My bicycle, my beautiful English bike, was stolen a few years ago, lifted from my garage in the night, just as summer was arriving. The policeman who took the report explained it. It was the time of year when bikes went missing, kids or professional thieves casing neighborhoods, striking while we slept.
I blame myself, in part, for the loss. I had workmen in to shore up the listing walls of the garage, and I gave a fleeting thought to moving my bicycle inside, away from falling objects and the eyes of people I don’t know. And the back gate by the alley didn’t latch properly at the time and some mornings I would wake to its wide-mouthed gaping, blown open in the night. These may have been factors.
But mostly, I felt wretched about the loss and mean-hearted toward humanity, whichever particular members were involved in nicking my bike. It was distinctive and easy to spot and I never saw it again, although I prowled the streets and stopped by the police station once a week.
I decided I didn’t deserve nice things.
I had fallen in love with the British “sit up and beg” bicycles while staying in Oxford, but who doesn’t fall in love with bikes there? They are everywhere, chained to gates with signs saying DO NOT LOCK BIKES ON GATE, they sit shoulder to shoulder in bike racks throughout the city, in front of every college, library and quad. At the train station a sea of bicycles, shiny bikes, rusty ones, leather saddles here, saddles wrapped in plastic Tesco bags there.
I wanted one.
A shiny black one.
An old-fashioned one.
So, I bought one.
But I bought it in the States and at the time there was only one place to get such a thing and only in one size. If I am honest, it never fit me quite right. It was too big, but I convinced myself it was perfect.
Now, I think I want another bicycle. But I don’t know.
If my own friends are any indication, the statistics aren’t good. Most of my pals who ride have had accidents. And this is the worst part, the part that depresses me. Most of the falls have occurred as they were getting on or off.
Basically, standing still, which seems too cruel to contemplate.
Even so, I see myself plunking along quiet side streets or cruising the greenbelt, maybe, helmeted and slow moving, taking the air. Never mind that my balance isn’t quite what it once was, that my reaction time now is leisurely and vague. I am searching the English and Dutch websites for big, beautiful bicycles that weigh a ton but just roll, and roll, and roll.
In my garage, leaning against the ladder and rakes, is my old Schwinn Suburban, the bike I’ve had since college. I held it upright, and even accounting for the deflated tires, it fit. The way the seat hit me just so at the hip, the perfect height for momentum and stability. Holding the handlebars I could feel, even now, the curve of every turn, the arc of the front wheel lifting as I jumped a break in pavement or took a curb. The geometry of this bicycle the mirror image of my own geometry.
In her memoir, “Ghostbread,” author Sonja Livingston describes her sister, Steph, as kind and strong, and the reader experiences her this way, too. Heroic, even. But what I love best about her, Steph, is the way she commandeered the cobwebby basement, spruced it up in order to set up shop building bicycles from old and broken parts she and a neighbor kid scavenged. Rusted and bent pieces found in empty lots and alleys, perhaps, and then—how on earth — they crafted rideable, like-new shiny bikes.
I’m thinking of Steph as I balance my old bike against my hip, inspecting the rims and wondering how long have they have sat there, flattening on the concrete floor. Could I restore her to something serviceable? What would it take besides new tires, a better seat and replacing the ossified gear shifts? Surely, this wouldn’t be beyond me.
What I can’t fix myself, I can hire out. Which, even as I channel Stephanie, I know is likely to be most of it. I even like the way the paint is worn and dull, scratched up, a place rubbed raw on the front fender where the basket used to sit. This good old girl, left too long and unloved in the dark.