(This entry is adapted and rewritten from a Chinese post of mine on 出语不俗, a new blog by students of Chinese as a foreign language.)
Let me make a recommendation here: if you’re reading this late at night, and you have a bicycle, turn off the computer, go outside, get on your bike, and ride. Biking through a city late at night is something that everyone should do at least once. The streets lie empty like a set, yellow with lamplight and black with the sky above, and you’re the only living thing moving for miles in any direction. Every thing you see is just sitting there waiting to assume whatever role it plays during the daytime, and all of it belongs to you. Go.
I tend to be late with things. Like if one of my friends wants to get dinner, they’ll agree on a time that’s a half-hour earlier than when they’ll actually show up, because they know I’ll be late. But it’s not just appointments; it’s everything. Take bike riding, for example. When I was little, and all of my friends and neighbors had long-since learned how to ride a bicycle, I was still dead-set against it. The first few times I’d tried riding a two-wheeler, I’d fallen off, and after that, I lived in fear of the things.
It wasn’t until I was 14 that I tried again, and that time I picked it up instantly. I biked everywhere after that, tooling around blissed-out, with the wind in my hair and a huge grin on my face. I started biking to and from school, usually taking the scenic route home, until one day, after I’d locked my bike up at 16th and Spring Garden, I walked out of school to find my lock and chain lying smashed on the ground.
So I got another bike, and a better lock. The new bike was from Caldor – a third-rate Walmart knockoff that’s long-since gone bankrupt – and was just unbelievably bad. The chain jammed, the handlebars took their time responding, and when you squeezed the brakes, you had about a 50/50 chance of actually braking. When that one got ripped off, I was secretly glad.
My next bike was a hand-me-down from my mom’s cousin. I remember the day of its theft very clearly, because it went like this:
The day of my 10th grade class trip, I locked the thing up at 17th and Spring Garden around 6 in the morning. We left for New York at about 6:30. for what was later unanimously agreed by my classmates to be the worst trip ever. We went to the Statue of Liberty, but didn’t go in for some reason, instead spending a couple hours sitting outside it. Upon returning to Manhattan, we spent 3 or 4 hours in traffic on our way to the Met, watching through a wall of cars and cabs as pedestrian New Yorkers, scuttling around busily, left us in their dust. On the way back to Philadelphia, our driver got lost, and drove in what turned out to be the wrong direction for two hours, landing us at the Jersey shore. When we finally got back to Philadelphia, it was 9:30.
Now, when I was in high school, I babysat for neighbors from time to time, and on this day, I’d agreed to go over and babysit from 9. So when the bus pulled up in front of my school, I ran over to my bike, jumped on it, and tore ass back home, where I jumped off, threw my backpack aside, and ran over to my neighbors’ place.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I gave any thought at all to the bike, which I had left outside, unlocked.
It was after that that I bought my Peugeot.
Being French, Peugeots don’t have standard part sizes, and are a pain in the ass to fix. So said Curtis, the proprietor of the local bike shop.
As it turned out, he was right; not only was it hard to get parts for the bike, but its lack of a mudguard meant that my pant legs got shredded on more than one occasion. But what did I care: the thing rode like a dream. As clumsy as I am, when I rode my Peugeot, I was like a fish in water. Some nights I’d go out of my dorm in West Philly and ride up to Manayunk in the northwest, going along the Schuylkill river at full tilt boogie, my Peugeot and me the only things moving for miles around. The whole city was ours.
I have a part-time gig that I do every now and then as a model. Not the clothing kind, mind you, and certainly not the no-clothing kind. I’m a medical model; there’s a hospital in Philly that gives courses in ultrasound scanning every now and then, and I do abdominal and carotid modelling for that. It’s a pretty fun job; there are usually several models, and I’m the healthy one, and so when I’m getting scanned, people will actually say things like “My God, that’s a beautiful pancreas!” without a trace of irony in their voices.
So the other Saturday, there was going to be one of these classes at 9, and I was in a hurry. It was 8:45 when I walked out of my apartment – always late, remember? – and, preparing to get on my bike and set a new land speed record, I looked and saw: nothing. I’d locked my Peugeot to one of the slats on my porch the night before, and now that slat, along with my bike, had vanished.
I stood dumbstruck for a minute, totally gobsmacked, and then started walking, heartsick, towards the bus stop.
That afternoon, I borrowed my mom’s bike, which she never rides. It differs from my Peugeot in almost every way: my Peugeot was small and light, her bike is big and heavy; my bike steered like a dream, hers steers like a cow. I went through traffic like a knife through butter on my Peugeot. It was like a scalpel that cut between cars. My mom’s bike is like a fucking mallet.
Anyway, I made the rounds and reported my bike stolen, and went around the neighborhood looking through it, but I knew perfectly well that it was hopeless and I’d never see it again. It reminds me of a poem from the Shi ji:
壮士 车子一去兮 不复返
The wind blows and blows;
The frigid waters churn.
hero bicycle goes,
Never to return.