Technical, Sublime, Neighborly, and Inexplicable

Before the walk at India Point, I took my smooth bike tires to the Shell Station on Wickenden Street and turned two quarters into solidly-inflated tires. With no gauge, I put my weight on each tire to estimate how much it spread. After the walk in the park I had left the tires in the trunk, and that afternoon I found they were still inflated–no fast slow leaks, only slow slow leaks, if any. But the sprocket cluster was on a different set of wheels from the one I had inflated, and not only were the tires with the sprockets flat, but they used presta valve stems rather than Schrader valve stems. I had no Schrader-to-presta adapter.

I looked up at the shadows and realized the lovely fall day was about to come to an end. Perhaps I should just hang it all up20151008_222258 until I found a bike shop. But wired to the spokes on the smooth tires was a zip-lock bag containing a piece of metal that I had put there the last time I’d laid hands on the wheels. I opened it to find a tool with a one-inch hex-nut head and gear-shaped extension that fit perfectly into the center opening of the cluster and around the axle. Turning the tool counterclockwise, though, only spun the cluster, and I realized I might need a chain wrench to compensate for the torque when I turned the tool with a box-end wrench to remove the part. Rummaging in the tool box on the recollection of once having possessed one, I came up empty handed. But I did turn up an old sock. It was an unlikely prospect, but I put the sock over my right hand and held onto the cluster while I turned the tool with a wrench in my left hand. It made a little clicking noise and then turned! A threaded cap ring had held the cluster in place, and I could suddenly loosen it with my fingers and remove the cluster entirely.

The cassette was not fastened together, so the stack of sprockets wobbled a bit, and for a moment I thought I might drop seven gears of various sizes. I aligned the pieces on the axle hub of the smooth tire and screwed the cap ring back on. I smiled inwardly. After perhaps a year, I was going to be able to get on the bike and ride it. I transferred the quick-releases to the new wheels, put the wheels on the bike forks, tightened the quick releases, connected the two brake calipers, and lifted the rear wheel and pressed down on the pedal to get the chain on the sprocket aligned with the position of the derailleur. A helmet was strapped to the bike, and put it on to find it was too small. Twisting an adjustment knob a few clicks I got it to fit my head, and I put the strap under my chin and snapped it. A quick loosening, lifting, and then tightening of the seat post brought the saddle high enough so my knees would be only slightly bent at the bottom of the stroke.

Though it was dusk, I swung my right leg over the bike and started pedaling up the street, with no lights. But University and Arlington Avenues were deserted.  In the autumn air, I first caught the edgy smell of old food in the dumpster next to my apartment building. Leaving that behind, I moved into the scent of maple leaves, of end-of-the-season cut grass, and then a whiff of garlic browning in butter in someone’s kitchen. My legs felt confident of what they were doing, and the bike-less months notwithstanding, it did not feel odd to be balanced in the air on two points of tire contact.  It was–I’ll go ahead and say it–like riding a bike.  I rolled up College Hill with few sounds other than little gravels popping from under the tire and my breathing. I became conscious of my head moving through space about six feet above the asphalt under a canopy of enormous trees and beside a massive stone wall at the edge of the Brown University playing fields.  No cars were on the street.  Uncharacteristic for this neighborhood at this time of day, there were no walkers or runners.  For a few moments in this darkling street I was completely present.

Arriving back at the building minutes later, I encountered one of my neighbors.  So as not to startle her as she carried empty boxes to the dumpster, I said, “Did you get all your moving done?”

She turned around and said, “What an ordeal!  It’s been fifteen years since I moved into this place, right after my divorce.  I didn’t realize how much stuff I’d accumulated.  And my lower back.  Oh, my God.”  Looking more carefully at me, she asked, “New bike?”

“No. But this is the first I’ve ridden it since I moved here.  Got the tires pumped up. Just went a few blocks away.  Sometimes I want to be invisible, but on a bike in the dark is not one of those times.”

“Good for you!” she said.

“Good for you,” I said, “Tomorrow you’ll be glad you moved to the new place, even before the soreness goes away.”

I went upstairs and had a bite of dinner.  Then I got on Google maps to look up a local bike store where I could get a light.  With a click on one of the red pointers, I waited for that particular bike store’s website to appear.

I’m accustomed to occasional random things happening, but ….  My screen filled with a brilliant daytime image with grassland and trees in the foreground, a dirt road, ahead, and elephants standing about in the grass.  It was a Google Maps “street view” of Samburu National Preserve in Kenya. I had the presence of mind to save the URL.  Have a look yourself.  Things like this have explanations; machines follow their instruction sets.  Yet I cannot explain how it happened. It is like a dream, but I can also show you my dream. I can ask, what does it mean?  Had this been an actual dream, what would Herr Doktor Freud say?  Or I can savor that shot of the wild, a little truck path beaten through it, and wonder what lies beyond the ruts and the line of trees.


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