I summered with my Grand Parents who had a house right on the beach in Bay Head NJ. What a great place to spend the summer, right? You would think. I loved the ocean, but all the Summer kids (we never saw the others) were snobby and cliquish. Whatever it was about me, I was different. My uncles introduced me around, but it didn’t take. And although I was used to being an only child, by the time I was 11, I was desperately lonely. With no friends my age, I hung out with the grown ups.
One day, I found myself at a rummage sale with one of my uncles. He pointed out an old beat up bike in a corner, and asked me if I was interested. It cost $25.00. We took it home.
I loved it instantly. I’m not even sure I would have gone near it if it had been brand new. Instead, it was red and rusty. The brakes were a suggestion at best. It rattled. It had some miles on it. Even though I was only 11, I totally related to its tattered state. And best of all: it was a girl’s bike. It felt like it had been made just for me. It had a red reflector in the back (its only accessory), and I named it Red Light. If ever there were a Rosebud in my life, this was it.
We rode everywhere that Summer. I could make up songs (and sappy lyrics) to my heart’s content, sing them to the rooftops and no one would hear me. I could ride right by the kids who shunned me and feel invincible. I had independence for the first time. I had control. My imagination took flight on Red Light. We traveled to imaginary lands, performed heroic deeds and whether I was accepted by the other kids or not didn’t matter anymore, because Red Light and I had each other. Looking back on it, Red Light was my first real friend. And that Summer, I began to heal.
Red Light in fact signaled a sea change in both my mother’s life and my own. Because that was the year I changed schools and went back a grade. Gone were the bullies. And miraculously, I understood everything that was being taught in class. Equally important - New Yorkers will relate to this - my mother and I moved to a bigger apartment.
Did I say bigger? We moved into a Classic Six – just the two of us – and rattled around from one glorious room to another, our voices bouncing off the walls. We didn’t even have enough furniture for the place. From living in a 1-bedroom cracker box on the Upper East Side, we went to the (then) wild and woolly Upper West, where we had our own bedrooms, a dining room, a living room, a maids room (no maid), a pantry for heavens sake – and four open exposures. We could see the sun coming up, we could see it going down – and everything in between.
I continued to ride Red Light in the Summers until one Summer I took off without it to music camp, and in a natural process of release – much as training wheels are supposed to gradually fall away - my life really began.
I wish I knew what happened to Red Light. As good a friend as it had been to me, I didn’t yet know the value of friendships. It took years for me to understand that they don’t just come along anytime (and neither do great bikes). If I could do it all over again, I’d have had it repaired. Found a place for it. Or better yet, found a kid who needed it.
But I will never forget what Red Light gave me. Acceptance, empowerment and reliable friendship at a time in my life when I had so little.
With Winter now upon us, cycling classes have been suggested to me as a way to replace my riding routine. I know people mean well, and I have an exercise bike myself. But it’s not the same. Because I don’t ride to stay in shape. I ride to escape, to imagine, to explore, to dream. I ride for the very same reasons now that I rode then (though I have long since left the bullies behind). And that was the thing about Red Light. We went places. We really went places.