08 July 2009

Adult Geography

“Hey, eeeeasy, mister!” the shrill voice of the boy child scraped across my eardrums, an icy spike into the throbbing mass of my head. Shirtless and buzzcut, the kid and his buddies half-glared, half-shrank away from the front of my car as I rolled forward an inch. Buzzcut was on a bike, one of those BMX types that look cool but are a total pain in the ass to ride anywhere for long. His peeps, two of them, were slightly ahead of him and walking fast like they actually cared to not be in the path of impatient people driving big hunks of metal.

Don’t wet yerself, Junior, I muttered to myself as I drove past the bike to make my turn, I wasn’t gonna hit you. Like I needed the complication of a tweenager sprawled across my hood. Oh, hell to the nahhh.

All I really wanted to do, I thought, was to give him notice. Notice that it is no proof of manhood to wait until the light is just about to turn and then decide to race across the street before the cars could start moving. Nor does it pay to play daredevil with a cheap bike or a skateboard.

Bike vs. car = epic failure for the bike.

I sighed, feeing grumpy and old beyond my years. Grumpy like the dwarf, but with a boil on his ass. Old like the Sphinx, and just as battered. Turning the corner, with the shouts of the neighborhood Evel Knievel and Co. fading fast, I wondered what had happened to me.

When did I get to be the Geezer?

It wasn’t until much later that I realized I was a teensy bit jealous, and lost. Those kids were me decades ago, doing much the same thing with my friends, bike and skateboards and attitude. They were getting about on a summer evening the only way they could. Which is to say, on foot or leg powered wheels. As such, they had a completely different perspective on where they were in the landscape, and a completely different view of the tyrannical freedom of the car.

A half-mile later I was thinking back to when the best way I had to get around was by bike, or by walking. The place I grew up in was very flat, almost no hills and no real steep grades to speak of. My world was circumscribed by the energy and time I could devote to getting somewhere. Of course, I didn’t have very far to go for most things. Most of my friends were within easy biking distance, and some were certainly close enough for walking visits. True to form, as a kid I had no appreciation of that luxury. Walking was anathema, unless unavoidable, and biking was a necessity in the absence of a car. But, gawdddd, all that pedaling! Mom, Dad, I wantneedgottahavecantlivewithoutmylicensepleaseletmedrivebymeacarpleasepleaseplease…well, you know the drill.

The place I grew up in was no small town, nor was it a big city by most measures. Flat, roads in a grid, convenience store around the corner (where I spent far too much money on pinball) and a park not far away. Getting around these places on a bike or on foot was always an investment of time (of which I now know I had plenty) and energy (also of which I had plenty); it always seemed a bit of an adventure. Will the chain pop off? Is it going to rain? How do I carry a pizza and an illicit six-pack on the handlebars without dropping them? You know all the shortcuts, the curves, the places where its cool to ride hell-for-leather and hope to not get flattened by a car. You get to know whose yards to cut through, and which ones have dogs to avoid (or smack the hell out of with a newspaper). Everything seemed potentially a LONG way away. And it seems a REALLY long way when you decide to leave a friend’s house at two o’clock in the morning after a party, where everyone is either asleep or (ahem) passed out, and walk home. Jay-zus, was that a long night. I discovered the meaning of “miles”. Given the dodgy nature of some of the places I had to traverse, it was the fear n’ beer that got me home. And, yes, Mom, I’ll never do that again…

Traveling this way gives an amazing, intimate knowledge and understanding of the terrain of one’s daily existence. It is a perspective hard to obtain while driving in car. Or maybe it is that the scale of things changes after years behind the wheel, pushing the gas instead of pedaling the wheels.

Thinking back to my childhood and adolescence spent hoofing it, or pedaling my chubby buns off in the heat of a sticky Tidewater summer, I realize now that the city of my birth was really a neighborhood. And to my kid-sized mind, the neighborhood was more than a city; it was a big country bounded only by the limits of my muscles and my ambition to explore. It was a kingdom of the strange and of the familiar, places outside my daily existence and the delights of a home to go to, safe and dry. I used to think it was big. Really BIG.

When I go there now, to visit my parents and my brother, I am always stunned by how small my hometown seems, how close everything is now that I drive. It weirds me out, even makes me a little sad, although I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s the passage of time and the nostalgia that goes with it. Maybe it’s the realization that the scale of my existence has changed drastically from that of the kid I once was.

Later on that same night that I played matador with Buzzcut and his buds, I pulled into a drive thru ATM to deposit a check. All thoughts of “Easy, Mister!” flew out the window when I realized that I had no pen or pencil to fill out the deposit envelope. Cursing and muttering, I started the car again and headed across the parking lot to a grocery store, looking to buy some pens so I could get back in the car and finish my errand.

I got out of the car, Grumpy the Dwarf in search of Bic love. As I shut the car door, I happened to look back towards the road. There on the sidewalk, in a group of three, was a mother and who I assume were her daughters. She was pushing a baby stroller, the girls were laughing and skipping as they headed across the road to the neighborhood on the other side. At that moment it became clear to me why I felt jealous of Buzzcut. He was reveling in the oblivious freedom of youth, exploring his country anew, learning the land for the first time.

Me, I was tired, having wasted too many sunny days taking graduate courses in Adult Geography.

And still trying to get that degree.


  1. I, too, spent the summers on foot or bicycle, unaware of how the years would sap that unlimited well of time and energy.

