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A New Bike

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on February 9, 2008

flying.jpg There I was: flying – nothing around me at all. Air – I could feel air under me. I knew I was gonna die. It’s a very comforting feeling – when you know you’re going to die. You just relax, you let it happen, you don’t fight it. I’ve heard that in such moments, your whole life flashes before your eyes. All I thought of was that I was going to be late. I thought about the classes I’d miss. Maybe I didn’t have that much time to think.
I don’t remember anything from the realization that I was airborne until I found myself lying on the ground, wondering where I was. I was lying down, I might be in bed, dreaming. I was outside. I wasn’t in a bed. I wanted to get up, find out. I realized I didn’t know who I was! Now that was scary! I remember telling myself (whoever I was): Just lay here. Relax. Let it come. It was like trying to remember something on the tip of my tongue: think of something else, don’t think about what it was I’d forgotten. I closed my eyes.
I remembered the construction site, the hole in the floor for the cellar steps to be added later, being pushed, falling, waking up to a headache, being carried across a field, blood on my face, getting stitches above my eye. metwo1957.jpg I remembered standing outside the tree house, trying to cover a hole in the roof on a rainy day, slipping, falling, coming to with a terrible sharp pain in my arm, the visiting relatives in our house, the ride to the hospital, the plaster cast.
It came back to me. Pumping my bicycle down that hill, hell-bent for speed. Traffic. Lots of traffic, rush hour traffic. A whole lane to myself. I was keeping up, moving pretty fast. Warp factor seven, Scotty. Suddenly there is a car coming across the lane to my left, pointed right at me. A big white whale of a car. I see a panicked woman’s face through the windshield, her mouth open, her eyes wide. The car is trying to cut across traffic into a driveway I don’t know is there, to my right. It is practically on top of me as I stare into the woman’s eyes, then, I’m here.
So I knew where I was – in the street. Somehow I’d survived. I opened my eyes to a typical Baltimore grey-blue sky. I knew who I was, forgot that I’d forgotten.
Voices. There were people talking somewhere. “Now, don’t you worry about it none. I saw the whole thing,” I heard a man say – I could hear an eager concern in his voice – “It wasn’t your fault. I’ll testify in court for you.” Now, why would someone say that? I wondered. Someone else – I remember a deep gravelly voice – asked, “What about him?”
Another voice: “Him? He’s dead,” with a definite certainty in the tone. Nice!
It was time to get up. My leg muscles were strong from bicycling every day. I usually spring to my feet, like a cat, I imagined. So, I popped up off the street suddenly, wondering why I was alone, why no one had come to help me. firemanrest.jpg Through the traffic I saw firemen sitting in lawn chairs in front of their station on the other side of the street. They weren’t looking my way. It was almost too much. No pain, but my left leg felt weak, wanting to give way, to not support my weight. I spun around on my right leg, and saw a car, the car, the white whale, an impressively long car, a Lincoln Continental Mark IV. lincoln_continental_mark_iv.jpg It was empty, door open. There was a crowd on the sidewalk, maybe ten feet from me. Men, black and white, in denim overalls, with grey lunch boxes, brown bags and silver thermos bottles were arranged in a ragged circle around a white woman with her head hanging down. She was heavy, not fat, but matronly, motherly looking, with blond hair. Her dress looked expensive. As I started moving, she looked up in my direction, staring at me, her mouth open again, or was it still? I limped towards her. She practically jumped off the sidewalk and headed for me.
“Hear, sit in my car,” she insisted, softly, and gave me her arm for support. I let myself fall into the car, sinking into the plush rear seat.
She left me there. I looked around. It was an expensive car. Besides the softness of the seat, the colors were unusual. 73markivpict5.jpg The interior and the seats were all the same light tan color. In 1973, it was the fanciest car I’d ever been in, except, perhaps, for the limousine I’d ridden in after my grandfather’s funeral mass. That had been some car. I remembered playing with the electric windows, thrilled to be in a black limousine, even one going to a cemetery. I was 12. I didn’t play with the windows this time. I was 22 years old. I knew the windows would be automatic. I knew the car was expensive, and I wondered if this woman would take me to the hospital. There was pain shooting up my leg from my foot now. The pain was increasing every moment. The woman’s face appeared at the door. “Are you all right?” she asked. There was a hint of worry, and fear, in her voice. “No,” I replied, “I’m not. My foot hurts. It hurts a lot. I don’t think I can walk on it.” She disappeared again. I laid back on the seat, trying to ease the pain. A fireman appeared. I told him about the pain. The swelling was very visible now. He told me I should go to a hospital, get it x-rayed. I said OK. He left for a couple of minutes, and came back with a piece of plastic. He put it on over my leg like a sleeve, and it filled with air, somehow. The pain seemed to lessen a bit. He asked me if I could walk. I said, “No, my foot hurts real bad.” He told me to lay back down. After a few minutes people grabbed me, helped me up and out of the belly of the beast, into an ambulance.
At the hospital, I lay on a gurney for quite some time. I thought accident victims would get immediate treatment, but I was wrong. First they ask questions: “Do you have insurance? Can you pay for this visit?” Then I get a clipboard with papers to sign. “Sign here, and here, and here.” Then nothing. The pain was intense, like the time I’d broken my arm. It worried me. No one seemed to care that I was in pain. Nearby, I heard children crying. I looked over. One of them had a head wound, another had a broken arm. They had to wait too. I did my best to be patient. When someone finally came to see me, I asked if I could get an x-ray. “Yes, as soon as it’s available.” The x-ray didn’t show a break. The doctor said the upper part of my foot was sprained. Nothing serious. I called my roommates to see if they could come get me. They were very nice. Don and Joan. I walked out of the hospital with an arm around each of their shoulders. I still couldn’t put any weight on the foot. I don’t know where they got the car, because none of us a had a car. Afterwards, the hospital sent me a bill, for x-rays and crutches. I couldn’t believe they billed me for crutches. No one had offered me crutches, or even mentioned ‘em.
I stopped by the Free Clinic where I volunteered and they found me a pair I could borrow. A lawyer called me. He called on behalf of the woman who had hit me. That was strange, as I’d given Mrs. Penn-Central-Fruit-Company my number, and had been expecting her to call. He acted like it might have been my fault, but that’s what lawyers do, I’ve since learned. lawyers.gif He asked me how I was, and what had happened. I explained the situation. He said he’d call me back. When he did, he asked me what I wanted. I told him I’d lost my Schwinn ten-speed – it had been dragged across the lane under the car; one pedal arm had been bent backwards into the spokes, and the 16 gauge steel tubing was impossibly bent in a couple of places. I needed one to get to school. I told him I had a bill from the hospital. He said that his client had already offered to pay that – just send it to her. I told him she shouldn’t pay for the crutches on the bill, as they hadn’t given me any. He said he’d see about getting me another bike. I got a check. It was enough to buy a new ten-speed. I picked out a tough, German-made one, as soon as I was able to ride again. All my friends told me I should have sued the woman, but I had a new bike, and no expenses as a result of the accident, so I never considered doing that.

