The stocky, mustached man stepped out from behind his counter to greet me as I entered, revealing a pair of lustrous bicycle shorts in the colors of the Ecuadorian flag. I dragged in a beaten blue bicycle, its wheels wrapped in a chain that kept it from rolling. I had carried it up on the R Train from City Hall, where I had extracted it from a nearby dumpster on Chambers Street.
He walked around me in a circle, examining it. He nodded as he noticed the lack of brake pads. He hummed and looked at the broken spokes and bent back wheel. It was rusted and damaged everywhere that it could be.
“You are willing to spend how much on this bike?”
“I don’t want to presume to know how much your work is worth,” I deferred.
“Are you ready to spend…” He put his hand to his chin as he thoughtfully tilted his head, the way a lover looks at their partner when they are about to ask for a painful favor. “Can you spend on this bicycle $45?”
In a week I came back to pick up my repaired bike. I brought it home around the corner and took it up to my roof, where I opened a can of red paint and started applying it thick and generous all across its body. In the sun, it gleamed. I looked down the street. I could see in the distance the glass monolith of the Citicorp Building, the Long Island City smokestacks, the pink-brown smog in the dying light, the Queensboro Bridge. I thought of myself riding, now free of the ennui of hot summer afternoons wasted napping away the sun after long workdays. I would ride down the streets and avenues, cutting through the neighborhood down Newtown Road to Steinway and 28th and finding my fill of honeyed baklava, sweet kunafa, mint tea. I would ride through the traffic under the roaring, rumbling 31st Street Line like a little minnow darting around pebbles in the current of a rushing river. I would smile at girls, fearless that they could never catch me, see me, speak to me. I reached out to touch it to see if it was ready. The red paint stuck to my hand, embedding a little thumb print in the seat stay.
In the weeks that would follow, I would lock it with a thick chain and padlock to the tyrannical sign of the street cleaning vehicles in front of my home. I would wipe the sweat from my unhelmetted hair blown amuss by the glorious, dusty wind, and gather my things that I had bought from some far-off store front, rather than the ultra grocery store just across Northern Boulevard. The bicycle became a companion as I committed the streets to memory, it became a part of my identity.
When I came back out late one evening, I walked past 4 or 5 of those signs before I realized to great horror that the bicycle was no longer chained where I had left it.
Underneath my foot was the cleft link of cut chain, sharp and angled. I thought, this could not have happened long ago, and I ran on my slow legs. On the corner, by 41st and 35th, where I once discovered the factory where they bake the street vendors’ donuts, some young boys jumped off a plywood ramp on their skateboards.
“You guys seen anyone stealing bikes?”
“I know them! Hindu drug-dealers! They been going around with big cutters. They go to my school!”
“If you see them again, tell them I’ll buy it back. $50. No questions, no trouble.”
Days went on, and I saw the kids again and now they waved to me, though they said their thieves never came back to school. I felt unsettled with a part of myself lost or shattered in some distant place.
Instead, I walked everywhere down my old bike paths. Every time I saw a red bicycle ride by, I turned my head and watched it vanish down the street, but these had reflectors or streamers or brand decals and they were never mine. I looked in every front yard where you might chain a bike, and instead saw gazing back the many Virgins Mary of the many peoples’ homes, everywhere a statue of innocence standing guard, the homes of the people declaring that they were not the thieves.
The air became cold and crisp, and the smell of the drying leaves began to overtake the sugary humidity, and I walked again down Newtown Road toward the Levantine bakeries. My feet ached as I passed the big, red, wooden house, then the wedge-shaped apartment, then the wide sidewalk with kids playing soccer against the wall. I crossed Steinway Street and went into an alleyway. I looked around, with the reeking trash-water stench, and a mattress pushed out halfway through a window onto a fire escape, and a laundry line of a progression of clothing sizes from infancy to adulthood, and then right there before me, my red bicycle.
I reached out to touch it where I had left a thumb print in the paint of the bike body. Once again I felt myself riding forever through an infinite Astoria with its avenues 33, 27, and 26 restored, and all of them were tree-lined with stately Greek houses and their blue-and-white-striped flags, past the restaurants whose courtyards blend into each other, past the roads where fragments of the decrepit street grid were once called by proud names but have since been retitled as “Road” or “Place.” Passing the piano factory and the row homes of its workers, I thought of each one a note that would play as I zipped by. Passing the bakeries, the thrift stores, the bodegas, the fat man with his two small dogs, Andy and his grouchy companion, the homeless man with the beard. Passing them all in recombinant patterns forever, as I thought of myself riding on into the cool night.
But this could not be. I touched the illustration in front of me: painted on the wall in red, a bicycle surrounded by clouds and little stars. At once, as I realized it, blame and regret fell away. The joy and the sadness coalesced into one feeling; I discovered love. In that infinite city, I would still exist. The part of me that I thought was taken had just been absorbed, I was written into the walls.
It was not until the city broke my heart that I became a part of it.