This is the third post in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here and Volume II is here. In the spirit of (among others) John McPhee with his “Tabula Rasa” series, that being bits of writing that never got published before, I’m posting excerpts from old letters here. These are little stories or updates that I always felt deserved a wider audience than just the friend or brother who originally received them. I’ve provided, for each snippet below, the locale I was writing from. Enjoy please enjoy.
September 23, 1990 – Oakland
I almost died. Here’s how. So, I’m flying down Claremont at 50 (my record is 51.5) and I hit a pothole or something. There’s this incredibly loud noise and for a split second, I’m completely blinded. I still can’t figure this out; I really couldn’t see a damn thing for a second or so. (My current theory is that both retinas detached from my eyeballs because of the impact, and then they reattached. Or maybe it was like a cartoon of some kind where my eyeballs spun around in their sockets, I don’t know.) Anyhow, when I can see again, I’m in the left lane and there are cars coming towards me. Not all that close or anything, but they’re coming up pretty quick. Both my wheels are basically caved in, and my back one is a potato chip. It feels like somebody has removed my rear wheel and replaced it with a jackhammer. I actually don’t even have a chance to be scared; my mind is totally tied up trying to respond. All in a split second, I’m aware of several things: 1) My rear tire, and maybe my front, are absolutely guaranteed to explode at any moment; 2) The chances of crashing are so good that all I can really do is cut my speed and try to get back into my lane so that at least all I hit is the ground, instead of the unforgiving windshield of a ‘73 Plymouth Reliant; and 3) If I use my back brake, the rear wheel will definitely slide out from under me as soon as the tire blows, if not sooner. So, I slam on the front brake, which grabs on the caved in section of the rim and lurches the bike around even more, but somehow I get my speed down to about thirty and get back into my lane just before my rear tire blows up, then the front. From here on out it’s easy; I mean, hell, people bring bikes down from thirty after dual blowouts all the time, no problem. God, what a rush. Both wheels are completely totaled. The bent sections of rim look like beer cans that some party animal type has flattened against his forehead or squeezed in his hand to show just how incredibly tough he really is. I feel lucky to be alive, or at least lucky I’m not dead. But at the same time, I feel cursed that this happened at all. Half of me says I should go out for pizza to celebrate still being alive, while the other half says I should save my money for the new rims I have to buy now.
December 2, 1990 – Oakland
L— came over to borrow some money. We talked for a while, and he was all bent out of shape because his girlfriend back in Dallas dissed him for some new guy she met. He’d been waiting for her to move out here for months, and now she’s history, and he’s not going to try to compete with her new beau across all that distance. We both gripe for a while before hitting the ATM. Then we stop into Avanti, a coffee shop and pizza place across from my apartment. No sooner do we sit down than this funky looking guy at the next table starts looking at us and summons the waitress. He’s wearing a camo shirt with a leather jacket over it, and a straw hat. Kind of weird, but not entirely out of place in Oakland. The waitress looks a bit confused talking to him, and then comes over and says, “That guy over there wants to buy you guys drinks.” I say that’s fine and she brings over a couple of beers. I look at the guy and he nods and says, “Merry Christmas.” There are a few bottles on his table and I figure he’s doing some forgetting or something. Then he motions for L— to come over, and hands him five bucks. L— takes it, thanks the guy, and sits back down. “Kinda peculiar,” he says. Then the guys starts talking to us.
“I’m a jolly good fellow, right?” he says.
“Uh, yeah, that’s right. Uh, Merry Christmas.”
“Yeah, Merry Christmas, but can I tell you something?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
“Okay, I’m gonna tell you something. How old are you?” (That always happens: dudes “tell” you something that turns out to be a question.)
“Twenty eight,” says L—.
“Twenty one,” says I.
“You guys students over at the university?”
“Uh, he is,” L— says, nodding towards me.
