It’s another slow news day. So, taking a cue from Can’t and Won’t, a collection of very short stories, essays, letters, and recounted dreams from Lydia Davis (click here for details), I’m assembling and posting some excerpts from some old letters to my brothers. (My first set of these is here.) These bits and bobs should be better than actual diary excerpts because at least I wrote them with an audience in mind, so I had incentive to make them good. I’ve provided, for each snippet below, the locale I was writing from.
April 24, 1989 – UC Santa Barbara
I went to see this movie, required for my English class, in one of the lecture halls on campus tonight. I planned to hit Gold’s Gym afterward since it was closed at 6:00 this morning when we rode down there (they said due to “water damage,” whatever that means). Anyhow, the movie’s supposed to be at 7:30, but the bozos can’t figure out how to lower the screen. They spend twenty minutes on that. Then, they can’t figure out how to turn off the lights—another ten minutes down the drain. Then, for twenty more minutes they can’t get any sound for the movie. Meanwhile I’m sitting next to this funny looking guy and this stupid girl with him who’s staring at the ceiling and laughing at everything and reminding me of one of one of the groupies I’d have if I were a rock star. Out of the blue, the guy turns to me and says, “You want gum?” Is it okay to accept gum from strangers? It’s Extra gum so I take the risk. It’s really rubbery, really slippery, good for blowing bubbles. Finally, after forty-five minutes they get the movie going. Halfway through, I blow a bubble a bit too aggressively and the gum goes flying out of my mouth, and you know what? I never found it! I was really slouching, with my feet up on the seat in front of me, so I was sure it landed on my clothes, but it was nowhere to be found. Not on the floor, my clothes, anywhere. Gone. Vanished. Anyhow, the movie was great but needless to say I didn’t have time to lift weights afterward.
I’ve got some new music. First of all, and don’t scream, I’ve been turned on to rap music by Captain John Pelstar. So I’m getting into Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy, and Ice-T. You can hate me if you want, but once you start listening to this shit it’ll probably grow on you too.
Jesus, what the hell am I doing? I’ve gotta read Huis Clos (aka No Exit) by Sartre, in the original French; memorize about 4.5 billion vocab words for same; and write a 6-8 page paper on a 400-page book! I’ve got a final exam on Friday, on Saturday, on Monday, on Wednesday, and the following Friday! Holy shit!
But wait, there’s one more thing I gotta tell you. I’m spreading a new rumor through the cycling team. The rumor is: we’re being sponsored by Club Tan this season! Unlimited free tanning for everybody on the team! But you didn’t hear it from me! What’s scary is we’re scraping so low now for sponsors that everybody actually believes this. I told Mike B–, who’s on the sponsorship committee, and even he believed it! Now that he knows it’s just a BS rumor, he’s been spreading it around too. By the time the season rolls around, everybody will “know” about it. Shit, I really gotta go.
