Weather or Not
I bought a bike last month. Yes, it’s was the middle of November, but I guess that’s the point. I used to be quite the bike-aholic back in the day. That would be from the time I learned to ride, right on through college. And then I moved back to my native corner of Northeast Texas. And it just seemed too much, even for me. As in So. Damned. Hot. I put aside my two-wheeler for cooler pursuits — anything involving the AC was preferable to getting out there and pounding the pavement.
I went back to biking when we moved to D.C. So many bike trails, so little time. We cruised down the trail that runs along the Potomac River to Old Town Alexandria more than once. I learned how to negotiate Capitol Hill — the incredibly steep promontory — especially on the Senate Side — upon which the U.S. Capitol sits, and near where I lived for 12 years — on my bike. I biked to work at the congressional office where I worked, all the time.
But then I had kids. And I was afraid to put one of them in a plastic seat on the back of my bike, or in one of those trailing buggies that you hitch up to the back — where I couldn’t see them and who knows what could happen, especially if I were bumping along the historic brick-lined streets of my neighborhood, or if I happened to hit one of D.C.’s equally historic (in urban bicycle lore, at least) and more-than-numerous potholes. I thought about getting one of those gizmos where the toddler could sit on the bar in front of me, but that was a no-go, balance-wise. And God forbid I teach a three-year-old how to perch precariously on the handlebars of my bike, like I did with my older cousins when I was a kid.
Modern parenting, it appeared, had no room for the two-wheeler joys I experienced in my younger years.
You know the drill. Mom stayed home in the suburbia in which I blossomed. She wrote the rules while Daddy was at the office, “shuffling papers,” as he often joked, for a living (yes, he inherited the proclivity for a punchline, much like his mother, my Nana). And Mom’s rules, after we did minimal chores (cat box sometimes; dishes; put away our clean clothes — not all the time, and not necessarily in that order), were basically non-existent. Leave the house in the morning. Find something to eat for lunch, usually at a friend’s house (the Kaplans, when we still lived in suburban New York; the Markowitzes, when we lived in suburban Dallas). Come home when we heard the dinner bell (well, it was a hand-held ringer, which Mom rang with gusto; not one of those giant, clanking gongs well-known on cattle ranches and popularized in Westerns that we sometimes watched, back in the day). Dinner. Dishes. Dessert. Baths. “Lassie,” or “The Ed Sullivan Show”. Books. Bed.
That was our day, at least in the summer. And it featured a whole heckuva lot of bike-riding.
When I was younger, and we lived farther out from the city proper, we rode to our friends’ houses. We’d sometimes meet up, in the form of a two-wheeled posse, near the neighborhood woods. We’d ride our bikes on trails through that suburban, tree-lined acreage — and remember, this was before mountain bikes and their aluminum frames and studded tires, so the going was more often rough than not. We’d circle back to the Kaplans, or maybe to the Gimbels, who lived up the hill behind us, on the other side of the woods, and grab a PB&J, and maybe some chips, and almost always a glass of Kool Aid or Hawaiian Punch. Remember those?
When I was older, and we had settled in the Southwest, the roads were flatter, and things of interest were closer together. My friend Susan and I rode our bikes — nine or 10 miles, as the crow flies, according to the Google Machine — to Downtown Dallas more than once, to hang out across the street from the local AM radio station KLIF, which took requests. Of course, this was eons before the advent of cellphones, so we parked our bikes and our butts on the corner with the pay phone. We’d take turns calling the disc jockey on duty and requesting songs — he worked from a control board on the second floor of the building, behind a big plate glass window, and always anticipated our calls. He’d get our request, and then gesture to us with the thumbs up sign when he was about to play our tuneage. I remember one day when neither one of us had remembered to bring a transistor radio in order to actually hear “Please, Please Me” or “Stop! In the Name of Love”— but we were excited anyway when he gave us the thumbs up, because we knew that meant he was playing our song.
Susan and I ventured even farther past downtown on a couple of other occasions, when we learned that the barbecue was better on the other side of the Trinity River Bridge in South Dallas. No one ever bothered the two 14-year-olds cruising through a much more urban landscape than we were used to, in search of a great lunch. I wouldn’t recommend the trip to any young folks today — not because the neighborhood is especially dangerous, but because the world has changed a whole lot since we were 14. Things just are more nefarious nowadays.
I’m not sure when attitudes toward safety and kiddos like us changed, but they changed in a big way. I’d say a lot of the way parents and kids interact started to move toward more of a “creative” police state — with parents no longer allowing their kids to roam wild and free — when a 10-year-old named Rosie Gordon disappeared from her suburban D.C. neighborhood in the summer of 1989. This was my experience as a new mom, anyway.