However, a couple months later, someone stole it from my girlfriend’s backyard, even as I was planning a cross-country bicycle trip. A friend of a friend at the Free Clinic came by with his Gitane bicycle, said I could use it. I told him I didn’t know when I’d be back. He said not to worry about it. It was a really nice bike. I’d had enough of Baltimore, of mildewed row-houses and cockroaches, of bumper-to-bumper traffic and pollution alerts. School was not working out very well. I was studying calculus, organic chemistry and physics, writing for the school newspaper, marching in demonstrations, going to meetings, and volunteering one night a week at the Free Clinic. My grades were terrible. I helped organize a teach-in at my school around the continuing war. We called a student strike, but few people boycotted classes. I missed a key genetics lab. A teaching assistant told me, “You’d better decide what’s important.” I figured everything was important, that I could do everything. The school finally decided for me, dismissing me on probation for six months. That was when I’d decided it was time to go. I’d quit my job to go to school full time. My savings were almost gone; the scholarship and loan were over. My girlfriend told me I could stay with her until I found work, but the idea didn’t thrill me. I didn’t want charity, and I didn’t know what kind of job I could find or when.

I traded my waterbed for a sleeping bag. Bought 5 pounds each of brown rice, soybeans, and granola. Threw in some alfalfa seeds for spouting too – needed greens. Took two pair of jeans, two long-sleeved shirts, some t-shirts, and some basic tools. I asked my mom to repay a loan I’d given her. She came by my girlfriend’s house and gave me part of it. I had about $80 altogether now. I headed west with my Gitane. gitane.jpg A French racing bike. Gitane is French for gypsy. Bike (bique) means penis in French, I’d been told, so I wondered what I could do with my gypsy penis. I didn’t have much else.

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