I was 5. It was Christmas and I came downstairs to see a shiny blue bike beside the tree, with streamers coming from the handlebars, and a set of training wheels.
I don’t remember asking for a bike. If I’m not mistaken, that was the Christmas I wanted a hippopotamus. Instead, I got a 45 recording of “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas,” which even I could see was not the same thing.
We lived in Georgetown where all the sidewalks were brick.
No sooner was this bike presented to me than the training wheels were removed. In my family we did not believe in a learning curve but were largely expected to know things before we learned them. In accordance with which my father took me out back, settled me on the bike and gave me a shove.
I should mention this: it was a boy’s bike. Way too big for me. With a high horizontal crossbar. My feet could just reach the pedals, but they could not touch the ground - even if I stood on them. So starting or stopping were impossible without assistance (I found this out the hard way). It was like balancing above a knife.
My father ran alongside me in case I needed help, and stopped and steadied the bike so I could dismount before we reached the alley’s end (at R Street),
Why a boy’s bike? Why no training wheels? Oh, right. But why so big?
We can second-guess our parents forever. At a certain point in life (like when we get as old as they were then), we come to understand that they were really just kids themselves; that they were using what to them seemed good judgment. And miraculously, with my father’s assistance, I did learn to ride. I just didn’t learn to stop.
We had a housekeeper back then who doubled as a babysitter, and one day with my parents both gone, I wanted to show off my riding skills. I took her out back, asked her to help get me started – and off I went up the alley. Headed straight for R Street.
Remember, I was 5. I say this by way of asking the reader’s forbearance for what came next.
I saw R Street getting closer and closer. I didn’t know what to do. Up to now, an adult – my father or an uncle – had always been trotting alongside. But now I was on my own. I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t turn. I was mystified that our housekeeper wasn’t beside me. How could she not know she was supposed to be there? Everyone else seemed to know.
“Well stop me, you idiot!” I yelled as I came closer and closer to the speeding traffic.
And there you have it: the moment that freezes in time for me. For what it says about class. About entitlement. About a world view – which I had inherited and was already perpetrating on others at the tender age of 5. I couldn’t ride a bike, but I already knew how to shift the blame onto those less fortunate - perhaps the one area in which I was precocious.
I cannot imagine what was going through her mind in that moment. A mixture of shock, denial and panic I would guess.
Time and shame have obliterated both the name and face of this heroic housekeeper from my memory (though I’m sure I was legendary in hers for years to come). But I can tell you this. Although I don’t remember her being particularly athletic (rather the reverse, actually), she took off like a blue streak up the alley, caught up to me at full speed, grabbed that bike by the handlebars and stopped it seconds before I sailed into traffic.
I knew I’d done something wrong, but I didn’t know what. I only knew bike riding seemed somehow beyond me, as were so many things back then.
And the bike? As I recall, we gave it to a boy up the block, a strapping kid who doubtless represented the kind of bulldozer my father would have secretly preferred to a girl. I’m sure he rode it into the ground. I didn’t miss it. If this was friendship - with a bike at least - I wanted no part of it, and for years after that, I preferred to keep my feet well off the pedals.