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May 15th, 2007

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11:06 am - concerto for bicycle and whale
Frank Zappa once appeared on Steve Allen's Tonight Show as a clean-cut young lad from Southern California (hard to believe, but he once was) to show how he could play a bicycle. His proto-Blue Man Group sound stylings, involving banging on the frame, brushing things against the spokes and blowing over open tubes, did not visibly amuse Steve Allen, who thanked Mr. "Za-pah" for doing "whatever it is you do" and then invited him never to return again. (Inwardly, though, I believe Mr. Allen, a musical experimenter himself, was impressed.) Now the point of this experimental exercise was to show that music can come from anything, the bicycle just being handy with lots of pieces to noodle with as well as ranking high on the non-sequitur scale (just below 'fish'.) Mr. Za-pah did not need to prove that a bicycle itself can make music -- we all know it can. In fact, I gave quite a concert on one yesterday.

I'd stopped by L's to pick up a free bike which she promised me in a fit of housecleaning mania, holding her equivalent of a Fire Sale EVERYTHING MUST GO!! She put a bike up for grabs and I said hey sure, why not, I've needed a bike, so I went over and picked it up. I've dubbed it The White Elephant, even though there is nothing white nor excessively bulky about it. According to L. I am the third owner of the bicycle and, apparently, the first to actually take it out and ride it. It came complete with a helmet which just fit and an air pump and an ancient headlight. It first belonged to a gentleman who purchased a Volkswagen during a special promotion a few years back wherein if you bought a Jetta, you got a bike to put on top of it. The bike was passed along to L, who did not have a Jetta to put the bike on, but nonetheless she kept it as a showpiece in her living room until she got tired of vaccuuming around it. There is where I stepped in to take it off her hands and happily pedal off into the sunset.

Now, I am not a Bike Person. That is, I don't belong to the class of people who take this particular hobby to the point of nigh-obsession. Every interest has this class -- bicyclists, computer geeks, drivers, roller coaster fans, knitters, cloggers, chess players, do-it-yourselfers, golfers, A/V enthusiasts, fast-food toy collectors, the whole lot of 'em. Basically when three or more people get together to share a common interest, two of them are going to banter internal jargon and terms back and forth, speak of their horror stories and brag about their triumphs, primarily to impress the other person listening in. The People (always a capital P) of each class carry themselves with some amount of arrogance, though certain hobbies seem to lend themselves better to this than others (and you should hear the sneers directed at the knitter who don't know a basting stitch from a purl.) The level of arrogance can rise to the point of intimidation in many cases, however, and even moreso when it's these People who open up their own shops on the subject.

I have inherited from my father an innate distrust for automobile dealers. Dad was very wary regarding anyone who had an automobile to sell; in his opinion each and every one of them was out to get you in one way or another -- and they would. He was cagey when dealing with a salesman, always wary of getting "rooked" (I had no idea what it really meant, but I knew to Dad it meant ripped off.) Even the act of getting a salesman to talk to him was a challenge in and of itself, for Dad knew that since he didn't waltz into the showroom dripping of cash and Mid-Life Crisis, he wasn't going to get the same kind of attention lavished on Joe Deep Pockets and his search for a cherry-red Ford Compensator.

Dad's greatest triumph was bringing me and several other neighborhood kids along to a dealership in 1983 when he was searching for a new station wagon. After being ignored by salesmen with bigger fish to rook, he took us kids aside and said "Okay, everybody pick your favorite car and check it out. You're the Dukes of Hazzard today." And we all piled into the showroom vehicles, steering the wheels, jumping out and kicking the tires, playing with the power locks, fiddling with all the pre-sets on the radios, and I'm not sure how the horn beeped because I was pretty certain I didn't have my hands anywhere near the steering wheel, much less the button with the horn on it. Suddenly Dad found himself surrounded by a chorus of May I Help You? in three-part harmony. He left the dealership without a sale, but with a true moral victory.

