A Bike Named Charlie

Agatha Hoff - San Francisco, CA

My bike took up an inordinate amount of space in the rear of the courthouse elevator.  My fellow passengers frowned when they saw it. I knew they wished that I had left Charlie outside.

Judges Gebhart and O'Hara, both corpulent in the manner of those who eat too many rubber chicken dinners, stepped into the elevator just before the doors closed. O'Hara gave my yellow bike a judgmental glance. Gebhart took care that the robe he carried over his arm didn't touch my bicycle's wheels. I started to say good morning, but both judges turned their backs, oblivious to my identity, hidden under my helmet.  They assumed I was one of the army of messengers who scurried in and out of the building, delivering legal papers to the Clerk's Office.  No one suspected that he was riding in the elevator with ‚Charlie II,‚or that I couldn't possibly have left my commute companion tied to some pole in front of the courthouse. Charlie, after all, was not just any old bike.

My sister speaks of loving a freckle-faced, redheaded boy in second grade.  When she asks me about my first love, I remark without hesitation that it was Charlie, the yellow, bucking-bronco, jerry-rigged for me in Switzerland.

After World War Two, as an eleven-year-old runt of a child, I was sent by my parents from Hungary to stay with a family in the Alps.  Home- sickness struck me with a vengeance.  In an effort to cheer me up, Fatti, the head of the house, built the bike for me from remnants of twowheelers which had been ridden over the years by various members of his brood of eight children.  I fell in love with every inch of Charlie, beginning with his slightly mishappened front wheel, which lent riding a certain excitement.

Charlie had a mind of his own.  I became intimately familiar with every pothole in the village.  Whenever I thought I had avoided one, the wobbly motion of the unbalanced front wheel would steer me where I did not wish to go.  Oh, how I loved that unsightly machine.

Charlie, alas, met his demise, and I very nearly met mine one morning, when we tried to negotiate a sharp right turn at a good clip, and the bike decided to run headlong into an adjacent wall instead of turning the corner.

The bed of nettles at the base of the wall enhanced my feeling of having landed on the wrong side of the pearly gates.  Alas, the frame of my little bronco was bent beyond repair, and Charlie lay where he dumped me, smeared with my blood.

A couple of years later, my family and I emigrated to America.  As I grew, I qualified as the hand-me-down queen of the universe, inheriting books, clothes and bikes outgrown by my sister or bought as salvage at garage sales.  Though their wheels were true, none of these bikes quite engendered the same deep feelings of affection I had felt for my Swiss steed. I loved them in a more fickle, teenage sort of way.

As an adult, I shared my wheels with my four children.  As each in turn grew strong enough to sit unsupported, he or she rode either on a seat behind me or on my handlebars, sometimes one kid in each spot, making us look like a hump-backed camel.  I like to think that during these rides my love affair with the bike passed to another generation.  Sometimes, even now, when I ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, I hear, echoing through the years, the bloodcurdling shouts of my youngest son yelling, Faster, Mommy, faster!

For my fifty-fifth birthday, I bought myself a new bike.  No hand-me-down, no salvage, no prior owner, brand-spanking new.  The chrome and the spokes shimmered and shone on its sleek black frame emblazoned with the words HARD ROCK.  I couldn‚Äôt quite believe that it belonged to me. I was, once again, utterly in love.

At sunrise, the day after I bought it, I opened the garage door and hoisted the bike gently onto the rack on my car, before heading for a trail across San Francisco Bay.  In the thirty seconds that it took while I ran upstairs to get my bike lock, someone swiped my prized possession.  After a period of intense mourning, I told myself that this romance was not meant to be, and I went back to riding my previous garage sale acquisition.

This spring, a whole new world opened up to me.  I saw a notice in the Tubular Times describing biking tours for women over fifty.  I blew a wad and signed up to traverse 250 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  WomanTours rented me the sleekest bike I'd ever ridden.  It had a cobalt blue frame, light as a feather, made of some wondrous material with a high-tech name.  Twenty-one gears, no less, made it slide up mountain roads with the greatest of ease.  When I pedaled through the parade grounds of the Virginia Military Institute, 1200 cadets saluted.  I thought it was an entirely fitting gesture.  That bike and I were rain-soaked, rolled through surreal fog, puffed our way up a nine-mile grade and sailed down a glorious twelve-mile descent, all the while surrounded by the violet Blue Ridge range.

Our laughter echoed through the mountains as the six of us on the tour acted like kids once again.  At one point, while riding through a horse farm, we came upon six mounting platforms.  In unison, we dismounted our bikes, jumped up on the platforms, spread our arms over our heads in the form of a V, and took Olympic gold bows in all directions, hearing the applause of thousands ringing in our ears.

At the end of the journey, I could not part with that wonderful bike and, on an impulse, bought it to ship home.  When the bicycle arrived in San Francisco, my son, then 33, who used to urge me to go faster, helped uncrate and reassemble it.

