I didn’t believe it was possible, balancing on two wheels in motion, and then when I saw those two wheels become one, rolling down the street, my small mind melted and ran out of one ear. To me, the bike was always a rebellion, against the laws of physics as I understood them, against parental dictums to “stay still,” against the confines of home and boredom. The bike didn’t limit my imagination. It set it free.
As adolescence coalesced, I found myself drawn to the tattered threads of punk rock too, such as they presented themselves in Alabama in the ’80s. The music and images broke the rules, and without straying from simple truths or emotional honesty, presented a new way forward. It helped me push school struggles aside and find friends, like the bike had done before.
If I had any doubts about those choices, arriving in Boston for college dispelled them. My peers in high school might have thought I was weird, but the city gave me the armor of anonymity. No one cared what I looked like, listened to, or how I got around. I rattle-canned a mountain bike bright yellow to keep it from getting stolen. That bike took me everywhere, to class, to visit friends, or sprinting among skyscrapers in the middle of the night, rolling through the empty Common, locking up in front of clubs where the bands were loud and sloppy and relentless. Everything and everyone felt electric. Such is youth.
Nostalgia will only take you so far though.
I’m almost 50 now, and I think about all my years on the bike, the way the machine still seems so vital, so pure an expression of possibilities. The music I listen to is still loud and fast. I’m not an angry young man anymore, but the energy in that music, the honest simplicity, still fires me up and drives me forward. It’s thrumming in my head as I pedal against gravity and my own worst fears.
The bicycle is the rolling embodiment of punk rock. It’s simple and practical. Anyone can do it. It’s exciting. It’s limitless. It pushes hard against society’s urges to contain it. A bike. A guitar. And any idea will do if you can find the energy.
I’m not a Kerouac fetishist, but his narrator in On the Road is a guy who chases these wild, free spirits, people “who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” We all feel that, right? An admiration for the people in our lives who seem to be riding life like an unbroken colt, the ones who eat their days and push, push, push to find out what’s possible?
This is the bicycle as organizing principle, loud, fast, and occasionally out of control. This is giving it my honest best, being straight with people, contributing to my community with sweat and willingness. This is what makes me different than some, maybe even most.
When I was a little kid, I didn’t think it was possible to roll on two wheels, but once I learned the trick, I never stopped. It’s too good and too exciting, and it says everything about me that I need to say.