biking: a history

I was a late bloomer when it came to biking. My parents bought me a two-wheeler when I was six but I didn’t learn to ride until I was eleven. It was fear, basically, even though I told everyone I much preferred to rollerskate (shut up, it was the eighties). One day my best friend in fifth grade just shoved me on her bike, and pushed me down the hill near her house. After that, I could ride. I don’t remember any bruises from that first time, just pure elation.

But I grew up in Africa, so there wasn’t usually much of a neighborhood in which to ride (much less walk around). My biking days were mostly relegated to the summer weeks we spent visiting my brother in New Jersey. His apartment complex in East Windsor didn’t have a lot going for it, but in the summer of 1992 the main charm of the place was its wide avenues, enormous parking lots, and the tunnel under the highway that took you straight to the local library. My brother bought me an old kid’s Schwinn at a garage sale, and I spent a blissful month (and a few summers thereafter) being an American kid: biking to the library, biking to the pool, biking around in circles in the parking lot singing to myself. I still remember the feeling of standing up on the pedals, learning to let go of the handlebars, and dropping my bike carelessly in the grass next to the ice cream truck. Bliss.

And then adolescence happened, and college, and a whole bunch of other things consumed my attention for, oh, nearly twenty years. Now I live in Brooklyn, where most outsiders and old-timers would assume it’s a death wish to go for a bike ride (they’re wrong, by the way). Three years ago, I was pottering around in our building’s communal basement when I noticed this really junked-out looking ladies’ bike. I hauled it out of the storage area into the center of the courtyard and started cleaning the frame. The tires were shot. There was rust on every spoke. The seat looked rotten. Yet some little whisper in my brain said, “remember that bliss?” so I slapped a note on it, asking my neighbors to either claim it or let me fix it up to keep.

My phone rang a few minutes later. It was Eddie.

“You can’t ride that bike. There’s no fixing that thing. Come downstairs – I’ve got one for you.”

Turns out Eddie had inherited a few bikes with his apartment – the woman from whom he’d bought it had a young daughter and her bike had stayed behind, and then become his. It was a Roadmaster Cape Cod, at least as old as I was, but it was in pretty decent shape for all that. I cleaned her up, put some new tires on, and suddenly I had myself a bicycle ….


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