Monday, November 30, 2009

My friend is dying, but still he rides

In the mid 1990s, a stranger rode into town. I started seeing this tall, bespectacled man riding his bicycle at a slow but steady pace here and there. His clothes were frayed and worn, but had the air of New England preppy gentility about them. His hair was whitening gray, conventionally cut but often not freshly combed. He looked like a professor or a private school teacher. The latter he actually turned out to have been.

He looked like a run-down version of an extra George Plimtpton, carrying a spare voice module for Garrison Keillor. If I closed my eyes when he spoke, I could sometimes imagine it. He did not have Mr. Keillor's theatrical sense, however. A free-range intellectual, he would quiz me about things, but never in a hard-assed way. Everything was said in that soft voice.

One day, when I called the shop and he happened to be there, he asked to speak to me.

"Spell Poughkeepsie," he said. When I did, he said, "Damn, I should have known you'd be able to." He liked to pull spelling bees on me at odd times.

He had the look of a stray cat that had had a rough life when you got close to him. He had lost a lot of teeth. His shoulders were narrow and uneven, as a beat-up cyclist's will be after sufficient impact with the ground to reduce the collarbone to a formality. And he could get a little drifty at times. He would trail off in conversation or not make absolutely perfect sense.

I'm never one to pry. I wait for someone to tell me what they want me to know, when they're ready.

We established early on that we had almost crossed paths 30 years earlier, when he was a young prep school teacher at Severn School in Maryland in the early 1960s. I would not attend that school until six or seven years after he had left, but my family did live in Annapolis at the time. It wasn't the wildest of coincidences, but it was interesting to share some geography and a near-miss on some shared acquaintances. He had courted the daughter of a boat yard owner in Annapolis until the penniless young teacher was deemed an inadequate match. Or so he told it.

He reminisced from time to time about being a young man just out of college, who liked jazz music, good stereo equipment and expensive Scotch. He also had a passion for sports cars and road racing. At times, bicycling seemed like a poor man's surrogate. But his love for the bicycle became obvious. He studied all aspects of racing, long distance touring and bike construction.

One day he told me that, on the last day of the Tour de France in 1985, he left his house in Milton, NH, to go for a ride because he felt so fired up from following the Tour coverage to its end. He took off on that sunny afternoon and, as he tells it, "woke up weeks later in the hospital. They told me I'd been wandering around the halls for two weeks, pissing on things. I don't remember any of it. I don't even remember crashing. I remember I was going down a long grade, it was fast. That's it. I don't know if someone hit me with their car or if I just went off the road."

He has a handlebar-diameter hole in his skull and permanent neural deficits, as they say. He also has those narrowed shoulders, some spinal injury, this and that. And beat up knees, but he could have been working on those already, from pushing big gears.

In addition to teaching in prep schools in Maryland and the Midwest (that I know of), he recounted working in bike shops and as a dishwasher. This was all pieced together in conversations when he would drop by the shop. We would talk about whatever he felt like talking about. If I didn't know the subject, I would do my best to hang in there. If I did, I could give him a few gems I had mined to add to what he has gleaned. He spent most days in the library, and visiting up and down the business district. He was not homeless or a beggar. He lives with his girlfriend in her house out the north end of town. She's another character. And she protects him fiercely.

My employers, never known for their compassion, and certainly not for their acceptance of people who seem different (I came in under the radar and proved myself too useful to fire, so far) finally found an excuse to banish him forever when he insulted one of their family political saints during one of his neurally-deficited lapses of tact. They didn't know about his injury and probably wouldn't have cared. All they knew was that they finally had a righteously indignant reason to bar him forever. I considered qitting over this piece of cruelty, but I discussed it with Bill and he said not to worry.

"My mouth is always getting me into trouble," he said.

He reached Social Security and Medicare age shortly after he came to town. With normal aging and his accumulated injuries, he mused a lot about how he lived his life.

"You tell yourself that whatever else happens today you will get on the machine," he said.

He rides all year. He rides in all weather. Even if he's just going to town for a newspaper and a cup of coffee, he does that eight or ten miles. He might miss a day. His girlfriend might take him on an outing that requires riding in the car. She also occasionally scooped him up from the far point of a ride outside of town when nightfall overtook him. But for the most part he gets on the machine.

