On my seventh birthday my parents dropped me and my best friend Jamie off at a movie theater to watch "Son Of Flubber," in which some kind of pedalable contraption magically elevated a cat or a house up into the air. A brand new red bicycle was waiting in my living room afterward. "Is it for me? Thhhhhaaanks!" I said, forcing my voice to inflect a delight I did not feel. When my mom and dad walked into the kitchen, I started to show Jamie one of my recently learned magic tricks and then I lowered my voice. "Wow, those handle bars are so strange. I wish it was a Sting Ray. Why couldn't they have gotten me one like yours? Maybe they can exchange it. Do you think I should ask them to?"
"Never ask them to do that!" Jamie said. "You should be happy with this bike because they gave it to you." Little did I know, that was the beginning of a lesson in courage and compassion.
In addition to resenting my parents' gift, I was disappointed in my friend for not indulging my self pity. I said thanks again, regretting that each pretense of gratitude would make me less and less welcome to ask that the bike be exchanged for one I really wanted. Cake helped deaden my woe.
Sting Rays had long, wide banana seats, big enough for two kids, and handle bars which stuck way up like giant rabbit ears. A child on a Sting Ray could feel like a virile member of a pack of Hell's Angels on Harley Davidsons because of how high up the hands were placed. The problem with my birthday bike was that its bars were in fact two pieces of chrome pipe, sprouting symmetrically from a metal plate above the front wheel. A normal bicycle does not have two handle bars, but rather a single bent metal pipe gripped in the center by the stem. In my new bike's case the steering apparatus was truly plural. Surely nobody at school would recognize it as legitimate.
On my first few strokes of pedaling away from the house the next day, I hoped my balance would falter and indicate that steering with double bars was dangerous. Then I may have had an excuse to complain. Alas, my coordination was steady, and rolling was smooth. Jamie would certainly discover any false fall. I reluctantly rolled onto campus among the population of normal kids. Some were walking and some were pedaling. The pedaling kids were the ones I feared, even if they were not on Sting Rays. When I arrived at the bike racks, my premonition came true: "Hey Ben, how come your handle bars are all weird like that?" It stung me. I knew it would come again and again.
Perhaps after a week or a month the criticism stopped. Maybe I was just inured. My neighborhood pals all had bikes different from each other. Mine was just part of the mix. My loyal steed took me with them over tar, dirt paths, puddles, patches of gravel, and fields of tall grass. I could coast down steep hills and lean sideways on banked turns in the local college parking lot. Once I traded with Tom, whose tall black fat tire bike went very fast. Under him my double bar speedster was just as peppy. I thought, "That must be how I look." Suddenly I loved my own bicycle because it looked different from everybody else's. It did not occur to me to thank my parents again or report to Jamie Danhoff that I had finally matured. I did not remember that I had initially hated the bike. I was proud that among the fleet, my vehicle had natural efficiency and highly visible design integrity.
It takes courage to ride a bike to work these days. Occasionally I ride to job interviews (wearing slacks and a tie) on a child's bike fitted with an extra tall seat post. On one such occasion a pack of racers riding thousand dollar machines and dressed in multi-colored skin tight suits passed me. The first among them said, "Look at this idiot on a dinosaur--not even dressed right. No wonder he can't get up the hill. Get yourself some real gears." I thanked him for the advice.
I finally acquired an 18 speed with the best pannier bags on the market. On this bike I carried 30 video cassettes to work in one of Hollywood's most prestigious video editing facilities. The owner told me to remove my bicycle from the small dark cubbyhole under the stairs because producer clients who drove Lexuses might see it as they drove into the underground garage. I reparked next to a parking meter a block away. Several of my photographic clients have said, when I arrive on the job fully dressed and with cameras loaded, that they love my work but consider my choice of transportation rather stupid.
Tolerating this and remaining committed to my beliefs is possible because of my elementary school experience. One day in third grade I reported to Jamie Danhoff that my mother had cried during an argument with my father the previous night. "Did you go up to her and put your arm around her," he asked, "and tell her it was going to be all right?" He seemed to demand blind faith in a strict rule without knowing how hostile and unapproachable my mother was during an argument. Thenceforth I dared not seek Jamie's sympathy about anything, lest I be discovered as not fulfilling my duty as a son. I did however, hope my mother would break down and cry very soon so I could practice my duty. She did not, and I was forced to seek other ways to show my love for her, such as offering to help with chores, and, later in life, writing her letters.
Jamie Danhoff lived across town and had met me during kindergarten. In second grade, when Matt and Jim moved in to my neighborhood, Jamie met them when he visited me and became their pal. Being neighbors, Matt and Jim walked or pedaled to school with me. On two occasions each of them separately asked me to exclude the other during our commutes. This conspiratorial spurning was a pleasure when it kept me in favor. One day, however, the two of them and Jamie made a pact to exclude me on the playground as well as at home. A three person clique was greater than either Matt or Jim had endured, I thought. I stoically walked or pedaled alone.
About three weeks into my banishment, I noticed Jamie standing in front of my house drenched. Certainly he had come to this neighborhood to play with Matt and Jim rather than with me. It was late afternoon and no other children were visible on the whole street. It had rained. Probably Matt and Jim had gone somewhere with their parents. Jamie was sobbing. I walked out to him, partly fearing he would repel me in loyalty to them. I asked him what was the matter.
"Jim and Matt and me were in a water balloon fight and I fell in the mud and I am cold and wet and my parents can not come get me. I might even catch cold!" He sniffed and stood stiffly, holding out his muddy arms in horror.
"Aw, Jamie, that's awful, I said. "Come on inside and let me put some towels on you." I took his hand and gestured toward the driveway. "First," I continued, "will you please let me hose off some of that mud?." He trudged after me. "Will the hose be too cold on you?" I asked as he held up his bare arms. "Now may I squirt it off your legs too? Your pants are already wet."
"It's okay," he said, knowing that moms want to minimize mud in the house. We went in the back door and down the basement stairs. I sat him on a pile of dirty laundry and dashed upstairs for some clean towels and a pair of my own pants for him to change into. I was not so much sympathetic to his suffering, especially after the ostracism, as I was eager to measure up to his standards of decency. When we got up to the kitchen I served him some lunch meat or peanut butter on white bread. I asked my mom if she could drive him home, which she did. To her, it was just another visit from Jamie.
I hope Jamie uses a bicycle these days, and I wish I could thank him for what he gave me with my first bike. His family moved out of state during fifth grade and disappeared from my life. However not a disgruntled roommate, a sobbing niece, a chagrined sister, or a depressed parent has ever entered my view without me thinking of Jamie's charge.
I have owned bicycles of many controversial sizes and shapes and have carried furniture, P.A. systems, and musical instruments across town upon them. I celebrate the money and natural resources I have saved with this lifestyle. I also celebrate the many women I have pedaled to visit in the middle of the night. This, however, is not all of what I mean when I say that I pedal for love.
Ben Arie Swets