The idea of climbing on the elliptical for today’s workout without being outside on this beautiful Florida Sunday was too much. “I need a bike,” I decided and off to Walmart I went. My criteria: Must be assembled. Also, don’t want a seat that goes up my butt.
That’s it, that’s my bike buying list.
A sporty racer or a mountain bike? Are you kidding? I got a 21 speed “Comfort Class” Schwinn Link, made exclusively for Walmart by Chinese prisoners brainwashed to understand the importance of not having a bicycle seat wedged in your Netherlands. No noisy knobby tires, no skinny racing profile. If bikes were cars, I didn’t become the proud owner of the sporty red Beemer or the hot off road Range Rover. Nope; I got the Ford Country Squire Station Wagon LTD. Yes sir, that’s how Grandpa here rolls. Comfort Class means no bike seat up the butt. It was, of course, assembled and ready to be wheeled out the door of my neighborhood Walmart (no air in the tires or I would have pedaled to the front of the Super Center).
I’m ready to take on the Pyrenees. Got a spare syringe?
An hour later, I’m on the road and this feeling overcomes me that I had almost forgotten: Joy! Suddenly I was 11 going on 12 again and I’m headed to skip rocks in a pond with my buddies, play a little baseball, have lunch in the woods from a paper sack my Mom had provided and compete in the unofficial Pawtucket, Rhode Island peeing for distance contest (Yes, there was a time I could pee over a car). We’d be gone all day, no adults around, no cell phones, no contact with Parents who were grateful to be rid of us. “Be home when the street lights come on.”
Today; I am giddy.
There are a few differences. I have glasses now and while they act as goggles in the wind, I can’t see crap when I glance behind me. I have an IPod, a soundtrack is a welcome addition to my ride. It was, after all, impossible to strap my $49, earned with paper route money “stereo” to my bike in 1970. Yes, life is good and suddenly I’m slaloming across the wide bike trail, reminds me of skiing.
Oh, I used to do that too. I could ski, in fact I could lay all the way back on my skis while bombing a hill, brushing my hair on the trail and then pop back up in time to impress some co ed who was snow plowing her way down the slope. Did I wear a snow suit to ski? Uh, no, kids in my neighborhood would not wear a vinyl snow suit, we skied in jeans, with long johns underneath. Redsox cap on backwards and a sweatshirt. That was it. So, as you can imagine, I am not wearing one of those tight Italian bike suits today, not going to happen, even on Halloween. Even if I lost a bet or went to Tour de France theme night at a brothel in Nevada. There will be no Team Estrogen bike shorts on me. Ever.
Not wearing a helmet either. If you showed up in my neighborhood with a bike helmet on your head, you would need it to protect you from the rocks thrown your way. Nope, we biked at our own peril and that peril included knowing which streets to avoid. Today we’d say they were abused kids or working through anger issues; back then they were simply bullies. Their Dad said, “If you lose a fight out of the house, you’ll lose another one when you get home”, so it was best to avoid John Kennel’s house or the possibly crazy Paul Rossi. I actually got hit by a car on my bike and almost killed myself and the poor guy who swerved in a vain attempt to avoid me (and a telephone pole) when I darted onto Daggett Ave escaping one of the bullies in my factory neighborhood. Sure, I could fight, but I didn’t see much point in it.
Kennel was especially difficult to avoid, he lived next to the tenement house that was converted to a “variety store” where we bought our baseball cards and penny candy. (Wax lips, really? What the heck was that all about? Try to eat them and you’d vomit through your real lips.) You had to make a choice to risk getting beat up by Kennel and his evil big brothers (and maybe getting your bike stolen) or buying a pack of candy cigarettes (possibly made of chalk), bubble gum cigars and baseball cards with the worst bubblegum in the world included. (Heck yes I’ll trade you Frank Malzone and Dalton Jones for Sandy Koufax.)
Fake cigs? Bubble gum cigars? My mother used to send me on that bike to buy her real cigarettes. True Blues, a carton cost $4.50. The bike was my power, my freedom. I had a red Schwinn, one gear, but a huge sprocket, fastest bike in the neighborhood. Until my parents bought me an “English” bike for my twelfth Birthday, it had three speeds and hand brakes! On the second day I owned it I was cruising down Daggett Ave and realized (just in time to slam on the front brakes only) I was headed right for a sewer grate that had slots wider than my skinny English tires.
Not sure how I landed in front of the bike with it on top of me, I realized I had fatally bent the front wheel of my new English. All of my considerable skill at bicycle maintenance (ok, I could patch an inner tube) did little good, I ruined a present that cost my parents a LOT of money! (Probably $65!) For a year, I rode my red bike and fretted about a way to fix my English without telling my Parents, I finally went and talked to a Priest about it. He hired me to work on the Rectory yard to earn enough money to get it fixed. (I know, a Priest and yes, I was an altar boy. The answer to the next question is NO. Didn’t happen to me).
So here I am today on my new English, shifting gears while Bruce Sprinsteen and the E Street Band play in my ears. There’s been a lot of miles on me since those days on my red Schwinn and it feels good to put the first ten miles on my new blue one. A fresh start and reinvention is a good thing every so often and I am happy that today’s fresh start has reminded me of things I might have otherwise never thought of. Things like meat pies from Mary’s Bakery where I worked for 95 cents an hour, like hitting foul balls into the swamps behind the field at Daggett, like catching frogs at Slater Park. Today I remembered that we heard the lions from the zoo roar every night at dinner time, even though we were miles away. I thought of the Hasbro GI Joe factory two blocks away and the guys on my street who walked to the factory carrying their lunch pails and the tenement houses that had been converted to neighborhood bars where they stopped on the way home.
That was some bike ride I had today, it took 43 years.