Monday, January 2, 2012

Brand New Pair of Rollerskates

I got my girlfriend a bike for Christmas. The whole thing was one hell of an ordeal. When I lived in Armenia, God! I missed the feeling of being on a bike. I got so desperate at times that I remember going up to a crest of a rocky and steep hill and bounding around like a jerk, trying to simulate the feeling of racing down a steep hill in heavy traffic. Now, Armenia wasn’t completely devoid of bikes. There was the odd stand of cheap and somewhat rusty-looking Chinese-made bikes in larger towns, but these were almost ubiquitously children’s bikes. I don’t mean they were just small, I mean they had motorcycle decals and obnoxious plastic fenders all over them, in places were fenders aren’t even necessary. I remember once finding a rather larger example of this type of bike and considering taking off all the plastic crap so that I wouldn’t look like a complete fool riding the thing, but I was deterred by two things. 1: The Peace Corps had, and still probably has, a very strict policy about helmet usage. If one was seen on a bike without a helmet by any of the staff it was grounds for instant dismissal. I guess this was a policy implemented mainly for African and Asian countries where people actually use bikes as a viable means of transportation, places that are featured in National Geographic as reticulate networks of rickshaws, trishaws, bikes, scooters, mopeds and the anonymous people that happen to be riding them. In such places, I guess the PC does well to make the average American don a helmet, since most of them are probably, initially at least, quite overwhelmed. In Armenia, no one rode bikes. Once in a while you’d see a few brave kids in the capital Yerevan banding together and riding precariously down the sidewalks. Apart from this one never really saw adults on bikes except, incongruously, in the Ararat region, where, for some reason, it was ok for adult farmers to ride their bikes out to the fields, something I never saw anyone else elsewhere in the country. That brings me to the second reason I didn’t buy the bike, I already looked quite asinine enough skateboarding around. To most people in Armenia, bikes were considered toys, and it wouldn’t have been considered proper for an adult to be seen on such a contraption. Nearly every time I went skateboarding on one of the two flat surfaces where I used to live I would be mobbed by kids wanting to try the strange toy, and by men, who would watch and then scowl and shake their heads. Several times I tried to win the men over by offering them an attempt on the board to which they always replied that they were fine with the car that they drove, and given the condition of some of those old Ladas I can see how that would be enough risk for one man without having to try a skateboard as well.
When I returned to America, one of the first things I did was take my bike for a spin. I stayed with my parents the first six weeks I was back in the country, gradually adjusting to the impersonal, reticent and busy life of post-industrial America. I did this mainly by biking in and around the environs of my hometown of Jackson, Michigan. Initially, I was happy for the anonymity, but as they tell all returning Peace Corps volunteers, eventually, you start to miss the group that constantly followed you around asking every conceivable question from “ver are you from?” to “arak kuses?” the latter question being asked mainly by pensioners who in the US are afraid to come out of their homes, let alone invite complete strangers in to drink with them. But I was writing about bikes, not drinking, despite the overlapping nature of the genres.
Eventually, I took my bike in the back of a rental car, the largest thing I owned, by far, back out to California. After I returned to Northern California, gradually, the novelty of riding a bike wore off until it became just another means of transportation. I could hardly believe the first time I felt like walking rather than riding. In Armenia, I thought I had walked enough to last me a lifetime, and in a few ways I think I did, given that it seems long walks tire me much more quickly than they seemed to before. So gradually, riding my bike ceased to be such a fantastic activity, especially after getting caught in the rain multiple times, fixing multiple flats, trying unsuccessfully to fix my breaks and riding around using my back foot as a break until I finally paid someone else too much money to fix them correctly.
