September walks are the best. Even while perched one Astronomical Unit away, the sun wondrously acts as the perfect filter in the sky, enhancing the ambiance of our world like no other. During my youth, there was an unspecified aura surrounding the neighborhood I grew up in that seemed more special than others. Perhaps everyone feels the same about safekeeping their childhood memories, but the fact remains I live there, so at moments it seems time has stood still.
As I leave the black paved driveway and turn onto Orchard Road, its pebbled veneer in need of repair, the world seems a better place. Today, on my usual walk with Hugo, our Shih Tzu, a vaguely familiar sound came from the top of the road where the wooded buffer begins. My first thought was Greg, the neighbor at the bend, was blowing leaves. Making the turn there was, frankly, only me. Of course not me as I am today. It was my neighbor’s son riding his dirt bike, but in my memory it was me as a preteen, riding my brother Randy’s mini-bike. I was awash in emotion. Caressed with calm. Lustful in longing. All of it played its role as I stood mesmerized, covertly trying not to be the “creepy” neighbor. To the naked eye it may have looked like it was time to call the police, but for me it was time to write. As he circumvented the perimeter of his yard, the same way I used to, Edith was shouting from the breezeway window, “You leave the property even one inch on that thing and it’s over little man.” I smiled. You see, before all that I had to make do with a bicycle. And that’s where this begins…
It was heavy wood, trestle, stained Jacobean brown and built by our father at The Eastern Woodwork Company, his place of employment, on several Saturday afternoons. The kitchen table was the hub of all things social, as I imagine it was in practically every family. Rarely did a day go by that some event or happening in our lives wasn’t discussed over a Lasagne, pot roast or a roast chicken with her perfect wedge potatoes and salad. Depending on the night, and the time of dinner, our father would angle the television from the living room so we could watch it. When that didn’t happen, or it wasn’t allowed to happen, he’d begin with history. Over and over again…and then just once more.
“There were food lines during the Depression…you kids wouldn’t know about that—people wouldn’t know where the next meal was coming from.” My father told the same stories time and again as he mixed his potatoes with his peas. “Kids wore the same clothes day after day…I used a piece of rope for a belt and was lucky to be able to keep my pants up.” It’s a fact. We have photos.
Propaganda. By the end of the perpetual sermons our heads felt drilled, like wood decking with screws being driven in to insure solid support. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?” This was a trick question. If we answered “yes” we ran the risk of minimizing the leverage of negotiation for new purchases. If we answered “no” we were ungrateful children who took their father’s hard work for granted. It was skillful, yet manipulative parenting.
Some of the greatest negotiations of my youth occurred at our kitchen table. Would they let me travel to the Bahamas over February vacation? Could I convince them I needed organ lessons so I could someday be a musician like like Shirley Jones in a ‘Pop’ band? And of course, the greatest negotiation of all, “Can I please get a banana seat bicycle like the other kids have? My black hand me down Columbia is so ugly.”
As the youngest, my position in receiving “hand me downs” had been established at birth. No, it wasn’t what you might think. My mother wrote the rules, making certain my clothing was newly purchased. I was significantly smaller than my brothers and besides, she adored playing dress up. Penny loafers, cotton polos, bold striped pants, Andy Warhol inspired clothing, fake fur vests; it was all part of the experience of our mother. My second hand items came in the form of bikes, games, books and sometimes even compensation.
“Well, he’s older than you so it makes more sense” or “Chip you just have to wait your turn” were the excuses put to me. It was a big, brown bag of parental justifications. In my mind it didn’t take long to assess the situation, do the math, and come up with a way to “work the system”. Though the youngest and the wearer of the smallest shoes, when our mother describe me as “cunning” she referred to my squeezable cheeks and big brown eyes (which are actually hazel but we allowed the fantasy). It wasn’t until years later she caught on to the true meaning of “cunning” as it related to her youngest. After the “Magenta Mobilization” my brother Randy did too.
The late 60’s and early 70’s brought several great loves to my life. The “mini skirt”, bouffant hair, “GoGo” boots and David Cassidy, all of which have been discussed at length with my therapist. The most impact however, was the Schwinn Sting Ray bicycles with banana seats and sissy bars. Schwinn had ushered in a new generation of bike riding. For those of us with a penchant for cars, the new, sleeker bikes filled the bill. Since seeing my cousins from New Jersey driving Cadillac El Dorados, I longed for one.
