I have some vague memories, no doubt supplemented by family snapshots, of riding a tricycle along the walkway of a pink stucco apartment building under the bleak white Hollywood skies of a summer in the late 1950s. More specifically, I remember the frustration of trying to make the pedals go round and round with legs that would only go up and down. Eventually, I learned, and lurched creakily down the walkway, while my father must have stood waiting behind me, holding the old plastic box camera I found in the back of a closet miles and decades later. The tricycle didn't impress me; I have no other memories of it. My first real bicycle ride took place less than two miles away, in front of another stucco box apartment, this one painted yellow at the time. My father taught me, briefly, the rudiments of balance, then propelled me down the slope of the driveway toward the sidewalk and the street. He had neglected to impart any knowledge of the brakes, however--a situation I quickly became aware of as I accelerated. The standard result of so many parental riding lessons developed according to pattern. I nevertheless did learn to ride on that bike, which was no doubt purchased from the Sears whose broad, bleak parking lot reached to the corner opposite ours. It is perhaps the same bike I am sitting on in a photograph taken in front of the house we moved to not long after. The most vivid memory I have involving that machine is of rolling over my little brother's head with it, as he loafed on the sidewalk.
There may have been an intermediate machine--kids grow so fast at that age--but if there was I remember nothing specific about it. The next bicycle I can recall riding was a big red balloon-tired Schwinn that we of the neighborhood called, "The Tank." I remember watching older riders squeak to a stop on steel- wheeled "racing" bikes of the time and feeling immeasurably superior to them and their frail-looking mounts. Fortunately for my ego (but not for my spiritual and technical development), I never challenged one to a race. It was enough for us, the children of Lucerne Boulevard, to ride up and down the sidewalks and off the curbs, and, when no one was looking, up the grassy slopes of the long rows of lawns. The Tank was stolen from in front of the house one day; my mother and I found it an hour later in front of the ice-cream store two blocks away. I suppose we eventually sold it.
Later I had--again from Sears--an "English racer," those perfectly misnamed bikes that came with high, swept-back handlebars, metal fenders, and three-speed hubs. The hub would often slip as soon as you stood on the pedals to sprint, resulting in crushed genitals, and so I entertained no illusions of being a sport rider while I owned that bike. However, it got me to junior high school without fail every clear day for three years--something I have at last managed to forgive it. It was on this bike that I had an unusual accident: while laboring slowly up a local hill, I glanced down at the handlebar basket to make sure I'd brought all my schoolbooks, whereupon I ran into a lady carrying home her groceries, and knocked her out of her shoes. She was, fortunately, not hurt; I helped her gather her bags; and we apologized to each other and continued, a little more confused than before, on our way.
My best friend at the time owned an unusual bike that actually had three brakes: two caliper brakes and a coaster brake. I used to accompany him on his paper route in the evenings, I on my English racer and he on his belt-and-suspenders bike. It says something about the times that, not only was there an evening paper then, but that also, we could leave our bikes--unlocked!--on the walkway in front of the El Royale Apartments for twenty minutes while we dropped the papers in front of the customers' doors. I inherited my friend's paper route (but not his bicycle) when he got a better job, but I soon gave it up. I did not have a taste for dunning irritable drunks for money, and the Citizen-News did not bill its customers; rather, it sold the kids the newspapers at a discount, and the kids had to collect. I had many customers who were not too proud to cheat a young boy. Maybe that's why Steve gave up the route. Over the years, however, that bicycle paid its way, though I never really liked it. My friends began to acquire ten-speeds--I remember Jimmy doing block-long wheelies on his--and soon enough I too developed an urge for many gears.
As far as I can remember, my next two bikes were Peugeots, either AO-8s or UO-8s, bought from a real bicycle shop, whose repair department was presided over by a good-natured fellow named Bob. Bob had a blond fringe around a bald head, a curved pipe, and a very British accent, and was a master mechanic whose skills kept me ignorant of repair procedures for several years. He could fix anything, and he was not far away, and so my bikes went to him when they were in need. By then my friend had gotten rid of his three-braked bike and gotten a ten-speed himself, and we used to ride around Griffith Park once a week. Over the pass, straining in low gears, then a rushing descent to the cemetery, followed by a loop around the zoo and the train museum, then home through the streets. It was on one of these rides that I ran over a perfectly straight row of large rocks, fallen from the hillsides and nearly invisible in the dusk. Even Bob couldn't straighten the rims that time, and expense of replacement seemed immoderate to me.
