You wouldn't think that a kid could get into too much trouble riding his bike up and down a dead end street.
On both sides of that Gless Avenue there were about a dozen two-family houses and not all of them had kids who rode their bikes in the street, on sidewalks that lifted near big trees, or up and down smooth and bumpy driveways.
In baseball season, we took the cards of players we didn’t know and used a few of mom’s clothespins to make our bikes sound like motorcycles.
We always had to see who could put the most cards on the fender, how much noise you could make and how long they would stay on when you raced up and down those driveways.
Gary lived in the corner house at Meacham and Gless, upstairs from his grandparents and an uncle who may have been a secret agent or something cool like that. He carried on like a spy, ignoring us kids and driving his car into the garage, scooting in the house, then getting in his car to zip somewhere to spy on someone important.
Gary, who was a month or so younger than me, had the first English Racer on the block. It was black and had very thin tires, like an English mustache, and handlebars that curled under like a Frenchman’s mustache.
But the weirdest thing about that foreign-made bike was that the English people put the brakes on the handlebars.
All the rest of the kids’ bikes in the neighborhood had foot brakes that you stomped with your heel and skidded to a stop. And, on our bikes, you could stomp on either right or left pedal to make the wheels stop.
But on that crazy English Racer the right hand stopped the front wheel and the left handle stopped the rear wheel, or something like that. I never could remember. And stomping on the pedal did nothing but freewheel backwards.
Riding an English Racer, with its smaller seat and attached saddlebag, always had a certain Carnaby Street panache that seemed to say you were hip. The Beatles had invaded and the Rolling Stones were rocking, so it was at the vanguard of biking to roll on an English Racer.
We'd always fight over which was faster, my one-speed Schwinn with its thick tires or Gary's three-speed English Racer. His bike had a gadget on the handlebar that you could hit with your finger and it would change up the gears on the chain you pedaled to make the bike roll.
First gear was the easiest to pedal, almost too easy, because you pedaled a lot but didn’t go very far. It was supposed to be good for biking up hills. Second gear was tougher than first gear, and you could really book if you put some effort into it. Third gear was the toughest. You had to work to pedal but that gave the bike more oomph and you could really put on some distance.
Give me my Schwinn with 26-inch wheels, foot brakes, wide seat, kick stand, fenders, and while it was new, in the hand grips, those streamers twirling in the draft I made when I raced along up and down Gless Avenue.
At the dead end part of our street, a staunch three-beam, striped barricade blocked cars from driving into the fields and across the pipeline that crisscrossed under the high-tension power lines. The barricade crossed at about a thirty-degree angle as did the pavement. There’s a small gap where it ended and where the field started.
When we were younger, nobody was supposed to ride your bike without asking. So, when one of my cousins from next door jumped on and took my bike for a spin, he said it was okay because the battered twenty-inch maroon bike had been his before it was handed down to me.
If a cousin, or one of the older girls from across the street took my old bike and rode it to the next house’s driveway and back, I was the one screaming blue murder and chasing the rider as if he or she stole it and was never going to bring it back, and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t riding it when he or she took it, it’s my bike and nobody else can ride it unless I say so.
So, of course, one sunny afternoon, Gary and I decided to swap bikes for a turn up and down the block. He’d ride my Schwinn and I’d ride his English racer. We’d go from his house at one end to the barricade, turn around and come back and we’d see who was fastest.
We were off! I kicked his racer into second gear and pushed my way down the street. Gary wrestled my monster rig and gave it all he had to race me, neck and neck, to the end of the street and back. We dodged parked cars, and little kids running out to see what was causing the blur of shadows whisking in the breeze.
And when we got to the last house before the barricade, Gary slowed down and began his turn around.
I stomped on the pedals and they just spun backwards, not slowing Gary's English racer or myself down one bit, as the bike raced to the barricade.
It took all I could do not to panic, but I screamed like crazy and used all new words to describe Gary stupid brakes that didn't work.
I managed to steer his bike to the end of the barricade and crash into the end of the curb and land unceremoniously in the weeds.
Gary checked out his bike. It was okay.
I brushed off the grass and rubbed the sting out of the parts of my body that landed firs. I was okay.
I took back my bike and Gary took back his. We'd finish that race some other day.
About the author: Anthony Buccino has written several collections about life and growing up in and around Belleville, New Jersey. He also created Old Belleville, a web site of local history. For more information, www.anthonybuccino.com
Copyright © 2011 by Anthony Buccino – used by permission