Before My S.U.B. Was A Status Symbol
By Joe Kurmaskie
The New York Times writes about Portland, Ore., as if it were always a two-wheeled OZ, a place where cyclists, lost out in the urban wilderness, could simply click their clipless heels and be back at home in the saddle.
But not so long ago it was just another town where biking your kid to school marked you as a freak.
I remember when an SUV pulled even with us at an intersection where we were stopped. Rain was splashing from the wipers as she brought the electric window down to say something to me.
“I’d like to help.”
Who among us touring cyclists hasn’t been mistaken for the homeless? What with hauling our worldly possessions from town to town, putting our show on the road for weeks at a time ... OK, maybe it hasn’t happened to you. Perhaps your gear is always showroom new, showering and shaving is a regular part of your routine and the lycra across your back has people thinking sponsorship rather than soup kitchen, but the rest of us, with our broken rain jacket zipper we’ve been meaning to fix, we’ve pretended not to notice the faces of sympathy or disgust as we pedal along.
Only I wasn’t on the road this time. I was rolling the streets of my hometown of Portland with my preschool aged son, Quinn, in tow. If there is anywhere in America that a morning commute to preschool by bike wouldn’t get a second glance? It’s Portland.
Portland today that is. Eight years ago, I had the streets to myself. Not another family on bike in sight. A few geeky businessmen on folding contraptions, a racer or two before breakfast, but I was the only daddy on two wheels.
Owing to the career I’ve chosen, I don’t maintain much of a dress code, and a writer who hasn’t gone a week without shaving isn’t trying hard enough. Besides, the pajama bottoms gave the appearance of plaid pants if you didn’t look too hard.
To make matters worse, that morning I was donating art supplies to the preschool. I had an easel sticking out the back of the Chariot trailer and various brushes and paint containers puffing up my panniers. Quinn hadn’t allowed me to remove the pool noodles or parade streamers from celebrations earlier in the year, so we were a pretty high profile ride, a soggy float long after the party had ended; something of an eco-friendly refugee from a gay pride parade.
She leaned out the window, heat blowing, radio playing classical music. I came closer, rain dripping off my helmet. I used my bike gloves to wipe my nose and swipe some hair out of my eyes, standard operating biker procedure whether one has a home or not.
“Look at your little one, sleeping in the trailer like that.”
I smiled back, unaware of the thoughts in her head.
“Which would help more, clothing or money?”
I was so thrown by the question that I paused to let it compute. Was she asking if I needed charity? To a writer of some standing in this town? An author with his own bike rack in front of Powell’s Books? A man in the process of hauling donations to his kid’s school?
She shook her head, as if to dispel the insensitivity of her question.
“I’ve offended you. Take both.”
She handed me the bag of clothes before I could react. There was a $20 bill on top.
“I was dropping these at Goodwill, but you could put them to use right now.”
She was trying unsuccessfully not to stare at my pajama bottoms. The rubber band securing the right cuff was actually one of my wife’s hair scrunchies. I tried to hand the bag back, but she was already pulling away.
“There are some signature kids clothes at the bottom,” she yelled back.
I shook my head but by then she was just taillights. And here I was thinking the five-o’clock shadow thing was working for me, in a George Clooney kind of way.
I had a good laugh with the other parents at the preschool. No one found the woman’s actions that outrageous, though. One dad said, “See what happens when you ride that bike around loaded down with stuff?”
I nodded, “Yeah, your son paints on an easel and there’s and extra $20 in the ice cream social fund.”
In the years since, Portland’s streets have filled with Xtracycles, bakfiets, trailabikes and trailers, to the point where a morning drop-off at the local school or a pick-up at the end of the day boasts more SUB’s than SUV’s in the parking lot. No one’s handed me a bag of cash or clothes in quite some time. I was an unkempt pioneer.
Still, I believe that were I to move to another part of the country today, I could be mistaken for a homeless gent rolling his kids around with him. I cheer for a time when it’s so commonplace to see families on bikes, using them as transportation and gas-free vacations, that I’m pegged as just another fashion-impaired dad on a bike.
And for the record, hair scrunchies still work in a pinch.
A Guide To Falling Down In Public: Stories of Finding Balance On A Bicycle by Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie will be available this summer (2012). Until then, you can see him at a King County Library show this spring and pedaling the roads between Seattle and Portland.