I didn’t know I was going to write this until the second-to-last scene happened to me — then I knew I wanted to get the story down. So as soon as I got into work I started typing rough, quick notes about everything that had happened on my short ride down the hill to work. I had more than twice as much of that source material as I ended up using in the final draft, including two separate flashback scenes at a local cemetery.
As I crest the peak of my driveway, I happen to look down and see my watch in the recessed slice of wrist between glove and jacket. It’s 8:37 a.m. I let the bike start its coast down toward the road. I look right, up Fifth Street, and see a solitary car coming fast, headlights on, that shooshing, somehow wet-sounding traffic noise running ahead of the object making it. I brake and come to a standstill at the spot where three years ago I dumped a Merckx track bike in the lawn.
I’d built the Merckx up at home and, instead of loading it on the roof rack for nine-tenths of a mile, I figured I’d just ride it to work the next morning, either sitting on the gear all the way down the half-mile drop into Emmaus, or else trusting my legs to handle the 140 or so revs per minute I guessed I’d need to get the 48×16 to the bottom. I wasn’t smart enough to factor traffic into my plan, which naturally meant it was there, and by the time I saw the cars in both lanes I was over the hump in my driveway and already doing 80-something rpm. Lacking the hipster skill of skidding a fixie, I’d shown up for work that day with grass stains on my knees, thighs, shoulder, forearms and eyelids. I was happy to have them.
The car goes by, barely blue, a little rusty, rattling. I roll down into the road then past Fairview Street. I used to take the left, laying my bike over hard, holding as much speed as I could through the corner so I could coast across the length of the flat block before turning down again on Sixth so that, if I was lucky and there was no train and I also caught the green at Main — and I didn’t mind the indignity of doing the final moments of my commute in an aero tuck at 6 mph — I might fulfill a dream I had of going from my driveway to work without taking a single pedal stroke. Then one day I did it, and thought: Now what — I start keeping track and end up being the guy who recites his ratio of all-coast commutes to people at parties? When Voltaire was asked if he wanted to return to a brothel, he said, “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.” I go straight these days, savoring the freewheeling speed but not ruled by it.
The Broad Street Saloon and Hotel sits dark and quiet at the base of the hill. Something in the blankness of the windows on the first floor, some quality I’ve never been able to identify, unmistakably tells you the bar is not closed but abandoned. Up on the second and third stories, in the apartments still alive with silhouettes and loud televisions, is where the high-school kid got shot.
I stop at the sign on Sixth, turn right and see the art-deco streak of a train blockading the road ahead. The blue car is sitting at the crossing guard, a white haze from its tailpipe layered over the yellow and brown and silver blur of the train. I level my feet, coast again. When I am beside the car, I swing over and hop the curb onto the sidewalk, then put my left foot down and ratchet the right pedal around with my toe so my foot is ready for a downstroke. This close, you don’t watch a train. You absorb it: its wind, its burnt metal smell, the tremor of the creaking rails traveling under the surface of the asphalt and cement into the sole of my shoe.<
I turn my head and look back. The lady in the blue car, my age but going slack and fat fast, is watching me. I’m in a gray wool Predictor-Lotto watch cap, Assos winter jacket, jeans, five-year-old Medium shoes, Brooks leather pants clip, Castelli gloves, custom ReLoad messenger bag, on a Swobo Dixon with a Campy Record seatpost I installed because I prize contrast. She sees a DUI rider maybe, a terminal bus-boy, some money-poor soul on the way to a spiritually poorer job. Or she sees the train because, like most drivers, she sees nothing when she looks at me.
The train is gone. The stub of the guardrail that blocks the sidewalk starts to cantilever down, and I pedal around and past it, then over the groaning rails. A woman a little older than me got run over by a locomotive pulling a hundred cars, just a few weeks ago, right here where I’m riding. Someone said she was chasing her black lab.
The light at Main is red. I trackstand for one, two, three seconds and am about to abandon when, from my spot at the far right side of the lane I see the signal go yellow for cross traffic, see that the road is open, and jump the green. I pedal across Main, beside the coin-op laundry, and see a pink stuffed bunny lying face-down in the road. It’s the size of a fist, as pink as the morning is cold, crisp and sharp against the bleary pavement. I’m past it before I realize I want to stop and pick it up. I turn my head as I ride, and I watch the right front wheel of the blue car run over the bunny.
Inertia carries me into the parking lot, and once I’m there I pedal to the loading dock, get off my bike and stick my arm through its frame and scale the metal-mesh steps then swipe my security card to unlock the door. It’s 8:42:09. Sometimes five minutes and nine seconds are five minutes and nine seconds, but sometimes a dumb stuffed pink bunny stretches the little time we have on our bikes beyond reason, and our shortest and simplest rides become a memory we will have until we have no memory.
Originally published in the March 14, 2008 Sitting In