“Cadillac is the car you take your last ride in. Get that idea right out of your head.” My mother claimed to hold Cadillac in great disdain but the simple truth was they simply could not afford one. Ours was an Oldsmobile and Pontiac family. We were mid-range auto shoppers and it was fine. I lived with my dream, the seed of “auto lust” having been planted and not easily destroyed with a simple spray of Round-up. But the bike, well, I’d kill for the best and in fact almost did.
Uncle Al, my father’s brother, bought Dennis a new bike, a Raleigh, which Dennis scoffed at. He’d wanted a Schwinn, like the other kids in the neighborhood, but now was set apart. According to our uncle, Raleigh was a “bike among bikes”, while Schwinn was “a step below”. Bicycle status in our house came with lasting psychological effects. His old Columbia bike was now handed down to Randy while I was in the “training wheel” moment of my life. By the time Dennis left for college his paper route, the Raleigh and the Columbia became Randy’s and mine.
Our hand me down bikes were utilitarian in purpose but the times were changing. On either side of the rear wheels were baskets, wide and well proportioned, which held folded newspapers. Twine stacked bundles of newsprint were delivered daily as the New Haven Register and Journal Courier. They’d arrive at the red wooden box nestled by the yellow fire hydrant on our property. Folding them into thirds, opening the middle and sliding one end in which secured the paper together was a daily task and tedious. On Sundays it was a far more tedious because the ads and inserts and of course, The Parade magazine created a more bulky product. Once complete, they’d be loaded into the baskets and pedaled to the neighbors during the milder three seasons. I’d follow along on the miniature version of the Columbia as the shadow of my older siblings. It was time for Randy to move into the modern world.
The “Orange Bicycle Shop” was a type of paradise or a kid’s version of a donuts shop. The racks along the walls were lined with every conceivable bike imaginable, or so it seemed, to my child’s mind. There were racing bikes with 10 speed gear shifts, cruising bikes, children’s training bikes, Huffy’s with gear shifts and then, there, among the rest, the king of kings, the Schwinn “Sting Rays” and “Krates”. Heaven. Sissy bars abounded. Name plates adorned the walls. Banana seats seemed to make even the smallest of buttocks feel desirable and yes, the taller the handle bars the cooler the bike and it’s owner became.
“I don’t know Henry…those tall handle bars? They just don’t seem safe. What if he can’t steer out of the way of a car?” We looked to our father for support, though he rarely won the war.
“Ede, it’s a bike, let the kid have it.” F.Lee Bailey he was not.
She was thinking, as she maneuvered the steering mechanism back and forth. “Well, all right…I suppose.” And then, “We’ll take it.” Randy and I were shocked, our eyes wide with surprise. Then, “In magenta.” We stood straight up, erect as if a pole had been driven through us. Perhaps one had. Looking at one another, both for different reasons, our eyes darted toward our father.
“Mom, its pink…I don’t want a pink bike.”Randy wanted out of the deal. I was on the fence. Magenta. I loved magenta.
“Don’t be ridiculous, it’s not pink, it’s magenta. Pink is …. well, pink. That’s a girl’s color…this is…different. It’s mod.” The wind was knocked out of his sails. Mine were catching wind.
“It’s crazy…Dad, it’s pink.” He was hoping my father could persuade my mother but those were limited instances. “Please….” It was literally sad to see him begging.
“Ede, maybe blue, or there’s a green one…he doesn’t want magenta.”
“Listen, I gave in on the handlebars even though he could get killed. The magenta stands out. A car will see it. Besides, it looks psychedelic…I think it’s fun…you’ll see….trust me.” The word psychedelic was the “catch word” of the times, generally best used if one was tripping on LSD. I’m sure Randy felt as if he were. My mother believed you could get away with anything if it seemed “cool”. Once, in third grade, she sent me to school in a Nehru jacket, turtleneck and huge gold medallion around my neck. Mrs. Letize, also known as “Machine Gun Tits” by the older boys, called me “Louie Groovy”. The older boys hated me for the attention and the principal reprimanded her. This moment was one of the times our mother felt she was being “cool”. Anyway, the decision was made.