When I began to plan the move to Argentina, I reasoned that I would need a bike. I knew I couldn’t expect to find a good one here for less than some ridiculous price. I bought one online and brought it down here, an experience that was probably the biggest pain in the ass of my life if you compound all the details. For one, the UPS delivery guy couldn’t find my apartment, so I kept having to wait for him at home and calling the hotline to track his movement so I knew around what time I should start standing in the driveway so I wouldn’t miss him. I finally ended up having to chase him around a parking lot before coaxing him back to my house to reattempt the delivery after about three days of standing in the driveway looking like a lost puppy waiting for the damn thing. After the bike was secured in my apartment it was found that the box was too big. I had to cut it down and move everything inside to fit in a smaller space. I took the box down to Oakland with no problem, only to nearly kill myself and my girlfriend trying to get the thing from Oakland to a motel near SFO airport in San Bruno. Let me just recount that quickly, paraphrasing ever so slightly.
“*Huff, huff, [dry throated swallowing noise], huff, dry gasp* Here, *pant* can you, arrrghh, can you lift that, thanks, *pant*.”
“No that’s, ooaahh, my blood* cough*”
“Look, *pant* my thumb’s turning purple now. Oh, *cough* I think my shoulder’s*weeze* giving out again. Just drop the box. [sound of me falling over into the box] Arrruughh.”
“Here, just let go, see it’s better with[choking sound] just one person carrying it. *gasp* I’ll just*sob* run.”
And I did. I ran like a moron from the BART station in San Bruno, my body aflame with the buildup of lactic acid, not only in my muscles, but even behind my eyes and between my teeth. I shook for about two days after that. When I got to Buenos Aires I just hired a damn cab. Besides, it would’ve just made me sad to act like such a fool all alone. After about a week in the hostel, I finally approached the box, terrified that I had lost some parts or something in the battle to get it from the West Oakland BART to San Bruno to SFO and through Argentine customs and out of Ezezia airport.
There was nothing missing, thankfully, and it was nice showing up in a new country so prepared. I couldn’t help but to feel like I’d learned something from my previous attempts to live abroad. When I went into one bike shop and saw nothing but cheap-looking cruiser bikes and then into another one where all they had were 1,000 dollar Giants, I felt justified being able to make it across town without having to fold myself between two people on a crowded bus, or having to heave myself through the sweltering mildew that befogs subway cars and passengers alike.
I never really had anywhere to go except work, but I enjoyed just riding around aimlessly on the weekends, seeing neighborhoods that probably would’ve taken me a lot longer to get to if I didn’t have such an expedient way to get down to them. After my girlfriend arrived, I began walking a lot more. At first, it wasn’t inconvenient. The busy city traffic wasn’t exactly ideal for a quiet Sunday bike ride and since we rarely had a destination in mind for our peregrinations there was never a reason to rush. After a while, however, I began to get tired of walking everywhere again, and as luck would have it, I had a perfect excuse to buy her a bike since my parents sent me a little money for Christmas and, well, I had to get her some kind of present anyway.
Now we’re back to the beginning of this arduous tale. Most of you, I imagine, have probably just skipped over the bulk of this prattling story to get to this rather lackluster conclusion: I bought a bike. But it wasn’t as easy as all that. I had to chase around a bunch of lazy used-bike merchants, follow a number of Craigslist adds that never panned out only to eventually purchase a bike that should be much more reliable considering how much I had to pay for it. But I expected all of this. That’s why I brought my own bike down here with me, and with a can of pink spray paint the bike no longer looks like a velocipede Frankenstein’s monster, salvaged from a wrecking yard and hammered together with rusty nails and tied together with bailing wire.
We went for our first bike ride last Wednesday night. The warm summer air had not cooled much after the sun went down, but there was enough of a breeze coming from somewhere to counteract the dark plumes of bus exhaust and the braying horns of neurotic taxi drivers. I had planned on going out and getting a beer somewhere to celebrate our first ride together in a new city but, as could have probably been predicted, everywhere we went was already packed and all the empty places we came to just didn’t offer much that we couldn’t get at home. Eventually, I decided that we’d try a little antiquated pizzeria that I’d noticed in Almagro. A place with large plate glass windows with golden filigree around the edges, a bar with a few spare stools and pleasant dim yellow lighting, much like one of the old diners that has managed to retain the zeitgeist of the 1950s amidst the anarchic growth of Los Angeles. It was the perfect place to have a drink on a Wednesday night, but it was too warm inside and suddenly I didn’t feel much like having a beer so we went home instead, which I guess was good, because shortly after we got home, I noticed the tire on the new bike was already flat.

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