Now he is dying. I'd heard from people who had seen him that he wasn't looking good. Then someone told me for sure that he had cancer. The same person also confirmed something I had just heard a rumor of: Bill is a talented guitarist. His brain injury gave him some odd quirks, but his friends found and refurbished a guitar for him and he played with them for a while. Even as I heard bad news about his health, I was learning more about how he lives.

I hadn't managed to see him for months. We just kept missing each other. He has no telephone. We would simply stop to talk wherever we ran into each other. He's a nicknamer. He didn't like my former coworker Ralph's name, so he would call him Ethan or Elliot. He calls me Mr. Vails, after the 1980s sprinter, Nelson Vails. I'm pleased to be given a nickname that crosses racial lines to follow cycling lines. It's especially sweet considering my employers' bigotry.

So, the other day I was driving home from a dentist appointment when I saw the unmistakable figure of Bill riding toward me. I hastily shoved the car into the ditch and ran across the road to wait for him to get to me.

He is gaunt. His face, never very rounded, is long. The bones of cheek and jaw push against the skin as if the skull demands acknowledgment. He wore a balaclava under his helmet on this raw, damp day. I felt almost ashamed of my newish clothes, my relative youth and the fact that he found me driving. But Bill is not a cycling Puritan.

"Mr. Vails," he saluted me, laughing a little wheezily. "Biggest thighs known to medical science." He grinned. He is too kind. I took in how he no longer fills his clothes. His thighs are just femurs under cloth.

He noticed the car I was driving, a 1991 Toyota Corolla LE. He'd had his eye on it for years, when it belonged to its former owner, the mother of a friend of mine.

"What's that, about a ' '91. Is that the LE? If it's the LE it has a red coach line." He knew more about the car's cosmetics than I did, and my wife has been driving it for more than a year. "Yeah, the LE is unusual. You don't see too many of them around here. Beautiful little body."

I also finally got to tell him about the Alex Singer. I'd hoped he would ride by while I had it in the shop. I would have defied the edict and brought him right in to see it. Fortunately, the bike lives in a neighborhood near the house where he lives, and the owner of the Singer had spotted Bill as someone who looked interesting to meet. Having urged her to pursue it, I now urged him.

He said, "I've been diagnosed with colon cancer. I refuse to take the chemotherapy. I figure I'll be in pain either way. I don't expect to make it next year. I don't want to go into the hospital."

There's no way to ease into a subject like that. One minute you haven't said it, the next minute you have. And there it is.

"I don't know what I would do," I said to him. "I tell myself I do, I think I do, but I don't really know. " I do know that I would hate to spend my last days in a hospital, and if I knew for sure that I was going down I would head for the open range as fast as my last strength would carry me. I want to see the sky over me when I go, and I want to be alone.

"I can't complain, really," he said. "I've done about everything I wanted.

"I just don't want to give up the bike," he said. His even tone broke for the first time since I've known him, but it didn't break by much. "I don't want to stop riding. I don't want to be driven around in a car." Was it the raw breeze that made the glistening moisture in his eyes momentarily top the dam and flow toward his cheek? Again, it was only a moment before he regained control, if indeed he had lost it. He took a deep breath.

"I guess I'll go on into town, get a cup of coffee," he said.

We never had a touchy relationship, not even a handshaking one. I'm not much on contact unless I'm reciprocating the contact of someone who prefers to be that way. But as he flipped the toeclip up and resumed his slow trek to the village, I patted his shoulder. Whatever else was happening that day, he had gotten on the machine. He's welcome to whatever energy I can give him.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Close Calls, Politics, Instant Gratification

Sometimes ideas drift in and out of view without forming into solid trains of thought. For instance, on a ride the other day with a less traffic-adjusted rider I noticed that her notion of a close call and mine are somewhat different.

I recalled a time almost 30 years ago when a friend and I ventured onto US 1 South below Alexandria, Virginia. We were trying to put the finishing touches on a hundred-mile ride we had started about ten hours earlier, and we didn't really know the area. We didn't know what we would later know about bypassing the heavily traveled highway on the network of side roads cyclists discover most places. Where such alternatives don't exist, riders make do with the busier routes.

