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It was a brilliant Saturday morning in late September on an attractive tree lined street in Brooklyn.

 
 
Patricia Walkow
Memoir - The Aristocrat
 
 
 

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The Aristocrat



It was a brilliant Saturday morning in late September on an attractive tree lined street in Brooklyn. Each house on the street was large and had either an open or enclosed front porch. They were built to accommodate extended families, built to live in for generations. They were old, gracious and well kept. And each house had a large, mature tree in front–either a maple, sycamore or oak. Some had trees in their backyards, too.

       The sky was impossibly blue that morning, the kind of blue that makes you glad you are alive–the kind of blue that can make you cry. The bright red leaves of the maple trees blazed against the house and sky. The sycamores were busy dropping spiked pompoms of seeds that were almost the size of ping pong balls. They were shedding their bark and children often gathered it to write on it, like birch bark. Clusters of light brown acorns were dropping from the hundred foot tall, ancient oak tree that shaded the backyard of two houses-one of them mine. I used to think that tree was so old that it must have been there when the dinosaurs were still alive.

       Its acorns' earthy scent was the essence of autumn. The squirrels squabbled on the gabled house-tops and scampered like acrobats along the electric wires, planning their strategies to gather the acorns and outwit each other.

       A smattering of crinkly leaves of all shapes and colors littered the sidewalks, driveways and lawns.

       The temperature was comfortable enough to enjoy the outdoors with just a sweater, and the air was crisp and dry.

       It was a perfect autumn day in a time of the year known as "Indian summer."

       It was also my ninth birthday.

       And it was the day that Dad was bringing the Aristocrat home with him.

 

  

       I met the Aristocrat when my father took me to meet her in Manhattan on a few occasions. Today, my father would be arriving with her in early afternoon, via taxi, right to my front door. Imagine that, my very own Aristocrat.

       She was blue and 26 inches high, with two wheels, white-walled tires and coaster brakes. She had a bell, too. I had long ago outgrown my interest in a tricycle, and, like my eleven and half year old sister before me, would receive my very own bicycle on my ninth birthday. The truth is, I had been riding my sister's bicycle for a while, when she'd let me. Her silvery bicycle was a "President."

       But mine would be a royal blue Aristocrat.

       I waited on the porch for her arrival.

       When the bright yellow taxi pulled up, my father and the cabbie exited, and they untied the trunk lid which held my Aristocrat securely. She was in a large cardboard box.

       "Uh oh," I said to myself. "Dad has to put it together."

       Dad was a good sport, though. A lawyer by trade, he nonetheless intrepidly took on minor house projects and according to my mother, he achieved an acceptable level of success. The Aristocrat would be one of those projects. My dream was to ride her today, on my birthday. Crestfallen, I expected to have to wait until Sunday before my father could finish assembling it. Even worse, I might have to wait until the following weekend.

       I greeted my father at the side door, where he temporarily deposited the large box.

       "Is that my bike, Daddy?"

       "Yes, more or less. I have to put it together."

       "Today?"

       "I'll start a little bit later."

       "May I see it, Daddy?"

       "Let me get my hat off and have some lunch."

       It was the longest lunch, it seemed, until he finally went to the basement and came back upstairs with an array of tools. He placed his summer Saturday hat on his head–a light tan straw hat with a black band–and tucked a cigar and a pack of matches in his shirt pocket.

       "Why don't you give me a hand bringing the box into the backyard?" he asked. I knew it wasn't really a question, but just a diplomatically stated command.

       We carried the box from the side door to the backyard where he leaned it against the stucco house, next to a wooden picnic table adjacent to my mother's raised rock garden. The sunlight in the yard was deeply-dappled by the oak tree's leaves when he laid the tools on the table. They included a hammer, an assortment of screwdrivers, a couple of wrenches and his cigar and matches. Outdoors was the only place where Dad could smoke those beasts.

       He grasped the Aristocrat's box and opened it, pulling out the various parts of the bicycle:  the two wheels, the handle bar, the seat, and the fenders. The edge of the box brushed his hat and he adjusted it to the slightly askew angle he preferred. He was never without a hat when he was outside. In the 1950s my Dad would sweep the sidewalk, front walk and driveway wearing tan slacks, a tan button-down shirt, a green tie with a tie clip, and his hat. That was his definition of "casual." And this was how he was dressed today, to assemble my Aristocrat.

       I marveled at the pieces and gently petted them.

       "Daddy, do you know how to get this all together?"

       At nine, a girl thinks her father can do anything, build anything, and be anything. But there were a lot of pieces for him to assemble, and I wanted to be sure he could do it.

       "Of course!" he said.

       "May I watch?"

