Finding 'Liberation' on Two Wheels
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Gas prices have climbed to more than $2.60 per gallon for regular unleaded fuel. Experts estimate that up to 30 percent of urban traffic at any given moment is looking for a parking spot. Those seeking to escape find that the most popular getaways for D.C. residents include six of the 10 worst vacation drives in the nation.
To drive or not to drive?
Karin Vartowski and Gerald Wartofsky made up their minds decades ago.
The couple, who use their slightly different family names, have never owned a car, they said. A bicycle is Vartowski's primary mode of transportation. The 2000 Census showed that about 37 percent of Washington households are without motor vehicles.
"You're out in the open. You stop at your own pace. It's liberation. Sometimes I think a car is like a traveling coffin," said Wartofsky, 70, an art teacher at Georgetown University who takes the train or bus but also bikes.
Vartowski, 66, is a familiar figure in Northwest Washington, and many know her simply as the woman in the floppy, wide-brimmed hats decorated with fresh flowers and in the full-skirted dresses that balloon in the breeze as she pedals down the street. Rain or shine (or sleet or snow) she bikes. Many days she goes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., hitting any stores she needs and frequently the Capital Crescent Trail.
She likes the tempo, the time for solitary reflection and that "you don't have to be in a certain place in a certain time," she said.
Gas station attendants wave. Homeless people say hello. A family with a stroller shouts greetings. When her son Gabriel, 24, struck up a conversation in a store a couple weeks ago and casually mentioned where he lived, he said, the first question asked was, "Oh, do you know the bike lady?" "Yeah," he said he replied. "She's my mom."
When he and his two older brothers were growing up, their parents took them to preschool and kindergarten in child seats on their bikes. He has vivid memories of the dark green Raleigh that Vartowski, a dancer and former dance instructor, owned at the time. They transported all their groceries by bike, went to the hardware store by bike, lived their lives by bike.
Gabriel Wartofsky is now headed to auto design school, and his brother Mischa, 28, who studies criminal justice, is a car mechanics whiz, his family said. The third brother, Ben, 38, is a stand-up comic. A calendar of vintage motorcycles hangs on the basement wall of the family's home, along with Gabriel's stylized paintings of cars. The Wartofsky sons, their parents admit, have rebelled from their car-free childhoods, although they still like to bike.
Family albums show photos of Vartowski grinning on her bike. Cumbersome loads are tied to the rack, balanced painstakingly on the handlebars or leaning precariously over the front.
At the house are cast-iron chandeliers, chairs, a trellis, sets of shelving and a tall wrought-iron gate. Vartowski salvaged these and more from thrift stores, dumpsters or roadsides. Then she brought them home by bike, with the help of bungee cords she keeps in a leather bag wrapped around the handlebars. She can balance just about anything, she said.
"That's her magic," Gabriel Wartofsky said.
On a recent afternoon, Vartowski got on her bike and meandered down Brookville Road NW, toward Connecticut Avenue. Noticing a patch of sunflowers by the roadside, she stopped to pick one, tucking it into her hat as the driver of the black sport-utility vehicle behind her leaned on his horn at the short delay.
She wound through some alleys that she thought looked promising for discarded treasures, then cut across S Street to loop up Massachusetts Avenue NW, past the Kahlil Gibran memorial and Washington National Cathedral. Unfazed by the blazing sun or heavy car traffic, she biked without rest or water, taking in the cityscape: a jogger wiping sweat from her forehead, a couple arguing, two women reading novels at a bus stop, a road crew at work. She bought a peach and sandwich at Safeway and kept going.
She had ridden about 10 miles when she pulled up to her house to find a tow truck parked out front.
Her son's friend was having car troubles.