Bernal Heights: acquisition of a bicycle
The measure of a good bicycle, according to me, is that you can’t ride it without opening your mouth in joy and occasionally exclaiming things like ‘fuck yeah bicycle’. This is an idiosyncratic spec, and I had no reason to think that it might be fulfilled by any electric bicycle—a genre I was new to—so while I intended to maybe search through every electric bicycle in The New Wheel for one that produced irrepressible, physically manifest joy, I also expected this to likely fail, and to be meanwhile embarrassingly inexplicable and irritating to bike shop employees—people who often expect one’s regard for bikes to map fairly well to facts about their price, frame shape, and whether the gears are Shimano. But several bikes in, when I uncomfortably explained to a guy there that, while the ones I had tried so far were nice, bicycles had been known to make me, like, very happy, he said of course we should find the bicycle that I loved. So I at least felt somewhat supported in my ongoing disruption of his colleague’s afternoon, with requests that bicycle after bicycle be brought out for me to pedal around the streets of Bernal Heights.
The guy would maneuver each bike out of the crowded shop and to the sidewalk, and adjust it to fit me, and we would chat, often about his suggestion that I maybe ride up to the hill on the other side of the main road. Which I would agree might be a good idea, before riding off, deciding that turning left was too hard, and heading in the other direction, through back streets and around a swooping circle park with a big ring road, where I would loop a few times if the mood took me.
Some bicycles were heavy, and rode like refrigerators. Most bicycles were unsteady, and urged even my cycling-seasoned bottom to the seat while pedaling. Most bicycles added considerable assistance to going up hills. Many bicycles seemed fine.
Bernal Heights, on the other hand, seemed awesome. As I paused before my habitual turn-in-the-wrong-direction one time, the house kitty-corner to me was playing music louder than I recall ever hearing anything play music that wasn’t a large-concert speaker. It was truly not considerate. And a middle-aged guy on my corner was having a great time, laughing, and was like, ‘Welcome to Cortland Avenue’. I pulled up and said that I hadn’t been here before actually, and didn’t know what he was talking about. He explained that Cortland Avenue was some kind of peaceful and placid place, and that they could use more of whatever this was.
The whole street felt old-fashioned-okay somehow, and not really like my sense of modern America. I wanted to say it was a bit like the 80s in Hobart (the capital city of Tasmania, where I grew up) but since I’ve barely experienced the 80s in Hobart, I probably shouldn’t say that. Nothing shiny, nothing preying. Yellow things, sincere things, people who care about rock music, people who bought some vegetables, people talking to friends in streets and outdoor restaurants. So many electric bicycles—do I just not notice all the electric bicycles when I’m not on one? On one outing from the shop, a woman called out to me to say that she had also tried the bicycle that I was now riding, the other day, and wasn’t it good? I pulled up to tell her that I was actually struggling to find the ‘on’ switch, and she showed it to me.
(To be clear, I converse with strangers in streets quite rarely in my normal life about three miles away.)
I got a headache from all the bike-trying, and requested a lunch pause. Then I explored further down the street, and found a dineresque crêperie. I was practicing making imperfect choices fast, so in an uncharacteristic snap of decision I went in to get a lemon sugar crepe (which is only a potentially imperfect choice on axes other than deliciousness). The place was some kind of institution, and the man behind the counter seemed to be savoring the motions of crepe-provision. I had fun ordering, and sat outside. It was so nice there that I repeatedly tried to photograph it, but it wasn’t a kind of niceness that my phone could capture it seemed. Perhaps the fact that I was sitting in the street and didn’t look mildly distressed would convey something to an experienced viewer.
Back at the bike shop, I had a bike in mind for if no amazing bike materialized, and continued working through the tail of the bike options.
Then there was an amazing bike. There was not much visual foreshadowing of this: it was an unsleek thing, painted in an impure grey with questionable red highlights. But it felt like freedom. I could stand up on it. It moved as an extension of my body. An extension full of energy and exhilaration. My smile became round with delight and I swore gleefully. I rocketed up steep streets and to the circle park. I flew around it, elated, bumping over speed bumps, pedaling passionately around the upward side and flying down around the down. Then after quite a relatively long investigation into a bike for which there was no actual open question, I made my way back to the shop.
I said I’d buy it. They looked at their records, and their back storage, and their records and determined that they didn’t have one to sell. This was the floor bike, for trying, and not to be sold. Though they had a slightly bigger red one to sell.
They carefully measured me, with a platform and a springed thing between my thighs and such, and determined that the red one was actually the right size for me, and the one I had ridden was too small. I wasn’t meant to ride the red one because it was a new bike for selling, not a floor model. But they would let me take it out a little anyway.
It was nice. Was it as nice as the other one? I didn’t know—it seemed maybe less nice, but also now that I was obsessively paying attention to signs of ineffable goodness, and worried, I was probably just having less fun, no fault of the bike. It was basically the same as my perfect bike, but the right size, and possible to buy, and more beautiful, and not obviously less awesome, so probably I should get it and stop engaging in such fun-dampening neurosis.
I went back. Then it occurred to me that I could still try that grey bike one more time. I did. It was awesome. It seemed obviously better than the red bike. It didn’t matter if I was caught in some tangle of neuroses: such joy would not be smothered. I stopped by the road and relayed my problem by text to my boyfriend, who wisely started googling for other stores that might have such a bike. Then I took photographs of the bike from all sides in the sun by the park. Then my phone with connectivity died. (For reasons to do with my own forgetfulness re phone charging and complications of phone plans, I had brought two phones: one with power, and one with connectivity.)