The guy takes off his hat. “Okay, I’ll tell ya something. I’m old. Look at this hair. Look at how short it is. It’s getting grey. I am forty-four years old.” (There’s not a grey hair on his head.) He continues, “I’m an old fool, that’s what I am, but in 1983 I was a student at Berkeley. I was gonna be a lawyer. I was gonna graduate, but do you know what?”
I’m giving him my full attention, because I’m afraid he’s about to go berserk. I’m thinking about that psycho at Henry’s a couple of months back, who opened fire on the bar crowd with automatic weapons. But this guy doesn’t appear to be armed. Or even violent. Just drunk. I’m looking right into his eyes, though, like he’s about to give me the secret to life. Which, it turns out, he’s entirely convinced he’s actually about to do.
“Do you know what happened to me?” he asks. “I was gonna graduate. But I didn’t graduate. Do you know why? Huh? Do you know why?”
L— and I shake our heads.
“It’s on accounta I got sidetracked. Sidetracked by a woman!” He pauses. “So I’m gonna tell you somethin’, and I’m only gonna say it once, so you better pay attention.” (Whenever a drunk man says he’s only going to say something once, don’t believe him.) “I’m telling you that what you got, all you got, is your dreams, and they’re right up here” (he taps the side of his head). “And then a woman is gonna come along, and she’ll sidetrack you in your dreams. And then you’re finished. You’re through, and that’s it, so don’t you ever, ever, ever let a woman sidetrack you from your chosen path. It don’t matter if she’s tall, if she’s shaped real fine, if she lies next to you and is there with you in the morning, all that don’t matter because your dream is gone, like my dream is gone, and you’re nothing.”
He hammers this point into the ground for a long time. L— is picking up a magazine, and I’m starting to worry that he’ll tell the dude off or something. But then the guy, as if a light bulb went off over his head, tries a new approach:
“Hey, what did you guys order? You ordered a pizza? Hey it’s on me. Merry Christmas. I’ll cover it.”
“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that.”
“Hey do I look that bad? Huh?” He takes off his hat and inspects it.
“No, no, not at all,” we insist.
“Then it’s on me. But hey, I’m not gonna lecture you or anything, but listen to me for a second. You read the Bible? I got one but I don’t got my reading glasses. But I can tell you somethin’. It says right in that book, and this is true, now, that man is king. You got that? We’re all gents, all three of us here. We’re men. Do you know what that means? It means we’re king. We are right up here” (he points to the band on his straw hat), “we’re right here, on top, ‘cause we’re king, and the woman, she is below that. She’s queen, see? Queen, and that means she’s below king. Says so in the Bible. God, see, he made man himself, he put us right here, and then the woman—I say it was the woman, not the man—the woman who was tempted by Satan, and just like she did with Adam, she’ll do to you, she’ll ruin you.”
He goes off for a while longer, and meanwhile the cook has screwed up on our cheese pizza and we get some really wild thing with artichoke hearts and chicken which turns out to be really good. This whole time L— is trying to explain to our drunk friend that we have to talk amongst ourselves because we work at a bike shop and it’s our job to decide what bikes to order, because we have to place the order tomorrow and if we don’t have our decision the boss is gonna kick our asses. None of it is true (we’re just rank-and-file mechanics), but I think L— wouldn’t mind if it were. Of course the ruse isn’t working, the guy’s just promising to buy a bike from us, saying repeatedly “You just made a sale!” and before long he’s going on again, repeating his story over and over.
“See this hair?” he says. “It’s short, now, and getting grey, but it used to be long, but that don’t matter now ‘cause Delilah is a crafty bitch, and I know you’ve read in the Bible, how she’ll strip you of your strength,” and goes off some more. He keeps saying he’ll cover our bill and then going on and on. I figure, he’s so eccentric, I’ll just have to assume he’s a prophet of some kind, or else he wouldn’t be here, and pretty soon I figure it’s God himself sitting over there, warning us about throwing our lives away. Soon the guy is standing over our table and kind of weaving back and forth, and L— is covering up our pizza because he’s just positive the guy’s about to throw up all over us, as the guy keeps coughing and gagging, yet hardly missing a syllable of his lecture.