       "Why don't you come back in about an hour?"

       I was dismissed. Again he was diplomatic. He meant, "Scram, will you?"

       So, I left. I don't remember what I did or where I went, but I returned to the picnic table a little over an hour later.

       When I approached my father, his back was to me. The directions were spread across the picnic table and his cigar created a cloud of smoke that hovered above his head for a moment before it slowly curled away into the air. Tools were on the ground, on the table, on the bench where he sat and in his left pants pocket. The bicycle was still not completely assembled. The rear wheel was attached to the frame and he was finagling with the chain. I heard him utter mild expletives to himself in Italian and could sense he was a little frustrated. I left him alone with his project until almost supper time.

        When I returned, I announced my approach so as to give him fair warning that I was there.

       "Daddy, how is my bicycle?"

       "It's almost together."

       "Can I help you?"

       "I just want to put the seat on the frame and adjust the handle bar. Why don't you hold the frame steady for me while I do that?"

       I stood in front of my bicycle, facing her, and held onto the frame while he made the adjustments.

       As though I didn't know that fitting the chain was the hardest part of putting the bicycle together, I asked him anyway, "What was the hardest part?"

       "Getting the chain to fit properly on the sprockets. If this had been a bike with more than one speed, it would have been very difficult."

       "Your hands are greasy, Daddy. Do you want me to get you some soap and water?"

       "No, soap and water don't work well on grease. Let me go inside to clean up. When I come back outside I want you to sit on the seat with the kickstand on so we can make sure everything is within reach for you."

       He went inside and I remained outside, admiring my bicycle. I walked around her a few times and ran my hand down the length of the front and rear fenders. I marveled at all the chrome, tried out the bell and noticed the thin, golden pinstripes of accent paint. There were two parallel tubes that descended at an angle from the front of the frame to the rear of the frame. These angled parallel tubes were the hallmark of a girl's bike, and I grasped them to feel how wide they were. The word "Aristocrat" primped in fancy gold script from the top tube.

       "A-R-I-S-T-O-C-R-A-T," I spelled aloud. I wanted to be sure every letter was there.

       This was the most wonderful birthday present. I couldn't wait to ride my bicycle. I couldn't wait for my friends to see me riding her, for my hair to blow in the wind, for my chance to ride to places I had never seen before. I envisioned people waving to me and marveling at the young girl on the beautiful bicycle. I imagined enchanted days out with my friends and their bicycles. My Aristocrat would be my personal magic carpet, taking me anywhere I wanted to go. With her, I would spread my wings. I would fly.

       When Dad came out, I climbed up on the saddle seat. We made sure my feet could reach the pedals and the seat was straight. My father made very minor adjustments. Many of my girlfriends had colorful plastic streamers at the very ends of their handle bar grips, but my bicycle didn't have these. My father thought they might distract me from paying attention while I was riding. I so wanted those multi-colored streamers and longed to hear them whip in the wind and achieve a horizontal posture as I rode faster and faster. Yet their absence was just a minor disappointment in an otherwise picture-perfect day.

       Dad got the hand pump and showed me how to inflate the tires. It was harder work than I thought, so he helped me. Of course, we didn't have a gauge to measure the pressure. We just estimated it was enough air.

       "Sit on it again, Patty," he said. I want to see if you still can reach the pedals.

       All was fine. I was ready to ride.

       "May I ride it now, Daddy?"

       "Not so fast. You have to learn all about it."

       "Who cares?" I said to myself impatiently.

       "Daddy, I ride Nilde's bike sometimes. I don't need to know about it!"

       "This is your bike. Now get down so I can show you all the parts."

        I just wanted to ride it. But Dad was firm. He showed me how the coaster brakes worked, and how the bell worked. When he told me what the chain did, and how important it was, he cautioned me against touching it and getting dirty. "Your mother will have a fit," he said. He had me practice putting the kickstand up, and putting the kickstand down. He told me never to lay the bicycle on the ground, but to always use the kickstand so that I wouldn't scratch the frame or misalign the wheels.

       We didn't have a lock and chain for the bicycle. In those days, the idea of someone stealing your bicycle was unthinkable. That changed, of course, as the 1950s drifted into the 1960s, but on that particular Indian summer day, my bicycle was safe.

       "Okay, I am going to try it, now," my father said.

       I hadn't expected him to ride it. But he got on and rode it down the driveway, wobbling the wheels a bit, and then headed down the block. When he returned he said it rode nicely and checked to be sure once more that all the nuts and bolts were on tight, and the tires were still inflated properly.

       My older sister Nilde was a good rider. My father wasn't. I planned to be the best.

       I knew my mother was going to have supper ready soon, so I begged Dad "Please may I ride her?"

