Thursday, June 16, 2011

Love on Two Wheels

Mario Sanchez's 1964 painted wood-carving: Colorful Conchtown. Notice the bike is unlocked.
I have a friend who moved to Key West based on her one-time experience, during a visit to the island several years ago, of riding a bicycle to the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center to see a performance by the Key West Symphony Orchestra: recreation and culture all together on one starry night. Life simply doesn’t get any better than that, she decided, and set her sights on a life in Paradise.
     Long before I set foot in Key West, I heard stories about the place from Ft. Lauderdale neighbors, a hard-drinking shrimper and his equally hard-drinking girlfriend. They described the rough and tumble island of Key West where a sense of community prevailed. For example, a bicycle belonged to whoever wore it between their legs at the moment. If there was a bicycle leaning against a pole, untethered, and a person drunk and tired happened by, that bike had a new owner. At least temporarily. To my own hippie-basted consciousness, that sounded reasonable. Love the one you’re with. I was interested in that kind of freedom. The promise of the endless party caught my attention, too. So, when I got the chance, I took it. I came to Key West, and found the place to be everything—and more—those shrimpers had promised.  
When we owned the streets.
    You really cannot talk about Key West life without discussing the bicycle. The bicycle is elemental to the island experience, essential to the island process, deeply rooted in island legend and lore. I did not steal my first bicycle. I bought it, from a dancer at the Esquire Lounge who’d upgraded her ride to her new boyfriend’s moped. I re-connected with my inner child on that bike, riding for hours around and around the labyrinth of Old Town streets. I wore a bikini and enjoyed my newfound breezy freedom as well as the appreciative looks and comments of my fellows on the road.
    I married a man with a red bike, and together we biked to the M&M Coffee stand every morning for breakfast, and then on to the beach, or just around and around. It seemed to me then, as I watched his long body leaning languidly into each turn, that on a bike he was no longer a man, but a fish, undulating gracefully through the rippling sunlight, sleek and beautiful as a shark. We spawned, that man and I, and our baby boy loved being our passenger in his little bicycle seat. Often he fell asleep back there, and I reached one hand back to hold his nodding head, steering us home with the other. 
Sabrina and Baby Miguel on the bike she bought for me when mine was stolen.
    We went though a few bikes back then. My girlfriend came by and asked to borrow my bike so that she could show up for a downtown date fresh and not sweaty from walking. I gave her the bike and the lock, making her promise to lock up before diving into the night’s festivities. She vowed to lock. But somewhere along the way, she was distracted from her mission of returning my bike to me, and the following day she showed up on my doorstep, hungover and apologetic.
    My brother-in-law borrowed my husband’s red bike, and lost it under similar circumstances. Who remembers the realities of chains and locks when deep in the thrall of partying in Paradise? The red bike was gone. I was working at the Miami Herald where a freelance writer showed up every day on a red bike very much like the one lost by my brother-in-law. I didn’t expect he would be willing to part with such a treasure, but I offered to buy it. He sold it to me for $25 and a big smile. My husband was thrilled. It was almost exactly the same as his stolen red bike . . .
I'm not quite ready for the Tricycle. But I like it.
    Lately, as I grow older and less slippery in the joints, I’ve considered a tricycle. I envision a broad seat, a bohemian display of plastic flowers in the basket, and myself pushing the pedals real slow, moving through the streets like a lazy snail. But when I am driving my car, and come upon such a vision, I find myself thinking “poor old thing.”        
    The woman who once owned the shop “Among the Ruins,” retired now, rides her bicycle though the streets of Key West, garbed in chic clothes and always a jaunty hat. My Nova Scotia neighbor Enid, rides her bike in a Tour de France-inspired outfit, and a helmet. She’s 84 years old and fit as a fiddle.
    So no, I won’t succumb to the tricycle just yet. But we don’t ride our bicycles anymore, either. The traffic is too dense. It’s too scary. And riding on a busy sidewalk, yelling ahead to pedestrians to move aside, goes so appallingly against the spirit of the thing. I can’t do it.
Bicycle with Baggage. Sometimes a whole life story can be told by a bike.
    My baby Conch, now a man, uses his bike almost exclusively. He rides without a helmet, and without the slow and sinuous grace of his father. He drives fast and purposefully. When I fear for his safety I remind myself of his ancestry, deeply rooted in a society of free bicycles.  He is in a bigger hurry than his father, or anyone, ever was back in the day. Nowadays, everyone is in a hurry. 
    Today our bicycles sit motionless on the front porch, posing in the tropical sun for tourists’ cameras, tethered securely, mostly retired, waiting and waiting to be taken for a ride around and around the island.

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