The Bicycle Repair Shop Can Only Fix the Bike (The Bicycle Elegies, Part II)

The story begins on a disappointing note. I got back my bicycle, and it functions now, but I never got the diagnostic I hoped for. It did take an extra five days to get it back at all–without explanation–and so I explain it by imagining all of the repair folks saying, “No, you touch it” to each other for four days straight. When I picked it up, I opted to be dropped off at the repair shop and trusted that it would work enough to get me home, or I would walk the bike two miles back. Neither option is a great hardship.

I walked up to the counter and asked for my bike and the clerk called out that it was the blue one, and a young man wheeled it out, the repair ticket flapping from the handlebars. I paid, and while it was more than I had originally paid for it, there were no charges for replacement parts, nothing additional to the basic tune-up fee. $47.50 and goodbye and I was wheeling the bike away from the stripmall sidewalk when I finally remembered that I never asked about what they’d done. I never asked for the story I hoped for.

I am terrible at this part.

I didn’t go back. I should have. It’s not a strange question, and I am not bothered, generally, by people thinking me odd because I am very odd in many ways. But I am not good at asking.

In 2004, I went to Sheffield, England. It was one stop on a longer journey, a stop many, many people found odd, but I was doing it to see the town where my favorite soccer team plays (and then I was carrying on to see them play a match elsewhere). It was a Monday, any Monday, and there was no practice because the team had already crossed England to get to Preston, where I would see them the next day. Someone was tending to the pitch grass, and two young women were staffing the gift shop. The gates to the pitch were closed, of course, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone to let me see the grass, the seats, or anything at all. I had crossed an ocean (though not just for this, I reasoned), spent hours on a bus from London, after the red-eye (just for this). But still, I couldn’t make myself ask. I bought a shirt, a hat, a mug. I took a photo through the red, wrought iron gate. I still regret that.

I regretted this, too, continuing to walk the bike down the sidewalk, though it’s not on the same scale at all. And I know more about this–I know the front wheel was out of true because the clerk said so when I dropped it off. I know they fixed the shifting mechanism because the chain now stays connected to the sprockets. I am fairly confident that that is all that changed, save maybe some greasing or tightening. I got the bike back near the end of August, and I rode it to work all of last week, and it feels the same as it did. The character of the bike has not changed. It still has a sluggish heaviness that could belong to either of us, and it has a few interesting clicks, which I am fairly certain belong to the bike. But the story of the object itself isn’t what I wanted it to be.

I want the bike to be exciting on its own. I want the bike to mean something. The bike is not exciting. The only thing that it means on its own is department store bike-ness. One colleague did stop to look at it, but I expect he stopped mostly because my shirttail is always stuck on the tacky black rubber of the handlebars as I try to get the whole thing into the building and then into my small office. I think I can squeeze past to open the door, only to be caught or pulled or thumped in the gut because something is caught. None of the doors I use are automatic. Another colleague here has a snappy road bike that he skims along so neatly, only three fingers on the handlebars. I am always wrestling mine.

That’s probably the story–the wrestling. I am never so graceless than when the bike is involved, and that is saying something. I am also always afraid on it. Last Wednesday, I had a point where I wasn’t ashamed to say so because I had a reason why. Most of the time, I have no actual reason.

My commute to work is not even a mile in each direction, and all of it is on residential streets. I was on one of those, quiet and empty, and, on Wednesday, someone in an SUV hung behind my back tire for a few hundred yards. I was two feet from the curb. The looming metal was three from me, and maybe that’s not so close at all for people who are used to riding in highly trafficked areas, but on an empty street at so few miles an hour, it felt very near. I eventually stopped, tires scooted against the curb, and turned. Maybe the person wanted directions to somewhere. But when I looked at him, the driver only pulled away, hands up, protesting innocence of some kind.

On my feet, I do not feel this way. On my feet, I can walk in the dark with someone at my heels and be unbothered. In the sunlit eight a.m. quiet of ten minutes after the school buses leave the neighborhood, I found the nearness frightening. On the bicycle, I am suspicious.

What it means, though, is that all of that is the sum of me. It has nothing to do with the bicycle itself, save that the bike is a bike, just a thing, an uninteresting thing. Knowing that it works in the way it was intended to work now has not made the task any easier, and that makes me feel foolish. I had hoped for–nearly expected–some magical transformation of the object after its tune-up, that there was some adjustment the shop could make to turn it light and graceful and easy. What I wanted was the (quite impossible) experience of being turned myself into something light and graceful and easy when put in tandem with the bike.

I suppose I don’t have to tell you that there’s no bike shop on the planet that can do that.

It’s just going to be hard. If I want to do it, I will just have to keep practicing. I don’t have to tell you that I hate that idea. I’m not going to let it go because I’m stubborn, but it has been a long time since I’ve had to fight with something so hard. (There are, of course, many tasks I have chosen not to fight with because they’re hard, too hard in some way, but that’s another issue. I am still terrible at asking necessary questions.) Maybe that’s one of the privileges (and pitfalls) of adulthood: unless one’s career says learn this, do this and one is committed enough (by choice or necessity) to the career to not walk away, there’s no one to make one do the hard thing. As a child, life is all about having to do hard things that don’t feel or fit right because childhood is a series of tests that must be passed, and many of them are quite literally tests. Someone is always saying, “Just try it,” and expecting good things (like climbing the rope in gym class and drawing human faces and memorizing the capitals of all of the countries in South America). Right now, absolutely no one but me cares whether I manage this bicycle thing. In fact, I probably shouldn’t care as much as I do. If I’m being very environmentally conscious, I can walk, and the distance is so short that the time added is not so much. I probably walk as fast as I ride, actually, because I don’t fear my feet and my feet don’t fail and I know how to walk and I am always in a hurry. I know always what to expect of my feet and the sidewalks and where I cross the street.

But the story is in the wrestling. The story is in doing the hard thing (even if it’s ridiculous that the thing is hard in the first place–maybe because it’s ridiculous that this, of all things, is difficult). I should be reminded of that. It’s what I expect from my students every day. I don’t care how hard it is to write. I only care that they keep trying.

Christ, it’s only fair.

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