Randy hated his new bike but there was no room for ingratitude in our house. Our father worked too hard for his money and appreciation was heralded as the eleventh commandment. My mother had planned a trip to The Living Torah Museum to add her addendum, “Though shall not dishonor thy father’s paycheck and generosity”, but never made it. It was her belief God had simply forgotten to inscribe it formally on the original tablets. “You’ll ride the bike and that’s that…. and if you don’t want it we can return it….understood?”
“What?” Return it? I wanted to scream. That’s not how the hand me down system has worked all these years. What about the youngest who never talks back? What about the kid who over appreciates everything you give him and practically licks the makeup off your face with kisses? What about the one with the “big brown eyes”? This was injustice at its worst. I loved magenta and I loved banana seats. I needed a plan and needed it quickly.
Orchard Road provided a think tank for my friends and me. It still does to this day though my fellow “tank mates” have long since been separated. I rode the Columbia to the upper bend and plotted. This was about appealling to the one aspect of my mother that trumped all others. “Of course, if I get hurt, I’ll get the bike. If the Columbia isn’t safe it can’t be ridden.” This was brilliant. This was dangerous. This was courageous. This was stupid. In silence the idea sounded valid, but the Menendez brothers most likely thought the same.
At the top of Orchard Road was the home of my friend, Peter Jackson. It’s a long, sleek ranch that is accessed by an equally long, sleek driveway. The hill it sits upon lends itself to the perfect pitch for speed and momentum. “If I ride the bike down the driveway I can hit the tree in the yard across the street and blame it on the brakes.” This was a frightening plot. Here was a small kid, one who refused to play football for fear of being pummeled, but at the end of the day, if the reward was the magenta bike, would put his life in jeopardy. A motive. Quite simply I would knock on the door and ask for Peter though I knew he wasn’t home. The elegant doorbell stared at me as if to say, “I dare you.” My small index finger pressed it. Bee, the Jackson’s maid, answered. She stood in front of me, her hair combed liked Diana Ross and her apron covering a flowered cotton dress.
“Is Peter Home,” I asked and hoped the answer was, “no”
“No, he’s not here, but he’ll be back in an hour. He’s with his daddy. You come on back then.”
I liked Bee, she always handed me a cookie and today was no different. It needed to be eaten before committing my act in case of any real damage. Calm, cool and collected I thanked her and bit into the homemade oatmeal raisin cookie. Walking to the Columbia, I swatted the kickstand back and set the wheels in motion. Time was of the essence, you see, this was grocery day and my mother would soon be leaving. Straddling the black metal I pushed off from safety, leaving the shake shingled house behind. I looked back at the brick veneer of the porch, the cupola sitting proudly atop the garage, and began pedaling furiously.
The momentum built as the black bike rumbled down the long driveway. From its thrust, my hair flew backward as I rounded the first bend and honed in on the giant oak. Ringing the defunct bell for good measure it produced, as always, a dull ‘thud”. Looking both ways, on the off chance a car might be coming, I crossed Orchard Road. I was Snoopy, flying through the sky on my Sopwith Camel, chasing the Red Baron. I locked in my target. It was now or never. Hitting the oak tree head on, that damn bell finally rang.
The impact was like concrete. This was no Sullenberger landing in the middle of the Hudson. The sound was deafening to the ear and the bike, once long and sleek was crushed, now one quarter its size. I was ejected from the seat, thrown twenty feet, landing on my head with blood spewing from every part of my face. Alright, in truth there was little sound except the wheel bending. The bike, quite durable, withstood the impact like a tank, kudos to the Columbia Bicycle Company. I was not thrown, but toppled, as if in a silent movie, biting only my bottom lip on the way down, the only injury. Damn it, there was minimal bleeding, but enough to serve my needs. The rest was dependent on my theatrics.
“Lord Jesus, what’s that boy done?” I imagined Bee saying something such as that as she watched from the window and prepared an ice pack and bandages. Instead, Bee had seen me hit the tree as she prepared Babe Jackson her usual lunch of a watercress sandwich with Miracle Whip and a double vodka and tonic, stirred, with ice. She came running with cookie in hand. I later found out, from my mother and a neighbor, she’d actually said, “Miss Jackson that fool child hit a tree. I better see if he’s okay. You want to come?” Babe replied, “Only if you made my drink. Cold.”
“Boy! boy! You okay? I saw it all!” Babe followed, the cold vodka in her hand, the ice clinking, clearly acting as the siren to the ambulance.
