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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