Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Independence Day

Six o'clock approaches and I've done nothing. Nothing. (Nothing.) I waited so long to retrieve my Sunday paper from the porch that it had been stolen. By the time I drank my first cup of coffee I'd already lived, already squandered, a lifetime of morning-feeling, afternoon-occurring moments. A sort of jet lag. A lump. An intransigent woulda-coulda-shoulda laying about like, well, a layabout.

My k button sticks sometimes, even when I haven't touched it. I sometimes worry that I will inadvertantly sign an email "kkk." That could really spoil a good friendship.

I don't know the difference between trap and skeet. But I'm pretty sure that it was the former I agreed last night to go shoot with a couple of friends this evening. I had forgotten entirely about the promise, however, until 5:40 when the phone rings (miraculously, it seems, as I can't imagine who would call) and I espy one of their names on my caller ID.

I laugh into the phone as I answer it, amazed that I have entirely forgotten making, of all things, a shooting date. The voice on the phone says it sounds as though I've just hit a bong. I assure him I have not. I feign indignation I don't feel.

I offer that I am still up to shoot if he can track down our other friend, an inveterate hunter, the only one of us who really has any idea what to do with a lethal weapon, a religious man, a pious man, one on fantastic terms with God but exceedingly poor terms with deer, pheasant, wild turkey, and so on.

He's nowhere to be found. A half-hour later, still vaguely anticipating a follow-up call of one sort or another, I realize that it would be expensive and time-consuming to shoot, while it would be free and easy and solitary (in keeping with the day's theme) to hop on my steed and ride downtown to sample the Three Rivers Regatta. I haven't ridden since last Saturday's Alleycat; I think I've been a bit scared. But of course it's a cooler day today, the sun lies low in the sky, and I am under no obligation to push or ride anywhere in particular.

I call the friend back. I'm riding; I'll pass on the shooting, even if it's in the offing. He sounds disappointed; perhaps he wanted someone around even more clueless than he. I just don't want to shoot things, even inanimate things. I want to ride. I want to be outside. I want to see the parade of horribles lining the rivers as the day nears its end and the Regatta's festivities wind down toward the nightly fireworks show. If there even is one. I really don't know.

I dress, pack a light bag, mount a single water bottle on my frame, give the girl, Sue, a once-over and she looks fine. Helmet, bag, gloves, sunglasses. Down to the street and I swing my leg over the bars, my left foot immediately snapping home into the pedal without a moment's premeditation or searching; I couldn't even have told you where the pedal was yet my foot found it.

It occurs to me to ride through Oakland, down through the Hollow, and to ride the jail trail into town, just for a little variety, but I have a movie to return in Bloomfield, in the other direction. At Dreaming Ant I exchange one pretty good movie for one surely awful action flick, exactly the speed I expect to be operating at by about 10 o'clock. Insipid entertainment for the indolent. An escape from the work-oriented reading which I'll have to do tomorrow, when my apartment will be hotter and most suitable cafes will be closed, if I don't do it today.

Today I haven't read much of anything since I got out of bed. I've watched sporting events on TV I don't care about. I've eaten a mid-afternoon omelet and consumed two heat-of-the-day chalices of strong coffee.

I continue on from Dreaming Ant down Main, and as I near the intersection with Penn Avenue I lazily slide across to the left-side sidewalk to simplify my passage through the intersection. As I slide through the crosswalk, however, it occurs to me to visit my former neighbor who recently moved into a house on Main. I nose down the hill, cross back over to the right side of the street, and focus on resisting Sue's will to sprint down the hill, smoothly fighting the pedals as I move down the steep hill. Her house betrays no sign of current habitation; mail packs her box. Away for the weekend. I continue down the hill to Butler, knees groaning against the strain of resisting the grade.

At the bottom of the hill, I turn left onto Butler. My rides through Lawrenceville have taken on a new sensation since I signed a contract to buy a house there at the end of the week. Late at night I've stalked the house that is almost mine, sliding by it slowly in the early morning hours, contemplating the slivers of light that escape the old-fashioned blinds of the front windows. I observe along Butler bars and cafes and boutiques I never before noticed, but which I imagine I will explore in the coming months, as I acclimate to my new part of town. I'm excited. Exhilerated. Petrified.

