My sacrifice of the second half of The Tour de France to join Janina on the Queen Mary for our return to America afforded me the great bonus of including three Carnegie libraries in my three months of travel this summer. The first was near our embarkation point in Southampton and the other two shortly after our arrival in Brooklyn.
I had already met the one in Portsmouth three years ago when I was headed to Yorkshire for the start of The Tour, but I was happy to renew my acquaintance. I passed by it the morning after Janina and I took a late afternoon ferry from Cherbourg across the Channel and ended up spending a night in a bedroom above a pub. I didn't have to go out of my way for the Carnegie, as it was on my route out of the city for my twenty-mile ride to Southampton.
I have visited enough Carnegies over the years, close to five hundred, that each seems like a familiar friend, whether it is a first-time visit or a repeat. The repeats all bring back a wave of memories from the previous visit. They begin surging even before I have sited it, as I begin to sense its presence. A second visit can be more satisfying than the first. It was too early to have a peek inside the Portsmouth Carnegie, so early in fact that a homeless woman was just beginning to stir from her burrow in the bushes in front of the library, but I didn't care to linger long anyway as I didn't wish to keep Janina waiting in Southampton, which she was zipping to via train.
I had to share the road between these two large ports with a thick stream of bustling traffic, but I tri d not to let it diminish me from savoring what would be my last bicycle ride for a week, the longest spell I have had to endure in more than a decade, since a broken collarbone as a messenger sidelined me. Rather than having Janina stuck at the train station awaiting my arrival, we opted to meet at a park just a couple blocks from where the towering Queen Mary was docked. When Janina wasn't at the park I swung by the ship to give my home for the next week a closer look.
A steady stream of people, both passengers and crew, were already boarding. I confirmed I could roll my fully loaded bike across the same canopied plank that all the passengers were crossing and then returned to the park. Janina was just arriving, looking almost gleeful as she pulled her suitcase and could see our ship in the distance. It had been too chilly to sit in the park and await me, so she had gone to a nearby teahouse.
We had a designated boarding time of 3:30 and it was just noon, so we retreated to the teahouse to pass some time. I would have been happy to sit in the waiting area and watch the parade of people we would be at sea with for the next week, but Janina preferred the tranquility of the teahouse. After an hour I suggested we return to the boarding area and hope for a lull in the arrivals that we might be able to fill. As it turned out, the boarding times weren't being adhered to, so we could walk right on after registering at a desk with a row of a dozen clerks. This was a huge processing procedure. We were given our credentials and key card. Next we had to have our luggage x-rayed, so I had to strip my bike of all its gear. The canister of fuel for my stove passed right on through, as did my bag of tools, which included Janina's hefty knife.
I was the only one with a bike, but no one batted an eye. We arrived in the main foyer, the equivalent of a luxury hotel, then took an elevator one floor down to our cabin. It was the first time in Janina's six crossings that she had a private deck and a view of the sea. She couldn't have been happier, as she finds the uncluttered vistas of sea and sky "endlessly fascinating." There was ample room to park my bike at the foot of our bed.
After settling in our first mission was to start in on the perpetual buffet of food. There were multiple buffets. Our favorite was the one with the dispenser of soft ice cream. One could put it in a cone or a bowl or a paper cup, as I preferred, as it was the easiest way to consume it as I strolled the decks and corridors of the ship. There was such a variety of food, I'd just take a spoonful of each offering so I could sample as much as possible. It all tasted so good it was hard not to go back for seconds of each. Though there was a pizza buffet and offerings of French fries, the food would have met the approval of nutritionists. There were dispensers of juices, but not soft drinks. One had to pay extra for them.
Every day I'd make new discoveries, always regretting I hadn't known about the sushi or the herring or something else until then. It wasn't until day six, after Janina told me there were deluxe pancakes with real maple syrup at one of the buffets, that I discovered smoothies being offered in a nearby corner. They are the fastest and easiest way to pack in the calories, which I desperately needed to do after nearly five thousand miles of biking the previous three months. I lose ten pounds or more on a tour. I could have known exactly how many, but I didn't realize there was a scale in the Fitness Center until day six. I would have eagerly weighed myself every day to see how much weight I was gaining as I ate and ate and ate. It took five days of gluttony before the idea of eating lost its luster and I almost began dreading facing all the food.
I attended whatever lectures I could as a break from the eating. A long-time Washington correspondent gave several lectures ranging from a history of Air Force One to the era of Trump. A retired English school teacher gave lectures on Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole, laced with YouTube clips of their performances. A British astronomer filled us in on the upcoming eclipse, which he was going to witness in Jackson, Wyoming. There was also live night-time entertainment and a nightly movie, all of which were unsurprisingly well entrenched in the mainstream. There was also a nightly meeting of "Friends of Dorothy" by the Churchill Cigar Bar, the only place one could smoke indoors. The "Dorothy" was a reference to Dorothy Parker, who was known to have a gatherings of gays at her salon. Janina had learned from previous crossings to pretty much avoid all these events. She was willing to give a poetry reading an attempt, but could only tolerate several minutes of someone over-dramatically reading his favorites.
