My birthday showed its face in June, and thanks to the recent auto repossession and my wife’s work schedule, it would be an auto-free, solitary celebration. I had a check from a beer newspaper of all publications and a bottle of wine in mind. Once I finished my morning coffee, I pulled my spider-webbed and leaf covered red bike off the back deck and decided to go for a ride in spite of the rust on the frame and tires that were emptier than our checking account. There was no air pump. We lived about 5 miles out of town in the woods, and the bones of my ass would soon be annihilated.
In the jammed freeways and toll road lined hills of my former home of South Orange County, the non spandex clad cyclist was pretty much a relic of American transportation past. With that mentioned, it’d been a good four years since I’d hopped on a bike, let alone one with flat tires. But I’d already justified either an all day walk or ride across the underworld of Old Town Eureka to the concrete mega bunker of Costco Wholesale (more bottle bang for the buck). The sooner I got back to crack the bottle and reflect on the deck, the merrier. The flat tires would have to suffice till I made it to the nearest service station two miles in.
It’s hilarious when a grown man whose been fleeting high inside a power-windowed ride suddenly hops on a bike for the sake of transportation. It doesn’t just all come back to you like the cliché says. It’s pretty dangerous, actually. I strapped on a backpack with a diary, pen, and wallet inside and departed across the sour excuse for a front lawn. It was dysfunctional from the get-go, and I struggled to maneuver down the slick, redwood-lined street with those flat tires banging away. “Not so bad,” I said, chuckling about being on the bike itself and picking up a little more confidence and pace while traversing past our unknown country neighbors’ spreads. The air tasted filtered clean. I breathed it in, closing my eyes for just a few seconds, blindly taking in the speed that was building up with the downhill stretch instead of keeping an eye on the meteorite-looking potholes left behind by the seasonal stampede of logging trucks. Metal on concrete plus the steepest portion of the road had that wobbly piece of shit going around 15 to 20 miles per hour in no time, and alas, I found myself completely out of control. “Ah shit no!” I cried out loud, dragging my right shoe and grasping the hand brake to no avail. The front rim finally dropped hard into a gaping, unforeseen pothole with a sharp, metallic bang.
The impact flung me clear over the handlebars as if my bike was a horse electrically pronged in the ass. I took the bulk of the spill on the shoulder; the rest of my landing was thankfully padded by the backpack. I felt the gravel sparks of pain lighting up in my back and saw clear skies above me, laying there like roadkill-in-waiting for one of the methed-up bush crazies making a drive into town.
I scampered myself together and figured I probably deserved it, actually. We all could use an indifferent thrashing from time to time. But then I thought “How cool to completely eat shit on my bike on my birthday.” With lungs gasping and a heartbeat on techno overdrive, I pedaled along once again, making my way past the tidal flats and pasture land to Myrtle Avenue, where I’d get my first taste of traffic.
I crossed Myrtle and stuck along the far right side of the two lane road. Now I wouldn’t cruise a bike around any European or Latin city, but in the USA I actually thought I was okay. But soon enough, I found myself feebly peddling that flat tire bike up a no bike lane hill with a redwood loaded logging truck screaming up on me at 50 mph. Bad call. “No! Please no!” I shrieked, the roar of the massive machine behind me. With virtually no speed of my own, I teetered on the concrete edge with swampy tidal flats fifteen feet down. Halfway up the slope, I watched as it rushed by me, sweat dripping into my eyes and I thought of every time I’d been stressed out or in a bad mood while driving up this hill. I wanted to kick that former ungrateful self’s ass for taking that car for granted. I finally crested into Myrtletown and pedaled on the lovely, flat terrain in search of an air pump.
At the Gas ’n Go station, I ditched the bike out front and went inside, passing a teenager in grunge attire on his way out. It was a cramped food mart that pushed the whole concept of maximizing your retail space to a pack rat level. I grabbed a bottle of water and asked the employee working the register where the air was.
“It’s around the back, hon,” the permed and mulleted woman informed me from beneath the rack of every sort of cigarette available in the USA. Her mustache would have made the bass player for Spinal Tap look twice, but her heart was made of gold.
As I stepped back outside, I saw a white, four-door economy vehicle full of dudes with shaved heads idling, and the kid who’d been inside was talking to the driver. I wheeled my bike around the tail end of their car toward the air hose. With the kick stand out, I positioned my bike near the hose and then peeled the plastic top of the water bottle off, quenching my desert of a throat. I stuffed the bottle in my backpack before kneeling down to pump. As the hose hissed and breathed some life into my front tire, I heard a car door open and looked over to see a buff Army looking guy approaching me, wearing a tucked in white button up, grey tie and slacks. His shiny black shoes were clickin’ on the pavement. It came to me immediately: Recruiters. Military evangelists with a quota to meet. Oh man, I really do look that lost and hopeless!