October 28, 1989 – Isla Vista
So I’m riding with Brett, a really cool guy on the cycling team (aren’t they all) and we’re exiting Highway 101 toward Goleta. The exit is long and uphill, and we’re going really slow because it’s a rest day. We pass this racer type, wearing some fancy Rincon team outfit, and we say hi but she doesn’t even acknowledge our existence. So we keep riding up the hill, and at the top there’s a stop sign where we turn right. I always run it, since there’s never any cars there. In fact, I once ran it right in front of a cop and he didn’t bat an eye. It’s that much of a blow-off. So I’m behind Brett, and oddly enough he actually starts to slow down. So I decide to go around him on the right, and no sooner do I start to pass him than the Rincon girl comes surging up the right side, without warning, almost plowing into me. Stunned, but still unwilling to brake, I decide to go around Brett’s left side instead. As I’m coming around, I look again at the girl, like, “What is she thinkin’?” Then, I hear a noise behind me. I look over my left shoulder and this truck is suddenly bearing down on us. No problem, he has plenty of room, I think. So I look forward again, and to my horror, Brett has slowed down even more and I’m hopelessly hooked on him. I have nowhere to go because of the truck, and my bike seems to have locked into his somehow. My bike gets pulled out from under me, and my butt is falling towards the rear wheel. If my butt were to land on the wheel, it would drag my balls into the brake caliper and drag me along like that, ruining my chances of ever being a father. In the nick of time, I manage to pull my right foot out of the toe-clip and stand up on it, though the bike is still being dragged along, and my left foot is still in its pedal. My left hand is holding onto the top of the handlebar, and I’m sliding on my right foot now, with my right arm swung high like a cowboy on a bucking bronco. To give you a better perspective of how grave the situation is, I should perhaps mention that the right side of the handlebar is dragging on the ground, while my puny left arm is holding the bike up as I watch my brand new Dura-Ace Integrated 8 rear derailleur coming precariously close to hitting the asphalt. I also need to protect my precious Dura-Ace right brake lever so I’m yarding on that handlebar with all my might. I slide like this for some fifteen feet, before Brett’s bike finally lets go of mine and I grind slowly to a stop. Total damage: to body, none. To bike, three inches of torn Benotto tape valued at 95 cents. (I fixed it up with electrical tape; I don’t use that part of the handlebar anyway.) I can’t believe I didn’t go down; indeed, Brett said later he was just waiting for the terrible scraping sound and my blood-curdling scream. So the end result was that disaster was once again narrowly averted, making me more cocky than ever.
October 31, 1990 – Berkeley
The owner of the bike shop has got a really cute kid, like eighteen months old. The wife brings him by daily. He already seems intrigued with the bike parts, and likes to drag a floor pump around the shop with him. He’ll hold the hose up to his face and point the handle towards you, so you pump it and give him a blast of air. This makes him giggle like crazy. Every now and then he’ll wander into the shop area and look up at me and say “Papa?” Today I said, “Can you say Dana?” and he did, the little rascal. Then he took a few swipes at a bottom bracket with a screwdriver, which is about the level of proficiency of most of our mechanics, so I figure he’ll be doing spot repairs within a year and everything else before kindergarten. That’ll be good for the shop, because he’ll be free to work full time unlike us college kids who only do 10 or 12 hours a week.
September 12, 1991 – Berkeley
So I’m biking down Bancroft, a street that borders the campus to the south, and I see this young female student being heckled by a homeless dude in army fatigues. He’s in the street spitting on a car (presumably hers), and she’s across the car on the sidewalk, and in a rage she throws this jar at him. Of course it misses, and hits the ground like a foot from me, sending broken glass flying across my legs. In shocked disbelief I watch as the homeless dude runs around the car at her as if to attack her, but before I can see what happens this car behind me, totally oblivious to the mêlée, starts honking at me and I have to get out of the way. I tell you, this is a weird place.
September 22, 1993 – San Francisco
Planetary Gear is a kinda dumb name for a really cool bike shop. It’s this tiny, cramped place with a giant Simplex clock on the wall, posters of great racers of the past, and old antique bikes everywhere. All kinds of ancient celeste-green Bianchi framesets, these cool Dutch Mary Poppins bikes like Geoff’s probably riding these days, old Gazelles and Allegros and an occasional Basso. It definitely has that old, retro Euro flavor. Not a click shifter or clipless pedal in the place. The owner, Grant, is this youngish looking guy, as Euro as his shop, who coolly dangles a cigarette from his lips and looks at you with a curious, slightly judgmental look, his eyes twinkling boyishly like Mickey Rourke’s, as if he’s deciding whether to laugh at you or take your money or both. He’s an expert at maximizing the flash and panache of a tired old Italian road bike, and selling it for more than it cost when it was new and state-of-the-art. I’ve seen him really rip some people off, but I figure, heck, at least they’re not being ripped off on something lame, like one of those Allsop Softride monstrosities. Besides, he is selling the last vestige of Western Civilization; he should be well compensated for that.
