My bicycle cellphone

In the late 1960’s if you were a kid and you wanted to go somewhere, you went by bicycle. Soccer moms hadn’t been invented yet, and during the summertime if you wanted to leave the house you had to pedal. And you always wanted to go somewhere because the alternative to outside was inside.

Inside meant nothing to do, absolutely nothing. TV for kids didn’t start until re-runs at 3:30 or 4:00, and since we didn’t have a television it didn’t matter anyway. Even the kids who had TV were up by seven and had the whole day to kill until they could watch Speed Racer or Ultraman in the late afternoon.

Inside there was a big box of comics that you had read ten thousand times. There was a stack of records you’d listened to a million times. So the only way you were going to have fun was by hanging out with your friends.

Someone in the neighborhood could always be counted on to want to steal something, beat someone up (hopefully not you, but sometimes it didn’t work out that way), start a game of baseball that would end in a fight, start a game of touch football that ALWAYS became tackle football and ended in a fight, throw things at cars and run away, smoke cigarettes, or see if someone’s older sister would show us her breasts.

The only way to find out what was going on and who was doing what was by using a bicycle cellphone.

You couldn’t call on the home phone because first and foremost, guys never called guys. It was un-guyly to begin with, and fraught with peril because the phone was always in some parent’s bedroom or in the living room. That’s “the phone” as in “the one phone in the entire house.” And it was black and it had a rotary dial with a piece of paper in the middle of the dial that had your phone number written on it in case you were too stupid to remember your own phone number, which no one was because the number was the same your entire life.

Mine was (713) 666-7639.

If Sam Rodriguez had stolen some of his brother’s drugs you couldn’t ask about it on the phone — his mom might be there, and so might yours. It was only by dialing the old bicycle cellphone over to a friend’s house that you could find out what was going on and if anyone wanted to play.

Of course with a bicycle cellphone you often got a busy signal. “Hello, Miz Schuermann. Is Mark home?”

“Why no, he isn’t, Seth.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“He may be over at John Sweeney’s.”

So you’d have to pedal over to John’s house a few blocks away and hope that he was there. Parents often had no idea where their kids were, and never had any idea what they were doing or when they would be home, except that it would be shortly before dinner.

Sometimes you’d have to go to several houses, then to the pool, and then to the park before you found anyone. That old bicycle cellphone would get dialed to hell and back before someone answered. And once you hooked up with your pals you’d ride somewhere else — the 7-11 to steal candy or play pinball, back to the pool for a swim to see if you could catch some girl’s top or bottom getting jerked down when she went off the high dive, or over to the Duques’ to see if anyone had any dope to smoke.

This meant you were always on your bike. More than that, it meant that the lousiest rider in the gang had “skilz.”

When I see new cyclists in their teens or early twenties, I always marvel at the things they can’t do. They can’t ride with their hands off the bars. They have trouble pulling out a water bottle without wobbling like a drunk staggering home from the bar. They can’t hop a curb. They clumsily totter at stoplights when they come to a stop. In short, there is a whole range of skills they never learned because they never had a bicycle cellphone to take them all over the neighborhood. When we wanted to see porn, we had to pedal all the way over to Patrick Klepfer’s place, where his big brother had a stash of Penthouse magazines, and after marveling at the anatomy we would gleefully read the Letters. Nowadays kids don’t need a cellphone bicycle to see porn, they just tap-and-jerk.

It was a matter of a couple of bike rides for me to learn how to use toeclips and toestraps when I got my first road bike. Why? Because sticking your foot into a metal cage and cinching down the strap was nothing compared to the ramps.

We had two. One was on the way to school, on Pine Street just before you got to Braeburn Elementary. There was a big ditch that ran parallel to the road. You’d start fifteen or twenty yards back and pedal like hell for the lip of the ditch. Then you’d shoot down into the ditch and up the other side, “catching air.” The landing zone was about five feet long, and you had to time it perfectly or you’d fly off the curb and into oncoming traffic.

No one got killed, but we had plenty of close calls. The idols could catch huge air, hit the ground, and stop just before going over the curb. We wankers would catch little air, close our eyes, and pray that the cars were paying attention.

The big ramp was on Chimney Rock. It had a long dirt entry, went down into a very deep ditch, and came up a vertical lip that was much higher than the entry lip. If you didn’t have huge speed you wouldn’t even make it over, and would tip backwards, cracking your head and spine as you backflipped into the ditch. If you had huge speed you would go so high in the air that without perfect positioning you’d have your forehead staved in by the giant tree limbs that overhung the landing zone.

Our parents never paid attention to us when we came home covered in dirt and smeared with blood. How else WOULD we have come home?

As I pedaled along the bike path the other day, despairing of this younger generation that doesn’t instinctively know how to avoid death and dismemberment on a bicycle, I saw something that made my heart sing.