       "Okay, get on. I'll get you started. How do you know it's a girl?"

       "I just think she is, that's all," I responded.

       He held on to the rear of the seat and ran next to me as I glided, then pedaled. When he let go, the bike and I were still erect when I stopped at the end of the driveway, and got off as soon as the brakes did their job.

       My Aristocrat felt different from my sister's President. It felt sleeker. The tires were a little thinner than her President's and in my mind, they would make my Aristocrat faster. But it was time to go inside.

       Supper was a blur, and so was my birthday cake. I just wanted to go outside and ride the Aristocrat before it got dark.

       I had wanted to ask this question for a long time: "May I go outside and ride my bike?"

       "Yes, but only up and down the block, on the sidewalk. Do not go in the street or around the corner," said my Mother.

       I fled the supper table as though being chased by bees and approached the Aristocrat.

       There she stood, nonchalantly leaning on her silver kickstand, waiting for me, her mistress.

       I pushed up the kickstand with my foot and straddled my Aristocrat. I put all my weight on one pedal and then the other. We were off! Shaky, but moving! I got as far as where the sidewalk met the driveway, a distance of about seventy five feet. Then I had to turn, but realized that my bike did not handle the way my sister's did. My Aristocrat had a sharper, more responsive feel than Nilde's smooth cruiser, rather like my Ferrari to her Lincoln Continental Limousine. I applied the brakes and half fell off my Aristocrat before I turned her to face the full length of the block, my runway to exploration.

       I pedaled past the Pearlman house, the Stampler, the Kelly, the Russo, the Miccio, the Foley, the Griffen, the Zeltner, the Hunter and the Margoles houses, then rode by other houses whose inhabitants I didn't know. What freedom I had: freedom to let my leg muscles take me anywhere I wanted to go; freedom to be on my own when I wished to be. How wonderful to feel the wind gently rustling my hair! Yet on this very first ride, I had a reality to face: when I arrived at the end of the thousand foot block I lived on I had to turn back. But how would my Aristocrat perform a turn? Slowly, I rode into the last driveway on the block and then rotated the front wheel to the left until I was returning back to my house. That turn was shaky at first, but I cycled up and down the block over and over until I made the turn smoothly! I achieved mastery of the turn, the brakes, and the "feel" of my bicycle. As I rode and rode that first evening, it began to dawn on me that my Aristocrat and I were on our way to great unknown escapades for many years to come. I smiled, and perhaps, she did too. And I still wished I had those streamers!

       The next day Nilde and I took our bicycles out and rode one behind the other. We found a new activity we could enjoy together and did it often.

        That first year I owned my Aristocrat, I only rode her in September and October. It was too cold after that, but in April my father pumped up the tires, checked that all the other parts were working, and I was free again until the following October.

       As we got older, my sister and I were allowed to travel around the block and to a park that was a block away. Our horizons expanded with our age and eventually we took excursions outside our neighborhood. We found two parallel large apartment buildings with a waterfall, stream and garden between them, and rode the pathway along this wonderland. We found railroad tracks for the Long Island Railroad that had a bridge over them. The bridge had stairs at each end, but also a ramp. Nilde and I learned to use the ramp, still on our bicycles. I even learned to do it with "no hands" on the handle bar.

       My Aristocrat remained loyal to me through high school and college. Whenever I needed some "alone" time, I would ride her to the beach about three miles from my house. One of my favorite places on the way to the beach was a narrow tidal inlet called Sheepshead Bay. My father would sometimes take us on a fifteen minute city bus ride to the bay. It was one of my favorite places and to this day, it holds a special place in my heart. Sheepshead Bay was the end, or, depending on the way you thought of it, the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean. It was lined with wooden piers supported by tar-drenched wooden pilings. The bay always smelled of rotting fish and tar while the saucy, raucous gulls either perched on the ends of the pilings or patrolled the sky overhead, ready to steal a snack and shatter the peaceful image of swans that glided gracefully in the bay. Boats of all sizes and colors moored along the pier. You could buy a lobster or a variety of fresh-caught fish directly from one of the deep sea fishing boats. Perhaps my mother would ask me to buy some lobsters and bring them home. Would I strap them to the fender of my bicycle or hang them from a bag attached to the handle bar?

       There was a wooden boardwalk-type foot bridge that spanned the narrow bay and crossing it on bicycles could loosen the fillings in your teeth. Bicycles were supposed to be walked across the bridge, not ridden. But we always rode. It was faster. And fast was important. Or, you could take the curved street around the bay, where the water bounced against the sea wall with the rythym of the tide. The prize - The ocean and the beach–were just three short blocks away from the bay. Why, you could even ride the bike another mile or so to Coney Island or the Aquarium. Riding to this special place anytime I wanted to liberated me from the need to wait for someone to take me there and released me from the chore of having to take the bus. This was heady independence.

