I’m in the bike department of Paragon Sports, a block from Union Square. All the bikes on display frighten me. They are oddly-angled and futuristic looking. They look like their riders would require a special outfit. Something spandex. Probably in yellow. Yellow spandex from the future. A tall handsome young clerk approaches me and with a thick Italian accent asks if I need help. I nod.
“I want a bike, but something…you know, age appropriate,” I say, indicating the wall of sporty racers and sleek mountain bikes from the future.
The clerk cocks his head, “Age…what?”
I step back and spread my hands. “Look at me. I’m a short, stocky, middle-aged guy. All this Tour de France stuff would make a dumpy old guy like me look pretty silly.” And I laugh. Then I smile and wait expectantly for the clerk to laugh too, to join in on my joke, to say something polite, something like, “Oh, no sir. You’re not old and dumpy. You’d look totally hot on any of these bikes.” Or something like that. But he looks me up and down and nods, “Right. Let’s look on the other side.” Bastard.
On the other side of the bike department I am delighted to find an old school looking Schwinn. It has regular upright handlebars and a saddle that couldn’t double as a butt plug. Yeah, it has 87 gears, 84 more than I need, but at $250, it’s 1/3 of the price of the cheapest of those 23rd century numbers on the other side. Sold.
The clerk escorts me to the row of cashiers where a surly emo girl records his employee number for the commission. I follow him as he pushes the bike to the front door, where a security guard, the head cashier, and the bike department manager must all be summoned to co-initial my invoice before my bike is surrendered to me. Once again I am inconvenienced by internal theft prevention procedures. Still, I’m out of the store less than 30 minutes after I entered. I’ve taken longer picking out socks.
I push the bike out onto the crowded sidewalk. It’s starting to sprinkle and the drops are practically sizzling on the manhole covers. It’s a blessed relief, this rain, and I watch with amusement as a few people dance into the street, spinning and hopping with their hands up in the air. A tattered deranged woman across the street screams, “God is pissing! God is pissing!”, neatly clearing the smiles from everyone’s face.
I consider my options. Could I get a cab in this rain? Would the bike even fit in the trunk? Neither seems likely. I don’t quite feel brave enough to risk riding the bike home, not uptown 50+ blocks in rush hour traffic. It occurs to me that I haven’t ridden a bike at all in many years and I decide that the streets of Manhattan at 7pm are probably not a good place to reacquaint myself with skills last used when there was still an East Germany. It will have to be the subway.
I carry the bike over my shoulder into the Union Square subway station feeling very conspicuous, like I’m pretending to be a bike messenger. If only I had dreadlocks! When the train comes, I dutifully enter the first car, where The Bike People are required to go. At 23rd Street, a young woman gets on the train and squeals when she spots a friend, another young woman who is standing next to me.
“Diane! Oh. Mah. Gawd! How ARE yeeeew?”
Diane says, “Hey! Hi! How’s it going?”
“Never mind me, yeeew look amazing! You’ve lost so. much. weight!”
Diane nods, “Thanks, you’re sweet. I’ve lost 20 pounds since Christmas.”
“Wow, that’s fantastic. Are you doing a lot of cardio? South Beach? Something like that?”
“No, I’m not really doing anything different. Still doing the same workout and eating the same things.”
“So how are you losing the weight? It’s not cancer, is it?” Diane’s friend says with a laugh, shifting her purse to her other shoulder.
Diane looks startled. “Cancer? Why do you say that? That’s not funny, my mom died of cancer and ….wow. I can’t believe you just said that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry honey. I was just joking. You know how I am. Miss foot-in-her-mouth. I’m really sorry, you do look just great.”
The two women go on to small talk about mutual friends until the train arrives at Grand Central and Diane’s friend says, “I gotta switch to the 7. Great to see you. Send me an email sometime!”
I watch Diane turn and watch her friend through the window. Then I watch Diane make some curious rubbing motions on her chest, over her blouse, while staring at her reflection in the glass. Her hand moves slowly on one side of her chest, in small circles. It comes to me immediately. She’s feeling for lumps. I ache for her. I watch her reflection as it’s strobed by the passing lights of the tunnel. Her face is blank and I imagine that in her head she is replaying How Mom Found Out. Her hand finishes its inspection on one side and begins on the other.
68th Street. Diane steps out to let me push the bike through the doors, then reboards. I will myself not to look back to see if she has resumed her inspection. Getting the bike up three flights of subway stairs is harder than it looks and I’m drenched when I reach the street, where for the first time, I mount my bike. Within half a block, I nearly collide with a Chinese deliveryman riding the wrong way on the street. I’m always telling my friends that if I’m ever killed on the streets of Manhattan, it won’t be a mugging, it won’t be a drive-by, it won’t be terrorism, it will be Kung Po Chicken riding the wrong fucking way.
A block later, I forget the near collision. My mind is on Diane. I also forget where I live, riding right past my apartment building. I pull a u-turn and like some kind of, I don’t know, Chinese deliveryman, I ride the wrong way back up my street. I have no problem managing my new vehicle. It comes back to me. It’s just like riding a bike.