Red Alert? Me and Pee-wee, We Got a Plan

Given the calamitous state of world affairs and the fact that we live on a small, crowded island, one can’t help but wonder how the hell we get off the place in case of emergency. And since the government has done little lately to persuade me they have a plan, my suspicion is that it’s every man, woman, child and pet for himself or herself.

As for me, I’m counting on my bike. Cars and buses will obviously be useless. And the subways probably won’t be running, because the subway often doesn’t run even in the best of times.

So what’s left? Scooters, skateboards, rollerblades and bicycles. Among those transportation alternatives, the bike is the only choice that, equipped with side saddles, would permit me to take along food, clothing and my prized collection of X-rated comics.

I do realize there are holes in my escape plan: If things ever got to such a surly pass that I’d actually need to flee in a hurry, I’d hardly be alone. And this being the Big Apple, someone bigger and stronger would undoubtedly steal my bike. Then there’s the question of what to do with the pets: our dog Mimi and our bunny, Bunny. Not to mention my wife and the kids, whose bikes are up in the country.

I called the New York City Office of Emergency Management to test the efficacy of my exit strategy. But they refused to be drawn into what-if scenarios. “Our evacuation rules would be event-specific,” explained Jarrod Bernstein, a spokesman. “We place more of an emphasis on getting up-to-date information, having a battery-operated radio.”

In that case I’m covered, since I recently purchased one for my bike from Radio Shack. Frankly, the reception isn’t great (for 10 bucks, what do you expect?), but it gets NPR, so I could listen to All Things Considered or Car Talk on my way out of town-or, in a worst-case scenario, get the latest on the radiation cloud drifting toward the city from Indian Point, and perhaps choose my escape route accordingly.

To tell the truth, I’m speaking hypothetically here, because my bike is upstate, too. But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming-or, more to the point, accessorizing. Indeed, thinking of my bike fills me with an almost perverse and unfounded sense of well-being, sort of how I felt during the Cuban missile crisis when I fixated on a picture in our Compton’s Encyclopedia of a happy family ensconced in its fallout shelter. It looked so clean and cozy and well-lighted, who would ever want to leave?

My passion (for it’s nothing short of that) to upgrade my bike started before 9/11, but it has kicked into apocalyptic gear since then. My bike’s centerpiece is what I like to think of as the on-board computer: a combination speedometer, odometer, clock and stop watch. Were I ever to need to peddle to my place upstate-a distance of approximately 125 miles-it would be nice to know how far there was left to go.

I also have a horn. I’ve gone through several horns in my effort to find the one that takes up the least amount of space on my handlebars, since there’s only so much room and I have so much equipment that needs to go there. I started with one of those old-fashioned honkers where you squeeze the rubber bulb at the end. It made a handsome noise, but was simply too bulky. It also interfered with my bike’s aerodynamics. (By the way, my bike isn’t a $2,000 mountain bike; it’s something I had rusting in my garage and decided to recondition.)

So I upgraded to a bell, not much larger in diameter than a quarter, that I bought at Paragon. It takes up very little space on my dashboard, but it emits a pathetic little chime, and I don’t know how seriously a million or so of my fellow citizens would take it if I were using it to shoo them out of the way. In any case, I’ve got a back-up horn-battery-operated, no less. It was included with my Radio Shack bike radio.

I’m proudest of my bike’s lighting package. During the initial upgrade, I bought a battery-operated beacon, which works just fine. I also have a rear red hazard light that, with the push of a button, will emit either a flashing or steady beam. Last summer in Italy, I purchased a pedal-powered generator that illuminates a second headlight. I’m not exaggerating when I say that after I successfully managed to install the device myself and the light flickered on as I spun the wheel, my sense of exultation surpassed anything I’ve experienced lately in my career.

I also bought two large rearview mirrors in Europe that eliminate blind spots. Cars have them on both sides of the vehicle-why shouldn’t bikes?

In case you’re wondering, until recently the handlebars also boasted streamers (pink-and-white ones), a birthday present from my kids. But they proved too much even for me. Our place in the country has its fair share of rednecks, and whenever I rode my bike with the streamers flying, my mind flashed back to that scene in Easy Rider when Dennis Hopper gets blown away for being a hippie. I wasn’t willing to tempt fate. Besides, they serve no useful, life-prolonging purpose.

Racking my subconscious and hoping to discover what propelled me to these heights of lunacy (or infancy?), I alighted upon the image of Pee-wee Herman and his various bikes and scooters. You may recall the plot of his 1985 movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure , which involved his heroic efforts to recover his stolen, beloved and highly accessorized bike.

So I decided to call Pee-wee to talk bikes and what plans, if any, he may have to flee his home in L.A. on a two-wheeler, if need be. Pee-wee, a.k.a. Paul Reubens, who’s 50, traced his bike obsession back to his Florida childhood, when he stuck playing cards between the spokes of his wheels and later upgraded to one of those “Vroom” toy bike motors.

“I had the loudest bike on the block,” he boasted.

When I mentioned that some New Yorkers were thinking of using their bikes as life preservers, he suggested I consider purchasing a real bike motor. “I’ve seen them in catalogs,” he told me.

But that would defeat my bike’s primary purpose in times of peace-to get exercise.

“But not if you’re trying to get out of Manhattan,” he observed wisely, adding that the engine could be saved for moments of abject terror. “You can switch it over to the motor and leave everyone in the dust.”

He confessed that these days, he devotes more time to his treadmill than to his bicycle. “I think now I’d buy a Segway,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone riding one, though I’m constantly on the lookout.”

So now I’m thinking that a Segway Human Transporter-ignoring for the moment the prohibitive price tag and long waiting list-might be just the thing. The only problem, from what I can tell (apart from the fact that it only gets 15 miles on a battery charge), is that there’s precious little room on its handlebars for bells and whistles. I’ve placed a call to Segway customer support to discuss this important matter. So far, they haven’t called me back.