I've never ridden this stretch of Butler toward downtown, though by the end of the summer it will constitute my commute to work, whether by bus or bike. Only two months remain to speak to the stunning petite brunette I've been unable to take my eyes off on the 8:32 77D the two or three days of the week that we both end up on it.

New construction is evident everywhere; I believe I am making a sound investment.

Lazily I ride down Penn, surprised at the absence of activity in the Strip District. At the end of Penn, I turn right toward the river then bend left with the road to pass under the shadow of the hulking David L. Lawrence Convention Center. As I escape its darkness, I bear left to climb toward the first of the Sister Bridges. I think it's the Ninth Street Bridge, but I'm no good with their names, and in any event my ignorance doesn't not preclude me from using them. I ride the sidewalk over the river, standing in the pedals to ease my oozing passage, the river flowing beneath me churned to a froth by the many pleasure craft idling up and down the muddy Allegheny.

The sun is bright and pleasant. I'm winded but not tired, sweaty but not flagging. My bag won't stay centered on my back, and my neck is chafing from my constant adjustments of its strap. I can't wait until my custom Timbuk2 arrives next week.

On the far side of the bridge, the Alcoa building to my left and tacky condominiums to my right, I continue to the first road and turn right, quickly bearing onto River Road and reverseing course to join the trail beneath the block of condos, where its paved section begins. I'm barely moving now, just doing the fixed gear equivalent of a coast, legs absently following the bike's easy cadence. The shadows between the buildings and the river cool me, as does the mist from a line of sprinklers on a terrace above the trail, into which I eagerly ride.

There's a slight creak in my bottom bracket from time to time, but the drivetrain otherwise truly is silent. I've allowed my chain to loosen itself over the past forty or fifty miles since I last adjusted it, and it's reached a delicate equilibrium, tense enough to be responsive but loose enough to minimize friction and noise. I feel virtually no vibration in the pedals at any rate of speed or torque; it's fixie nirvana, I pass as silent as a ninja, my breath and the quiet hiss of gravel and dust between the tires and the road the only clues to my existence.

As I cross under the 7th Street and then the Clemente Bridges, the traffic, pedestrians and bicycles, all races and ages, slowly thickens and I slow, sometimes reducing my speed to a crawl as I pull up behind a couple or a family spread unknowingly across the path, leaving me nowhere to pass. Here, the silence of my bike militates against my interests, and I prefer to limp along than disturb anyone by asking them to permit me to pass. Always, sooner or later, they give way, either inadvertantly or upon finally observing me behind them.

Riding under PNC Park, traffic noise now audible from high up on the ft. Duquesne Bridge, motor boats begin to appear to my left, moored against the wall, small and large, many idling for no obvious reason, boats moored to boats moored to boats, three and four wide out into the river, overweight middle-aged women in shorts and bikini tops, skin an angry shade of red tinged with peach and watermelon; I imagine the groans tonight, the skin shrinking from even cold water in the shower tomorrow, the melanoma these washed up sunbunnies invite into bed with them, one big fuck you to biology and mortality, enough Vitamin D to kill a dog. I remind myself that I too failed to apply sunblock; I left the house, however, around 6:30; the sun presents little danger at this hour.

In the middle of the river floats a steep ramp the shape of a free-style skiing launch; I try to imagine who uses this in the water. For reasons that seem obvious, a ramp of that shape would be ungainly, if not lethal, for a water skiier, as it would guide him straigh into the sky as the boat towing him continued up the river. That can't be right. Jet skis, perhaps? That, too, seems unlikely; the ramp does not appear to be sturdy enough for heavy machinery moving fast, and the idea of launching a jet ski straight up into the hazy sky at 30 mph with its driver clinging desperately to this vehicle turned ballistic projectile seems ill-advised as well as profoundly pointless. I've missed the festivities a-river, in any event; all that remains is a small trio of water skiers scooting by the crowd on the point in a lazy pyramid, something that ought to impress me more than it does at this distance, where the three skiers are but insectile silhouettes and their boat fit for a bathtub or a pond rather than the headwaters of the might Ohio.

By now, the thickening crowd has slowed my passage still further. Boats tied to the wall, their many passengers have taken to land with barbecues and canvas folding chairs and coolers. Country music blaring from low-quality, high-distortion stereos and PA's on every third boat agitates what might otherwise be a serene communal event. The air is thick with drunken laughter, twanging music, and shouted banalities.

