A few Tuesdays ago my bike was stolen from the corner of Broadway and Houston. I’d left it for just 45 daylight minutes, chained with a fat, guaranteed Kryptonite lock, but it was so gone it might never have existed. I paced outside Crate & Barrel staring at the invisible bike. Fuckers. Why couldn’t they steal it two months ago, before I’d replaced the back wheel, brakes, gears, saddle, and chain? I could only wish that the chain fell off for them as often as it had for me.
The red Giant was the third new hybrid commuter bike I’d bought in New York City, and the last. Ranger Tim was in town, and I got him to take me to see Benny on Bond Street. Benny sells dodgy bikes. I’m not the first female that Tim has taken to to him in the last few months. Benny thinks he’s some kind of bike pimp, a Don Juan who seduces with thirty-dollar bikes instead of diamond bracelets. (That’s my kind of Don Juan. I’m a very cheap date.)
A knot of men stood outside Benny’s shack, smoking. They didn’t look friendly. Benny wasn’t there. I tried to appraise the bikes without being noticed, but Tim said hello, how’s it going, we were looking for a bike for the young lady. The men snapped on smiles and stepped up, anxious to help the young lady. Benny would be back in a few hours. I should pick out any bike I liked, and they’d put it aside, make sure it didn’t get sold.
There were ten or fifteen bikes thrown up against the wall in various states of health. I looked at a bright orange Schwinn, old and heavy. It might work if I could get it up the steps of the Manhattan Bridge every morning. I stood hip to saddle to see if it would fit.
“We’ll put it aside, sweetheart,” said a man with broken teeth. “You come back in two hours, Benny’ll be here. He’ll give you a good deal.”
I’d gone off the orange Schwinn by the time I got back. Too heavy, I thought. There was a purple mountain bike set out on the sidewalk. It was frail, with rusty wheel-rims; not worth stealing, and therefore worth buying. But it wasn’t for sale. I touched the saddle of another Schwinn, a fine, sturdy one, but even bigger than the first. A tiny woman in a ‘do rag and baggy t-shirt grabbed the handlebars.
“Thass my bike. You want it? I’ll sell it if you want it.” She pushed it at me.
“It’s too big for me,” I said.
“It ain’t too big! I fixed it up, and I ride it. Look!” She stood on tiptoes on the pedals, dipping her whole body first to the left and then to the right to make a full rotation. She rode to the corner, around the lamppost, and back. Tim was choking at the sight of this bantam hen on a bicycle. “See? See?” she said. “How tall are you? Fi’ seven? Eight?”
“I’m five feet one. An’ it fits me! So you should buy it.” She rolled her shoulders like a prize fighter. “I’ll give you a good deal. Thirty bucks.”
“It’s too big for me,” I said. It was a handsome bike, with a basket. I liked the basket.
Benny decided the purple mountain bike was for sale after all. “It matches your dress,” he said. I hitched up the dress and rode the bike down the street for the audience while merengue blared from a car radio. The brakes were squishy, but the plain, honest gears were a treat after the flawed and fancy indexing of my own bike. Tim took it for a test run while the Schwinn owner hustled me further. “Benny’s a jerk. I left a bike here last week, I’d just fixed it up, and he sold it. I was comin’ back for it, I was just across the street, and he sold the fuckin’ thing. Don’t buy from Benny. This bike’d fit you real nice if you’d try.”
Benny wanted thirty for the mountain bike. He took twenty five. The Schwinn woman took five bucks for the basket and set off gloomily. We caught up with her in half a block.
Her name was Christine. She was from Staten Island, and she’d worked at a bike shop there. That’s where she learned to fix stuff up. She moved to Brooklyn because she got free room and board. That Giant at the lamppost, she’d just put that together and sold it to Benny. It was worth about nine hundred dollars. All brand-new, custom-built. She’d got into fixing up the old Schwinns more because the yuppies were all over them. Benny was selling them for a hundred, hundred fifty, these pieces of shit.
“They sell them all the time on Craigslist now,” I told her. “Williamsburg people buy them.”
“Yeah. Yuppies buy ’em.” she said. “They like ’em better than the mountain bikes like you just bought. You paid too much for that.”
Her own bike was beautiful, she said, even better the Giant. All custom parts, worth about two and a half grand, and she’d built it herself. Three weeks ago she’d been beaten up for it, ended up in the hospital. They tried to take it from her, and she wouldn’t let it go. They came after her with brass knuckles, these kids. Bloods. Even when they came to take her to the hospital she wouldn’t let go of the bike.
She asked me to feel her cheekbone. We stopped and I touched her cheek, feeling the break just under her eye-socket. The bone was as delicate as a quail’s. Three of her teeth were knocked out, and there were welts or boils on the backs of her hands. She made me think of a fourteen-year-old boy who had run away from home for good reason. “I’m forty-two,” she said suddenly.
“I’m forty-two tomorrow,” said Tim. “It’s a good age.”
“It’s okay,” she said.
I asked her if she’d been scared when the Bloods beat her up, but she wasn’t sure. Is a wild mink scared in the woods?