This distrust, I've found, echoes down to bicycle shop people, and I'm pretty sure this fear is borne of ignorance on the subject. I mean, this is what I know about bicycles:
  1. They have two wheels, mostly.
  2. You pedal them and they go faster down hills than they do going up hills.
  3. Some bikes have gears.
  4. That jump doesn't look too safe with only two cinderblocks underneath the plywood.
  5. You can't skid on sand.
  6. Wear a helmet or your brains will splat on the pavement if you hit a car.
  7. Sticking stuff in the bike spokes will make a satisfying clacking sound that all daredevils love to hear.
  8. I don't care if Tom went off the jump all right, it still looks dangerous.
  9. Left arm up in an L means you want to turn right. Left arm outstretched means you want to turn left. Both arms flailing wildly about means you're about to fall.
  10. The squeeze handles on the handlebars operate the brakes, not the laser guns, but it's okay to make lasery sounds when you grip them.
  11. If you ride a bike without the crotch-threatning crossbar, you're riding a girl's bike and that means you are a girrrrl, a girly girl girl.
  12. Same thing if you have a basket with plastic daisies on it. G'wan down the street on your girl bike, you girl.
  13. Don't ride over rocks unless you want to fix your own tire.
  14. What did I tell you? That jump wasn't safe. Now stop fooling around and let your brother have a turn. I'll go get the gauze.
Now you may be surprised to know that although this knowledge was gathered over the course of twelve or thirteen years, it is but a drop in the bucket compared to what you really need to know regarding bikes. I've heard Bike People talk before, and their patois is all just jumbled gobbledygook to me.

"25k backpedal rough patch tri-bar sports bottle," one will say to me.

"Oh, yes, it's very nice out," I will respond.

"High-carb derailleur K Pro 18-speed racing grips," they say.

"I don't think he has a chance in 08," I insist.

I harbor a distinct fear of this same thing happening in a bike shop. Being trapped in a Tim Burton nightmare scene, surrounded by Bike People of all types, their coltish lycra'd legs and windblown smiles putting me in a false state of unease. Apparently everybody's One True Bike style is determined via secret codes in their DNA, and whatever you went in with your heart set on will not be the one they will try to sell you because it is obviously not the bike for you.

"Fourteen dual high-quality rubber Xha-Tech shin pad toe loops," one will say.

"What's your riding posture? Aerondynamic overture with extended low handle system and whisper-quiet bearings. Listen!"

"What will you be using it primarily for? Street? Off-road? Hip-hopping the hexagon?"

"Sure-coated lightweight tri-polymer waffle composite with CAD-designed grips," one finally smiles my way. "Tight spokes with a yellow jersey hard corner radius, five hundred and fifty two dollars."

And suddenly I'll find myself crammed into a spandex riding suit topped with a helmet crowned with a roman plume, slapped with a pair of wraparound mirror shades, and pushed out into oncoming traffic with a toodle-loo and a staggered payment plan.

No! No! I cry, and thrash about in bed so all the blankets fly off. I do not need to immerse myself in this culture and all that go with it! I want to ride my bi-cycle, BIII-cycle, BIIIII-cycle! And not fall over!

This, then, brings me to meeting the White Elephant for the first time and bringing it down L's steps (surprisingly lightweight, which is nice. Now I can haul it up and down the apartment steps whenever I want.) We disposed of the Kryptonite lock what L. no longer had the key for, although it was one of the oldschool locks that could be opened with a hey-nonny-nonny and a ballpoint pen. It was pretty clear the bike hadn't been ridden in a long time, if at all (that's okay, as I don't think I've ridden a bike since the Clinton administration.) Both tires were out of air, so I pumped them up. The rubber protested with a creaking sound the further they were pumped. I cleared off most of the cobwebs, dusted off the seat (with giant VW logo, because apparently the good people at Volkswagen don't mind your ass on their brand identity) and hopped on.

The pedals spun fruitlessly.

Oh, look! The chain's off. Ha, ha, that's a good one on me, isn't it? Fortunately I am quickly and easily able to put the chain back on the gear and I sure hope it's the right one. Once again hopping on the bike, I realize the seat's a little too high up for my liking, so I awkwardly pick up a pedal with my foot and then step down on it to shove off, and that's when the magical music happens.

GRRNNNNNNNNNNNK!! GRNNNNNNNK!! go the tires, groaning in a high-pitched, rhythmic fashion. GRRRNK! GRRRNK! GRRRNK! GRRRNK! This doesn't sound too good, so I stop to pull over to the curb.

KREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! goes the front brake, loud and clear enough to wake the dead and bring all the neighborhood dogs a-running. Suddenly I feel very self-conscious at having called all this attention to myself in what was once a quiet little leafy enclave and make a mental note to only use the rear brake, which will be great when I'm heading down one of the more steeper inclines around Winter Hill. I check the tires again. Well, they're pumped up enough, and not too much as they don't look like overstuffed donuts just yet, but I just think the rubber is old and cracked and not very happy. It must be warped at some point to rub up against another thing when they spin, which accounts for the GRRNNK sounds. Nothing I can do to fix that now, however, but I've got a mile or so to go before I get back home. As I've told myself in the past, usually after ingesting something that has decided to alter my personal sense of existence, I'm just going to have to ride this one out. I hop back on a pedal, backpack swinging behind me (did I mention I had an overstuffed 20-pound counterweight strapped to my back?) and tenatively begin weaving down the road, GRRNK GRRNK GRRNKing all the way.

This sound is beginning to worry me. Is it just that the tires need replacing? Probably. Am I going to destroy the bike if I keep riding? Probably not. Does it sound like I will? Definitely, and I'm worried someone's gonna start hollering at me because of it. Once I hit the bike path at Cedar Street I start passing other bicyclists, suddenly extremely cognizant of their presence (much like how other Jeep owners will always spot another Jeep miles away and honk and wave.) What must they, those who obviously know infinitely more than myself, think of this interloper into their world, this goofball with helmet on a GRNNKing bicycle? Doesn't he know any better? Doesn't he know that bike is gonna fall apart if he keeps pedalling while it makes that noise? How can he be so thoughtless as to keep his bike in such a poor state of maintenance? Oh, lordy! I find myself talking out loud when I pass them, bluffing with an air of bemused knowledge: "Well, well! My, my! This is an old bike. I will definitely have to fix it up once I get home." "Wouldja hear that? Wow. She wasn't wrong about this one."

GRRNK. GRRNK. GRRNK. GRRNK. I go downhill. GRRNKGRRNKGRRNKGRRNK. I pedal uphill. GRRRRRRNKK. GRRRRRRRNKK. GRRRRRRNKK. I stop and have to hop off the seat in order to stand upright. I'm really not used to road traffic yet, either. At one point, in front of a long line of cars and someone approaching when I really want to make a left hand turn, I just pull off to the side -- SKREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE -- then hop off the bike and let all the cars go by before walking it across the street. The height of the seat is really bothering me. I remember that when you turn to look behind you, you tend to veer in the opposite direction. I slow down for a loose dog, and bump over a manhole cover with a big thrill. Then it's a lovely rush down Hall (GRNKGRNKGRNKGRNKGRNKGRNK) and I coast to a happy, if sore, stop at home.

I made it. I know I made it, and the rest of the neighborhood knows I've made it. They'll also know when I take it out again for another spin. I easily haul the bike up our entry stairs (lightweight but still cumbersome) and show it off to Tracy, who is impressed I got a bike for free.

"Yeah," I say. "It's a great deal. But I'm gonna need to do something with the tires, they're making a horrid grinding sound, and the front brake needs replacing, and I'll need to readjust the seat before I take it out again."

"Wow," Tracy says. "And it's cool that you've already figured out what needs fixing. I know absolutely nothing about bikes and wouldn't even know where to begin."

(37 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)
One of us! One of us!
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
Will you hurry up and write a freaking book already?

(Translation: this was funny as hell and nearly made me splut diet coke all over my keyboard. GRNKGRNKGRNK.)
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
Heh. I have a recumbent that I bought a few years back when I was carless after one of my wrecks. The biggest problem with that thing was always the seat, but I became pretty adept at doing most things on it. I still take it to the shop for a tune-up and maintenance. Thanks for the entertaining story!
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)
I am a "serious" bicyclist, by which I mean that I ride mine a lot because I love it. However, a lot of my biking is done on my own, on an inherited bike, and I don't spend a lot of money on fancy parts. As such, I am only vaguely familiar with brand names, and even the parts of my bike.

My bike was custom made for my father, who was also a cyclist before a back injury. He is a physician--not a surgeon, but a general practice doc. Invariably, people feel indebted to him for telling them that they will not, in fact, die from the flu which they believed to be meningitis. So he was able to get a very good deal from someone who was new to the business of making custom bike frames. In turn, my father also served as a reference to its quality.

