by Ray Tomorowitz
“Now that’s something that makes life worth living! I take exercise every afternoon that way. O, to grip your handle bars, and lay down to it (lie doesn’t hit it at all), and go ripping and tearing trough streets and roads, over railroad tracks and bridges, threading crowds, avoiding collisions, at twenty miles or more an hour, and wondering all the time when you’re going to smash up-well, now that’s something.”
Bicycle Mike did not own a bicycle. But he owned a dream. It would creep into his wine-soaked head while he slept. He was there with it now.
A cardboard box in an unknown alley seems an unlikely setting for palm trees. He had scrounged magazines from dumpsters all over the east side of town. National Geographics were his gold. Travel brochures his platinum. The interior of the refrigerator box shimmered like Key West. There were sunsets of every description over countless tropical oceans. White sand and lush vegetation whispered hidden invitations.
His tattered pants were rolled up above his bony knees. He loved the way the sand felt beneath his bare toes. The path lay clear and perfect before him. The gentle tide washed away the impressions left behind him like so many wasted years No more than two or three footprints would be visible before being swept away.
He was a man alone. On a beach between here and there. A paradise he could call his own. It felt so good to be warm. Just to be warm….
Suddenly the ground shook with volcanic-like upheavals. His little world was becoming a “Pompeii” of instability. Voices were shouting….”Wake up in there! Wake up!” His private dream was sucked away like those footprints on that beach . The only volcano now was the one erupting in his head. “Lava” was the warm bile threatening to overflow into his mouth.
A glossy palm tree shading seductive native dancers dislodged itself from the “ceiling” and became another helpless victim of this cardboard seismic activity.
Bicycle Mike collected his addled wits enough to yell, “Stop it! Godammit! Stop it! Whattya’ want?”
He was greeted by a chorus of laughter as he emerged very unceremoniously from his “hut” with a picture of a tropical fish stuck to his beard. The sleep in his eyes was just enough to cloud the vision of two small boys running off towards the mouth of the alley.
It was the price one paid for living here. He was always the target for kids cutting through.
What Mike hated most was having his precious dream interrupted again. He was thrust back into the cold dark reality of street life. He pulled the old army field jacket tighter around his shoulders as a wind whipped up the alley.
The close confines of the buildings bordering his alley seemed to concentrate the blast in a “Venturi”-like effect. It had served some good, tough. His head was a trifle clearer, and his eyes a little cleaner.
B. Mike checked for any damage to his shelter, but sound none. The earth-box-quake had loosened some of the “Flora” and “Fauna” from positions on the interior. Other than that, things were pretty much the same.
Mike was not asleep anymore. His grumbling stomach only added to that awareness. Food now became his primary concern. Perhaps with a bit of luck some wine would follow shortly.
A thought began working its way out of his clouded mind. It became more evident as he picked up the calendar from “The Castaway Travel agency”. He thumbed through it and looked at the “XXXXs”. Was it really October? Where had the summer gone? Damn! Where had his life gone? How had he come to this? Human refuse discarded in a corrugated coffin.
These thoughts were just too intense coming on top of the hangover and all. Better to revert back to more rudimentary ones. The constrictions above his belt would dictate Mike’s actions now.
He crawled backed inside the box and rummaged around under a sailing magazine until he found the can of tuna fish hidden there. With the four packs of saltines in his coat pocket, he had a meal. Thank God he’d never pawned or lost his pocketknife.
It was one of those Swiss Army ones with the multiple tools that folded up into a neat little package. He took it out of his pants pocket and fondled it lovingly. He had been good with tools once. Damn good! He knew the names of all the implements like a mother knows all of her children.
“A man is only as good as the tools he owns.” Mike had heard that somewhere. From someone who respected tools like sacred artifacts. Who had it been? His father? It seemed so long ago. Yet, he had held on to the pocketknife all these years. It was worth at lease a cheap bottle of “Red”. Now, just holding it again made a connection to some other life. Tools set mane above the other creatures on this planet. Maybe, in this case, it somehow set him above the “Creatures” that inhabited his world. Whatever the reason, he knew he would never part with his little self-contained toolbox.
