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Monday, October 17, 2011

Riding a Bike

The first time my dad took the training wheels off my bike was like a classic T.V. sitcom moment: Dad held my cherry red Schwinn as he sprinted beside me. “Pedal faster,” he instructed. I pedaled faster. “Keep going, sweet-heart!” I did! I kept going, pedaling fast and faster until I was no longer a leaf attached to the branches of his arms; it was just me on my bike, streaking down the sidewalk, a blast of Shirley Temple curls trailing behind me. The rest of my childhood, if I wasn’t reading books (the entire Babysitter’s Club series), or spying on my older, cooler sister, I was on my bike. We lived in a quiet serene neighborhood, and I lived for my parents’ instructions of “Go outside and play.”
            For my 6th grade graduation, I was gifted a 10-speed mountain bike...but something inside me had fizzled away. My leaves had changed. I no longer wanted to ride my bike to spy on the neighborhood “crazy” who had about a hundred animals in her backyard (including a very cool llama, and a one-eyed cat). I no longer cared to ride to the orchards of pomegranate trees, where I would bask in the shade and watch passing clouds in the sky. (I’ve always been a dreamer.) Instead, I became more interested in trying to smoke my first cigarette, and of taking those Does he like you? quizzes from big sis’s Seventeen.
My dad ended up taking the bike with him when my parents divorced; a surefire symbol that the ride of my childhood had ended. Years passed. Over 15. Then last year, on a visit up to San Francisco, my dad strapped a bike onto his jeep, drove it up, and proudly boasted, “Here. A present for you.”
The entire time it had served as a lovely ornament in the garage, collecting dust alongside our friend’s bike. But the other Saturday morning, the ruca suggested we take out the ol’ wheels. At first I thought she was crazy. Frisco streets are a parade of pandemonium! I’ve always been terrified to bike the streets and share with hundreds of busses, Muni trains, camera-snapping tourists spilling out of cable-cars, way-agro cab drivers, and pedestrians who take their ‘right of way’ as seriously as their middle-finger. (Just last week, I saw the 14 slice a rearview mirror clean off a Lexus, while a gang of teens in the back of the bus hollered Boo-yah!) Still, my ruca was determined to soak up the few days of our Indian summer, and pretty soon I was determined too, but also a little bit annoyed with myself; Why (and how) had I grown to be such a freakin’ wuss?
Ready to take on a new adventure by the handlebars, I marched my no-guts-no-glory ass outside and did something I hadn’t done in years: I got on a bike. Instantly, my feet re-connected with the pedals, my hands with the brakes. Everything flooded back to me, a déjà vu like haze of my childhood blooming through as an adult. Clearly, this was not a difficult task like recalling the Pythagorean theorem; it was something you could never forget, as easy to remember as—duh—riding a bike.
The wind splashed on my face and whipped at the curls that had escaped from my helmet. Why is that when we get older, we become more afraid? Is it because the more we live in life, the more we potentially have to lose? Or is it because we’ve begun to live long enough to know that we are not invincible? For years I’ve been scared of riding a bike, and even though I didn’t know that fear as a child, it had engulfed me somehow as an adult. I’ll admit that while the thought of eating shit on the Muni tracks is still kinda scary, I was no longer going to let that fear be a reason for not wanting to ride.
The city was the same as any other day, but it all felt completely different on two wheels. I zipped past herds of people packed in coffee shops and sipping mimosas at brunch spots. I watched employees flip their signs to ‘open’ in the window of boutiques. I chuckled at the religious señoras with their Despierta! pamphlets as they stood beside the shouting preachers clutching their bibles. Then, as I pedaled fast and faster, everything became a blur…Yoga mats, grocery tote bags, skaters filming their friends eating shit, pigeons in puddles, murals on schools and liquor stores, a man with no legs and a ‘Jesus Loves You’ sign, Goood Frickin’ Chicken, a tatted-up dude with a pet parrot, the rainbows of Castro, drunks in alleys, March for your rights Oct. 29th, $8 corte de pelo, Shoe Biz, best Bloody Mary’s in Town!, Free HIV testing, men playing dice, howling kids on playgrounds, Naan-N-Curry, hopeful workers on César Chávez Street, pizza by the slice, pastel colored projects next to exquisite Victorians, seedy strip clubs—XXX, GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS!—pupuserías, boba in your fruit drinks, the gated up GUNS shop, cops interrogating cholos while stoned-ass hipsters tapped their badges for a match, BuY $1 bOOks here!, a new show at the Roxie tonight…the city unfolded before my eyes like a thousand Polaroids as I blew past it. It was an early Saturday afternoon and the streets were as alive as after. I reveled in that same glorious sensation of feeling so alive and new—as if my dad had just taken off my training wheels for the first time.


  1. Sarah, this is such a beautiful and satisfying story!
    love the ending and the fact you got over your fear!

    the picture of your bike is a nice touch :)

  2. I love how much you love your city. Your descriptions of your Chula Vista neighborhood take me back to when we used to walk around there... yet, I can't remember where the "crazy" person with all the animals was.