Upon my father's injury, I received the bike, as he could no longer use it. He gave me a set of "biker clothes" hand me downs--gloves, a shirt, and padded shorts, and a pair of clip shoes. I was new to Boston, so I joined a riding group on weekends to meet people. Consistently, people would notice the bike, and comment that they had never heard the name "Bowman" before. They would examine it, comment on an "unusual but surprisingly good" design. I could not even tell them what it was made of when asked, but simply riding this bike earned me "biker cred". The sort of nigh-obsessed persons you speak of often assume that I am "one of them", though I still don't know what my bike is made of five years later.
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 04:19 pm (UTC)
Hey, just tell them it's made of the bones of orphans or something. I mean, why not?
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)
wait, which kool-aid? the pedalling kind, or the kind where we'll once again get to dine al fresco at the olive garden?
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)
Sounds like you could use a "bike tuning" which usually runs about $50. At least, that's about how much they cost at Quadcycles in Arlington Heights where I got my bike.

Me, I used to load the chain with WD-40 as a kid and that solved most of the problems.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't bother with the mirror, but instead spend the money on front and rear lights. They should have a blinking mode, and use LEDs rather than light bulbs (batteries will last much longer with LEDs).
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
Oh hurrah! *love*

Congratulations. The story potential is endless with a bicycle. Keep having adventures and writing about them, and I will give you a dollar! Maybe even two!

I rode my bike to work every day for two point five years (I am on sabbatical of a sort at the moment), but I did not learn until last summer how to change my own tire. I actually think I've forgotten again by now. The bike shop people do not care if you are an ignoramus. They will clap you on the back and shout, "ONE LESS CAR!" Or they'll just fix your bike for ya and take yer money, because even a collective needs to have money in order to distribute it evenly between all the workers.

In Oregon, a right turn may also be signaled by your right arm straight out. I do not know about MA. I was taught, as you were, that the left arm bent at a 90 degree angle signals a right turn, but when I do that here, people think I'm waving at them. Sometimes I'll just point in the direction I'm going, because everybody understands the point.

I do not buy many hoity toity accessories. If you don't want your pant leg caught in the gears, you roll your pants up. If you need to see behind you, look over your shoulder. If you need to ride your bike in the rain, you get wet.

However, there are two essentials: 1) helmet. Okay, I guess there's only one essential. I'd recommend fenders, though, because I can't stand the "scared baby" effect of mud and street sludge slung up my backside.

Have fun, and write more! Really, I might even bump my offer up to five dollars!
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
I always use the right arm, never the bent left arm, to signal a right turn. Everyone knows what the right arm means, and it's just plain more logical.
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 07:11 pm (UTC)
Just to wrest control of the comments away from Loree and Ron, you should totally get some EL wire and trick it out like something out of Tron.
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 11:53 pm (UTC)
I totally get carried away sometimes. *blush*
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC)
The brake pad probably doesn't need to be replaced, just adjusted a bit so that it isn't hitting the rim the same way. Taking the bike in for a tune up as other people have suggested should cover that and fix the tire noise.
Date:May 16th, 2007 03:48 am (UTC)
Great writing, that one. Though it did tend to call out all the biker geeks and their shopping lists of things you should buy now. :)

Also, as long as you know #6 on your list, that's all that's important about bikes.

In terms of getting it checked out, I'd recommend seeing if there's a bike shop nearby that caters to commuters or broke college students. The ones of that ilk around here are a lot better to deal with if you have an old bike that hasn't been used lately (there's even one or two where I swear you get more respect if you go in with a slightly rusty befendered commuter bike than with a shiny racing cycle). You're probably right that the rubber's dead, but other than that it wouldn't surprise me if it just needed a bit of adjustment and oil to be happily rolling.
Date:May 20th, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)
and you should hear the sneers directed at the knitter who don't know a basting stitch from a purl

Hey, we knitters are NICE, dammit!

Love, Carrie. ;-)
Date:May 21st, 2007 02:35 am (UTC)
Whoa - what happened to the comments?
[User Picture]
Date:May 21st, 2007 12:12 pm (UTC)
Huh? Them's comments here.

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