Passing the fountain beneath PNC Park, I look up to see a half-dozen or so people playing in its waters, ascending its stepped pools, two of them young, attractive women in bikinis more suited to Miami or Los Angeles, one woman's bottom thonging up into her appealing ass; I'm struck by a strange mixture of titillation and offense, as though I care about prurient outfits along the North Shore, as though I'm surprised given what young women wear. I've never been all that concerned about my nudity with new lovers, but I'm quite certain I'll never understand what it is to so utterly reveal oneself in public. Women's swimwear provides only a simulacrum of coverage; my imagination sniffs and turns up its nose in indifference, deprived the task of transforming implication into image or fantasy, and the fantasy itself, so gamely delivered whole, is subsumed utterly by the flashing glare of its obviousness.

As I near one especially large, especially red, especially drunken crowd, caught up behind a slow moving couple left either to jump into the grass or wait, I find myself briefly trackstanding tangentially to the semi-circle of people, their Pittsburgh accents thick, their sunglasses cheap, their hair permed or home-colored or thrusting in various directions in tufted spikes; the man nearest me quips: "Don't fall." I promise to do my best, and finally observing a passage push out of the stand and resume the saddle, smiling unrequited to two other cyclists passing me upright on their cheap, awkward mountain bikes, their khaki-clad oversized asses resting on broad saddles soft like pillows.

Finally, nearing Heinz Field, I find a diminution in the thickness of boats. More or less even with the Point and its alluring fountain, the edge of the river lined with mylar advertising banners from one end of the park to the other, people encrusting the hill behind the marketing and the steps below the fountain, I observe a young couple of perhaps Indian descent, skin reddish-brown, each in black shirts, the girl pretty, trim, fondling in turn a shared digital camera, sitting quietly on the edge of the path, feet dangling above the river, while two small speedboats piloted by orotund men in tank tops idle rocking circles about each other, sharing a faltering conversation over the distance between them I am unable to distinguish. In the shadow of the old bridge pilting, I dismount just behind the pretty couple and unstride Sue, turning and leaning her toward me to rest a moment upon her top tube.

I'm not tired. I'm not especially hot or thirsty. I'm happy to have a little distance between me and the country music throngs. I wonder how they afford these expensive motor boats which I so seldom see on the river. I can't imagine why so many people own such large glorified houseboats. What's the charm? The appeal? Where does the money come from? Do they get people laid? I always imagine that these middle-aged men, often outnumbered on their boats by middle-aged women, or younger women sometimes when their boats are especially ostentatious, are single, divorced, awkwardly host their children every other weekend and for two weeks during the summer. It would explain the shitless teens wearing studded necklaces and bracelets under tousled bleached hair, their boredom manifest in their slow chewing of burgers and dogs, their eyes faraway, scanning the emptiness beyond mothers and fathers and stepparents and uncles for a worthy distraction, their fathers offering them underaged beers in a misguided effort to induce affection.

It's time to go, and so I do, weaving my way back through the crowds, somewhat faster this time, in spite of myself looking up the fountain to once again observe the pretty virtually naked young women sitting now about two-thirds of the way up the fountain, skin whiter than most of the others I've seen, conscious of sun damage and already versed in the lifelong endeavor of faking youth even as their spirits age and become decrepit, their senses of themselves Dorian Grays sneering back at them from bathroom mirrors as their hearts sink.

Clear of the worst of the throng, I pick up the pace, restracing my steps to the Seventh Street Bridge, where I climb up the ramp below the Alcoa building to reach street level. In the shadow of the building an uncommonly dark black man in jeans and a flannel shirt sits looking out over the more quiet stretch of river, toward the Convention Center, where children, one on a skateboard another on a dirtbike, roll back and forth along the concrete boatlanding, climbing the sharp concrete ramps and riding them back down, a passingly dull ballet of youthful ennui.

The bridge is quiet; I pass, on the left sidewalk, a young woman with two men in tow. She looks pretty and aloof; they're frowning and childish, eyeing me suspiciously as I quietly pass. I decline to nod in their direction; already I've had a half-dozen offered greetings ignored, and I'm tired of trying.

