How best to see a city? Ask a kid.
'Can we rent bikes?" We had emerged from the Ramble into the parking lot for the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park. There sat a little wooden booth surrounded by decrepit bicycles. A board listed rental prices: a one-hour rental was $15 for children, $25 for adults.
"I don't know," I said. I thought about what could go wrong – my second-grader wasn't the world's best cyclist, and it was his first time in the big city. New York's Central Park was a far cry from South Carolina. Surely those crowds of people jogging down the path on the main road wouldn't welcome an 8-year-old weaving unpredictably on a chubby bicycle. Maybe they'd be able to tell we were from out of town.
"It might be hard," I said. "Don't you want to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the suits of armor and the Egyptian pyramid?"
"No. I want to ride bikes. I can do it. Please?" he said, jumping up and down. This was his first trip to New York City. His idea of a good time had so far consisted of climbing the giant boulder at the south end of the park and gazing lovingly for hours at the Bionicle display at the Times Square Toys 'R' Us. We hadn't set foot in a single art gallery or gourmet restaurant.
But why was I worried? This was his special weekend – his eighth-birthday trip, just the two of us. I wanted him to enjoy it. I wanted him to think of traveling with his mother as a fun, cool experience. He wouldn't think that if I forced him to visit museums when he wanted to be riding bikes.
"OK," I said. "Let's do it." I stepped up to the counter and handed the clerk my credit card. He extricated two bikes from the tangle and handed Will an old helmet.
"Let's ride around the parking lot to get used to the bikes," I suggested as we mounted our heavy, thick-tired bikes.
"OK, Mommy, I'm ready," he called after a turn or two.
I led the way to the exit, and we forsook the safe parking lot for the hazards of the road.
It was crowded. There was a bike/jogging lane on the far left. Arrows painted on the pavement directed bicycles north, counterclockwise around the park, but for some reason all the joggers were going in the opposite direction on the inside of the track. We would have to cross the line of joggers to reach the open road. I held my breath as Will wobbled and swerved, narrowly avoiding a pair of women chatting on their morning run.
Then we were through the jogger belt and on our way north.
"Look, Will. There's the back of the Met! You can sort of see the pyramid!" I called as we rolled past the museum.
He ignored me, his eyes intent on the road ahead of him.
As we rode past the reservoir, we came close to the eastern boundary of the park. Thinking to enhance his cultural literacy, I called out street numbers as we traveled through the 90s and into the 100s.
The northern reaches of the park were deserted. As we turned west and then south around the north meadow, we had the road to ourselves. There we hit our first hills. Will struggled on his heavy bike, slowing to a crawl and then stopping. "Mommy, I can't do it," he said.
What could I do? I couldn't push both bikes up the hill. He'd gotten himself this far, I thought. "I can't help you, Will," I said. "You can walk the bike up the hill if you want to, but you're going to have to do it yourself."
He got back on his bike. After a shaky start that nearly took out another jogger, he pedaled slowly the rest of the way up the slope. As we crested the hill and began to coast, Will passed me and zoomed the rest of the way down. "I can lead the rest of the way," he called over his shoulder.
And he did.
The south end of the park was packed – we found ourselves sharing the road with joggers, cyclists, in-line skaters, horse-drawn carriages, and several hundred people walking to benefit a charity.
Will revealed a hitherto-unknown talent for threading his way through gaps in the crowd. Our fellow travelers either ignored us or smiled at Will's obvious pleasure in the day – my fears of cruel New Yorkers were unfounded.
We rode past the playground and boulder where we had spent the morning and passed the carousel we had ridden on our way to the Ramble. Soon the boathouse came back into view. We rolled into the parking lot two minutes before our hour was up. "How long is that loop?" I asked the clerk as we handed over our helmets.
"It's 6.1 miles," he replied. "Good job, my man," he said to Will.
Will grinned back.
On the way back to South Carolina, I asked Will what he had liked best about his weekend in New York. "Central Park," he replied. "Climbing the boulder and riding bikes."
I was right to let him decide how to spend the day. It was his trip, and he knew how to make it fun.