KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 1: Fall 2014
Essay: 963 words

The Determined Chicken:
On Becoming an Urban Biker in my Fifties

by Alison Luterman

The bike itself was beautiful. A Chanukah present from my husband Lee, it was shiny, royal blue, and very...high. I hadn’t been up on a bike in about thirty years. Balanced uncertainly atop the tall seat, which dug painfully into my tender lady parts, my feet barely brushed the ground. Our first test-drive of the thing was at the Berkeley Marina where I became so freaked out at the prospect of pushing off a crosswalk in traffic that I ignominiously crashed to the ground in front of a bunch of on-lookers, earning myself that most juvenile of accessories, a skinned knee. Last time I had one of those I was nine years old.

All my life I have focused on sports that do not involve falling—like swimming, say, or hula hooping, or restorative yoga. That’s my type of exercise, with the occasional sweaty dance session or long amble in the hills thrown in. But I’ve noticed them all over town, weaving skillfully in and out of traffic, legs pumping, expressions serious—the urban bike-riders. They impress and terrify me. They seem sexy, fierce, ecological, and free. I want to be like them. I wonder if it’s too late.

The shiny blue holiday bike sat in our basement for a couple of years until we decided to trade it in for a more user-friendly model. We tried on bikes all over town with a succession of frighteningly fit, enthusiastic young salespeople. Apparently, bike riding is not just a sport, or a thing you do to get around town, as it was in my youth. Now it’s something more akin to a religious cult, whose members can happily discuss the competing virtues of carbon fiber vs. titanium, or which bike was used by the winner of the Tour de France.

At last we found an elegant cream-and-tan model that fit my long torso, short legs, and need to sit upright. The seat was lower, and—praise the Lord—cushier. It’s called, and I am not making this up, a “bum seat.”

In a nearby deserted bank parking lot, Lee adjusted my helmet in a parental gesture. Coming from the “go-play-in-traffic-and-be-home-for-dinner-when-the-streetlights-come-on” generation, before the era of play dates and helicopter parenting, this was both touching and mildly embarrassing. To be sure I had learned how to ride a bike when I was five or six; I remember my dad running alongside me, breathing hard, and then the push-off to independence as I wobbled unsteadily down the block. But that was well over forty years ago. Since then I’ve been privy to a fair number of disaster stories: the friend who was riding his bike when a city bus swung into him, fracturing both his legs and landing him in traction; the friend whose husband broke his neck biking down a steep hill and became a quadriplegic. Of course every time I get in my car and drive on the freeway there’s a risk, but somehow that doesn’t bother me, maybe because the car is a sealed-off capsule of glass and steel, so there’s an illusion of insularity even while hurtling along at seventy miles an hour.

On a bike there’s no such comfort. One is totally exposed, to everything. This is what I want and fear. This is the siren call.

Lee finished fussing with my helmet, and I swung myself up onto the seat. One push of the pedals’s true! Hallelujah, hallelujah, the body remembers! Knees pumping, weight over the handlebars, a little shaky but moving forward—and I. Am. Riding!

I do a couple of shaky circles around the parking lot, until I can really feel my balance under me again. And voilà, I am once more a bike rider. Lee and I begin a new Sunday afternoon habit of loading our bikes into the back of the car and going down to a local park that hugs the shoreline. There are gentle, almost-deserted bike paths and wild rushes and live oak trees and ducks and geese and the occasional jogger. We do a little loop there, a couple of miles long, and enjoy the view.

I’m still aware though, that the place where the rubber meets the road is on the street. Our inner-city neighborhood, with its broken glass, and reckless drivers, is scary. Nevertheless, one day after a few months of practice in the park, I decide it’s time to tackle it. Alone. I don’t even tell Lee. This will be my own adventure. In order to accomplish it, I’ll have to push off uphill, and likely perform the dread feat of standing up on the pedals. I let a few cars go by, and then I’m off, popping into low gear for the climb, staying carefully in the bike lane, hugging the curb when cars come.

The world looks different without the safety of a windshield to peer through. Riding, I’m exposed to car exhaust, the uneven texture of the street with its pebbles and glass, mist from the woman watering her roses, barking dogs, the whoosh and thump of children playing ball.

I pedal hard up the final hill. MacArthur Boulevard buzzes all around me: hip-hop from car radios, exhalations of cigarette smoke and the smell of old beer from the Seven Seas bar, and traffic, always traffic. I rest there, savoring the moment. I have made the small important movement from inside the space capsule of the automobile to outside, smelling the real air. It smells like freedom and risk, and pollution and the soon-to-come end of big oil. A tiny infinitesimal step for humanity, a big leap for me. I hop back on my bike, turn it around, and pedal for home.

Alison Luterman
Issue 1, Fall 2014

Poet, essayist, playwright, and author of the poetry collections Desire Zoo (Tia Chucha Press, April 2014), The Largest Possible Life (Cleveland State University Press, 2001), and See How We Almost Fly (Pearl Editions, 2009). Feral City (SheBooks) is a collection of her essays. Her plays include Saying Kaddish With My Sister, Hot Water, Glitter and Spew, Oasis, and The Recruiter, as well as the musical, Links in a Chain.

Ms. Luterman’s work appears in The Sun, The New York Times, The Boston Phoenix, Rattle, The Brooklyn Review, Oberon, Tattoo Highway, Ping Pong, Kalliope, Poetry East, Poet Lore, Poetry 180 (the Library of Congress website), Slipstream, and other journals and anthologies.

She has taught at The Writing Salon in Berkeley, the Esalen Institute, and the Omega Institute, as well as at high schools, juvenile halls, and poetry festivals.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Author’s website

I Confess, winner of the Oil of Olay “Fine Lines” competition and reprinted in Your Daily Poem

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