I drop by every so often, but I never actually do any business. For the most part, my bikes are pretty modern. And then when I finally did go in on Saturday to do buy something—I needed a spring for the ancient Mafac cantilever brake on my commuting bike—Grant wasn’t even there. Some other guy was working who didn’t seem too with it. No shirt, no shoes, no service—and I mean the guy, not the shop policy. Anyway, he ignored me for a while, but after I stared at him long enough he finally said, “Yeah.” I asked if they had a Mafac cantilever spring, and I pointed to an old cross bike that, of course, had them. “For this brake right here.”
He smirked. “Yeah, I’ve got that, but I can’t sell it to you.” This seemed to please him and—oddly enough—me as well. “You gotta come in Wednesday or Thursday and talk to Grant about that,” he said.
“Why,” I said.
“Well, because … huh. Let me see your bike.”
“It’s not here. I’ll bring it in Wednesday and show it to Grant.”
“Yeah. Do that. Cause he’s real picky about where that stuff goes.”
December 11, 1995 – San Francisco
I started my new job today. They took me out to lunch to a really cool place. It was nice, but not exactly posh—very old-fashioned San Francisco-ey. Our booth was solid oak. There was a button on the wall that rang a buzzer to call our waiter. He was an old but spunky fellow with a mouth. Somebody asked if the lemonade was fresh squeezed; he returned with a glass of water and pointed to a bowl of fresh lemon wedges that had been on the table the whole time. “Make it yourself,” he said. Later, when somebody tried to order a chicken dish, he said, “Come back at dinner. We haven’t killed the chicken yet. It would be way underdone.”
Our discussion during lunch ranged from the industry and technology itself—which is sufficiently interesting that even non-dorks can participate—to the tale of a fellow employee who, when skydiving for pleasure, had a parachute failure. The failure, the raconteur explained, was of the “Mae West” variety: the cord somehow got flung up over the parachute, causing it to fail to fill all the way. The name derives from its looking like a bra. It is less drastic than another type of failure called the “candle,” which is almost always fatal. This colleague lived, but was in traction for a while.
September 18, 2008 – Albany/Boulder
Sorry to hear about [your daughter] Lydia’s bike crash. You can tell her the following story to cheer her up. On the day of freshman orientation [back in 1984] at Fairview High [in Boulder, Colorado], I somehow found myself in the position of getting a ride there from D—. But not in a car, of course, but on the rack of his bike. So we were flying down Greenbriar Blvd, where it drops down from Shanahan Ridge, and D—’s Dr. Who scarf was flying out behind him, and he let out a couple of whoops, for sheer joy. Suddenly, the weak part of my brain, the insecure part, the part that fixates about good First Impressions and whatnot, kind of took over, and I worried about what people would think, since I was starting at this new school that none of my junior high classmates were attending, so I had to make all new friends. What would my classmates think if they saw me on the back of D—’s bike? They’d probably think I was his bitch.
I decided I just couldn’t stay on there, on the rack of this bike piloted by Dr. Who. So I bailed off the back. The weak, insecure part of my brain is pretty stupid, of course, and neglected to notice that we were really flying. How fast? Well, it was a steep downhill, so we probably doing like 20 mph, and I’m thinking maybe even more. I mean, it was enough speed to start D— whooping, after all.
So, you can guess the rest. I didn’t exactly hit the ground running, but I sure hit the ground. I did one of those stage slides like heavy metal rockers were doing during that era, where I slid on the tops of my shoes and—more importantly—my knees. Just ripped those kneecaps right open, like you’d taken a planer or a rasp to them or something. (I was wearing shorts, unfortunately.)
So after that I was going around freshman orientation gushing blood from both knees. I considered for a moment that the girls might be impressed by my toughness and my stoicism, but of course they were just grossed out, I mean just totally disgusted. I’m amazed I don’t have scars from it. And of course I had to try to answer to D— when he asked, incredulously, “What did you do that for?”
I really didn’t know what to say. I guess I just shrugged. “Didn’t realize how fast we were going, I guess.” It was odd, though ... I felt somehow as though justice had been served. I felt like I deserved the pain and the public scorn, for thinking I was too cool for my friend.