Butts (Part 29)

March 5, 2014 § 7 Comments

Somewhere between Columbus and Smithville Turner came down. The clear moonlit night rushed into and was thrust away from the windshield as the big motor pushed the Chevy effortlessly along the highway. Clem had cracked her window halfway and was smoking a cigarette. “Feeling better?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“You were down at the bottom of a pretty black hole there for a while. Thought I might have to come lookin’ for you.”

“How could you tell?”

She smiled. “Hmmm. Was it the wrenched expression on your face that looked like you were taking the world’s longest crap? For two solid hours? Yeah, that might have been it.”

“I hate pot. Makes me paranoid. And that beach weed is nasty, just nasty sick gross. How in the world will you sell it? Nobody’s gonna buy that stuff. You won’t be able to give it away.”

“Sure I will. High school kids’ll buy anything as long as it gets them high. They won’t care. I’ve seen schoolkids pay good money for the worst stuff you can imagine. Transmission fluid, airplane glue, they do not fucking care as long as they get high.”

“Let me get this straight, Clem. You’re going to target schoolkids?”

“Sure. Why not? Everybody knows kids do drugs. I did. You did. Plus, this beach weed will be cheap, so it’s like a discount. Easy on their budget.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. You’re actually doing them a favor. ‘Clem’s Discount Illegal Drug Sales.’ Kind of like the K-Mart of drug dealers.”

She smiled. “Pretty nice of me, don’t you think?” She spit out the window. “Stuff does taste pretty nasty, though.”

“Actually, it’s not really very nice of you at all. You’re preying on kids. Pot may not be the ‘demon weed,’ but it never helped any kid who was struggling in school.”

She rolled her eyes. “These are practically adults, Turner. Little stoner delinquent druggies who listen to Rush and bang each other and get high. They’re old enough to make up their minds about which drugs they want to take and they don’t need you or me acting like their parents. If they wanna get high let ‘em get high. Kids just wanna get hi-igh, kids just wanna get hiiiiiiigh … plus, we need the money. Right?”

“You need the money.”

“Sure do, sweetcakes. You know why? ‘Cause mommy ain’t sending me monthly checks so I can fart around on my girlfriend’s couch reading some dumbass book so some dumbass college teacher can give me a dumbass grade so I can go out and be a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief and swindle people so I can have enough money to give to my kids and start the whole damn thing over again. You don’t like dealing or hooking, Turner, so how the fuck would you be paying the rent if mommy weren’t sending you those checks?”

His cheeks were burning. “I’d do something you’ve never done.”

“Like what, Mr. Philosphizer?”

“I’d get a fucking job. You think the only kinds of people in the world are rich kids, hookers, and dealers?”

“I know which one you are. And I know without that little monthly check you’d be out on your ass and I wouldn’t be gettin’ any holypants lectures about selling pot to stoner high school dropouts.” Her anger made the words hard and sharp. “And why the hell is some job slinging shit in a Denny’s more honorable than selling pot? Who made pot illegal? Some asshole in Congress, that’s who, so he could make a billion off tobacco or alcohol or some bullshit they peddle in hospitals that you can’t buy without a prescription. You ever worked in a restaurant?”

“No.”

“It’s shit work, Turner. I’ve done it. People treat you like shit, the men ogle your tits and ask you for a date while their fucking wives are in the ladies’ room, snotty little brats spill shit on the floor, they tell you the food’s for shit after clearing off half the plate, they run you shitass ragged and then leave a fifty-cent tip. At least when they’re lying on top of you it’s over in five minutes and there’s enough cash left over to make rent.”

“When they’re not throwing you of the pickup at 50 miles an hour.”

“Right, or raping you or cursing you or threatening to beat you up if you don’t do their cousin as a freebie, but you know what? I’ve seen waitresses slip on grease in the kitchen and get third degree burns on their faces and get shitcanned for not showing up the next day. I’ve spent enough time in emergency rooms getting my own broken ass fixed to know what happens on job sites. People get hurt, fucked over, fired, and left for dead, and if they’re lucky some ambulance chasing douchebag takes their case, gets them a few bucks and keeps the rest of it for himself. So tell me again about how you’re gonna go get a job and protect the youth from the evil drug dealer Clementine? What job are you gonna get, Turner?”

“I don’t need to get one yet.”

