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Friday, Jun. 04, 2004 - 4:16 p.m.

Return of Virgil

This is a story of a circle. It begins with my grandpa, travels to Mexico and back up through Colorado and then out East, trailing song-poems, puberty, and whiskey, and ends at the American Legion Thrift Store on Two Notch Road.

When my grandparents retired, they bought an RV and spent eight years driving all over North America. In the earlier days, my grandpa kept a bicycle strapped to the roof of the RV; he’d ride the bicycle around whatever campground they were staying in, nodding to the other North Dakotan refugees; he'd ride to the grocery store for milk and motor oil.

In Mexico my Grandpa’s bike was stolen – it just disappeared one night right off the camper at the RV park they were staying in. So he bought another one from a local guy who had dozens of used American bikes for sale, many of them probably stolen from other American tourists. The bike cost the equivalent in pesos of $1.69, and my Grandpa happily rode it away.

The bike was an olive green Schwinn Speedster, with green glitter handlebar grips, a wide cream-and-olive seat, and fenders on both tires. It had Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub gears. It was beautiful.

My grandpa quickly got too old to ride a bike. I was ten years old and hadn’t had a bike since the blue Mongoose dirt bike I’d first learned on. I’d probably outgrown the Mongoose, and at any rate my brother had completely disassembled it in the barn; its three hundred tiny pieces weren’t going anywhere. So it was agreed that I would buy the green Schwinn from my grandpa. $1.69 seemed the only logical price, though my mother decided I should throw in a bottle of whiskey as well, which she procured for me. The next time my grandparents came through Colorado, the transfer went as planned, and the bike was mine.

For three years I rode every day there wasn’t snow on the ground. We lived on a dirt road, the corners of which I’d whip around, raising dust. A nearby paved road wound steeply up to a county park, and I’d ride the hill every day, standing up on the pedals and pumping painfully to the top. Then I’d coast all the way down, three or four minutes of downhill curves, pelting down with no helmet. I taught myself to coast down without touching the handlebars, leaning my body to turn the bike. I started riding side-saddle (that’s what I called it), swinging my right leg over to the left side of the cross bar, perching with both legs sticking sideways. I tied a piece of string to each handlebar and held them delicately in front of me, pretending they were reins. I didn’t care much for horses, but I loved my bike.

I was so fast. I grew six inches in junior high, and my quadriceps were long and tight, the result of now knowing exactly what the whole gear thing was all about; I stayed in first gear at all times. A few times I met up with Katy and Drew, some kids I knew from the bus, and their bikes didn’t look at all like mine. They were a lot faster, too. We rode all along the mountain roads and trails, their gears clatching and chicking away, and they had to slow down and wait for me. But I climbed steadily, pedaling that heavy Schwinn frame over exposed roots and eroded, rocky gullies in the trails.

I quit riding in high school – started smoking and being jaded, then started backpacking and climbing, never pulling my bike from the barn. It sat there until my last year of college, when I finally moved off campus. Then it sat behind the house Mary and I rented for another year. It wasn’t until I graduated that I fixed it up and started riding it again. My friend Sean made the gears work, installed new tire tubes and brake cables, and helped me name the bike Virgil. This time it was an urban bike, taking me to the Saturday morning farmers market and the record store where I sometimes worked. Durango is a town of many alleys, and Virgil and I knew them all.

When I left Durango to move to South Carolina I got rid of nearly everything I owned. Earl, my Honda Civic Wagon, wasn’t even full. I gave away clothes, guitars, cookware, chairs, my stereo, hundreds of books – everything but my amp and bass, my CDs, my comforter, a few plants, three boxes of books, and some clothes. There was certainly no room for Virgil.

I asked around about who might need a bike. Alex needed a bike, it turned out. Alex Silage, with his eyes intense behind his glasses, his voice beautiful in both Spanish and English. Alex was in another local band, had played with my friend Amy for years, but had always been mysterious to me, a little too intimidatingly sexy. I didn’t know him well. Two days before I left, I went to a party, saw Alex, and told him the story of Virgil. I told him to come by anytime to pick up the bike, that I’d be honored for him to have it. Amy told me after he left that he’d had a crush on me for two years.

The next day he showed up at my apartment with $1.69 and a bottle of whiskey. We drank the whiskey and made out in my near empty apartment, rolling on the carpet. He smelled like vanilla.

The next day I drove away, draining the final half-shot of whiskey as I pulled out of town. I have never spoken to Alex again and have never been back to Durango.

My grandpa died last November, too weak for the previous year even to walk, much less ride a bike.

I bought a bike out here, but I have never liked it. I looked for a cruiser, something curvy, something with handlebars higher than the seat, but I ended up with a mountain bikey thing, black and turquoise, with straight handlebars and a rear derailleur. I’ve adjusted everything, but it has never felt right. I don’t ride much. I prefer to walk.

Yesterday I went to thrift stores. I was looking mostly for records, hoping after having seen "Off the Charts" (Holy SHIT! Go see it.) to stumble across some song-poems. I found none. I found some comedy records from 1947, a He-Man comic/45 set, and the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere LP. And in the back room of the American Legion Thrift Store (the seventh store I’d been to), hidden behind a stack of headboards and bed frames, I found an olive green Schwinn cruiser with green glitter handlebars and a wide cream-and-olive seat. I stared at it for a long, long time. I didn’t have the money for it – it cost $25, and the store only took cash. And I was too overwhelmed anyway to buy it then. I took my records home and played them, but thought only of the bike.

The thrift store model is a Breeze, one of the women’s models from the 70’s, probably a few years younger than Virgil. Except for the plunging crossbar, the bikes look identical, though. This one is in better condition aesthetically – less rust, fenders intact (Virgil’s rear fender was twisted lethally out to one side, then later held on by a coathanger), seat leather unstained. But the gears are broken, with the Sturmey-Archer casing broken off and the chain snapped. The brake cables and pads are corroded, and the tires are worn and flat. But these things can be fixed.

So today I went back and bought it. But first I went to the liquor store and bought myself a bottle of whiskey. The bike is in my living room now, balanced on its kickstand, its handlebars glinting in the sun. I feel like I was just born.

Promises Broken

I should have known better than to announce in the last entry that I’d be bringing tales of archnemeses in this next installment. At the time I was low on time but high on vitriol, angry and ironically amused all at once about a mass email I’d just received from a girl I went to grad school with. It was an announcement of a war protest, and was worded in such a smarmy, humorless manner, with such a pretentious quote in the signature tag, that I thought I could compose quite a rant about her, the email, and why exactly she is my latest archnemesis. But I have tried three times now and can’t quite get it right. I finally deleted the email and moved on. I just don’t like her. I don’t like the war, either, but I might be willing to fight and die for a sense of humor.

Hello Ruby in the Dust

I just listened to “Cowgirl in the Sand” seven times in a row while writing this and would like to announce that it is a perfect song.

A Blind Man’s Penis Is Erect Because He’s Blind

Seriously, go rent “Off The Charts” immediately. Then go to the American Song-Poem Music Archives website, go listen to Ellery Eskelin’s This American Life interview, make a pilgrimage to Elmyra, New York. L has suggested I name my new bike Angelaria. I thought briefly of Virgilaria, or maybe just Caglar. I know her middle name for certain, though: Vermont, the same as my Grandpa’s.

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