Rosie was out and about, riding her pink bike, when she went missing. She’d been cruising the streets with her best friend for awhile. There are abundant theories about Rosie’s disappearance and murder — which has never been solved — but as a newly minted mom (Ella Numera Una was a toddler then), I know I became super-vigilant. And by the time Ella Numera Dos was born the following summer, youth sports leagues were already being organized, and I didn’t know a single parent who let their kids wander off for the day the way we used to decades before.
Organized sports — for my kids, soccer, basketball and then swimming — and civic pursuits like scouting were the way to pass time. Yes, they took piano lessons, but so did I. I can confess now that my kids were somewhat programmed — but they also spent hours hanging out at the neighborhood pool supervised by lifeguards and the pool manager every summer — just like I did when I was a kid. Some of their friends were much more over-booked. Every kind of sport, activity, pursuit were fair game. I once knew a third grade boy who got up at 3:30 a.m. three times a week to drive 20 miles (one way) with his dad to practice with his ice hockey team. He also had private French lessons, soccer and Boy Scouts, which met on the regular. And he played the trumpet, starting in fourth grade.
Rosie’s disappearance weighed heavily on my mind the first time I let the girls — then 14 and 11 — take their bikes to the pool. The 10-minute ride involved negotiating the suburban streets they grew up on, and cutting through the woods from our neighborhood to the pool on the other side — about the equivalent of three or four city blocks. This was nothing like the trail rides I used to take with my friends, nor the excursions when I was 14 to request songs on a downtown Dallas street corner, or to ride across the bridge for the best barbecue in town. But when they embarked on the journey, I was terrified. I didn’t want to be, but I was.
I don’t recall now — you’d have to ask one of my girls — but I’m sure I checked and double-checked before they set off for the pool. I received multiple assurances that they knew what they were doing, and that they’d call me when they got there. Neither one had a cellphone, so they planned to call my cell from the pay phone at the pool. I feigned nonchalance as I checked one more time on their safety protocols before they left the house. I didn’t want them to know that I was worried — but they knew I was a budinski, as they used to say, and a worry wart, just the same. They probably could sense my angst, but none of us talked about it.
The girls saddled up, and went down the slight incline of our cul-de-sac (so suburban, right?), and hung a left down our street. I stood out on the lawn and watched them pedal to the intersection, hang a right, and disappear toward their destination.
And what did I do? Got in the car, of course. And drove the long way around to the pool, located at the end of another suburban cul-de-sac on the far side of the woods. I pulled into the parking lot, got out, and took up a sentinel’s perch between two minivans (no, I never owned one of those, but I did have a Taurus wagon for awhile), waiting for the girls to come up the hill from the woods at the other end of the lot.
I checked my phone for the time — about 10 minutes, they should be appearing soon — and raised my head just as Una, followed by Dos, emerged from the path, dismounted, and parked their bikes at the bike rack near the steps to the pool entrance. I got in my car and headed home. A couple of minutes later, as they had promised, I got a call. Dos was on the line. I’m sure she challenged her sister to be the one to call, and I noted to myself that it was nice of Big Sis to let the younger gal contact Mom.
I don’t know if I ever told my kids that story, or about all my other bike adventures. Susan and I also rode to Fair Park a few times — more than once — quite a hike and a world away from our home in North Dallas. But one of the corny dog stands down there at the home of the State Fair of Texas used to stay open a few weeks after the rest of the Fair had closed. And what kid in her right mind would pass on the chance to eat a State Fair corny dog out-of-season?
Rosie Gordon would be 41 years old now. I wonder what she’d make of the once carefree D.C. burbs, all buttoned up and cautious as they are now. The world is a scary place. But I know that no amount of over-scheduling will keep our kids from growing up. And they have to spread their wings — to mix metaphors here — and fly eventually, even if it’s on a bike ride to the neighborhood pool.
So, I bought a bike. A Huffy Beach Cruiser, with the name “Nel Lusso” stenciled behind the handlebars. I did a cursory search of the Interwebs, and have no earthly idea who Nel is or was, but that’s what I named my bike — Nel. She and I have an understanding — she stops when I ask her to and hasn’t bumped me into Four-Mile Creek yet — and are becoming fast friends.
I’m riding on Charlotte’s leafy green trails quite a bit now. I run into families and runners and last week encountered a young man reading a hardback book as he power-walked down the path. When the forecast calls for decent days, I can’t wait to get on my bike and ride.