Friday, May 8, 2009

My First Bike

Yesterday, as I got back on my bike in the rain, my brake cable broke. Perhaps, I thought, as I pedaled toward the bike shop, there might be a silver lining to the downpour—maybe business would be slow enough that they’d fix it right away.

It was. The shop took on not only the brakes but the chain and the gears and the out-of-true wheels. I stood there, drenched and a little chilled, and watched customers float in and out for an hour or more.

A woman came in with a four-year-old daughter who was getting a bike, undoubtedly her first.

The parent pointed the child to a tiny pink bike with training wheels, a white basket, glittery streamers trailing from the handlebars. Did she want that one?

The girl didn’t try to climb on. Her mother lifted her up and lowered her carefully to the seat. The child sat for a second and then waved her hands in vague distress, asking to be lifted again. Her mother obliged, stroking the girl gently as she clung to her neck.

Did the child want the pink one? Did she even want to see any of the others hanging from the ceiling?

No. The deal was done. Within minutes the bill was paid and the seat adjusted, and the girl—with the faintest of skips in her step—pushed the new purchase out the door. Her mother suggested she might try to ride it home, even with the wheels still wrapped in plastic.

It felt funny to watch.

I vividly remembered my first bike—a Schwinn. I don’t know how old I was—but I got it before we left the old house, so it was definitely before 1968. No gears, foot brakes. (My sister’s first bike was a banana seat—did they come in the wake of the groovy chopper in 1969’s Easy Rider?)

I got my bike for Christmas—an odd time for the gift of a bike, I suppose. It was back in the days when there was snow. As I flashed back to that moment, I had the sensation of slush under black balloon tires.

My mother loved faking us out at the holidays, finding ways to hide big things in tiny packages. I was so young it’s possible I didn’t know to look for the surprises yet.

I don’t know what the bike came in—maybe there was a box with a cut-out catalogue picture inside, or maybe she drew me a picture of something like a stick figure perched on two tiny wheels.

At any rate, she instructed me to reach behind the tree and draw the curtains on the bay window. I wasn’t very tall, so my father helped with that.

The fabric ratcheted open, and there it was—my bike. Sparkling, blue, gorgeous, brand new.

It was the most magical moment of any Christmas I ever had. It took my breath away. It was the most thrilling, most exhilarating gift—the present of something I had yearned for and never dreamed I could have.

It was a deep metallic blue—if there were pink bikes, I wouldn’t have wanted one—and of course there were no training wheels. My father didn’t believe in that.

My father gave me a few pointers on how to ride, but I learned largely on my own, crashing into the shrubbery, banging forcefully over rocks, enjoying even the skinning of my knees.

I loved that bike. Later, I moved on to a couple of Raleighs (one got stolen) and a beloved, long-lived Nishiki and briefly a recumbent Bike-E (also stolen) and now a Fuji. I bought all the others myself, but I’m realizing that in some ways they’re all still the first one. It’s a gift that never stopped.

Those bikes were my ticket to freedom. I rode them to school, to my favorite tree, to the movies; out of the city, around my college towns, along the New England coast; to and from work; and now to all the other mundane destinations that describe the shape of my life.

That’s what I thought about today, after four decades as a person with her own bike, as I watched another girl get her first one.

Her first bike—what a huge moment this is! By the time they left, I thought: Well, maybe not for everyone.


Gerry Gomez Pearlberg said...

Great post, fab pic.
I was thinking about my first bike the other day, which had a white banana seat with sparkles. I was obsessed with the banana seat. It was a boy's bike; I always insisted on that. I did have a nice red tricycle, though.

KC said...

I was obsessed with my sister's banana seat. It seemed so cool. I really do wonder if it was trickle down from Easy Rider, which I saw for the first time the other day--I can see how that got to be iconic. The red tricycle sounds fab! The Schwinn ways a girl's bike, I believe--but it was the last one! I had the feeling even bikes might be way more gendered now....

ccc said...

Though my banana seat was cool, it did have flowers on the seat and I thought that was very uncool. For the most part, I envied the Schwin and then the Raleigh, both more grownup bikes. Though I did set the big banana seat handlebars at an easy rider angle and tried to pretend it was a motorcycle.