How odd that just a few blocks up from the point the city is still, almost tranquil, only a thin trickle of people in twos and threes leaving the Point for dinner, or home, or something else.

I cut across Seventh to Penn gathering speed on the gentle downgrade, and cut a steep left, passing within a couple of feet of the fender of a black car waiting at the red light. No one comes up behind me, and I stay in the center of the lane, indulging the illusion of solitude and power, notwithstanding their internal contradiction. Another left and a right return me to Smallman Street, where a valet leans on a fence in the parking lot across from Eleven, the few cars parked around him testament to that restaurant's ailing fortunes. Outside Lydia's, four oddly well-dressed people in their fifties mill about while one of their number, a handsome women in a cream-colored dress that shines, smokes a long cigarette at the center of triangle of friends dressed in black.

Pulling even with the Cork Factory, I notice that many of the windows have been installed; construction their is swift. I turn left on the street that runs to its downriver corner to examine their progress. As I slow at the building, ease gently over the rough train tracks, and turn right beneath its immensity, I note a white compact car, orange lights mounted to its roof, slowing to observe my passage. A bored security guard. I consider leaving, rather than dealing with the rentacop, but decide I won't be scared away from my curiosity, which required me to ride only on open and public city streets, by someone so bored he'd suspiciously follow a squirrel if he could find one. I turn left around the corner of the building, holding the bars in one easy hand, sitting as upright as Sue's set-up allows, staring skyward up the side of the building, which is less restored in direct proportion to proximity to the river, the builders slowly moving their way around the building. In the street, two bright yellow asbestos storage vessels are fenced in, narrowing the road. At the road's end, I turn about in a disk of pavement, and head back toward Smallman. The security guard, unsurprisingly, is driving down the road toward me. I wave at him as I pass; he waves back. Finally, a returned greeting.

Anticipating my new commute, rather than turning right on 32d Street as I typically do when heading home to Friendship, I stay on Smallman until it ends, step functioning through alleys, conditioned by habit to note old brownstones and For Sale signs, a distracting and occasionally dangerous habit I hope fades as I near my August closing date, finally turning toward Butler just before the Arsenal school building.

The sun is lower now, turning orange, expanding and weakening in a ritual illusion that mimics its eventual demise billions of years hence.

As I follow Butler toward the cemetery and my new home, I realize just how close to the most busy and most valuable part of Lawrenceville it is, and take heart that my money is well spent. Just past the graveyard -- an evocative word, that -- I turn right onto Stanton, lifting out of the saddle to punish my cadence as I climb the steep hill a couple of blocks until I reach my new street. I clear myself by looking over my left shoulder, then turn, eyeing warily the blind curve just above me, worried about the errant car that swings around it too fast; it moves me to accelerate through the turn, so that I can exit Stanton as quickly as possible.

My house, a half-block down, still has a real estate sign in front of it, but of course that's not unusual. I notice flaws in the facade I haven't seen before. A pit sinks my stomach, and my breathing, already slightly elevated by the brief climb up Stanton, quickens. I reach the end of the straight, turn right into another quick climb, and turn right again, against a one-way. Behind what I still struggle to think of as my house, several of the current residents -- renters, musicians, whom I've dubbed Josie and the Pusseycats ever since I walked through the house, picking my way carefully over the tumble of amplifiers and instruments that clogged virtually every room -- are sitting and enjoying the weather, cracking incomprehensible jokes and laughing ingenuously, friendship palpable among them. I feel a pang at, in effect, ousting them from their home. I feel vaguely creepy lurking unseen behind the tall fence. I stand into the pedals and head back toward Stanton.

Stanton is my nadir, a climb I've never attempted but one I'll have to learn if I am to live in sight of it. And this is the first time; it's been an easy ride; to turn it into a bona fides workout, which I need after a week out of the saddle, I must climb and climb and climb. Having only driven a handful of times, knowing as I do only one route through Stanton Heights backstreets to Penn Avenue and home, I'm not entirely sure how much climbing this will involve. Even nearer the blind curve, I gingerly roll across Stanton orthogonally, turning late to parallel the far curb and the wall of Allegheny Cemetery.

Within just a few spins I'm tired; this hill is plainly no joke. It bends left, then right, and reveals yet another bend, and another, ascending mercilessly into Stanton Heights, lined first by rowhouses, then by larger free-standing homes on the left and newer smaller ranches on the right, then finally nothing but stunted faux-tudors on either side. Finally, the hill eases and I crest it, still game for more.

