“I would like to rent you a bicycle,” I said to the lady at the counter, who was understandably confused.
A split second passed. “Oh,” she said, correcting my bad German, “you mean you would like to rent a bicycle from me?”
“Er, yes, please.” This made a whole lot more sense because I was a tourist in Berlin and she was an employee at a bike rental shop. “I would like something in the range of 58 cm, I could go with 56 or 60, but 58 would be best, with a 110mm stem and a cut-out saddle,” I added, smiling. “Something to relieve the pressure down there.”
“Of course,” she said, taking down my passport number and running my credit card.
“Also, SRAM if you have it, although I could do with Dura-Ace. Just not Campy, please, as I’m not too familiar with it.”
I signed the credit card receipt and we went out back to the rental bikes. There were about twenty black 3-speeds with upright handlebars, baskets, balloon tires, huge foam saddles, and giant v-cutouts instead of top tubes so I could get on and off in my skirt.
“Which one would you like?” she asked. They were all identically sized.
“Can I have the black one?”
“Of course,” she said, unlocking the enormous 10-lb. chain that went with the bike, giving me the key, then dropping the chain in the rear basket.
I swayed off, pedaling down the street, slowly gathering speed like an iron steam engine rolling down the rails.
No amount of bicycle iron, however, could detract from the feeling that screamed “Bicycle! Yippee!” that coursed through my veins. Like every bikeless cyclist stranded in a foreign city, after about two days I had begun to eye riders who whizzed by on commuter bikes with a fierce envy that finally turned to nefarious plans to murder some old lady just so I could have her bike to get around on. Of course most old German ladies, particularly in East Berlin, are about 6’4″ and not what I would call easy pickings, so I had inquired and found the rental shop.
As I yippeed along the streets I rolled through Checkpoint Charlie, by the Trabi dealer, past the Mauer Museum and the Topography of Terror Museum and then made a big loop back to Potsdamer Platz. Much of the loop had been in the middle of busy morning traffic and no one cared.
Berlin is a muscular yet understated city, gritty in the eastern part and clotted with big, blocky high-rises that in a thousand years will be extraordinary exemplars of fine architecture but for now just look like deformed Legos made of glass and steroids. Alexanderplatz and environs have the warm tingle of an urban shithole, decorated with American college kids discovering their first European venereal disease, bums collecting bottles from the garbage bins, and gypsy beggars asking “Speak English?” to which I reply “Can I borrow five bucks?” That made them wander off rather quickly.
Back on Helga the Iron One, I yippeed along the bike path until I was where I wanted to be: completely lost. So I yippeed some more until I came to a cafe that was just beginning to set out tables. It was already 8:00 AM, so I ordered a half-liter of Berliner Kindl pilsener. It is a fine, traditionally brewed Berlin beer that combines hints of cardboard and bad water with a forward note of bloody urine.
So I had another, and then two more. After that I lost count, so I paid the bill, or what I thought was the bill but was in fact just a piece of trash. I learned my mistake when the irate waiter chased me down after I’d unlocked Helga. It occurred to me to slap him with the butt-end of the 10-lb. chain, but since I’d never been raped in a German prison I figured I’d pay up and save that experience for another visit.
It is amazing how a bicycle can be transformed by a mere three liters of early morning beer. What had begun as Helga the Fat had become Ulrike the Sleek. “It really does kind of feel like a racing bike,” I said to myself, bouncing off the bike path, over the curb, and out into traffic where I just missed hitting a small but lively bus.
As I mashed on the pedals I was amazed at how fast it went, even though not in a necessarily straight line. However, all of the rush hour traffic was impressed, as they began honking and waving their hands in a show of entusiasm at my expert riding skills. I was in love with this magnificent city, and it with me.
Somehow I ended up in the middle of a giant throng of bike commuters stuck at a red light. There was a woman with a kid on the back. Five or six men in suits. Several old women doing the morning grocery shopping. But I paid no attention to them as I muscled my way to the starting line. I knew who I was going to have to beat: the dude in the helmet on the racing bike.
The light turned green and I jumped on his wheel. He didn’t notice me right away, but as he picked up speed the creaking and groaning of Ulrike caught his attention. What caught his attention even more was when the next light turned red and he braked. Ulrike the Sleek had become Ulrike the Don’t Brake None Too Good, and I whacked his rear wheel so hard with my balloon tire that it knocked him over.
In German I can now pretty much understand “You sorry motherfucker!” It sounds a lot like it does in English. I checked to make sure his tibia was okay and then continued on. Fortunately, just before the beer wore off I spied another cafe and pulled in to top off the tank.
“I would like to buy you a beer,” I told the waiter.
“Thank you,” he said, “but I am working. May I get you something?”
“A beer, please,” I said. It was almost eleven and the day had already been perfect. My German wasn’t getting any better, but I was caring about it less, and I had now learned to say “you motherfucker.” I sat there practicing for a few minutes.
“You motherfucker. You motherfucker. You motherfucker.” I said.
“Excuse me?” asked the waiter, who had arrived with my beer, just as I uttered my last “motherfucker.”
I stared smiling
at the foamy glass. “You look delicious on me.”
He scowled and set it down, but I don’t recall anything else. I’m sure it had a happy ending.