“Keith, what on Earth? Here, let me take you home,” she said, “Good Lord, you’re bleeding.” This was perfect. The glass was half full as she witnessed the drip of blood. “Bee, help him up, I don’t want to spill my drink.”
“I….I’m okay….” I picked up the crippled bicycle. “If you can just walk with me…”
When I arrived home my mother was making iced tea sans alcohol, ours was a dry house. I walked in the back door with Bee and Babe in tow. She turned and saw my bloody mouth.”My God! What happened?”
Babe spoke first, as all privileged women did then, but not before taking a sip, after all, it was a hot day and we’d walked. “He came to play with Peter and when he was going down the driveway he couldn’t stop…he hit a tree across the street. Bee saw the whole thing.” Bee now had permission.
“I saw it Miss Proto… he was flying down that hill and went straight ‘cross the street, fast as lightning.” Her hands dramatically played out the scene. “That big tree stopped him, poor boy.” They had done their deed, returned home and I was forever grateful for Bee’s dramatic performance.
As my mother administered first aid her eyes filled. At one point in my youth I wasn’t allowed to walk anywhere near Orange Center Road, the cross street to ours. The fact my best friend, Mark lived on the corner complicated that rule. “You can play there but never on the side yard. The way people drive a car could fly off the street and kill you.” The odds were against it but I obeyed, except when she wasn’t looking.
“Why didn’t you stop? You went right across?” She was wiping my lips with warm water. “You could’ve been killed.” Those words were music to my ears as I began to cry magenta tears.
” I knnow….I ttrried….the brakes wouldn’t slow me down and the bell didn’t work…my legs aren’t really long enough to reach them so they can work right.” Brakes can be replaced. Bells can as well. Legs, not so much. My life definitely not. Bingo. I am a master.
We sat down to dinner and I winced with each bite of my food. My father rubbed my head. “You got a battle wound. Reminds me of the time we were in Germany…” Oh Lord, I prompted a war story. “Pretty impressive though, Mom says you only bent the tire. We can get it replaced….no big deal.”
What? What did he say? “Replaced? No big deal?” If I were a cursing man this would be the moment I’d stand and say, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“That settles it. Henry, we’re giving Chip the magenta bike…Randy doesn’t like it anyway….we can buy him a different one….Chipper needs to be safe…my God….he could have been killed.” Bingo.
I nodded in agreement. “I know…” As I looked at Randy he put a piece of chicken in his mouth and chewed, slowly nodding his head. He knew…and he could thank me later. The world, the heavens and my life had turned magenta. The next day we had a family outing to the Orange Bicycle Shop. Randy bolted to the rack and picked the bike of his choice, electric blue. My father convinced our mother it was bright enough for cars to see and the handle bars, while higher than mine, would keep him safe. While he paid the bill, the bike was loaded into our car. Randy kept looking at me with curiosity in his eyes. It wasn’t until we were out of earshot that he spoke.
“You know dick weed, there’s more to you than meets the eye….you play her like a piano…” His words were neither poetic nor noteworthy, but for one fleeting moment I’d been given a badge of honor from the one who’d always considered me a thorn in his side and whose approval I’d longed for.
My twelve year old nephew Christopher, Randy’s son, tries to use influence over me, at times, to procure something he feels is justified. There will be attempts, as if negotiating a used car, to “wheel and deal” and tug at my heart strings. Early on, I had a conversation with him and explained any argument he may use is is both less than creative and second-hand.
“Listen kiddo,” I said, frighteningly sounding like my mother, “You can’t con a con-artist. I once attempted harikari for a bicycle…and almost lost a tooth doing it.”
Over the course of our youth Randy and I would speak of the rules and regulations of our parents, primarily, the difficulties of negotiating our mother’s sense of ‘black and white” with no middle ground. If he needed a helping hand, and by God many times he did, he’d simply sigh saying, “This is a magenta thing.” I’d take over from there, using tactical, inventive maneuvers and almost always, with but a few exceptions, get her to come around.
You know, it doesn’t take being loud. It doesn’t take a braggart nor a bully and certainly not a Twitter account. Sometimes it just takes the smallest shoes, the quietest voice and the least likely, to have a resourceful mind. In my life I’ve been creative and daring, even hitting a tree head on, many times metaphorically, in order to smooth the road ahead. Most times it’s worth it, for the cycle of your life, more so when that cycle comes in magenta.