“How you doing?” the dark skinned, wide-necked, late twenty-something guy started it off, with his hands in his well-ironed pockets. I began to fill up my back tire with air, knowing damn well where this was heading.
“Hey, good,” I replied, acknowledging the man but not giving him my all.
“What’s wrong with your bike, man?” he asked.
“Oh, I haven’t ridden it for four years, so the tires were flat.”
He nodded, not even listening. “Where are you headed?”
“Uh, it’s my birthday so I’m riding downtown, maybe to do some shopping.”
“All right. How old are you, man?”
“Twenty-five,” I was proud to mention for the first time, thinking, “the tail end of their desired demographic”. I could tell he was processing this information like a machine with a crew cut, deciphering whether or not I’m worth pursuing anyway. Apparently there was still something.
“Twenty-five. Do you live around here?”
Another big break for me: “Yeah my wife and I moved up here a year ago.”
“What made you move up here?” he asked, snorting a little.
“We fell in love with the area and decided that we wanted a better quality of living. I’d been working in Orange County, with a good job, but this was worth more.” And by this, I suppose I was talking about being dressed as a scumbag and mending a flat bike tire behind the Gas ’n Go in Eureka on an overcast business day. With the financial hang-ups of the past week, I wondered if my delivery of that mission statement still had any shred of passion left in it.
“You have kids?” He was really checking out all his options at that point. This wasn’t casual conversation; it was purely systematic.
“No. No kids. I’ve had some friends’ marriages go downhill because of having kids too soon, so we’re waiting.” He nodded at that.
“So what do you do up here?” It was time to break out the heavy artillery. Yes, it was time to hit him with the arts: any armed forces recruiter’s nightmare.
I capped the tire and stood all the way up. “I’m a writer.”
“Ah! A writer. Ever think about the Marines?”
“You know, I’ve never really been interested in that. I respect it, and I have friends who are Marines — they’d been stationed at Camp Pendleton. But-”
“You’re a writer,” he interrupted. “Marines’ll give you plenty to write about.” He had a tight smirk on his face now, crossing those big arms of his.
“I’m sure of that,” I said. “But it’s just not for me.” Meanwhile, three shaved heads looked on from inside the car.
“Yeah, well, what’s your name?” he asked me.
I thought about throwing out a fake one, but it wasn’t like they were going to throw me inside the trunk and haul me off to boot camp. Or were they?
“Darren, my name’s Blake!” We shook hands. I matched his grip, as if to prove that being a writer and not joining the Marines didn’t make me feel like any less of a man. “Here, let me give you my card, in case you think more about it, or if you know somebody that’s interested.”
“Okay.” Sometimes to cut all the bullshit down to a bare minimum, you gotta just take the card. I looked down at it in my asphalt scratched palm, the big bold red “Marines” printed across the top with Blake’s name and far too many mediums of communication for a Marine recruiter to have. Have you ever heard of any kid scrambling to get a hold of their military recruiter in six different ways? There’s no reason to because they’re always after your ass. Who’d leave a message like “Sergeant Blake, it’s Darren! Man, I’ve gotta get a hold of you. I‘ve tried your home, office, your cell, your fax, all four email accounts…” Doesn’t happen.
“It was good to meet you,” he said, puffing his chest out for a finale.
“Yeah, good talkin’ with you,” I replied, which was a rough translation of, “yeah, hard as hell deflecting you.” And with that, Sergeant Blake Armstrong marched over to the passenger side and got into the front seat, defeated in a way, and they drove off, most likely calling me a pussy and imitating me in baby-talk “waah, waah — but I’m a writer! — waah, waah” and “I’ve never been interested in the marines because I’m just a big pussy!”
Before hopping on the bike to resume my birthday quest, I took a look at what I was wearing, just to see what the Sergeant was seeing. Oh man. What was I thinking? Full beard-in-progress, bucket fishing hat with “Jamaica Fine Ales” printed over a Rasta colored star, torn blue T-shirt that read “I Love Downunda” across the front, grey stained shorts, white athletic socks and skater shoes. On a bright Tuesday morning while the world was at work, I was dressed as such and traveling via bicycle on my birthday to get a bottle of wine. I must need some serious help, according to the US Marine Corps.