It was a 12 or 13-year-old kid on a cruiser bike with a surfboard racked to the side of the bike. He had one hand on the bars and was texting with the other. No helmet, pedaling in flip-flops. The path was crowded and he weaved between countless Obstacles of Death. He hit a thick patch of sand, barely stayed upright with one hand, and never stopped texting despite narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a baby stroller. He might even have been high.

My optimism for the future of America has never been greater.



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44 thoughts on “My bicycle cellphone”

  1. Dang, the locals never showed us the ramp on Chimney Rock when we were on the Planetary Bike Wednesday Night Tour of the Inner Loop (aka “The Construction Zone Ride”). Maybe it was gone by the time I got there. Which cross street, please, just for historical reference at this late date?

    1. It was on the east side of Chimney Rock, just before you got to N. Braeswood. There used to be a Texaco filling station on the corner. The ditch was behind the filling station.

  2. Love this one, Seth. Once again, it is actually not always about the bike. “And you always wanted to go somewhere because the alternative to outside was inside.” That is still true. Thank you for writing.

  3. () 666-xxxx, phone number of the Devil.

    Concrete channel of Braes Bayou was our bike/skate park.

  4. Thanks for taking me back to my days of youth. I was with you the whole way! Arlington VA doesn’t sound much different from your upbringing. Without a bike, we all were walking. On our bikes, we were a self-propelled motorcycle gang.

  5. No Chimney Rock in my neighborhood (L.A. 44) But we did have ” Snake Alley” and the Worlds famous ” Devils Dips” ( now Los Angeles Southwest College ) to build endorphins and remove skin.

  6. We used to have the Sawley tip, which has since become a golf course it was a Cycling / motor Cycling play ground, you had to break in usually sneaking under the railway bridge by the canal, I spent many days over the years learning to ride there, but the most memorable was the first visit I was probably about 7 and decided it was a good idea to go into the bomb whole, a big 30 deep whole in the ground they dug when the we’re building the railway embankment, we’ll I got about 10 feet down before going are over tip for the next 30 or 40 feet, fun times.

    1. Right? And remember the hierarchy? There were the older badasses, the younger wannabes, and the scared shitlessers.

  7. I always enjoy your tales of childhood, because they remind me so much of my own. Though I’m about 10-15 years younger than you, so the wussification of Suburbia was well underway by the ’80’s. Either way, I spent my summer days in the woods. Learned to curse during the summer after first grade in a long string of nonsense profanity that involved tits and balls, but not cunts and cocks. We had a neighbor with a pump track in his yard that we’d poach (you never asked ANYONE if you were allowed to do something, you just did it), and my steel-frame Huffy with plastic mag wheels was my steed from about 3rd grade until well into high school before I got my first road bike, which was actually my mom’s. It was a white chromoly Puch, about 4 cm too small for me, with a squeaky rear brake – so I only ever used the front. One evening I was riding without a light, head down, when I looked up at the last second to see a parked car where there never was one. I grabbed the front brake in a death grip and went right over the handlebars with the bike still between my legs onto the trunk of the car. I rung the doorbell across the street and apologized for the few tiny dents and scratches to the trunk, and offered to pay for them. She never called me back. I rode all over town on that thing when i was 15-16, and the only reason I ever started learning to drive was because it got stolen when i dropped it in the grass behind the bank one evening while I ran int to get 10 bucks. I was in there 5 minutes and the bike was gone that fast. I’ll never forget the dread of my first stolen bike. It was like the first time you loose sight of your child in a big crowd, only you know it’s never coming back. That bike was my escape from a shitty new life in a new town with an alcoholic step-father and his sociopath sons, that began abruptly the day after my last day of 10th grade after 10 years of my father’s long and destructive descent into untreated schizophrenia. I miss that bike.

    1. Erik, can I post this comment as a guest blog on my bicycle booger? You just wiped out all my best stream of unconsciousness writing with one fell blow.

      “She never called me back.” I wept when I read that.

      I’m as serious as I ever get.


      1. Sure, can I edit it to improve some poor grammar and misspelling? I really dig your blog btw.

      2. I was just sharing a few random memories that came to mind after reading this great blog entry.. Didn’t expect to be sarcastically ridiculed for it. Did I need to snort coke off the top tube?

        No matter where you grew up – when you were a kid, the bike was just about everything BUT a bike. As opposed to now, when it seems more and more that’s all it is. It was your phone, your car, your meeting hall, your amusement park, your escape from boredom, or abuse, or just your low self-esteem. I never planned to “ride my bike”. It was just an integral part of my life back then. Like shoes.

        1. No one is ridiculing you. To the contrary, your comment is admired and appreciated. Very nice reminiscences; thanks for sharing!

      3. I don’t know about the sarcastic ridicule. That’s probably Seth. He hates it when I blogjack his ass. I was serious. No need to edit. It was good stuff, not an Creative Writing quiz. You’re up tomorrow morning.

        TPC (trailerparkcyclist at gmail)

        1. No sarcastic ridicule here. Just appreciation.

          And your blogjacks are always welcome, as you know!