She snorted. “Exactly my fucking point.” She blew a cloud of cigarette smoke in his face. “You know what’s weird about you?”

“What?”

“Here you are all healthy and shit and you’ve never asked me to quit blowing smoke in your face.” She blew some more smoke in his face. “Doesn’t it gross you out?”

“Yeah.”

“I knew it.” She exhaled the next breath out the window. “So how come, Turner?”

“How come what?”

“How come you never asked me to stop?”

“Aside from the fact that I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t?”

“Yeah. Aside from that.”

“Because I’ve been waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“Waiting for you to bring it up.”

“Oh crapcakes. What if I’d never brought it up?”

“Then we’d never have talked about it.”

“You are completely nucking futs,” she laughed. “Okay, I’ve brought it up. Now what?”

“Would you mind not blowing smoke in my face?”

“Just like that? That’s all you have to say?” She screwed up her face. “Of course I’ll stop. Anything else?” Her left hand was on the wheel and her right hand was on his thigh as the ash crumbled off his leg and onto the floorboard.

“Yeah.”

“What?”

“Would you  mind throwing those things away and never smoking them again?”

She looked straight ahead and flicked the glowing butt out the window. “You know how many times in my life I’ve thrown away a pack of cigarettes?”

“How many?”

“One.” Then she grabbed the almost-full pack of Marlboros off the dashboard and tossed them out, too. “What’s next, hon?” she asked with a giggle. “Do we start going to church now?”

“Fuck church,” he laughed.

She licked her lips. “I like the way half of that sounds.”

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Fire! (Part 28)

March 4, 2014 § 10 Comments

Rather than take the ferry back, they left the beach and continued up the peninsula, cut over at High Island, and went north to I-10.

“Aren’t there going to be a lot of cops on the Interstate?” Turner asked.

“Yeah. But we’ll draw a lot more attention driving through little towns off the main road at 2:00 AM than we will on the highway.”

“We’re gonna get busted,” Turner said. What had begun as a happy, pleasant high started to creep ever so slightly to the edge of paranoia. He settled back into the vinyl seat awaiting the monster. This is how it always was and this was why he’d stopped smoking dope in junior high school. He loved that first buzz, but the paranoia ate him alive. His mind lingered for a moment on the word “busted.”

“Have you ever been to jail, Clem?”

She was giggly and happy. “Sure. That beach weed making you curious? That’s a very un-Turnerlike question.”

Then it flipped. The good vibe was gone, instantly overwhelmed by terror. Every car was either a cruiser or an undercover policeman. Turner coiled up into a fetal ball even though he was still sitting upright. The speeding Impala took him right back to that summer morning waiting for the white-and-yellow HouTran bus to haul him to Sharpstown High, “A secondary school named after a fucking real estate swindler,” he thought.

Wayne had passed around the little one-hit pipe and when the bus picked them up they were stoned solid. By eight o’clock on a June morning in Houston they were already soaked to the skin in sweat and humidity, and the doors to the air-conditioned bus opened like the gates of heaven. They stumbled to the back of the bus and Turner wedged himself up against the window, but after a few minutes he had become so paranoid about getting caught while stoned he stopped looking out the window and repeatedly blew his breath into his cupped palm then inhaled it. “Does that smell like I’m stoned?” he kept asking himself, repeating the breath test over and over.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Julio asked him.

“I’m checking to see if my breath smells like I’m stoned.”

“Fuck yeah you smell like you’re stoned, and even if you didn’t you look totally wasted. Open your fucking eyes, dude, they’re hanging three-quarters shut. And use some of this.” He handed Turner a plastic bottle of Visine. Then they all laughed and Turner forgot about the spies and the friends of his parents who were riding the bus waiting to rat him out. The bus driver kept glowering at them in the giant rearview mirror. “He knows we’re stoned,” Turner thought, falling into the paranoid hole again. “I wonder if he knows Dad?”

In order to force his mind out the bad place it had fallen into, Turner focused all of his attention on the pull cable that ran the length of the bus. The cable was attached at regular intervals to small rectangular sockets, and when you yanked the cable, the socket let out a ring and the driver knew to let you out at the next stop. One of those sockets was right above Turner’s head, next to the electrical panel that operated the rear doors.

The paranoia, unfortunately, was becoming something much worse. Turner knew that you couldn’t hallucinate on pot, but he was starting to hallucinate. It was scaring him out of his mind. The harder he looked at the socket and the electrical panel by the doors, the crazier things got. The bus stopped to let off a passenger and the electrical panel appeared to break out in flames.