When I started high school, I rode my Peugeot down Beverly Boulevard and locked it in the rack. Within a few months, it was stolen, the security chain neatly cut. I got ahold of the second Peugeot. In two more months, it too was stolen--by a construction worker, I suspect, as they had plenty of chain-cutters lying around the building they were putting up by the bike racks. After that, I took the bus. I did not buy a bike again for several years.
Even in my teen years, I disliked cars and the enclosure that defines them, so when it came time to learn to drive, although I was a good little drone and did get my license, I compromised and rode a motorcycle. It was not as good as a bike, but it was better than a car, and the facility of its motion gave a pleasure peculiar to that vehicle. Several motorcycles later, a Yamaha I had burned a valve as I passed within a couple of blocks of my mother's house on my way home from work. I pushed the motorbike into her garage and called the dealer (it was still under warranty), then walked a couple of blocks to Larchmont Boulevard where there was, at that time, a bicycle shop. I took out my credit card, paid $150.00 for a Shogun ten-speed, and continued on home.
Home at the time was a little three-room house near the top of a steep hill in Echo Park. That first day I barely made it up the hill. The next morning I rode the seven miles to work and amused my colleagues by showing up on a leg-powered cycle. By the end of the week I no longer needed the lowest gear to climb the hill below my house. I kept bicycling to work after the motorcycle was fixed, using the Yamaha only for longer distances. My friends began buying bicycles again. We took a short tour. We all wore cut-off jeans and tank tops for weekend riding, and I wore long pants and a denim jacket on my ride to work. I rode at night often, usually through Griffith Park to visit a friend who lived in Glendale. I never used lights.
One night I was coming home from Glendale and cut through Griffith Park as usual, counting on the moon to light my way. As I rode I frightened a little wild cat who scampered off. At a stop sign, a carload of teenage punks rolled down their window to ask directions. A harsh odor filled the night air, and I thought to myself that they shouldn't be driving if they were smoking something that strong. At the next stop sign, the same odor filled the air, but there was no one else around. I realized that the "cat" had been a skunk. Since then I've used headlights on all my bikes!
When I got home, I threw away my clothes. But there was nothing I could do about the bike. In Echo Park, you did not leave your bicycle on the porch. The Shogun stayed in my living room. I didn't have guests for a while.
After a few weeks, the odor diminished. I kept riding to work and enjoying the way my body felt as it grew stronger. I enjoyed even more having the world right next to my skin the way you do on a bike. At work I chained the Shogun to a hundred-foot-tall lamp post in a walled parking lot patrolled by armed guards. I felt it was pretty safe.
One evening I walked out after work and it was gone.
After that I bought a beautiful and too-expensive Centurion twelve-speed. I didn't ride to work anymore, though. I would ride on weekends, I would ride to visit friends, I would ride to the bank or other places where I could bring the bike inside. I went back to taking the motorcycle to work and eventually, reluctantly, bought a used car.
I drove most places for several years, always feeling cramped in the car. I hated going fast, I hated being in a box. I always felt as if I were wearing a jacket two sizes too small. There was nothing interesting about the freeway. There was nothing interesting about the inside of the windshield. When I got a job that was close enough to where I lived, I began walking to work. I still used the bike occasionally, to go to the teller machine or the photo lab. My greatest pleasure, though, was hiking. Only I hated having to drive to the mountains. Then I changed jobs and had a little longer walk to work than before. After a year or so, I decided to try riding again. I would be allowed to park the bike in the warehouse.
Return to Grace
It was lunch that turned me into a real bicycle commuter. I couldn't afford to eat out every day, and I didn't like wearing a backpack as I rode; Los Angeles is just too hot for that. So I had to figure out how to carry lunch to work. I tried saddlebags--the type that hangs from the back of the saddle--but the ones I could find were not very good. So I bought a rack and a rack trunk. But the rack trunk wasn't very good. Neither was the advice I was getting from the local bike shops. (Bob had long since retired.) I decided to get to the library and see what I could find out about bicycling. In the library, besides many wonderful books, were the bike magazines I had avoided for so many years. They had not gotten any better. But I bought them for the ads, to learn what was available. Slowly, I studied and learned. I bought some cheap panniers, then a year or so later, some good ones that did not leak. I bought bike shorts and rain gear. I bought a front rack. I bought new tires. Eventually I bought a touring bike.
I haven't been inside an automobile now for nearly three years. I even shop for the family larder on a bike equipped with grocery-bag carriers. I enjoy my chores. Sometimes I ride to the mountains, lock up the bike, and go hiking. The universe touches my skin. I'm happy living. Once in a while, on the way home from work, I ride by the street where my father rolled me down that driveway. Sometimes, there's a young kid there, big-eyed and nervous, wobbling down the same long sidewalk that I used, forty years ago, on my own first ride.
Photograph by my father, Leon.