    2. I don’t remember the name of my first bike, only that it was gold and white. And my third bike was a Murray, remember those? I rode it to junior high school every day for three years in the Houston heat and horrific rain. Ask for a ride to school? Might as well ask for a winning lottery ticket.

    1. Someday I will tell the story of me, Todd Sweeney, and the 50cc Honda minibike.

  8. Same growing up in the fifties only no area code on the phone. But I loved my bike and rode it everywhere. I was probably the only paperboy who put racing bars instead of monkey bars on his ten speed. Of course if I wasn’t careful the bags banged into the front wheel but I just liked the look of a racing bike though I knew absolutely nothing about bike racing. In fact it wasn’t until I was 24 and attending UCLA grad school that I learned about bike racing. But that is a story for another time.

  9. 1966. Summer. Vietnam was a place way far away and my dad was one of President Johnson’s “advisors”. He never came back, (That was your fuggin’ Texas president, Wanky!) So I lived in a broken down one car garage 1200 square foot house in Canoga Park with my clueless older brother and even more clueless older sister, and rode the LA River, up and down the sloped concrete sides, high-ending the concrete curbs and ramps, scraping the chrome off the pedals and the paint off the frame..There were no trails, no dirt, just streets, cheap wine, and the even cheaper high of sniffing paint cans with my friend Bob. That bike was freedom for three years, man.

    1. Hey Whiney! I was doing the same thing at the same time out in Tujunga! Except the paint cans part. My fiends were into airplane glue but I didn’t do it, ’cause I knew I had to save my brain for when I was President. Now that it is becoming increasingly obvious that I will never live in the White House (unless I’m locked up in the basement somewhere) it just occurred to me that I might as well go ahead and be a glue head. Thanks man! Do they even make airplane glue anymore?

      So much to know, so much to do…

      BTW: I turned fifty-nine today. I remember Vietnam. I remember the nightly news (black and white!) and it didn’t end in ’66, brother. It went on. And on. I’m sorry for your loss. This time I really am serious. Have a good Fourth, man. We’ve paid for it, in more ways than one.


    2. Wow … LBJ was in fact my president … and a crazy bastard he was.

      Remember plastic modeling glue?

  10. we don’t have a TV either, well, we do but it’s been unplugged for years, my kids recently started reading Richie-Rich and Archie comics from the 70s – they couldn’t be happier. Bikes/Scooters/Longboards are the key elements of their youth. good one seth!

    1. Without television, how will they know to believe the lies that other people tell them?

  11. Yearning for those days

    Right on brother!
    I tried to get my 14 year old nephew to ride his bike with me that he’s had since he was 6 but he kept resisting me like I was asking him to go cliff-diving. It really perplexed me why he was so resistive. I have always lived very far away from him so I hadn’t spent much time with him so my knowledge of his boyhood activities was limited at best, so I thought, “what the hell is wrong with this kid?” I did a quick check of him: walk-talk-breathing all ok. So what the hell, boy? One thing I did know, he’s a big gamer…video gamer that is…since he was a very little boy, and that’s when it all came together, he can’t ride a bike. I couldn’t believe it. Here he was, damn near 15 years old and didn’t have the skills all kids I grew up with had by the time they were 6. I felt really sorry for him. I thought about all those fantastic memories that I had because of the freedom my bike had given me when I was a kid, and he would never have because he choose to sit inside and experience a virtual world. I took one last stab at getting him to ride his bike by telling him I’d buy him a video game if he would ride just up the street and back. He grabbed the bars of the bike quickly, then paused, started to mount, put one foot on a pedal and the other stayed on the ground. Then he pushed off with his foot and I thought, “he’s going to prove me wrong!”, but just as I thought that the foot came back down and pushed off again, and again, and again.

    1. The gamer thing is so … unreal.

      Which is another way of saying that we are the dinosaurs, tottering on the brink.

  12. Yeah, outside learning useful tips like “only ride with a water gun in one hand.”

    On the other hand as a parent, it’s not as easy hearing your kid roll by saying, “This is how Jon broke his collarbone.”

  13. What a cool post! Seth, can I just shut down my booger and hang out here and be the Ed McMahon to your Gary Schandling?

    I write all the time about “living on the bike”, this Quixotic quest to be a guy who spends all day pedaling around…but that seems to only relate to homeless guys, a status I don’t dare to dream of ever achieving.

    But now I get it. Now I know what it was I have been looking for, the windmill I sought to tilt at: childhood! Not childhood, exactly, children are little…I mean back to the days when I was a punk-ass kid on a bike, a general nuisance, a wild thing on wheels…

    Yeah, baby!


  14. Schwinn Apple Crates and Lemon Peelers with banana seats,front shocks and slick rear tires were the preferred mode of transport for the kids growing up in Northwest Hills in Austin Texas. Thank you Seth for taking me back to the late 60’s and early 70’s and especially thanks for being you!

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