I saw it was a busy highway. I put my head down, stuck my elbow out and aimed to make the best of it. We were only going a few miles, to the next side road we could see on our map.

My friend shouted to me, "This sucks!" over the noise of trucks and the gap I had opened ahead of him. We pulled over to confer. He convinced me to give up on our first plan and ride back up into DC instead. We knew more roads going that way.

A year later he was fully acclimated. That piece of Route 1 wasn't a favorite of local cyclists, but you do what you have to do.

As a champion of cyclists' rights I will join another rider's fight, so I have to remind myself to hold off a second when a traffic novice gets worked up by what looks like a negligent or aggressive driver. From day to day my own comfort zone changes size, too.

Still mulling over the concept of traffic behavior, I was flipping through some old magazines as I cleaned out my office. One of them had an article on the oft-repeated subject of vehicular versus expedient riding styles and the proper way to treat red lights and stop signs.

Again, 30 years ago, when this information was harder to find, even if you were looking, I was making up my own set of traffic-riding principles.

Riding is a political act. That may be the last thing on anyone's mind when they take up the bicycle, but it's true. Especially an adult cyclist takes up political space by choosing to share the public right of way in what has, to some extent, always been an abnormal fashion. Even at the height of various booms in cycling popularity, plenty of people have found the two-wheelers annoying.

We can assert our rights doggedly, but politics ultimately hinges on popularity. Unless you can prove the value of an unpopular stance it will get voted down. An unpopular person will get the boot at the earliest opportunity. Because we not only vote with our wheels, we also ask for the cooperation -- if not support -- of our fellow road users, we are constantly campaigning (or lobbying).

With all that in my busy, under-employed and probably unemployable mind, I cranked doggedly to my various bottom-feeder jobs. I wouldn't take any crap from motorists, but I sensed the value of presenting our struggle on the road as a shared one rather than a battle against each other.

Red lights seemed like a particularly good place to make this point. That's one reason I have tended not to run them. If I could show that I was one with the poor prisoners in their sensory deprivation tanks, held back by Big Brother and his traffic signals, it might make me seem a bit less alien. Yes, indeed, I was a superior being, but I wasn't going to lord it over the lesser folk. Let's face it, superior is not the same as invulnerable. So I would be a sport and play by most of the rules.

Playing by the rules also put me in a better position in case of an accident. That system has worked flawlessly: in each case where I had an accident and suffered injury I did not pay a dime for medical or bike repair expenses. Law enforcement was on my side. One was a bad encounter with a construction site inadequately marked on a dark street. The municipality in question picked up the tab for the emergency room and follow-up care. In the other instance, involving a car, the motorist's insurance covered the injuries their negligence had caused. The insurance company did not balk, faced with a nice, complete report by the officer who covered the scene.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but if I can stack the odds even a little bit in my favor with a simple code of ethics I will do it.

Cyclists are the smallest vehicles in the traffic mix. Pedestrians are the smallest elements in the overall transportation mix, but cyclists mix it up in the traffic flow with the least armor and equipment. Many of us think about traffic volume and vehicle size. Some of us imagine a world with far fewer motor vehicles. But few does not mean none.

I looked out the front windows of the shop on a recent sunny afternoon as two delivery trucks went by on Main Street. Transportation of people and goods has always been a critical part of civilization. From the invention of the wheel and watercraft, machines have evolved with greater speed or cargo capacity, preferably both. Mobile machines served other purposes, such as warfare, but even without armed conflict people want to get themselves and their stuff from place to place as quickly as possible. That crap about enjoying the journey was just a way to get the kids to shut up in the back seat of the covered wagon.

Even if humans suddenly (and without precedent) decided to get sensible, someone would still have to deliver things across great distances. You want railroads again? Say goodbye to all those rail trails built on the abandoned lines. I like rail travel and use it when I can, but it does involve another stage of handling when shipping freight. And eventually that freight hits the streets in some form of truck to reach its ultimate point of interface with the consumer. Sitting in that truck is some poor bastard whose job it is to drive, drive, drive.

In my Utopia, everyone gets free time every day, work weeks are short for individuals, even if businesses operate seven days a week. It's not like we have a shortage of people to work the various shifts. But for such a system to succeed we would have to redesign our payment methods and possibly spend a bit more overall on labor. Improved quality of life comes at a price. But then, so does deteriorated quality of life. Are we going to be grumpy, overworked or unemployed, rushed, hyper-competitive human time bombs or are we going to learn to relax and cut each other some slack? At the moment, we tend more toward the time bomb.

As the Industrial Age progressed, management looked for people who would sell their lives cheaply for the sake of bare subsistence. The accounting department liked that. The negotiation continues to this day. One side or the other enjoys gains or deals with losses, but the vast majority of economic fluctuation stems from this push and pull. The rest comes from suppliers of goods and services arm wrestling over who is going to get to jack their prices how much for a quick surge of profit. While all this macroeconomics goes on, regular bozos are just trying to live their lives.

Some of us ride bikes. It seems so sensible at first: fresh air, exercise, transportation, recreation, all rolled into one activity. I came to the 1970s ten-speed boom a little late. Never the hippest cat on the block, I found most social trends later than my peers. So I figured that what I was realizing about the bicycle must be well known to almost everyone else. Imagine my surprise to discover that so much of it was unknown, unsuspected and unwelcome. But it remains nonetheless true, and since it is true I cannot abandon it. I can only promote it.

For various reasons I cannot use a bike year-round. This helps me retain a realistic perspective on transportation, because there will be motor vehicles as long as humans can figure out a way to propel them, whether it's batteries or bottled farts. It's hard to feel worthy during driving season when I read about my fellow cyclists doing the winter thing. Just remember not everyone can do it, regardless of whether they would. When I could, I did.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

None of the Above

I have previously referred to November and April in New Hampshire as The Fifth Season: None of the Above. Both can be raw, gray, dismal and unsuitable for the signature activities of any of the other, better-known seasons. Either might also lend part of itself to winter, but never high quality winter. In the worst of winters, the gray, unclassifiable season stretches into Novapril, a snowless, sunless void that swallows all memory that the world ever looked any other way.

This November, for the first time in nine long years, I don't have to shift my operations to a seasonal second shop in a town 50 miles to the north. I get to remain in our first (and now only) location, where a greater variety of work can come through the door on any day. In other words, people who ride all year may bring bikes to fix, and other devotees may order bikes for us to build. We also sharpen ice skates and can sharpen edges and wax bases on downhill skis and snowboards.

The Manager wants it to be cross-country ski season. That was his first love and the primary focus of the business. Like the true children of winter, he leans forward into the chilling wind like an eager retriever.

For a time I leaned that way as well. I moved here to be a mountain bum. I climbed rock and ice, hiking or skiing as the weather permitted or required. But I'd grown up in places as diverse as Maine and Florida, with several sojourns in Maryland. My adult love of winter was conditional. When winter proved itself a fickle and unreliable partner, we grew apart. I still like to take advantage of good conditions, but I will easily shift to other things when the many forms of cross country skiing let me down.

I understand that combining a love for Nordic skiing with a business that pays for their necessities and luxuries prevents my employers from being philosophical and versatile. In order to link their business to the many options for winter diversions they would have to have a place the size of LL Bean. They can be philosophical up to a point, but they invest thousands of dollars in inventory, whereas my inventory tends to be mental. I have my skills, which I bring to bear as needed. I have my tools, the value of which comes from what I can do with them, not a timely transfer of ownership to a customer. If I'm not busy doing one thing, I might be doing another or, quite likely, staring out a window, musing. It's called "writing."

At the shop I can't give way to the temptation to sit and think unless I'm thinking about something for the business. A small business is like a lifeboat. Even if you're not the owner, you'd better bail and row unless you see a nice island or a better boat in easy swimming distance. On calm seas I confess I've slacked off a little and worked on my tan. But now the job demands more attention. The economy is tough. The small business owner needs to balance his need for good personnel with his ability to pay them for their time. The responsible rower will want to give a fair return on that investment.

So I start to gear my mind for the business of winter. Meanwhile, riders continue to bring bikes and I continue to snatch what rides I can from the shortening blink of day and the demands of various responsibilities. When I get a moment I look at the side-lit landscape and travel through time.