I’ll Only Ride a Blue Bike

In my family, you didn’t get your own bicycle until you were eight years old and had made your First Communion.  It was a rite of passage.  My two older sisters chose pink and purple bikes.  I wanted no such girlie colors.  My bike had to be blue.

On the great appointed day, my father and I walked up to the Times Square hardware/sporting goods store where all the neighborhood kids got their bikes.  It was a crowded, dimly lit store with dirty floors.  We made our way to the corner of the store where the bikes were on display, following our noses to the rubbery smell of bicycle tires.  And there it was–an electric blue Savoy with a white banana seat, sissy bar, stingray handlebars, and coaster brakes (hand brakes were for rich kids).  It was all mine.  I didn’t have to share it with anyone, like I had had to share the red tricycle with my little brother for years.

I didn’t know how to ride a bike and don’t remember having training wheels.  I used to take the bike out and balance alongside the wrought iron fences outside the row homes that lined the sidewalk.  Keeping one hand on the fence, I would inch along, trying to keep the bike upright.  Eventually, it worked and I was keeping up with the older kids with ease.  I rode that bike with a small group that included my siblings and friends from the apartment building we all lived in.  We weren’t allowed to ride in the street.  It was a busy bus route.  We were limited to one city block most of the time, but in Brooklyn that’s a pretty good area.  The sidewalk was pretty much ours until about five o’clock when office workers, in slightly disheveled suits and ties, came in clusters out of the subway station on Fourth Avenue and created an impassable mass of humanity off and on for about an hour.  On hot summer days, we would lock up the bikes long enough to run upstairs and gulp down a glass of grape Kool-Aid, watching a cartoon or two while the sweat dried on our skin.

Sometimes, we got to ride our bikes along the bike path that led from the 69th Street pier and passed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  We sometimes rode them in Owl’s Head Park, starting at the top of Dead Man’s Hill and riding on the side of the tires in a death-defying lean.  We had to take our feet off the pedals because we were going way too fast for our feet to keep up with them.

Our bikes were usually locked up at dinnertime, the summer evenings being dedicated to games of kick-the-can, tag, or stoop ball.

Every kid in the apartment stored their bike in the cellar.  Opening the heavy green door, you were hit with the stench of garbage and cat pee, sort of an olfactory one-two punch.  It was a creepy and dangerous place with cave-like walls and dark recesses concealing monsters only a small child can imagine, and only the big city can actually produce.  I think they found a dead bum down there years ago.  That was the rumor, anyway.  Eerie as it was, it was a treasure trove of furniture, baby buggies, and odds and ends left behind by long-gone tenants.  It eventually become a sort of clubhouse for us, but that’s another story.

One day, one of the kids came up to my apartment to tell us that all of the bikes in the basement had been stolen.  My electric blue Savoy was gone forever.  I turned and saw my mother coming up the stairs.  When she got to the second floor landing, I gave her the news of the theft.  She looked at me for a second, put her head down, and climbed that second flight.  The look on her face wasn’t one of despair but of defeat and exhaustion.  She had just come back from her first visit with the divorce lawyer.  There would be no money to replace those bikes.  I didn’t react to the theft the way you would expect.  I was pretty matter-of-fact about it and never brought it up again.  I guess all the rest of the garbage going on that day made the loss of my Savoy seem less important.  Looking back, the theft of our bikes was something of a harbinger.  There were a lot of angry and hungry days ahead.  We would do without a lot more than bikes.

A couple of years ago, I went to the store and bought myself a bike.  For the first time in years, I have a bike of my own.  It’s electric blue and it has coaster brakes.

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