I turn right onto Oranmore, my only certain way of avoiding riding Stanton all the way out to Negley, which is far out of my way. But Oranmore is as steep for a block or so as any hill I've tried astride Sue. Standing up and driving into the hill for everything I'm worth, I'm reminded for the first time on a bike of a weight machine; the up and down motion of my feet grinding out each rotation of my cranks, which propels me forward approximately 16 feet or so per spin, is like something Nautilus might devise, each spin like lifting my weight and then some. By the time I reach the top of the hill, my legs feel hollow.

Then the surprise: on the far side of the sharp hill, Oranmore plunges into a less appealing part of Stanton Heights. As I begin my descent my cranks, as well as my legs, groan as I try to resist Sue's lunging at the thin leash my sinews comprise. For the first time in quite a while, I seriously wonder whether I'll have to resort to my handbrake to control my descent. I resolve not to, inching forward, perplexingly fighting as hard on the downslope as I did climbing Stanton.

As I roll slowly past two little girls playing in a driveway I groan audibly. I immediately hear, for the second time today, "Don't fall." Is there something about me that suggests imminent peril? Do I look that overmatched this afternoon?

Finally, the hill begins to level out, and at the intersection at the bottom I turn left only to be faced with another steep ascent just as rough and slightly longer than the Oranmore climb. Once again, I leave the saddle, and dive into the climb with everything I've got. By the time I reach the top, I've slowed considerably, but I'm in no serious danger of having to quit, something I've yet to do on any hill, not insignificant in a city as hilly as Pittsburgh and a point of tremendous pride.

Finally, I reach the end of the sidestreet, which curves into Mossfield, or something like that, a thoroughfare that races along the upper perimeter of the cemeteray and ultimately shoots out onto Penn just a few blocks from my street. This road, as well, is one I don't remember well. It begins with a gentle descent which intensifies slightly as it goes. Finding myself on the rare unobstructed hill, I let my cadence out to find my current limit. Eventually, I reach a level, somewhere between 150 and 200 rpm, roughly 25 to 35 mph, which has me bobbing awkwardly, if only slightly, in the saddle. There are no parked cars, but certain branches hang low over the shoulder and threaten to rip at my face, perhaps removing glasses or rending skin. I push out into the lane a little, traveling somewhere near the speed limit (which nobody, least of all yours truly, observes on such a wide, uninterrupted street) until I reach a hill. By now the series of climbs and the breathless sprint have just about wiped me out. I crawl up the modest hill ever so slowly, the cemetery's Peace Garden (I think it's called), where young children are buried en masse, to my right, hiding under tiny stones and a proliferation of flowers and mylar balloons and such, in the shadow of a large beneficent Christ figure, arms raised skyward in gentle curves, imploring, comforting. The saddest part of the cemetery, and yet strangely my favorite, the emotion there so much more raw, so much closer to the surface than it is elsewhere among the more statelier graves below, poignant like burial ground should be but so seldom are. Behind the robed Christ figure, the reddening sun prepares to inter itself below the trees that crown the far hill.

I'm nearly home. But now even the shallow climb to Penn Avenue is taxing; I've just about had it. I creep around a car at the intersection, sliding in front of him and looking for an opening. In an hour and a half, I've stepped out of the pedals only once, to take a brief break by the river, and I don't want to step out now: I creep along the line, waiting for one last car to prove that his right turn signal isn't just a feint, and crawl out into the intersection as soon as he commits to the turn.

At home, I unseat myself, astride the bike, and lean on the handlebars for a few minutes. Finally carrying the bike toward the house, I greet warmly my next door neighbor. Face seamed with age, hiding under a capacious house dress of some kind, dyed white hair composed of roughly drawn comicstrip whorls, implication over detailed rendering, she replies: "I was just about to come rescue you." She's smiling friendship. Kindness.

I manage a smile in return, still slightly breathless. "Just composing myself," I way. "I just climbed Stanton. That's rough." I don't know why I say this; although she may know Stanton, I doubt it means much to her as a cyclist's gauntlet.

Still, she nods as though she empathizes, another gentle kindness.

Today, for me, Independence Day came early.


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