Whiskey, you’re the devil.

September 12, 2010 at 6:17 am (adventure, bicycles, life! a lover!, urban exploration)

I’ve learned recently that perhaps one oughtn’t announce that one has a new blog at the same time that one obtains a new bicycle. Writers, take note.

I went to Volpe Cycles on their first day in the new center city shop after their move from Fishtown. I admired their collection of art nouveau bicycle prints and accepted their offer of a locally brewed coffee porter and my first taste of Marmite, offered by a young man from the town in Staffordshire where it is produced as a by-product of beer-making. Once we’d attended to that business, I got to inspecting their newly arrived collection of Linus bikes, who bill themselves as “a simple, affordable, elegant bike for riding around and doing stuff,” and cite midcentury French film as a primary design influence. I’d planned on getting their three-speed cruiser. I’m used to hand brakes; I like being able to go up hills. But seeing the machines in person, I was strangely drawn to the roadster classic, the pretty simplicity of it. I asked if I might ride it around the block, expecting a brief romance, some taste of what other people’s bicycles might feel like. On the third leg of the block I paused next to a church to dismount and admire, to collect my thoughts alone before going back to the shop. It was a lovely little thing, weightless compared to my first cruiser, and fast. A man in the church had a microphone, and was serenading us with the love song from Ghost.

Needless to say, the bicycle and I embraced, and when I did return to the shop, I was flushed and speechless. Once I managed to compose myself with the aid of another cheese and marmite hors d’oeuvre, I asked if I might try the Dutch style bicycle. On the road, I couldn’t believe how sluggish it felt despite its being quite light. I paused at the same spot in order to reflect, and the gentleman in the church was singing a sub-par love song. My choice seemed obvious. I got the single speed roadster in cream with brown leather, and I named him Errol Flynn.

My first bike, a red vintage Dutch-style cruiser by Schwinn, was a mad, desperate love affair. I talked about her constantly. I’d joke that my bike was a fat girl, but I loved that fat girl, and couldn’t imagine hauling anything else up and down my front stairs every day. She was always broken and breaking, but she got me to work in half the time that it took to walk or take the subway, and she turned getting there into such a grand adventure. I called her Whiskey Glitter Run Away, and I sang her Irish drinking songs while I laughed and dodged cars on these tiny South Philly streets. She’ll always be my first love, but I see now that I tried to make it work for far longer than was reasonable. I imagine the poor old girl seething in the basement, cuckholded by this prettier, faster, more expensive toy. I do intend to take her into the shop to force her back into a reasonable condition, mostly because I’d like a winter bike that I don’t mind beating up with road salt and bad weather, but for now I’m too distracted with riding this pretty young thing to think about it.

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Horsies, and people up and down.

August 20, 2010 at 8:52 pm (adventure, crossroads, life! a lover!, seduction, the sky gods)

I made a pilgrimage to the north, to my lover, to celebrate the skies crashing down. She invited me to join her for this year’s Perseid meteor shower even before I was certain that I was to her what she was to me. She brought me there to meet her children and some small sampling of her immense band of relatives; certainly she is connected by blood, through a series of diplomatic, mysterious, and occasionally romantic ties, to half the North American continent?

We walked from her house to the river where we sat at the end of a dock, dipped our feet in, held her youngest daughter’s hands and let her play in the current. We collected smooth river stones. Had we chosen to swim the short distance across, we’d have climbed ashore in Canada. She took me through the woods, showing me tangles of brambles, high reeds, shifting sunlight, ogham carved in a birch, strange mushrooms.

And she took me out of the town in the middle of the night to a dock in the middle of a lake. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and clung to one another for warmth. Every three seconds a star fell, writing its name across the whole length of the black of the sky. I grew up in cities, you see. I’d have been amazed if they’d stayed still, impressed by their numbers alone. But she brought me there so that she could make the stars dance.

I made my way home in a small propeller plane, watching the sun pour itself in flashing sections from one bit of serpentine river to the next, from one lake to another, fire caught in the land, an undiminishing cordial shared as it is passed from cup to cup to cup. The earth split under me, showing the gold pulsing beneath. It hasn’t escaped me that water and land, sky and fire press close and writhe together when we meet.

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Hidden River.

July 23, 2010 at 9:36 am (adventure, urban exploration)

I rode my bike to Jameson’s house and locked it to his front railing. I went inside to admire his roommate’s ironwork and listen to a ghost story, and then we stole that same roommate’s truck. It was an ancient thing, practically burnt out on the inside. Given his profession as a smith, I can imagine a few scenarios in which that actually could have been the case. We didn’t need a key: Jamie climbed into the truck bed, opened the small window in back and contorted himself in order to squirm inside, unlocking my door for me once he’d managed it. I’m not sure what he used to turn the engine; a screwdriver, perhaps? The seat belts no longer worked. I’m under the impression that the tags might be forged, that the fishmonger-gone-puppet-maker might not have a license. But we lowered the canoe and paddles down from the deck on the roof of his house, secured it to the truck using nautical knots I’ve been practising, and carefully made our way to the entrance to the Schuylkill River bicycle trail where we intended to shove off.

While our adventures in the truck ignored all possible legal formalities, Jamie had called the river authorities to ask where we might be allowed to drop the boat. They assured him that the river belonged to everyone, and we could start anywhere. They warned us that if we tried to start from Boathouse Row the rowing teams would likely try to tell us otherwise, but they would only be misinformed or putting on airs.

We put on our life jackets once we’d brought the canoe to a shallow spot where the river met the grass. I climbed inside and pushed with my oar while he pushed from land. I didn’t see how he climbed in while or after he’d done so. Perhaps it involved getting his shoes very wet? We set off with much laughter. He’d done this once before bringing me out, but neither of us could quite make sense of the fact that we were paddling under Market Street, next to Thirtieth Street Station, rowing in the very centre of the city. I’d always been under the impression that Schuylkill was a LenapĂ© word, but it is Dutch. It means something like Hidden River, and that felt accurate. I’ve ridden the bicycle trail on the shore a thousand times, as it is the closest means I know of getting to trees and wild growing things from my neighbourhood, but I’d never explored the river quite so intimately. It felt like discovering a secret, like going into a room you’d somehow never before noticed at the end of the hallway in your house.

We saw fish leap out of the water next to us. We rowed under the arching branches of trees between the banks and the places where their leaves touched the water, and touched the stones of the bridges and waved to people and to ducks. We wondered aloud how deep it was, what the river gods were called, how far in any direction we could row before we’d be stopped by a dam.

We started out against the stream but with the wind in the direction of the art museum and the Waterworks. The first dam met us there, so it wasn’t the longest of trips. On his first time out the tide had been much lower, and Jamie and his brother were able to explore the rainwater run-off tunnels that feed into the river. He showed me the tops of the entrances they took when they poked above the level of the water. We only came close to tipping out of the canoe twice, and righted ourselves both times.

There is an island downstream, and we thought about rowing there on some other trip in order to go camping. Jameson has since been back to explore. He found a floppy disc next to a long since abandoned camp fire, and no other evidence of human exploration. Next time we’ll row out with a tent.

Philadelphia Waterworks and Fairmount Dam

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