasn’t totally sure what he meant, but I agreed. The
next day he took the train back to Hartford. That was the last time I
saw him.

He died a few weeks later, sitting in his recliner in my
grandparents’ house. He had some sort of coronary event, something
mostly random, a fluke of the heart. It happened almost instantly: he
lost consciousness and then died. His mother, who went upstairs to get
him for lunch, thought that he was napping.

His ashes are in the
solarium in my grandparents’ house, next to Liz’s, under one of her
paintings, surrounded by photos of the two of them. It is hard to stand
in that room.

But then again, it is hard to walk through New York
City. Each place we went together is imbued with the now-poignant fact
that it was the stage for one of the last times I saw him, random street
corners given significance by virtue of association. Here is where we
had breakfast. Here is where we shook hands before he left for the
train. Here is the block where I called him and got his voicemail the
day before he died.

Here is where he stood with his hands in his
pockets and said, “What a waste.” That corner in Greenpoint, once a
tombstone for Liz, is now a monument to both of them.

last time I visited the bike, I was walking with friends toward a party
at a bar. It had been nearly a year since my dad had died, and six
since Liz had been killed. It was a detour, but I wanted to see it, to
check in.

The bike had been repainted, and the white paint glowed
in the reflected light of the gas station across the street. New flowers
were woven through the spokes in the wheels. I thought about the
different incarnations of my grief over the years: At first, New York
was a place I’d never visited, Liz’s home and the city where we lost
her. After I moved here, that sadness contracted and became focused onto
this single corner, the corner of McGuinness and Kent. I barely
acknowledged that Kent crossed other streets, that McGuinness crossed a
river and then curved north into Queens. Then my sadness shifted again
as I got to know the neighborhood. It found new triggers: Budget rental
vans; the bicycle safety campaigns of the city’s traffic commissioner.

stood on the corner that night and took it in: the bike, the street,
the neighborhood and everything that surrounded it. The city where my
aunt had died and the city where I last saw my father alive, the place
where those memories now live. And this is how I knew I would never move

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Mark Byrne

Mark Byrne is an editor at GQ.