My Bicycle

Under favorable conditions and in the presence of a man a bicycle can turn into a woman and offer herself to a suitably qualified cyclist for the tactile felicities of love:

    I passed my hand with unintended tenderness—sensuously, indeed—across the saddle. Inexplicably, it reminded me of a human face, not by any simple resemblance of shape of feature but by some association of textures, some incomprehensible familiarity at the fingertips….I knew that I liked this bicycle more than I had ever liked any other bicycle, better even than I had liked some people with two legs….How desirable her seat was, how charming the invitation of her slim encircling handle-arms, how unaccountably competent and reassuring her pump resting warmly against her rear thigh!

From The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

My damn saddle was stolen again last Thursday. I wheeled the bike up to a pro-store in Park Slope to buy yet another replacement. Felix, the Puerto Rican fitter decided I was a good customer. “You didn’t argue with me. You took my advice. That’s what I like.” He lovingly serviced my bone-shaker, lectured me on proper riding angle, scoffed at my request for toe-clips.

“You want to have the ball of your feet on the pedals. The toe-clips don’t let you do that. See, like this. What’s wrong with your balance? Why does she sit like that? Where are your sit-bones? Back, back, I tell you! ”

He stayed for half an hour past closing, clicking his teeth at my untrue wheels and half-broken axle. Told me about his best friend the world champion of something and his girlfriend the state champion. He’d had his own bike shop, but closed it to join this one because he wasn’t getting enough customers to do what he really wanted.

“I’m not a mechanic or a sales guy. I’m a fitter. We don’t do the mechanics. I make sure the bike fit is perfect for the rider.”

I nodded, passed the allen keys, and admired his curly hair. I like people who love what they do.

Smell

Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.

Neighborhood

When I first moved to Manhattan, almost everyone I knew was between 25 and 30. The school you’d been to seemed much more important than your Old Country. In fact, some of the new arrivals seemed to regard Kentucky or Michigan as the Old Country, and the extreme cases thought that Harvard was.

Carroll Gardens is different still, despite all the chi-chi restaurants that opened for yuppies like me. Most people at Saturday’s party were Irish, Italian, or ‘half-and-half’, as Dominick says. Each side told jokes about the other. Matt, my Santa Claus neighbor, says:

“The Irish people and the Italian people, that can be a real beautiful mix for a marriage.”

Everyone wanted to know what part of Ireland I was from. Matt told me that his friend, Damian, who was killed in the Trade Towers, was one of nine kids of a family from Donegal. They all grew up in Inwood in the ’70s, when it was still an Irish neighborhood. Matt’s from the Bronx, but his family had a summer house in the Catskills next to all these Inwood families. Four Green Fields, they called it. Matt’s father would put on a brogue when talking with the rest of the Four Green Fields men, and the kids would tease him for it. Matt was a year or two younger than Damian and was dying to hang out with the bigger boys.

I realized I’d read a huge New York Times feature about Damian and Inwood a few weeks back. Sonuvagun, If Isn’t Dominion. The article isn’t online any more, but I remember that the whole family was crazy for Gaelic football. Damian was the youngest boy, and his father used to put him down to bed doing commentary on an imaginary match where the brothers all played on the same team.
“And Michael passes the ball to Sean…and Sean passes the ball to Eugene…and Eugene heads it over to Paul….”
The ball always ended up with Damian, and he always scored the winning goal. Lucky kid. He was golden, Matt says.

Christmas in Carroll Gardens

Dominick and Mary, my landlords, live on the first two floors of our brownstone. Implausibly, Dominick is “in the Christmas business”. When I moved in last April, he sheepishly outlined the rules for Christmas decorations:

“Anything you want inside the apartment, but we like to hang plain green wreaths in each of the windows for outside.”

My previous landlord was an elderly Russian-Jewish Bond girl, and wouldn’t have cared if I’d hung a live nude Santa on my front door. Especially not in April.

During my Thanksgiving vacation, Dom and Mary left three messages on my cellphone to arrange when they could get into my apartment to hang wreaths on the windows. I was amazed that people could think about such a thing in November, but I’d never seen Carroll Gardens at Christmas before. Besides the wreaths in every window, they have three Christmas trees in their apartment, and not a scrap of green is visible on any of them beneath the decorations. The backyard is full of life-sized, brightly-lit angels. Not puny, dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin angels; these are each as big as a well-fed nine-year old.

On Saturday night, they thew a Christmas party. They hired a piano player and a show-tunes singer, and persuaded my upstairs neighbor, Matt, to dress up in an elaborate Santa costume. Santa sat in front of the fireplace and handed out treats to all the neighbors. Dominick took Polaroids as they balanced on his meaty knees.

“Ho ho ho,” Santa boomed, “Where’s my shrimp? I was promised shrimp! Ho ho ho!”

He fled from heat exhaustion before the last presents were distributed.

Someone hired two salsa dancers who danced wildly with blow-up doll women. The blow-up doll women chipped away further at my dancing confidence, though I now have hope that if I were actually strapped to the feet and hands of a competent lead, I might amount to something. Feminism’s loss is aesthetics’ gain.

Then everyone gathered around the piano and sang carols and standards. Dom and Mary danced cheek-to-cheek, expertly. We were all well-fed and glowing with wine and twinkly lights and good cheer. They weren’t my friends and neighbors, exactly, but I was glad to learn that the spirit of Christmas movies can be real, sometimes.

Is it wrong to love a borough this much?