    BUT, looking back at adolescense and my youth, I realize I really wouldn't want to go back, although I kid about it a lot. I like being middle aged.

    Okay, yes, I'm weird. My license plate says so.

  2. We were out in the country; a couple of miles from the nearest small town. We spent countless hours riding bikes. It was freedom to us.

    I still have a bike and used to ride a lot, but it was more about trying to stay healthy rather than basic transportation. Now it sits in the garage with flat tires and covered in dust.

  3. something to be said for waking up, putting on your shoes and taking a walk.

  4. Oh this makes me think of my son. He is missing the biking around the neighborhood this summer (he is in NYC for the summer).
    Lovely post, Irish.

  5. You reallly went to buy a pen to make that deposit??? I would have abandoned the whole errand and gone in search of a beer instead.

  6. Yes!

    I speak of "The Hill" in my old hometown where we all learned to fly on our bikes.

    I took my daughter there one day and she looked at the small slope that cut through the "Wonder Years" cookie cutter development where I cut my teeth.

    "Where's the hill?" she asked my, brows knit
    "Right there, I said, pointing to the slight downward grade in front of us.

    "Mom, seriously?" Is all she could say.

    Ah my sweet exaggerated youth!

    Peace - Rene

  7. I must admit, I'm rather enjoying not having a big hunk of metal with an engine in it..

    We're getting to know our city, and especially our neighborhood, so much better now that we're exploring it on foot/bike/by bus.

  8. My son, 17, got his license last year and has been reveling in the freedom of getting around the island and surfing whenever and wherever.

    I miss the summers when he and a gang of boys would have their bikes and skateboards scattered across our lawn and come in looking for drinks and snacks.

    I wonder how many years before he looks back on his pre-driving days with nostalgia.

  9. I live perpetually in a state when I both despise the little brats and envy their freedom, their lack of responsibilities.

    I don't ride bikes because I hate the 'adventure' of constant punctures.

    Hope you get that boil removed from your ass with relatively little discomfort.

  10. Here in Southern California one must have a car if one is to function. That said, I remember riding my bike all over the place as a kid in Oregon, plus we actually liked to walk. We used to say, I'm using my Chevrolegs to get there. Now I just ride a stationary bike and use the treadmill down at the gym.

    Not that I'm a huge fan, but at Bank of America, you don't have to have a pen to make a deposit anymore, just saying...

  11. ugh.. 'geezerdom' happens.. i have been there done that.. but i am fighting it every step of the way..

    Splitting Tens

  12. I used to ride miiiiiiiiiiiles just for the love of it. Everybody used to look at me funny when I told them where I'd been on my bike that day. I'd ride in excess of fifty miles sometimes, just enjoying the sun and the breeze and the curves. Sometimes when I drive I still remember what it was like to bike those stretches.

  13. Well said. I hope you never get your degree in Adult Geography. I'm trying to avoid it at all costs.

  14. Beautiful post, captures that middle aged confusion perfectly.

    Now, I'm 42 years old and I bought my first motor vehicle just 2 months ago. I'm a Canadian now living in rural Australia with my wife and 2 year old daughter. The only reason I got the car was because the massive bush fires that swept through this state came within 3km of our house and I had no way of safely getting my family out.

    I will tell you and every other person who pines for the joys of being a youth on a bicycle that some of that magic is still there. Get a bike, a real one, not a bike shaped object from Wal-Mart, and go for a ride. Sure it won't be the same, you're an adult now, but the connection to your landscape, the sense of exploring and adventure are certainly possible if you approach it in that way.

    I'm not going to rant on about all the benefits of transporting oneself through self-powered means and how it's possible in almost every situation. A bit off topic that. I will repeat however that everything positive you said about riding a bike is still true despite having grown up. It is indeed just like riding a bike. :)

  15. Great post. The only thing worse than geography is math. Ug.

  16. I'm still very much a pedestrian - being a confirmed city boy, a seasoned drinker and living within a stone's throw of public transport at all times, driving seemed more like an unnecessary expense than a requirement.

    However, now that my best friend has becomne my significant other, I've been told that she's not going to be the designated driver all the time so I shall leanring to drive at the tender age of 33. Let's hope everyone else out there survives the experience...

  17. Who was that skinny little kid on his Kuahara and where did he get all that energy from? And look at that luxurious hair!

  18. I'M BACK!!! My computer!! It's fixed!! Yes!!

    OK I've calmed down now.

    Well hell, it's been THREE FREAKIN' WEEKS.

    And just so you know? I'm gonna copy and paste this comment and post it on all the blogs I visit....:))))

  19. that was incredible, as usual.

    Man - am I BACK to following Braja all over bloggyland??

  20. Hey, just dropped by to add you to my new newsreader.


  21. no complaints here as usual - u got a way with ur writing gumbo u know that?

  22. Beautifully (in a manly way, of course) said. Though I traded my peddlin' bike in for a motorized one at 21 (with few years in the driver's seat of a car before), I recall those days. It wasn't "cool" to bike when I hit 14, so the bike sat and rusted while I hitch-hiked all over Dade County (and a couple of others). Or used a borrowed motor scooter. Or rode in a friend's car.

  23. Very nicely written, Irish. I agree with mommysescape6. You sure do have a way with your writing gumbo. And I just love a man who can cook a good gumbo, too! :) Cheers!!

  24. I love getting glimmers into people's childhoods. It's very exciting and calming too, as in general I think we all have had simlar experiences. He he @ the illecit booze and pizza on the handlebars!


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Don't suffer your crimes
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