I rode around and mentally rehearsed purchasing the floor bike. Did they need a floor bike for which they have no actual corresponding salable bikes? I’d pay as much as for a new bike. I’d pay more. They would be astonished and grateful. I’d talk to the manager, who would be free to disregard floor bike protocol, for such an exceptional case.
I went back to the store. No, they would not sell me the floor bike. It didn’t belong to them. I could buy it in months, when floor bikes get replaced or something. I was also told: don’t do that—I hadn’t seen what the customers did to floor bikes. (What could customers possibly be doing to floor bikes to warrant such fear?) ‘Months’ was also about how long it would take them to order in a new bike.
They let me use their wifi, and I reached my boyfriend again with my charged phone, and he had actually phoned a bunch of bike shops, like some kind of hero (or some kind of superhero with the ability to just talk to people in shops on the phone—if I phoned a bike shop, they might say something like “phh shu anganga mph ghe?” and I’d say I couldn’t hear them, but they wouldn’t hear me, and we’d go back and forth like that a few times, until it became too embarrassing to be borne). He had located a couple of very similar bikes, possibly one of them identical, at other bike shops in San Francisco and nearby Berkeley. I decided to go home and charge my phone, and so ended my and The New Wheel’s long afternoon together.
At home, I charged my phone and acknowledged my failings re phone charging, and bravely acted on my boyfriend’s claim that it would be reasonable to just phone the most promising bike shop back to check it really was the same bike they had, before spending over an hour driving to Berkeley. It also became apparent that my other boyfriend would not hate taking me on a long bicycle-pursuing excursion in his car that evening.
So we set out, me feeling kind of defensive and silly, because I could have got a bike that was better on every front except for ‘ineffable greatness’ hours earlier and with a lot less bothering other people. I vaguely attempted to defend myself as we went over the bridge, but it didn’t seem very necessary, and we got on to more interesting conversation.
The bike shop, it turned out, was a few doors away from a house I used to live in, between a coffee shop with romantic memories, and a bench with different romantic memories, from multiple ancient times. Stepping into the thick past, I left my boyfriend to park the car and walked up to the new shop. It was a big warmly lit warehouse room, which I didn’t remember seeing when I lived here. Friendly: a place of children in baskets and wholesome rolled-up-trouser types. I read out the string identifying my desires to a plump, friendly man: “Gazelle ultimate T10+ 46inch”. He went looking for the corresponding item amidst the central sea of handlebars and frames. He couldn’t find it. Strange. He consulted his records, and the back storage, and his records, and another bike shop man. At last, it was right there—the problem had been that the record said that the bike was ‘dust’ colored, and he understandably hadn’t considered that someone would come up with that name for my beloved bike’s reddish-grey tone.
Relieved but further paranoid for the preservation of the hard-to-measure magic, I got out my photographs from earlier, and asked him if there was anything different between the photograph and this bike. There was! The other bike had had some kind of fancy suspension seat post installed. They had the same for sale, so I asked for it. I rode the bike around half the block and back, and couldn’t tell if it was amazing, but it really was a short and constrained ride, and what more could I reasonably do? I bought it.
We could barely push its giant, heavy body into the back of the car, and it made an alarming cracking sound, which hopefully was just the light changing position. We took it home.
Another day, I took it out for a little ride, and it was great to power up the hills of San Francisco, and shoot along the flats. It’s the kind of bike that only adds power when you pedal, so it seemed that riding was still a lot of exercise, but your exertions got you all around the city, instead of half way up the nearest hill. And while I just meant to have a little ride, I went further around the city than I may have ever been on a single outing. What had been an intractable country of mountainous slopes and distances and intersections like war zones was shrunk to my scale. And I felt safer, though faster, because usually getting out of the way of things requires my own feeble strength, which might be completely overcome by starting on a little bit of a bump or something. Now I could more move when I wanted. And I could go fast enough to feel no guilt riding in the middle of the car lane, rather than the door-prone bicycle lane. I was as about as fast as cars, and nimble.
I had to admit though that it wasn’t the joy I had sought so hard. It was merely mundanely good. And I was tense, and San Francisco was frightening, and cars were everywhere, and it was all exhausting. Maybe now I was just too stressed, and it would be good later? Or maybe the bike was somehow adjusted slightly wrong, and the potential for that same joy could never be found among the myriad possible positional combinations? About twenty minutes from home, I realized that I actually couldn’t leave the bike and walk without my back hurting a lot. So, questionably, I got back on it, which was bearable, and rode home. I spent the next day or so in bed.
Shorter rides favored the hypothesis that it was fun but not extraordinary.
I returned to the first bike shop, and asked a man there to adjust my new bike to be exactly like their floor bike, ignoring the very likely possibility that they had adjusted the floor bike since my visit. He didn’t seem to obviously understand either the situation or my request, but was willing to make some changes, and phone me when done. He also sold me an expensive lock and some neat (and expensive) panniers. I went and tried to buy crepes, but the store was closed. But then I found a cafe and a restaurant next door to each other with back patios, a recent passion of mine, and took a nice iced coffee from one to the other, where I ate fries and read about words for an hour, in the company of a cat, someone else reading a book, and some kind of raw European music. It was pretty good. My phone died, because my life is too complicated and/or I’m an idiot. I went back to the bike store. He had changed some things, such as—promisingly—the angle of the handlebars. I rode home via the circle park, detouring to fly around it, iced coffee lodged in my front gear cables. It seemed amazing. But I’m uncertain, and doesn’t that mean it wasn’t? Well I smiled a lot on the way home, anyway.