Thursday, July 28, 2011


I'm your friend bike.

I'll take you to run the parks,
I'll help you grow and glide on two wheels.
On top of me the world is at its mercy
You run into me and the world below you.
Body in the wind, released by the thinking air,
For that to happen you just ride me.

I'm your friend bike.

Am I the company will do so,
Between streets, avenues, in the sea.
I'll buy you and helps you to enjoy
Popsicles, chewing gum, baseball cards and comic books.
The wheel and road wheel and the time it's back,
For that to happen you just ride me.

I'm your friend bike.

It very recently entered the fashion for real,
Executives come to me without stopping.
Everyone is worried about emagracer,
Even your parents decided to adopt me.
A lot of people lately has been riding me
But in a strange way I do not go out of place.

I'm your friend bike.
This song, by Brazilian artist, Toquinho, captures (in a rough and nearly literal translation to English) what bicycles have meant for me. From the moment it dawned on me that a bicycle meant freedom and inclusion, I wanted to ride.  Don't get me wrong, I was a huge fan of the Big Wheel and had inherited one that my grandparents were given as a hand-me-down from Johnny, Chuckie, Danny, and Kevin's mom and dad- they lived behind my grandparent's northeast Philadelphia row home on the street that ran perpendicular to theirs.  Our driveway backed the side of their house but was separated by a common drive.  I drove that Big Wheel that had "YARDLEY", the last name of the family of boys, written in black, permanent ink in the center of the handlebars, until I outgrew it and wanted to be a big kid.  

My aunt and uncle were only eleven and fourteen years older than I and were the first best friends I ever had.  My uncle was already driving, but he enjoyed the leisure of riding bikes.  So, when they started "ditching" me (they weren't really, but I loved them and couldn't understand why they'd want to go someplace without me!) to hang out with friends, I knew I had to learn to ride a bike.  

A couple months shy of five years old, my grandfather sawed two blocks of wood to fit on each of my aunt's banana seat Schwinn bike pedals and screwed them in to affix them.  The weight from the blocks would pull the pedals down, block side and I used to have to tuck my foot under the pedal and spin it in an attempt to catch the wood side-up.  I was about two inches too short to reach the pedals and about six inches too short to reach the ground.  I would ask him to take me outside two or three times a day on weekends and every night after work that summer.  I was determined to ride.

The schoolyard at Samuel Fels Junior High School (now a high school) was surrounded by a high, chain-linked fence.  We would enter from one of the three or so rear entrances.  Typically, a couple games of basketball and one game of stickball were happening at any given time, and there was always someone running their dog in the L-shaped, asphalt-covered yard that ran adjacent to two city blocks and had scarce a tree planted near the fence with glass sporadically littering the ground.  One could see the glass by the reflection of the sun that made it look like diamonds.

Growing like a weed, I asked my grandfather to take the blocks off the bike.  I was also able to balance myself on the pedals, scooting off the seat, pedaling fiercely, always trying to go faster. The blocks were in the way. 

That year, in 1981, my family and I moved to Deptford, NJ.  Amazingly, the house was situated at the border of an enormous community park and sports complex that had a swimming pool, basketball courts, a football/soccer field, a hockey rink, bike loop trail, and best of all- a professional, American Bicycle Association sanctioned BMX track where riders came from all over to race or just have fun.  I was in heaven, but I quickly learned that the pink Huffy was not up to racing standards with its banana seat, chain guard, kickstand, reflectors, and lack of pads. 

When races were held every Saturday, I'd climb over our fence to watch the riders and I stopped an older girl who looked cool to me, she was wearing a GT racing suit and had blonde hair peaking out from her full face mask, "Hey, can you tell me what I need to do to make my bike regulation?" She was kind to entertain my question and told me everything I needed to do.  She should have said, "Kid, get your parents to buy you a real bike."

I had $80 saved and made my mom bring me to Kmart where I bought a black pads, an orange helmet that was really for motorcycles, and the most important thing- a Haro number plate: 1.  The helmet was $39.99 and when all was said and done, I was left with twenty bucks.

The next morning, I woke and found a screwdriver and wrench.  Promptly, I began working to remove the kickstand.  It was so difficult and banging my fingers against the metal, trying to loosen the assemblage was frustrating.  After prying it off, I went to work on the chain guard, and then unscrewed the reflectors, put the pads on the frame, neck, and bars, attached the number plate and rode over to the track.  There was a gang of boys and not one girl, none but I, that is. There was a killer starting hill that sat at a 45° and had long planks that created a starting gate.  The kids would take turns, one dropping the gate while the other racers would balance their bikes, front wheel touching the gate with their feet up on the pedals.  Ready, set... drop!  It went something like- Down the hill, over a jump, into a left turn, over another jump, over the whoop-de-doos, into a right turn, over two more jumps, into a left turn, and then sprinting to finish. But I was little, so my memory is a bit skewed.  

I hauled my pink bike up the back of the hill and moved to the gate.  No one noticed me, it seems.  I don't recall them even caring that I looked ridiculous with a giant, adult-sized orange helmet on my head and a bike that anyone would be crazy to take over jumps.  Not sure that I could balance, I went up on my pedals and felt surprisingly stable.  Ready, set... drop!

It took me longer than anyone to make it to the finish line, but I managed not to fall, despite being scared and not anticipating things like the painful force of impact on my little wrists and the fact that the enormous starting hill would propel me faster than I had ever gone and my legs could pedal.  I hated those whoop-de-doos and hit every one with my front wheel.  It would be a while before I was able to master the timing and finesse needed to fly and glide over them.  The Huffy held up well until 1984 when I scored my first real bike after we moved to Philly, an all chrome Mongoose "Expert", an aesthetically beautiful racing bike that never saw real dirt.  The track, unfortunately, had a rather sad ending and was eventually flattened by the township.

Now, I have my own kids and until yesterday, only one of them could ride a bike.  Unbelievable, right?  I mean, I half expected my girls to be riding bikes in diapers, but noooooooo! My kids liked playing with dolls and having their nails polished and had little desire to learn to ride a bike.  It was a tomboy's nightmare.  I just can't fathom that they'd have rather hopped on a friend's pegs than to have the freedom of movement, or that they like their parents enough to want to hang out with us.  When I was eight and lived in Philadelphia, I was riding my bike up to Roosevelt Mall to go to the arcade and that was nearly two miles from our home and riding through the miles-long trails in Pennypack Park.

When she was almost nine, my now twelve year old, under peer pressure, learned to ride a bike with the help of an older friend.  She's now become a fairly proficient rider, though I can't see her taking jumps.  In fact, that thought scares the shit out of me- she'd have to be dressed in one of those Sumo wrestler costumes, you know, they're the ones that blow a person up like the Michelin tire guy.

Well, after trying for the past three years to get her to ride, my now nine year old had me convinced she would never ride a bike.  It bothered me because I thought she was going to miss out on an entire part of childhood independence and lifetime enjoyment.  So, two days ago, I saw the same girl who taught my elder daughter and said, "Hey, if you teach her to ride, I'll give you twenty bucks."

The next day at dinner time, the kids walked over to the teenager's house.  In an hour, one of their friend's came running inside our house, "Gab, Gab! Come outside, quick, she's coming down the street!"

There she was, riding her pink Huffy with it's kickstand, chain guard, and reflectors, with a giant smile on her face.

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