“Oh, shit,” Turner thought. “If I get up and jump off the bus everyone’s going to know I’m stoned. But if I stay here I’ll get burned to death. But if it’s just a hallucination so all I have to do is stay calm. Just stay calm. Unless of course it really is on fire.” This terrible trap of three untenable options raced on, over and over in an infinite loop. His heart was racing as his mind toyed with the flames that were now jumping and leaping out of the electrical panel.

“Pretty soon the bus will catch on fire,” he said. “I’m so fucking stoned. This is the most stoned I’ve ever been. I wish we’d hurry up and get to school. I’m really not that stoned. I’m so fucking stoned.” He looked out the window and saw the debarked passengers, then looked back at the burning interior of the bus and its magical hues, then put his head between his knees, resisting every fiber in his being that urged him to shout out “Fire! Fire!”

“First of all it’s a felony to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater, so on a bus it must be, too. Second of all everyone’s gonna look at me like I’m insane. Third they’re all gonna figure out I’m stoned and then I’m really gonna be in trouble.” The infinite loop of bad choices played over and over, speeding up until it was one continuous stream of catastrophes that froze him in place. “Maybe when I look up my head will be put back on right,” he thought. “Maybe I’ll start coming down.”

He raised his head just as the shape of the giant bus driver appeared out of the smoke. “What’s wrong with you, you crazy little motherfucker?” the driver was screaming. “You wanna fucking burn to death back here?” He grabbed Turner by the collar, jerked him over the seat, and leaped off the bus through the flames, finally throwing Turner on the grass. “What they fuck is wrong with you? What the fuck is WRONG?” the bus driver screamed.

The bus was now engulfed in flames, and Wayne and Julio were standing off to the side with the other passengers. “What was that all about?” asked Wayne. “You was just sitting on that damned bus like you was gonna burn yourself up inside it.”

Turner shook his head, then his whole body convulsed. “That’s it,” he said. “No more drugs for me.”

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It’s hard to ask for money, but as with most vices the more I do it the easier it gets. I hope you’ll consider subscribing to this blog if you enjoy the content. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner if you feel like it, and even if you don’t … thanks for reading and for commenting!

Pickin’ and a’ grinnin’ (Part 27)

March 3, 2014 § 5 Comments

The harbormen grabbed the big hawsers and made them fast as the front of the ship opened and made a gangplank for the cars to exit onto the Bolivar Peninsula. “It’s really simple, Turner. We’re going — you and I — to find that beach weed, and if those two clowns try to mess with us, we’ll have to politely convince them not to, probably with an ass beating.”

The Chrysler jalopnik had rolled off ahead of them and they followed it at a distance. After a few miles it turned right. “See?” said Clem. “Bastards are going to steal our beach weed.”

Turner was starting to feel proprietary about it as well. “Fuckers,” he swore. “How dare they?”

The Chrysler vanished from view and they rolled along until the pavement ended. Now they were on the sand, and the car bottomed out momentarily before the wheels got traction. The sand was now packed and hard and they could see the taillights of the Chrysler down by the shore. The moon illuminated the beach and the glassy Gulf waters for as far as they could see.

“Let’s start as far away from ‘em as we can,” said Clem, driving the opposite direction along the empty beach. She finally parked and they got out, each holding a big plastic trash bag. The tide was out and all along the edge were giant clumps of seaweed.

“This isn’t pot,” Turner offered. “It’s just nasty ol’ seaweed.” He reached down and picked up a handful. “Seaweed and tar.”

They walked some more, inspecting the big clumps of seaweed. After a few hundred yards they were in despair. “I can’t believe it,” said Clem. “What a colossal waste of time.”

Turner kicked another clump with his foot. “Hey, Clem,” he said. “What’s this?” He reached down and picked up a fistful of matted vegetable matter. It wasn’t seaweed. Clem came over and shined her flashlight on it.

“That’s it, Turner!” she said excitedly. “That’s it!”

They peered closely at the matted stuff, and indeed it was marijuana. Wet and nasty looking, but marijuana nonetheless. Turner dropped it into his garbage bag. “Here’s more!”

As they walked along they came upon bigger and bigger clumps of pot. The bales had broken apart in the water and washed ashore as medium – to – large sized conglomerations weighing several pounds each. Before long their trash bags were full and they returned to the car for more.