Not only did B. Mike utilize the can opener, but now he sat and ate with the built in spoon and fork. There would be an opportunity later to engage the corkscrew.
While he ate, he once again perused the surroundings of his little cubicle. Those warm shores and sunny climes beckoned to him hypnotically. They teased with their false promises of virgin sand, clear blue eater, and lazy days. Why did he torture himself with a world that didn’t exist in three dimensions? Those care free seagulls and happy natives seemed to taunt him in their silent ways. “Come to us Mike come sit with us and enjoy out delights. Walk in the moonlight and smell the salty breezes.
“Damn them!” he screamed, “I’ll have no more of your staring eyes!” With that he began to tip all his glossy fantasies from the walls. Seagulls, Palm trees, orange and lemon groves, and fiery sunsets soon lay in a tattered pile on the ground.
A blast of autumn wind scooped up the pieces and carried them off. Ironically he mused, it was in a southerly direction.
Something had snapped in Bicycle Mike. The padlock to a door long closed flew off its hasp. What began to emerge from that ark closet was a small glow like a single match being struck. No, more like a halogen bulb on a bicycle generator light. Maybe the recent chain of event had created an effect.
The boys shaking his box not only woke him from a dream, but perhaps drove him from a long alcohol-induced hibernation.
Feeling the Swiss Army knife and remembering those words had stirred something within him.
He was Bicycle Mike again but exactly who was that? How had that name come to be attached to this pitiful creature? There was nothing in his immediate surroundings that even resembled a bike.
Bicycles were wondrous machines. Children first sampled freedom and speed behind the handlebars. On that maiden trip unencumbered by training wheels or dad’s supportive grip, new flights of fancy were born. A bicycle could become a horse or a motorcycle or a jet fighter soaring high above the clouds. It could take you places farther and faster than mere feet or imagination. It defied gravity, time and space, and did it all on only two wheels.
This fascination for speed and travel did not end in these early years. With advanced age came advanced machinery. The addition of multiple gearing, lightweight frames, and skinny racing tires made the possibilities seem endless.
Adventure was never more than a few turns of the pedals away. Longer distances could be traversed in shorter periods of time. Even hills were no obstacle. The world was there to be enjoyed on a perfect, nonpolluting device that actually improved your health. What achievement could overshadow reaching a destination on one’s own ability?
Life and nature could not be experienced on any other conveyance the way it could on this “magic steed”.
He knew this. He knew all of this. These thoughts were triggered the first time he saw a bike messenger ride by, pedaling for all he was worth. Mike would follow their path with his eyes until they turned a corner, or were lost in traffic.
Cars and busses were the bicycle's enemies. Belching smoke and noxious fumes at face level, or vying for road space in rude, belligerent manners.
The only threats worse than those infernal combustion machines were potholes and sewer grates. There was no denying that the city was a dangerous place for two wheeled vehicles and their riders.
Bicycles were almost as frail as the creatures that rode them, why else would these urban “pony express” riders gird themselves in plastic and carbon-fiber armor? In a confrontation with a metal behemoth there’s no question who would be the victor.
When a Bicycle came out on the “short end” of a “road war” someone had to be called in to repair the damage. Hopefully the only damage incurred would be to the rider.
Bicycle Mike could watch a bicycle speed by and instinctively know all the parts. He whispered the inventory to himself like a silent litany; “front derailleur, front caliper brake, seat tube, chain stays…”
It seemed that not all his brain cells were fried. He was starting to remember like a swimmer under water for too long, he was reaching upward for air and light. It was like a rebirth. Bicycle Mike was remembering where he’d come from, but most importantly, where he was going.
Ray Tomorowitz is a creative writer living in Cleveland.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio