Do you remember your first birthday bike? I got mine when I was five. I got my second one (purple with a banana seat, OF COURSE) when I was eight. I got my third one when I was twelve. It was a man’s bike, which is to say it was a ten-speed.
Guys had ten-speeds. The only legit guys who had BMX’s raced them, and they only raced on Redlines.
My ten-speed was a gray Murray. It was called a ten-speed because it had ten gears. Total. Every other bike I’d ever owned had one. I still remember hopping on it, wobbling down the driveway, and almost running into the giant oak tree because I tried to stop by backpedaling.
Ten-speeds didn’t backpedal brake.
My Murray had lazy brakes. Do you remember those? Levers that ran parallel and underneath the tops of the handlebars so that you could brake without putting your hands up on the hoods? They were super squishy, just like the handlebar brakes, and didn’t stop nearly as good as, say, an oak tree.
My brother’s birthday was on December 27, two days after mine, so we both got twin Murrays as Christmas-birthday combos. We were a Christmas shopping bargain for our parents, but bargains only in that respect.
Ian’s was the same color but bigger than mine, of course. By a couple of inches. “Your bike looks like a baby’s bike,” he said. “If I had to ride that baby bike I’d walk.”
There was nothing more contemptible than a 12-year-old walking because it meant your bike had been stolen and you were too poor to buy another one. It never meant that you couldn’t ride a bike. How come? Because there was no such thing as a boy in Texas who couldn’t ride a bike. It’s like saying you didn’t know how to spit or cuss.
When I was thirteen I started Seventh Grade at Jane Long Junior High. She was the Mother of Texas, a historical figure who had wrestled some coyotes and given birth “to the first white child” in Texas, as we were taught in our integrated classes. They cleaned it up long after I (barely) graduated by saying she gave birth to the first “English-speaking child” in Texas.
The principal of Jane Long, Mr. Thompson, was a real sonofabitch. He had been famous for beating the children with a big board. Rumor was that he had his spanking privileges revoked when he broke the spine of one of the kids from the Burnet-Bayland Orphanage across the way. Now all the spanking was done by Mr. Harsch. That was really his name.
The first day of school I rode my bike, and it was hot, August-in-Houston hot. There was a big cage made of 12-foot fence. You wheeled your bike in and you locked it with a big chain if you had any sense. I locked my Murray good.
After school I went out to the cage to get my bike. A big guy with thick fuzz on his upper lip was standing at the gate.
“You got your money?” he asked.
“What money?” I asked.
“Don’t nobody get their bike ‘less they pay rent.”
“How much is rent?”
“I never heard nothin’ about no bike rent.”
“You’re hearin’ it now.”
“What happens if I don’t pay?”
“You like your teeth?”
We stood there for a minute. I was scared and he was big but I didn’t have fifty cents and I lived five miles away and there was no way I could pay fifty cents a day anyway. My allowance was only seventy-five cents.
“You don’t want to hit me,” I said.
“Maybe I do,” he said.
“Nah, you really don’t.”
“What’s a skinny little Seventh Grader runt gonna do about it?”
“I ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it now,” I said.
“What are you gonna do later?”
My bluff being called, I got ready to fold and say goodbye to my bike when I suddenly remembered a story my Grandpa Jim had told me about how he had put an end to getting bullied at the Virginia Military Academy.
“I’m gonna go home and get my daddy’s pistol and come back and blow your goddamn brains out, that’s what.”
I had stuck my lower jaw out and I was trembling. I knew I looked crazy or terrified and hoped it was the former.
“I ain’t scared of your damn pistol,” he said. “My daddy’s got a bigger one anyhow. And I bet I’m a better shot.” But he stepped aside.
I unlocked my bike and rode it home. He never bothered me again.
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