Bicycle stories

I like seeing the bike commuters getting on the bus to the Eastside in the morning. A few of them put their bikes on the bus, using the racks on the front, but most are recognizable by the helmets they carry and by their pink cheeks and runny noses. Not all of them are young; many appear to be in their late 30s and 40s. One man with a gray crew cut sat in a front seat on the bus this morning and took an often-reused Hallmark plastic bag out of his backpack. He put bag and backpack on the seat next to him, hoisted himself slightly, and peeled off his outer pair of pants, shell-style ones that must have served to keep his jeans clean and dry during his ride. The shell pants went into the plastic bag and then into the backpack, he pulled out a book, and you could no longer tell he’d just gotten off his bike. The bicycle woman across from him, though, was carrying her helmet on her lap and sniffling nonstop. Her hands and cheeks were red and her hair was sticking up.

I’ve commuted by bicycle to several jobs over many years, starting in college in Chicago when I rode from Rogers Park to Lakeview (Wellington and Broadway) to work at an army-surplus store. Sometimes I rode all the way downtown to school, Columbia College, where the writing classes were held in an old building on Wabash. I was able to take my bike up the freight elevator and into class with me for a few months. Then the building staff caught on and told me not to do that, so I passive-aggressively locked up the bike to a decorative railing inside the lobby instead.

I didn’t ride in the winter then, unless we had a strangely balmy week, which sometimes happened in February or March. The problem with those kinds of days in Chicago is that a comfortable bicycling temperature in the 50s F is likely to plummet in mid-afternoon to freezing or below as the wind picks up to a force that creates a solid wall in the face of a bicyclist. Painful enough if you have to walk to the el and you’re not dressed for it, let alone trying to bicycle nine or ten miles back up to Rogers Park. (Somehow I survived.)

Later I biked in summer to my proofreading job in the Loop, which was at Chapman and Cutler, a big law firm on West Monroe. My roommate and I both worked there so we biked together. There was not a chance of taking the bicycles into that secure and stuffy building, but there were plenty of parking meters to lock them up to. We locked the front wheels and the frame to the post. One night, when we had worked the late shift, we came out at midnight to find that our rear wheels and seats had both been stolen. A Commonwealth Edison (electric utility) crew was working in the brightly lit back of their panel truck, twenty feet away. They looked us up and down in an unfriendly way and scoffed at us for having left our bikes there.

“It was two black guys took them,” said one workman in the truck. Somehow this sounded predictable, coming from a guy who would scoff at two young women ragamuffins who chose to use their bicycles for late-night commutes. “Yeah, these black guys came and took them a while ago. Too bad, huh?” said another. The back of the panel truck was like a little room, complete with tools and workbenches, and the lights in it shone out toward us. I had the nagging intuition that our stolen bicycle parts were in there somewhere, maybe because of the complete lack of empathy the workmen showed. We had to call a taxi and then persuade the driver to carry our dismembered bikes in his trunk.

We fixed the bikes and went right back to riding them to work at night. We couldn’t resist. Summer nights in Chicago are warm and still, there’s little traffic, and the orange streetlights shine on the maple trees as if to remind you of the leafiness you’ll see in the morning. As a bicyclist out at night, you feel like you own the streets. We were lucky that we always made it home safely, but it seemed that we were moving so fast that nobody could have caught us. I guess this was one of those illusions of invincibility you have at 21.

Later I commuted by bicycle from Rogers Park to Skokie for several years, including one entire winter—our last winter in Chicago. While I rode to Skokie, Tom rode his bike to his job in the Loop. He got to ride along the lakefront, which he loved, even in winter. In some places, the path runs right next to the water, and waves lap up onto the pavement and form a layer of ice. One 20-degree morning, it was so icy on the path by the water that Tom slipped and fell off his bike. As he stood, the bike slowly slipped off the concrete ledge and into the water. My intrepid husband stripped off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, waded in, rescued the bike, and rode on to work. No big deal. Good thing that was a shallow spot.

Here in Seattle, with its hills, it took me a few years of short, aimless bike rides to build up the stamina for a bike commute. Then I enjoyed riding downtown and elsewhere for a couple of years. After I quit my last real job and started doing only freelance work, I rode my bike a lot for pleasure. Just as when I was young, I’d find myself getting carried away with exploring some area I hadn’t seen, and would end up riding for four or five hours. Stops included, of course. Last fall I got a flat, and though I’ve fixed it, I haven’t started biking yet. I’m not sure why. I’m sure I’ll start up again, I always do, but I’m not sure whether it will be in order to commute to the Eastside bus stop or whether it will be just for fun.

Do you have any favorite bicycle anecdotes, favorite places, or pet peeves? I’d love to hear them.