Lo and behold, during my first ride through the neighborhood, a garage sale beckoned.  I stopped and there, propped against the wall, stood the grownup version of my Swiss bike of long ago.  It had that unmistakable bent front wheel of Charlie's.  I chuckled as I remounted my sleek TREK 7500.  At the next intersection, a four way stop, I paused as cars coming from the other three directions pulled to a stop after me. As I glanced at each driver in turn to make sure he or she saw me before riding into the intersection, I noted the nightmare of all nightmares for a biker.  I was surrounded by drivers with cell phones glued to their ears, oblivious to traffic around them and most certainly unaware of me.  Hapless souls going through life wrapped in technology.  They may never know the feeling of the wind in their face or hear the whir of pedals beneath their feet.  I yielded to them all before gingerly riding through the intersection.

I pedaled over to evening services at St. Jude's. (The church is named after the patron saint of lost causes.) I wound my cryptolite lock through the front and back wheels, and locked the bike to a telephone pole in the alley behind the church.  During the service, I prayed to have car phones banished from the earth and all their owners endowed with a 21-speed, all-terrain bicycle like mine.  I felt very noble, since the prayer I had uttered was not quite the one I‚Äôd had in mind at that stop sign intersection. But alas, I think even St. Jude couldn't help me, since God himself must have gone hi-tech. Who else could the guy next to me be talking to on his cell phone in the middle of the service?  Perhaps I could e-mail Him to get His attention.  www.god.com?  Is Anybody there?

I left church to retrieve my TREK 7500.  The shadow of a cyclist pedaling fast fell across my path as a youthful rider rounded the corner of the church.  I saw the sun glint off cobalt blue and knew before looking down the now-vacant alley, that my wonderful new bike was gone. 

I sighed when I saw the cut cable still wound around the pole and hesitated only a moment in memoriam.  Then I walked through the alley as fast as I could in the direction of the garage sale I‚Äôd visited that morning.   Before I reached my destination, I knew with certainty that ‚my‚ bike would still be there.  We were meant for each other. 

There is a God after all, I thought, as there, leaning on the closed garage door was that decrepit yellow bike with the slightly askew front wheel.  Attached to the bike, waving in the wind, I spotted a glorious sign: ‚Take me, I'm yours, it read.

I had the wheel trued and a new chain put on. I rode Charlie II the ten miles to work from my Richmond District home to the courthouse on Folsom Street in downtown San Francisco for two years before I retired. Judges and commissioners often took to the stairs in the building, to avoid having to relitigate the cases of fellow elevator passengers, who had just appeared before them. I never had that problem when Charlie II was with me.

At the end of a long day of listening to sob stories in traffic court, as I shed my judicial robes in my chambers and was donning my cycling togs for my ride home, I could hear the voice of Jack Rhodes coming through the door that led to the corridor.

Where'n hell does she expect me to park?‚ he was saying.  She just doesn't understand, but...‚ his voice trailed off as he walked down the hall.

Jack Rhodes, a habitual double parker had just left my court, having presented me with the fiftieth variation on the same theme.  He had a large van; it didn't fit in most spaces; he had an emergency delivery to make; he didn't have time to go around the block.  On other occasions, I had reduced the fine on some of his citations.  This time though, the citing officer had quoted Mr. Rhodes in the comment section of the ticket: I'll get it knocked down anyhow. Alas, I had made him pay the full fine.

I sighed, as Jack Rhodes‚ voice receded.  I turned to the mirror which I kept tucked in my bookcase between Black‚Äôs Law Dictionary and my copy of Jack Rhodes‚ bible, the Nolo Press book, How to Fight Your Traffic Ticket, applied my sunscreen, and cinched the strap on my helmet.

As I wheeled my bike out of the office and headed towards the elevators, I could still hear Rhodes holding forth on his bad fortune. His voice mixed with the sound of elevators pinging to announce their arrival on our floor, doors swishing open and closed, other people talking.  The elevator lobby had cleared and momentary quiet descended as I approached to push the down button.  A set of doors promptly opened to reveal Jack, his face bearing an air of sardonic preoccupation as he reached to pound on the ‚ ground floor‚ button.  I had managed to stop his elevator from descending.  I hesitated at the thought of sharing a ride with Rhodes.  The doors began to close.

Well, ain't you comin‚?, Jack demanded.  You stopped the damn elevator.

Sorry, I told him and wheeled my bike in.

come down here for nothin‚ Jack informed me as we began our descent.  That punk don't listen to me.

As I muttered a noncommittal response, I realized that my wraparound sunglasses, helmet and dear old Charlie II were working their magic, providing me anonymity.  Jack had no idea who I was.

"Hope your day improves!" I called to Jack as we left the building.  I hopped on Charlie and headed down the handicapped ramp leading towards Folsom Street.  In the rearview mirror attached to my helmet, I could see Jack Rhodes approaching a van double-parked in front of the courthouse.  I heard him curse as he reached for the ticket tucked under the windshield wiper.

Ah, the revolving doors of traffic court, I thought, and whistled ‚"ÄAuf wiedersehen...√° bientot...‚Äù, as I headed for home.

blog comments powered by Disqus