There were offerings of yoga and Pilates, some free and some for a fee (always referred to as "nominal"), but I resorted to the Exercyle for the first time ever to get some exercise. I joined the parade of people walking the decks on occasion, but it felt too much like prisoners taking to the yard for a break from their cells to have much appeal to me. I chose to sit with my back to the sea when we dined so I didn't have to watch them pacing by with their grim and determined expressions. It was actually too cold to sit out on the deck, even with a blanket, our first five days.
My favorite viewing point was in the library at the bow on the eighth floor of the thirteen-floored ship. Few took advantage of it. I was happy to discover a recently published book on the twenty great climbs of The Tour de France. It almost made up for not being able to view the final three stages of The Race. We had more than thirty cable stations on the television in our cabin, but none of them gave live Tour coverage, not even the Sky sports channel, only brief reports. With Internet costing 75 cents a minute, I wasn't about to follow the stages, even the conclusive time trial, on my iPad, as I could have. But by the time we put to sea, the Izoard stage had been completed with Froome maintaining his lead, so there was no drama left in The Race other than who would join him on the podium.
It would have been exciting to have watched the Saturday time trial in Marseilles with the Colombian Uran vaulting to second, the best finish for the American Cannondale team, formerly Garmin that Christian Vande Velde rode for and had their previous best finish of fourth place. It would have also been exciting to watch the French hope Bardet cling to the podium by just one second over Froome's Spanish teammate, Landa. But I could still feel the dramatics when I learned them from the Sky reporter on the scene.
One of the more exciting moments of our voyage was meeting two American cyclists after we left the ship and were in line at US customs in a warehouse besides where we had docked. They were wheeling fold-up bikes and had been funneled into the same line as us. They had seen me board the ship and had hoped to find me, but never spotted me among the couple thousand passengers. That was almost as much of a regret as our not being assigned to a large table for dinner. They had all been filled, so we were relegated to a table of our own.
Dining at a table of eight with the same people for a week had always been the highlight of Janina's previous trips. Only once had she been stuck with anyone disagreeable enough to make her abandon her table and eat dinner at the buffets, as we ended up doing most nights. She established such a strong friendship with one British couple, she has met up with them several times--at their homes in Kent and Ireland as well as in Chicago. I was eager for the possibility of a similar bonding, or just the opportunity to gain the intimacy of folk I otherwise wouldn't, resuming and pursuing dangling conversations night after night and having some extra companionship for activities during the day.
I had no problem regaining my land legs or remembering how to maintain my balance on my bike. I gladly merged into the bustling Brooklyn traffic and headed for the nearest of the twenty-one libraries Carnegie had funded in the burrough. I only had time for one before meeting up with Janina at Penn Station by Madison Square Garden for the final leg of our trip home on Amtrak. The streets were much grittier than anything I had experienced in France or Germany or England the past three months, but I felt as exalted as ever to be on my bike and in pursuit of a Carnegie--the Washington-Irving Branch on Irving Avenue.
It had more character and resonance than any building in the five miles I rode to reach it. It's quiet dignity would lure any passerby. A couple of people were sitting on its doorstep awaiting it to open. A sign out front designated it as a "Cooling Center" in a long list of languages, but it wasn't hot enough yet for that to explain the presence of these early arrivals.
The Manhattan Bridge was the nearest to cross over to Manhattan. There was good signage and a more than adequate bike lane across it. The traffic intensified, but there was more bike traffic than I had experienced in any city the past three months. I was to meet Janina and Ralph, who happened to be passing through New York too on his way back to Telluride, at the huge Public Library at eleven. I arrived twenty minutes early. Janina emailed to say she was hobbled and had gone directly to Penn Station, just a few blocks away. When Ralph arrived a few minutes later, we headed over to meet her. My direct route hadn't taken me past any of Manhattan's twenty-six Carnegies, but there was one just a mile from Penn Station that I had the time to make a quick dash to after leaving Ralph with Janina. It was the Epiphany Branch on busy 23rd Street and tightly sandwiched between two bland, much younger buildings. It's lack of breathing room diminished its grandeur, but it still had a majesty distinct from anything else in the vicinity.
It is a testament to its significance that it hasn't been razed and replaced by a building reaching to the sky. Though I didn't have the time to sit within and soak in the ocean of goodwill and appreciation left by its legions of patrons over the past century, I could still feel it oozing out, giving me the usual Carnegie lift.
I sped back to Janina and Ralph thinking of the Carnegies that await me when I bike back to Chicago from Telluride in September. I'm still a long way from getting to all of the more than two thousand that he built, but I am happy that I am giving it a try. One of those that awaits me is in Trinidad, just north of New Mexico, the only one of Colorado's thirty still standing Carnegies I have yet to visit. I have gotten to more Carnegies in other states, but it will be the first state that I can say I have visited all of its Carnegies.