Wednesday, December 16, 2009
So a few months ago I locked my bike outside a bar on Mariannenstrasse (called, perhaps too transparently, the Bar on Mariannenstrasse), wheel-to-frame but (significantly, as it'd turn out), not locking the frame to the already-full bicycle rack. A few hours later I returned to find it... not there anymore. Someone with a pair of bolt cutters or (more likely) a van to haul it away had come across it and taken it. It's a story I'll tell perhaps at another time. For now, I only bring it up to introduce an old and familiar truth, that one forms attachments to a bicycle, like one does a pet or a favorite childhood toy, or maybe the girlfriend who you break up with because you didn't want to be tied down but you never knew how good you had it until after three horrible relationships later, when something someone says some beery night reminds you of her. Especially when you got it second-hand, you gradually begin to think of all the curious features of the thing, like a malfunctioning bell or the awkward slope of the handlebars, less as shortcomings and more as quirks or oddities, and eventually the things you love most about it. I paid only thirty-five euros for the thing, but as I put twenty-euro repair after twenty-euro repair into it, I became more and more invested (fiscally and emotionally). The night it was stolen, I had gotten to the point where I had never loved a bicycle as much as I did this one.
The new one's all right, though. The light doesn't work and the handlebars are shorter than I'd prefer. The first one had these long sloping handles, the curve of the handlebar was really a thing to behold, and the handles just came off the end looking like a decorative hilt of a samurai sword. The new one's got short functional handles, as long as my hands are wide with not an inch to spare. Spare, that's a good word for them. Functional, with nothing to spend on grace. It's got a boxy feel to it; the frame is this huge imposing triangle, all straight lines and hard edges, and you have to swing your leg out to get on or off; the old one had a curve to its frame and you could sort of step-through to get on. I got this one at the Flohmarkt for forty euros and should have known I'd put more into it soon. The front tire blew out on the way to the library one day, and the rear wheel started making this awful scraping sound afterwards. Just this awful sound like grinding your teeth against a chalkboard with your fingernails poking into a wet unhappy housecat. Awful. The guy at the bikeshop down the street said it was the axle and replaced it, but two days later the sound came back; turns out the whole wheel was beschädigt and had to be replaced. He did give me a discount roughly equal to the price of the axle I'd already bought. I had put a lot of money into the first bike, and never knew how good I had it. Ah, I never should have broken up with that girl. Bicycle, I mean.
Well, of course I've been using the new bike since then. Locking it quite carefully, one will note. I've even been riding it a lot just for exercise, since I hurt my knee my first attempt at a run since eleven miles in Barcelona, the night of history's worst-ever for-lack-of-a-better-word-I'll-call-it-a-date, which is a story I really gotta tell when I get a chance. The knee appears to be okay, although I'm keeping to shorter distances to be safe---this took me twenty and a half minutes today, good for a seven-minute pace---and for longer bouts of sweating I've been keeping to the bike.
This is of course in addition to the use I get out of the bike just in terms of getting around town. In medium traffic I move as fast as cars (in heavy traffic, faster), and I don't need to look for a parking space, just a signpost, and if it gets too cold or I'm running late it only costs 1.50 to take it on the U-Bahn. I absolutely love having my bicycle as a transit option---which it is in Berlin, and isn't a lot of other places, because of the accommodations Berlin makes to cyclists, like plentiful bike lanes and especially car drivers who know bicyclists are on the road and look out for them. I don't mean to belabor this point, but it is a real difference between the Germans and Dutch et al, and the Americans. Also: Foreshadowing!
Some of the improvements I'd paid for with the first bike were removable front and rear lights. I'd unclipped them and slid them into my bag when the bicycle was stolen, so I still have the heavy bits that make the light, but they are missing the clamps by which they're attached to the bike itself. Since those clamps are only for sale in kits for the entire light set, I haven't replaced them and have been riding lichtlos. I know that's against the law. I don't know how serious an offense it can be, technically. But I'm an immigrant without work or, really, any visible reason I'm living in this country, and it's not so far to the time I was here without a visa and technically subject to deportation if anyone had found out, and that mindset doesn't shake off all at once. Once you live like that there's an edginess that creeps back up whenever you see a police car, a fear no matter how irrational that lingers, makes you wonder if they're not coming for you, finally.
I say this by way of explaining why, once I determined I wasn't hurt, I didn't wait for the police to come or insist on exchanging numbers or otherwise make a big deal of it when a motorist collided with me as I came around the corner of Dresdener between Oranienplatz and Kotbusser. Right about here. The way it happened was, I was coming from the west and veered right onto Dresdener as a car that was parked to my right pulled out of its spot, its driver looking the other way. Given the turn and (as I remember it) what must have been a truck or other obstruction, neither of us could see each other from far away, although I was definitely the first to see him, as he kept rolling after I'd started veering to my left. I was going too fast to turn any more, but I think he eventually did see me and brake, and the collision---right on the knee, natch, but not the one that's been hurting---felt pretty soft. I fell over, but caught myself on the way down. I got up, stepped on both legs; they were fine. The other guy pulled back into his parking space. He didn't turn off the engine right away, but stayed there, lights off, the motor humming. As I watched him it was as though I could read his mind, so clear it was what he was thinking. Drive away, quick, before anyone sees. I would have been thinking it, too. But then he killed the engine and got out and I told him I was fine. His car might have been scratched, I guess, but if so I didn't see it and he wasn't terribly interested in checking. I told him he could go and he did, quickly.
At the time I thought the bike was completely intact, too. Well, this little plastic claspable case that sits under the seat, and the purpose of which I've never been able to figure out, had fallen off. But it's a cheap thing that I didn't particularly want. I'd walked it the few steps to the curb and everything seemed completely fine. It was only as I went rolling away did I hear that sound again of something grinding against the rear axle, not the same noise exactly as what the axle had been making that precipitated two replaced parts, but damn if it didn't make me think of just that. And as I pedaled through the streets of Berlin with a satchel of groceries slung across my back, all I could think about was that I really don't know how much more I can afford this city, how I keep thinking I have a budget I can sustain only to find out there's a dozen incidental costs of things that I hadn't planned on, and how much longer can I keep this up, and how much worse it could have been if I had medical costs, good lord. But I've taken two bikes into the shop I don't know how many times now, and I'm tired of paying for it, and I'm just getting ready for this one to be a full chain and gear or something more expensive than another crappy wheel. I notice the sound only comes when I pedal and not when I coast, so I do that, coast, as much of the way home as possible, pedaling furiously and then just leaning forward as long as I can, feeling like I can drift forever as the city grows darker and colder. The sun had gone down long before.
The next day I walk it down the street. My German's at least better here and I can explain what was happen with the passive "was hit (by a car)"/,,wurde von einem Autofahrer geschlugen." It has much less of an effect than I had assumed, and he just flips it onto its seat, turns the pedals with one hand while watching the chain, and in two quick movements bends a metal plate until the chain no longer rubs against it. So my bikeshop guy thinks I'm retarded. "Oh, you have a problem with your bike again? This problem here, that disappears when I apply pressure with my hand? Yeah. Wow. Those can be a killer.
Today, though, I noticed that I'm liking the new bike more. The short handles even; they kind of feel right, you know? Spare. Economical. Practical, minimalist, no pointless flourishes.
Sigh. This thing'll be the death of me.