When I was in my early teens, in Pennsylvania, I worked: I had a paper route, was a stable boy, did door-to-door sales, and I saved my money. Finally, I had enough for a brand-new bicycle. I chose the top of the line: a Schwinn Corvette. I think it cost me about $70. It was a beauty, and I zipped around the Harrisburg streets, and through vacant lots and woodland paths.
When I hit 16, though, it was time to grow up. I got my driver’s permit, and I never looked back. A kid on a bike was just a kid. A kid in a car was on the way to being a man. I could pull up onto a girl’s front lawn on my bike, or I could pull up in front of her house in a car: no contest.
Eventually, I got my license and inherited the family’s 1955 Chevy, and I was off. Despite a handful of accidents, I kept my license and kept to the road. I drove all over town and out of town. My poor bike was left in the basement to gather dust.
Fast forward a few years. I arrived in Provincetown. I first came on the bus to Hyannis and then hitchhiked (the late John Lisbon picked me up) to Provincetown, because my Austin Healey was in the shop, as usual. So, I was carless for a time. But here was Provincetown, where grown adults rode bikes! I remembered, many years earlier, my father gently (as he did all things) ridiculing a lawyer in Harrisburg for riding his bike to work: not a distinguished thing to do. But Provincetown was different. Everybody rode bikes here — old people, fat people, drunk people — everybody!
I quickly acquired a bike with my meager earnings as a busboy at Ciro and Sal’s. I instantly reconnected to the joy of riding a bike, whether wheeling along Commercial Street or going out to the bike paths in Beech Forest and the dunes. There is something about the pace of the thing, something about being able to actually be in contact with the passing scenery (well, not direct contact) and passersby — the intimacy — and yet be moving a bit faster than walking, capitalizing on my mechanical advantage. It was practical and fun.
I have had a few close calls — running into a hedge, wiping out in sand or mud — but nothing serious. Still, I am of a certain age, and have noticed changes in my reflexes and sense of balance (not good ones). I hear the stories of lives forever altered by bike accidents. But, no offense, those people wearing helmets have always seemed, well, just a bit nerdy, uncool. Maybe, out on the highway, but riding through town? The freedom of riding without a helmet, hair blowing unconstrained. A helmet seems like an imposition.
Nevertheless, reality rears its hoary head. Vulnerability must be acknowledged. I owe it to myself and those who care about me. I have a helmet now and, though I am not in love with it, I am learning to live with it. Maybe, someday, it will be like a seat belt, second nature. Maybe I will not remember riding helmetless, as I barely remember smoking cigarettes, or some of my other early foolish activities.
For over 50 years, I have lived in Provincetown, the town where everyone rides a bike, including the old, the fat, and the drunk. I am now flirting with all three categories. I still revel in the freedom.
“Surely Joy is the condition of Life,” wrote Thoreau. Riding a bike is a kid-like thing to do; it can be practical, but it is most of all joyous. I sail down Commercial Street with a glad heart, wind in my (helmeted) face, so happy to be alive and to be here, moving through this place, and moving on.