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Monday, April 10, 2000
By Paul Ford
I've got a bike. You can ride it if you like.
A wee experiment to force myself into the habit of writing about something besides computers.
I went to Philadelphia to see my father. It was a great trip, as we were never attacked by flying robots. During the visit, as planned, I took ownership of one of his bicycles, and then brought the bicycle back to New York via public transit.
My father lives in a single 1000 square-foot room, in an artist's cooperative. He doesn't own a car, but does own 5 nice bicycles, one of which he offered to give me.
"It's got Shimano gearshift," I said, dropping the cool-bike brand name. "Great." My friend Lee has a cat named Shimano. It once tore a woman's face off, but that's another story.
"I like it," he said. "It's sturdy as hell. Steel frame, though, not aluminum."
We took it into the Germantown sun, 76 degrees, with tulips blooming along the co-op's parking lot. I rode the bike in a circle, then stopped. "Front brake is a mess," I said.
With many small adjustments, the bike rode nicely. A little bounce, and you had to smack the gearshift twice to get into 3rd, but it wasn't a problem bicycle. It just needed attention, gentle oiling, rubbed with a rag, some turns of a philips head and an allen wrench, mechanical affection.
My father had rented a car for the weekend, a white Chevrolet with Virginia plates. He and I drove to the far edge of Fairmount Park, where we sat on a bench and drank bottled iced tea. Women rode horses at the park.
"What is it that women like horses?" I asked him.
"It's sexual," said my father. "Power."
"Yes," I said. "A giant, strong baby you can ride. It loves you, and you must clean and feed it."
I investigated a large fallen pine, poking at its roots, and walked down to the Wissahickon creek, to watch the water.
I like to look at Philadelphia women. I'm tuned to the local bodies, just as I'm tuned to the certain shade of green in Pennsylvania grass.
In New York, the women are horrible to look at. They travel in packs, identical. Collectively, they carry a Prada handbag, stamping around Park Slope or the East Village or the Upper East Side, with an $80 white T-shirt below a black blouse (single-buttoned at the breast), matched to black slacks. The uniform, regardless of context, joined in the hive-mind of consumer sex, talking about their shoes. My male and lesbian friends lust after them but mostly I see gray in their pinched faces, reflected off the asphalt, or from my own face.
Or something like that. There was a woman in the water of the Wissahickon, her feet in, her jeans rolled up, her shoes in her hand.
"Shh," she said, when she saw me. "I'm not here."
She wore an athletic gray T-shirt and blue jeans, like many of the women I saw around Philly. Practical. Her shoes were black leather and clunky. Her breasts and buttocks were ample, like fruit, or vegetables, or anything tender and organic that tastes good without cooking. She didn't smoke. Sunlight sank into her brown hair.
"Okay," I said.
Now--forget her. For real, immediate, reciprocal love, I love my new bicycle, a red and yellow Chinese-manufactured knockoff with the brand name "Concord" and hundreds of interlocking parts. Like a parent planning for adoption, I researched the agencies involved in tranportation between New York and Philadelphia, learning their bicycle rules.
SEPTA, the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, and my first public-transit love, says in its bicycle-permission statement: "we think steel wheels and rubber tires are a good mix."
The SEPTA R7 took me and my new bicycle from Chestnut Hill East in Philadelphia to Trenton, New Jersey. Trenton makes, the world takes. At Trenton I walked up and over a set of stairs and stepped on the New Jersey Transit New York local.
"You have a permit?" asked the conductor.
"Yes," I said. He didn't want to see it, which disappointed me. The permit is a yellow sheet of paper with my signature and a number. I had carefully planned and visited the proper offices before leaving on Friday, filling out the correct form and indemnifying myself in case of bike-and-train catastrophe.
The conductor showed me a special seat that folded up.
"They said I needed 2 24-inch bungee cords," I said, holding them up.
"No," he said.
I settled into a brown false-leather seat. The train rattled off. "Thasnicebike," said a man with few teeth and small lips. "Cosyoulot?"
"It's a knockoff," I said. "Only $300."
Oh, I love it, I wanted to say, I love it and don't care how much it cost or that it's yellow and red with a big spring in the middle and that it bounces when I ride or that I'm too fat for it or out of shape I love it I love my bike and I will buy a horn for it and when I ride to Prospect Park I will toot that horn and toot toot mister, that's $300 of toot toot right there, my Dad gave it to me, toot and toot and more toot, whoo.
I got off with the bike at Penn Station, taking it up stairs to 34th St, and rode it part of the way back home, over from 8th Ave and then down 2nd Ave. I was out of shape, and carrying 20 pounds of clothes and books on my back, so I walked it much of the time, when I was scared or tired.
To bike in Manhattan, you must watch with vigilance for suddenly opening car doors, taxi cabs, parking cars, Rudy Giuliani, buses, pedestrians, other bicyclists, and potholes as deep as Proust novels.
I got home, hours later, legs aching, full of jitters and excitement. The stairs are so narrow I had to push the bike in front of me; I couldn't carry it up with the backpack. I locked it to the bannister, and went in to call my father. "Guess what?" I said. "You made it," he said.