       Closer to home, I would take the Aristocrat, or rather, she would take me to the library or store. My college was about a mile from my house, so I lived at home. I often rode my bike to classes, an ingénue with a burden of books strapped on top of the Aristocrat's rear fender. It wasn't really "cool" to use a basket attached to the front of the bike in those days. And no one had a backpack.

       No one ever wore a helmet. It was not even imagined.

       No one wore special clothing to ride a bicycle, or special shoes.

       We didn't use rear view mirrors or rain gear.

       No water bottles were used. I don't even know if bottled water existed then. Everyone drank from the public water fountains in the parks.

       And no one got seriously hurt - at least no one I knew. My sister, my girlfriends and I became skillful riders, dodging traffic and people, crossing small streets and broad boulevards. We considered traffic lights optional, as well as stop and yield signs.

       Our parents never knew where we were. We'd go out for the day on our bicycles and enjoy whatever was to be discovered that day. We just had to be home for supper and we each carried a dime in our pockets for a call home if there was an emergency.

       We never had to use those dimes.

       Most of my friends relinquished their love affairs with their bicycles when they were in their late teens. I never did. It was my companion, my escape, my way of getting around for short distances.

       After college, I purchased my first car. As exciting as that was, it could not compare to the complete delight of my Aristocrat.

       The Aristocrat moved into my marriage and lived in the garage of my first house.

       She looked forlorn, out of fashion, not shiny and new anymore. As I approached my thirties, I bought another bicycle. It was a mountain bike with fat tires which were supposed to make it easier to ride in the small rural Pennsylvania town where I then lived. It had a zillion gears which I never completely figured out, and I longed for the simplicity of my single gear bicycle with coaster brakes.

       It was a nice bike, but it wasn't my Aristocrat.

       I had taught school for eight years by then when I learned that one of my former students, who was now a teenager, needed a bicycle to get to work. He was a tall, strapping young man, and I asked him if he would mind owning a girl's bike. 

       "I'd be happy to have it," Rodney said. We made arrangements for someone to get him to my house, and from there, he would ride the Aristocrat home. But I spent some time with her in the garage, first. I cleaned her thoroughly, and my husband made sure she could be ridden. I told her how much she meant to me. When Rodney arrived I was ready to pass her to the next generation.

       As he rode away on the Aristocrat, I waved to her and called out to Rodney.

       "Be sure you have some wonderful adventures with my Aristocrat."

       I stared at her and Rodney until I couldn't see them anymore. My Aristocrat was gone, and with her departure I surrendered myself to the reality that the carefree days we spent together could never be recreated. They belonged to my past. With her departure I realized that I was a woman, not a girl.

       When I think of her today, I remember all the places she and I discovered, of the freedom she offered. I think of my father muttering under his breath as he assembled her. I see a scar on my knee from a particularly bad fall, no doubt when I tried to do something stupid while riding. Sometimes I reach for a vintage hat box in my closet, open it and gently caress the hat my father wore that day, so long ago, when he labored over the job of getting my Aristocrat ready for me to ride. I think of my sister and the places we rode, of my friends when we spent the whole day away from home on our bicycles, of the young men in college who would drive their cars next to me as I rode my bicycle home from classes. And I remember the day the Aristocrat arrived. It was one of the most beautiful autumn days of my life.

       There have been other bicycles in my life since the mountain bike and the Aristocrat. I even purchased those plastic tassels for one of them and attached them to the end of the hand grips on the handle bars. They turned out to be an annoyance. My father had been right about them.

       When I see adults riding bicycles today, I notice they wear special clothing, special helmets, special shoes, knee pads, wrist supports and ankle pads. They use special water bottles, extra-padded seats, cell phones, rear view mirrors, horns and some even have Global Positioning Systems.

       What ever happened to the lost art of finding your way home without needing a gadget to help you?

       And where is the joy? Each time I drive by an adult cyclist I look at the person's face. I have yet to see one smile. It seems the ride has become a burden or competition, something to achieve.

       However expensive or mechanically sophisticated their bicycles may be, today's riders just don't appear to experience the happiness I felt when riding my Aristocrat. She was simple and I smiled when I rode her. She and I were confident and competent together. It seemed we could go anywhere. We had nothing to prove, no one to beat in a race, no objective to achieve and I didn't need special gear to ride her.

       The Aristocrat was the best childhood birthday present I ever received. We explored my world and my youth together. She brought joy to my life, and I miss her.


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