Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Protective Properties of Denim

Bruno and I straddled our bikes at the top of Short Essex street looking at the loosely built ramp constructed of scavenged grape crates and milk cartons in the distance. Neither of use would voice concern about the possibility of losing skin on the road’s surface if the jump didn’t go as planned. We were still young. Our judgment and aversion to pain had yet to mature. He turned to me and said with a straight face in an undeniable action hero tone, “At least we are wearing our denim jackets.”

That was all that needed to be said.

There are many unspoken codes in a boy’s life. To a bored kid from the suburbs, earning the respect of your neighborhood friends was all that mattered. There was no wiggle room. We waited for the other to back out, but be both knew that wouldn’t happen. We were both locked into the mission.

Short Essex Street is a short hill that connects Genesee Street with Oneida Avenue. Most of the streets in our neighborhood were named for Indian tribes. Short Essex, a short hill, not too steep and rarely traveled was the perfect strip of asphalt to serve as a run up to our rickety, but death defying jumps. We constructed our ramps from whatever we could find, borrow, or steal. With no working knowledge of geometry, we launch up straight into the air. All momentum would be lost at the lip of the ramp. The arc of travel would be steep, pointing the front wheel straight up and then straight down in a short, acute arc. The equation was a near impossible combination of angle and speed and pride. Broken headsets, handlebars and front axels were not uncommon.

Someone from the neighborhood would volunteer to go first and the rest of us would look on with a mixture of curiosity and thinly concealed blood lust. We would giggle with excitement as the first person of the day barreled toward oblivion.

The year was 1983, bike hemets were still made of leather and no one had actually seen one. Beefed up BMX bikes with padding and reinforced, thickly spoked wheels weren’t easily available. Necessity forced us to make due with whatever bike was dealt to us by way of holiday or birthday or graduation present. There were steel bikes from the 40’s equipped with lights and generators, 10 speeds and street bikes with gorilla hanger handlebars and banana seats. The designers of these bikes did not intend them to fly. But tell that to a couple of kids staring down 100 feet of inclined asphalt with the belief that their Levi’s denim jacket would protect them from the road rash and impact of flipping a bike off a grape crate while peddling with extreme intent.

To a kid, a bike means freedom and risking the destruction of your bike was no small matter. Without a bike, you were forced to either awkwardly walk-run behind your friends or ride double by standing on the back pegs of someone’s bike. Peg standing was always a risky endeavor. If you were lucky enough to find someone with long wheel bolts, you were OK. More commonly, you would be forced to balance precariously on the pencil eraser sized nubs of steel that protruded from the rear axel. Again, with thinly concealed blood lust, potholes would be hit and manholes would be run over in hopes of sending a buddy’s crotch into the spinning rear wheel.

Most neighborhood bikes bore the scars of past transgressions against both gravity and judgment. Handlebars were drilled out and screwed in place with wood screws and reinforced with sloppy clumps of solder. Frames were shored up with sheet metal and a rag tag mixture of bolts, washers, and wing nuts. Electrical tape was almost always used as both a structural reinforcement and cosmetic veneer. Vise grips and adjustable wrenches scavenged from someone’s basement toolbox were all the tools that were required. Bolts would be stripped instantly.

In the world of an eleven year old boy, the laws of engineering were wide open and not grounded in common sense. The world had not yet taught its lessons about doubt and practicality. But, your bike was your freedom and one did whatever was necessary to avoid losing it until it was repaired.

Your bike was either a source or pride or embarrassment. If your parents acted unilaterally and bought you an uncool bike, there was nothing else to do but endure the ridicule of your friends. Sometimes, in hopes of rehabbing your bike, number plates, radios, water bottles, saddlebags, license plates and any other form of hanging junk would be added. Still and uncool bike was an uncool bike and no amount of accessorizing was going to change the truth.

In one extreme case, Mario, a kid from down the block painted his entire bike blue. Blue spray paint was applied to every surface; frame, tires, chain, seat, handle bar grips. On the chain guard, the name “Blue Flame” was written in white paint. Evil Knievel had just recently attempted [unsuccessfully] to jump the fountains at Cesar’s Palace and we all had the wind up version of his stunt cycle in our bedrooms.

In an act of genius, Mario had transformed a piece of shit street bike into a version of Evil’s mythical stunt cycle with a few cans or blue spray paint, a new name and a new attitude. The blue flame gave Mario an infusion of bravado.

Without hesitation he marched up to the top of my next door neighbor’s yard. Pausing for just a second as if bathing in the roar of an imaginary crowd, he focused. Sliding back on the blue banana seat, he began to pedal furiously. With no ramp and no possible way or becoming airborne, he roared headlong into a log and flipped his bike twenty feet into the air. He landed unconscious a few feet from the log as the blue flame landed with a thud against a pine tree. Mario was quickly surrounded by the confused and concerned family that had witnessed the crash through their living room window. As they revived him, I sunk, giddy, into the shadows. I knew one thing: He was a fool, he should have been wearing his denim jacket.

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