My son and his buddy decided they wanted to ride their bikes down to the gas station the other afternoon. Although it scared me, and made me really think if that was ok, I was a little excited about it. The best part about riding a bike is having independence on wheels.
I grew up in a Chicago neighborhood lined with brownstones, each with their own rectangular patch of grass cut through by a wide sidewalk. We never had to ride in the street, and were forbidden to for many years. We just rode up the block and then turned to the alley to head back along the garage doors and garbage cans. The sidewalk in front of the German sisters’ house was the smoothest, especially good for rollerskating, but they often had their hose out and scowled at us for riding over it. It’s how I learned to bunny hop – but on my neighbor’s Diamond Back BMX bike.
We were definitely out of sight for a little bit, but our parents trusted us not to break the rules about going in the street. We got permission to go to the park, but had to promise to cross Montrose Avenue at the light. There we had a square mile of paths, winding through baseball fields and picnickers.
I always had a certain amount of time and was given a watch at an early age. It was usually about 30 minutes, and I’d better not be late. Ten minutes could mean two weeks being grounded, and mom wasn’t one to provide parole for good behavior. This slavery to time continues to haunt me, making me extra stressed about scheduling, and extra annoyed at people making me late, but it does allow me to accomplish a lot in a day. She had the right idea.
Sometimes we visited friends three blocks over. There were at least six boys living on that block, so there were always enough bikes to go around when taking turns jumping stuff. They kept an old door and some car tires behind the bushes in the front yard, which was our ramp. The first time I saw them doing that, my stomach dropped. This was way cooler than the way on our block how we put our bikes upside down and played ice cream man with the pedals.
I was excited at trying something scary. I could do backhandsprings. Surely I could do this. I just didn’t really want to find out what it would feel like crashing off that thing onto the cement. And this was the pre-helmet era. I watched for a while and decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I finally grabbed Todd’s bike, dashing down the street to where they started to gather speed. I needed to get this over with. I hauled ass toward the ramp, the boys lined up in the grass. My eyes must have been huge, my long hair flailing around my face half-blinding me. My palms got sweaty and my heart felt like it was on the outside of my body. There was no way out of this now. Would the bike sail off the end? All I could imagine was it clunking down with its front wheel first, spilling me over the handlebars. Thank goodness I had the sense not to grab the banana seat bike with the choppers. I pedaled faster and at the last moment tried my newfound bunny hop.
The bike lifted far less than the “sailing” I had imagined. The tiny effort at least got the front wheel up enough for me not to endo. The back wheel lifted just enough to re-catch as it smacked onto the edge of the door, slid off, and sent me fishtailing for the next half-block. I heard the surprised cheers from the boys, who clearly expected more of a yard sale. They immediately took their turn on the bike, and the moment was gone, never to be mentioned again, but that moment of glory is what flashed a smile across my face that night when I went to sleep.
“Of course you can ride your bike down the street,” I hear myself say.