This is a bike story. I’ve told it so many times as not a bike story, but I was reminded today that it was, in fact, a bike story, and so I’m here restoring it to its proper place. I realized it was a bike story (or remembered this fact, actually) today, as I drove from New York City to Charlottesville, Virginia, with two surfboards and a bike on the roof of my small car. People react to toys on top of a small car the same way they react to small, cute children. They light up themselves, as if the promise of someone else’s fun reminded them that they, too, would have extravagant fun at some point in the future. When I pulled up to the toll booth in the Delaware Water Gap at around 9:30 AM, the toll collector took my money, looked at the equipment dominating my car’s rooftop, smiled and said: “Have a good time, man.” Later that day, after two surprisingly good tacos in Mechanicsville (burg?), PA, while re-caffeinating at a gas station, a sunburnt, crew-cut man approached my car, pointed to the two boards and said “I was just in the DR for two weeks. Where you headed?” I told him C’ville, then Chincoteague, and his face creased into its burnt lines. He said he’d noticed my Vermont plates, and we commiserated about this year’s snowfall, which has been prodigious.
So as I pulled back onto the highway, I remembered this story, which, as I said above, I’d forgotten was a bike story. It takes place last summer, one day before my sister’s wedding, and begins in Portland, Maine.
It was a hot day, at the end of July, and I hadn’t gone for a run that day. My parents had left me a long list of things to do, clothes to pick up from the tailor’s, food to cooler and pack in the car. I tossed my new bike on the roof, hoping to enter a weekly time-trial that takes place on Thursdays in Duxbury, MA, where the wedding was taking place. In addition to wedding clothes, food, cooking equipment, I had running clothes, my swimsuit, a bike, and all my riding stuff. I left the house in Portland sweaty, tired, un-walked, and stressed. As I pulled out of the driveway, my gas indicator came on.
Forest Avenue, in Portland, is the place you go when you need something, and you’d rather get it cheap: Inexpensive do-it-yourself car wash places, Rite-Aids, Jiffy Lubes. There are stop lights every hundred meters, the traffic is awful, and everyone is procuring his cheap (sorry, inexpensive) item as fast as possible, so as to avoid all the other cheapskate shoppers. It is, in short, a strip, and I figured I could find a gas station somewhere among its tuxedo rental shops, its detailing shops. I saw a Mobil sign on the other side of the street, and even though Forest Ave is not an easy place to get to the other side, I dove across the oncoming traffic and stopped in front of the pump.
As I opened my door to get out, I got that sense that this was a full-service joint. Having someone else pump my gas for me is difficult for me. It offends some puritanical vestige hardwired into the reptile part of my brain. I wonder what to do while someone is doing something for me I could easily achieve myself. It’s like having someone brush your teeth for you, and just as embarrassing. The man approaching my car looked in his early fifties, with a curly mess of blond hair, bad teeth, and half crazy eyes. Since I had my door open and my foot on the ground, trying to express an affect of “Hey, never mind, man, take it easy, I can pump my own gas,” I didn’t think I could just shut the door again as Crazy Eyes had beaten me to the pump. So I pretended like I just wanted the door open for, you know, air.
“Hi,” Crazy Eyes said.
“Hi there,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Fine,” he said. He eyed my bicycle while slipping the hose’s nozzle into the waiting hole. “That’s a nice bikc.”
It was a nice bike, but I certainly don’t want to brag about my bike to anyone, least of all a friendly gas station attendant.
“Yeah, it’s a good one. It does what I want it to.”
“You a serious biker?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
“I had this friend once,” he said, one hand still on the pump, the other circling in the air, “Who went to the Olympics for cycling. All he cared about were ball bearings. Ball bearings! He was nuts about them. Spent thousands of dollars on them, back in the 60s, too. Got beautiful ones. That’s all he cared about, though. Bearings.”
As he spoke, Crazy Eyes looked back and forth between me and the bike. He seemed to want to keep talking, so I indulged him.
“Do you ride?” I asked, lamely.
“Me, no. I used to run. Ran a lot. I can’t run any more. I got something wrong with a muscle in my leg. A deep muscle. Called the piriformis. real hard to stretch it out. Can’t do anything for it.”
He knew what a piriformis was. I was impressed, and had one of those backlashes I get when I assume someone doesn’t know these things, and then does. It’s a good reminder of how one isn’t the only sentient being on the planet.
“How’d it happen?” I asked, now interested.
“Oh, working here at the shop. So I can’t run now, but that keeps me fit. You know, putting tires on, carrying stuff. It’s hard. But it helps, and I’m 73.”
I goggled. 73! He was blond, fit-looking, and tan. I’d pegged him for middle fifties at the latest.
“73!” I said. “I thought you were, like, 56 or something. 73. No way.”
“It’s because I didn’t stop doing anything,” he said. “You know, I had friends—like the bike guy!—I had friends that loved doing things, like running, biking, you know. But they stopped. They got wives, husbands, kids, all that stuff, and they ended up stopping. In their 30s or 40s. I don’t know. I just kept doing it.”
“Wow,” I said. He looked down at me and then at the bike.
“You look like a nice young man,” he said (he actually did say that). “I’ll tell you something. Never stop doing what you love. No matter what you do. I had friends that stopped, and they ended up unhappy. But I didn’t. So don’t stop, no matter what, don’t stop doing what you love.”
I paid him, and tried to tip him surreptitiously, but of course it felt awkward and forced. He turned away, our interaction finished. I pulled out of the gas station and onto Route 295, heading south. I got out my phone and called my friend Jesse.
“Hey listen,” I said. “The universe just gave me a gift.”
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