“The most important thing, you see, is your dream. It really is. And you need to always have your brothers. Fraternity! The fellowship between men, that’s what we need, forget the woman, even if she lies beside you, brotherhood is what we need!” Finally he restates his thesis for the hundredth time “Don’t you ever, ever let a woman sidetrack you from your dreams,” and then he’s gone, staggering off into the night.
It’s been about forty five minutes, and finally we can kick back and laugh. L— says, “All I kept thinking about was that guy in Henry’s!” We talk about our chance dinner guest for a while, and then L— says, “You know what though? A lot of the things he said make sense, and a few things I really needed to hear right about now.”
I tell L— that get his point, and in a very strange way I almost kind of do. I’m not saying you should always listen to what a drunk stranger tells you, of course. L— and I both agree that somebody shut him down hard. I think some more about what the guy said, especially since it probably really was God over there. But for all its length, the lecture just doesn’t seem that enlightening. Myself, I’d still like to find a girlfriend … being sidetracked might be kind of nice.
The guy comes back in about fifteen minutes later, but we’re not about to start the ball rolling again. We pay our bill (the guy never quite got around to covering it) and split.
May 25, 1992 – Oakland
So what did I sit down to write to you about? Well, there’s always band-aids. At the bike shop we use Curad. I consider this one of the small but nagging travesties that plague my employment there. I would say about one in three Curad band-aids is defective. The little sanitary cotton pad is skewed, and sometimes has missed the center of the adhesive portion by more than half its own size so you get only a little triangle of pad, and the rest would stick to the wound if you actually used the bandage. I really can’t believe the bandaging public tolerates this blatant quality control problem. Perhaps you feel I’m overreacting, but you should consider the details of my bandaging needs. I will often cut, rip, or gash my fingers on some chainring or cable strand, and need to dress the wound, and then every time I finish a repair or want to wash up before lunch, I need to redress. (The wound, not myself. We have aprons for that.) Even when I’m at home, I have to put on new band-aids every time I do the dishes, take out my contact lenses, or want to cook something. This is really bothersome since I have to pay for these band-aids or I should say Band-Aids, since I’m talking about the actual Johnson & Johnson product now. (You think I’d use Curad at home?) Anyway, I’m tempted to just wait for the wet Band-Aid to dry out, but I wasn’t sure so I called Johnson & Johnson on their toll free number and asked them. “You know how the box says they’re waterproof?” I ask. “Oh, yes, they certainly are,” says the lady earnestly, in her charming southern accent. “Well, does that mean I don’t need to change them once they’re wet?” I ask. “Oh, no, you should always replace them. It’s the only way to prevent bacteria from infecting the wound.” I reply, “That puzzles me. If I have to replace my wet Band-Aids, what’s the benefit of their being waterproof?” The gal pauses for a moment. “Well,” she replies, “if you’re swimming you won’t lose them in the pool, anyway. Oh, and they won’t slip down your drain!”
October 27, 1993 – San Francisco
Well, November is off to a slow start. This morning, I literally couldn’t get out of the house: the doorknob was stripped. I turned and turned it, but the door wouldn’t open—the knob just spun on the shaft. I took these two little set screws out, and popped the doorknob off, but this was fruitless: the mechanism was still in place, unreachable. I tried a credit card on the bolt/latch thingy, but that would only work from the other side of the door. Finally, I went to my toolbox and found a Reach toothbrush, which has a square-cross-section handle that I hoped would fit in the female end of the latch mechanism, in place of the doorknob shaft. (It’s remarkable I even had this Reach, because normally I use Oral-B). Well, it worked like a charm, and after finally exiting the house I brought the toothbrush with me so I’d be able to get back in.