Christmas Day is a melancholy day for me and I don’t have to apologize for it. It’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to.
It was melancholy for my grandfather Jim, who was stone drunk by ten every Christmas morning, and on the blind staggers by evening. His elder sister had died on Christmas when he was a young man, compounding what was a sad holiday anyway. Celebration of the birthday of an innocent man who was nailed to a cross? Day of mourning is more like it…
My brother was born on December 27th.
I spent my life chasing him, and for two days every year we were the same age. What a wonderful feeling, those two days of equality, until he would race by me again, reminding me with a thump on the head that he was still the boss. This year I’ll pass him forever. What I wouldn’t give to be the younger one again.
Death and remembrance
I swung by the PV Bicycle Center yesterday to pick up my ‘cross bike, which had been cleaned and overhauled after the bitter abuse of half a beginner’s race season. As I parked, Dave Lindstedt was pulling out. He rolled down his window. “Did you hear about Steve?”
Now you know and I know, that’s a question that’s never going to end well. I expected the worst, of course, which in my world means that another friend got mowed down by a motorist. I braced for the account of the accident, the extent of the injuries, and finally the location of the hospital.
If it was a bad accident, I’d likely be spending Christmas Eve at UCLA Harbor. If it was only terrible-bad, I’d be visiting him at Torrance Memorial. If he’d gotten pegged on one of his longer rides, it might even be UCLA in Westwood.
“No,” I said, opening my door because the electronic window was still broken and I’d just covered the controls with duct tape to keep from inadvertently hitting the button and causing the window to leap out of the frame.
Dave swallowed hard. “He’s gone.”
“Gone. Yesterday in Malibu, climbing with Marcella. His heart gave out.”
We looked at each other, me in shock, him in pity as the shock coursed across my face. There’s that moment when anything you say is small and inadequate and rent with cliche, when reflexive utterances fill the void.
“I can’t believe it,” I said.
Lost in sound
Steve Bowen owned the PV Bicycle Center. He, like most other bike shop owners, worked all the time. He knew his customers. He was honest. He was beyond fair. He was always willing to help. He cared about people. He was never too busy to listen to your story, no matter how stupid.
There was always one customer who seemed to live at the shop but who I never saw buy anything. He would stand at the counter and brag about his hard rides, about his toughness, about his great skills on the bike. He would ask a thousand questions about products, prices, components, and repair. He was a single-handed drain on Steve’s bottom line in terms of time alone, not to mention annoyance, making other customers wait, and the bad smell that he brought with him into the shop. He was the kind of guy who sucked you dry and then did his shopping online, where he saved five percent.
I never saw Steve show resignation, or boredom, or frustration at this boob. If it had been me, the second time he walked into my shop I’d have told him to buy something or get the hell out. That’s another reason I didn’t get into retail, I suppose.
Steve marched to a different beat, though, and it showed. Steve was originally a concert pianist, and he had the gentleness of an artist as well as the slightly detached third ear of a musician. He always listened intently, and always seemed to be hearing more than you said.
I think that’s what gave him his profound empathy; it was his ability to hear the rhythm and the undertones and the overtones of the subtext that overlay whatever it was you were saying. His gentleness showed itself in his demeanor towards people and even more so towards animals.
His shop dog, Peanut, was proof of Steve’s kindness and easy spirit. The dog was weaned on love and raised on affection, which breeds satisfaction and kindness in animals and people alike.
Firing up the base
Steve did more than sell bikes. He sold people on the importance and enjoyment of biking. His shop sponsored all manner of rides, everything from beginner rides to seminars with local pros. He helped local authors promote their books: Patrick Brady’s bike book sat at the front of the cash register. He sponsored local racing teams. He worked hard to get women into cycling by creating an environment that was safe and fun and not permeated with with the chest-thumping advice sausages who so often intimidate women and ruin their excitement at discovering cycling.
The PV Bike Chicks, a local club that is the largest women’s riding group in the South Bay, was formed in large part due to Steve’s unwavering support. At public hearings like the one in Rolling Hills Estates, when the horse people tried to shout down an extraordinary infrastructure plan that would accommodate more cyclists and make bicycling safer in one of LA’s best riding areas, Steve was always there and always willing to speak.
His demeanor was factual, friendly, reasonable. Shrill, squawking, madman-with-a-kazoo type speeches a la Wankmeister were not his thing. He spoke, he talked business, he talked safety, he talked health, and people listened.
Everyone had a feel-good story about Steve
A couple of years ago, when Michael Marckx was trying to help Blue Bicycles get a foothold in the Southern California market, Steve made the extra effort to carry their bikes. He believed in helping.
When his shop manager, Sean, interviewed for the job he came back home to his girlfriend and said, “I gotta get that job.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because this guy really cares about people. It’s not just push, push, push and grind the bottom line. You can tell he cares.”
I have my own litany of stories about Steve. Most of them involve last minute needs, after-hours wants, inconvenient demands made at inconvenient times for inconvenient products and inconvenient services. Steve was always there for me, and treated my patronage like it mattered.
Most importantly, he was a cyclist’s cyclist and he maintained a dual-repair track. There was one track for bikes that needed fixing. They got put into the queue. There was another track for cyclists who needed their bike so they could ride it.
Those gonna-get-ridden bikes always, always, always went to the head of the line. Steve knew the difference between someone with three bikes who was looking for a particular upgrade and a racer with one bike and a busted wheel who was racing or doing a big ride the next day. He loved bikes, but he loved people who rode them more.
A bad omen
For several years Steve ran his bike shop in a small, hard to find, harder to reach location adjacent to the vet and across the way from a grocery store, tucked into one of the least desirable spaces on the Hill. He busted his butt. He built a loyal customer base. He toiled the long hours.
Then, three years ago he teamed up with Specialized to make a full-service, modern, beautiful bike shop that combined the best of an integrated Specialized operation with the integrity and friendliness of an LBS. If anything, he worked harder, but never lost the smile.
Earlier this year, while doing one of his 100-mile+ mountain rides, Steve keeled over and was briefly hospitalized. The doctors gave him a clean bill of health, but it was clearly worrisome to him as they’d been unable to pinpoint the cause. He kept riding and working and working and riding until this past Sunday.
He’d ventured out to the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu with Marcella Piersol. She was ahead of him on the climb when a motorist flagged her down.
“Your friend back there has fallen.”
She whipped around and sped back to him. A passing driver had stopped; as chance would have it he was a doctor who immediately tried to revive Steve, with no success. Despite her career as a cop with the LAPD, the shock to Marcella was indescribable. Steve was one of her best riding buddies, and a good friend besides.
She tried telling herself that he died doing what he loved, but that never takes away from the loss, it only makes us vaguely thankful. Vaguely. “It could have been worse” never lessened anyone’s pain.
The sound of music
Steve was a cyclist’s musician. He listened to the details. He cared about harmony. He was passionate about the larger, orchestrated movement.
He played a song for us, a song that was all too brief, and a song that was more complex than it seemed at first listen. Part of the coda, though, is this, and it’s something that Steve would have agreed with unreservedly: Life is fragile. Life is brief. Enjoy it now, while the band still plays.
RIP, Steve Bowen. My life is better because of knowing you. I’ll add you to my Christmas melancholy, but even so the thought of your goodness and your friendship will make me smile anyway.