Now they were so excited they couldn’t work quickly enough. “Oh my dog, Turner,” said Clem. “Even dried out this stuff is going to weigh hundreds of pounds! Hundreds!” Soon the trunk was full and they began loading the floorboards of the back seat.

Gradually they made their way down the beach until they were only fifty yards or so from the Chrysler. One of the guys was leaning against the hood smoking  a cigarette. The other guy was at the trunk taking out something long and dangerous looking.

“It’s a rifle,” said Turner. “He’s gonna kill us. He’s been waiting for us to collect all the shit and now he’s going to blow us away and they’re gonna keep it for themselves.”

With the brilliant moonshine they were easy targets for a guy with a rifle. “Hey!” Clem shouted to the guy smoking the cigarette.

“Yeah?” he said.

“What are you guys doing out here?”

“Hell, I was gonna ask you the same thing. We’re fishing.” As Clem and Turner approached, they could see that the guy at the trunk was handling a fishing pole, not a rifle.

“If you’re fishing then that means you’ve got beer,” said Clem.

“Indeed we do. Want one?”

“Does the pope shit in the woods?” Clem asked.

The guy smiled in the moonlight. “Hey, Bill. Grab a couple of beers, willya?” He turned back to them. “What are you two up to? I don’t see no fishing poles. Unless you’re fishin’ with trash bags.”

“We’re pretty much done,” Clem said. “There’s another ton of pot washed up on the beach. Our car’s full and we’re heading home.”

“Pot?” said Bill, holding out the beer. “On the beach?”

“Yeah,” said Clem. “Check it out.” She opened up her garbage bag and they peered in.

“Whew,” said the other guy, whose name was Joel. “That stinks like shit.”

“Wait ’til it dries out,” said Clem. “That’s money, that is.”

Joel reached into the bag and pulled out a fistful of the matted weeds, looking at it more closely. “I”ll be goddamned. It is weed. Hey Bill, crank on the engine.” As Bill turned the ignition, Joel opened the hood and spread the weed on top of the air filter cover, then slammed the hood. “That’ll dry ‘er out,” he said.

The four of them stood around and drank beer, with Turner surreptitiously pouring his out in dribs and drabs. He didn’t drink, and he had a feeling that someone would need to be sober before the night ended. After about thirty minutes, Joel popped the hood. “Dry as a bone!” he said, scooping up the beach weed.

Bill pulled some Zig-Zags out of the glove compartment, rolled up a fatty, and fired it up. He took the first drag, a big one. “Oh, boy,” he coughed. “That’s some nasty shit.” He handed it to Clem, who followed suit.

She gagged. “Ugh. Ugh. Gross.”

Joel was next, sucking away for all he was worth and cursing at the same time. “It’s like smoking poison,” he said. “Or smoking a skunk’s balls.”

Next the joint came to Turner. He hadn’t smoked since he was in junior high school. It had been while waiting for the bus on the way to summer school with Wayne Dokes and Julio Martin. They had all failed science class and been consigned to six weeks of purgatory at Sharpstown High School, where all the junior high fuck-ups had to go make up classes in order to get to the next grade. Turner still had nightmares about that particular day.

Joel’s hand still proffered the joint. “Ah, fuck it,” he thought, and took a drag. “What could possibly not go wrong?”

The smoke burned his lungs but even worse was the taste, some hideous mixture of seaweed and sea water and salt and tar and the general chemical filth that was the Gulf of Mexico all rolled up in one fiery, smoky taste of … skunk balls. He held in the smoke as the witches’ brew of spilled petrochemicals  and tetrahydrocannabinol did their dirty work on his tired and capitulated brain.

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Pelicans and pistols (Part 26)

March 2, 2014 § 4 Comments

By the time the big Chevy nosed its way onto the Bolivar Ferry, it was well past 8:00 on a Sunday night. The ferry only had a handful of other cars on it.

“This is where I made my first mini-fortune,” Turner said.

“Oh, really?”

“Yep.” He told her about selling school chocolates with his brother, but the only part she liked was the part where he extorted money from Cason in exchange for not snitching.

“You’ve got a killer’s instinct,” she said. “We just have to sharpen it up a bit.”

Off on the left loomed the big lump of Pelican Island. “See that?” said Turner.

“Yeah. What is it?”

“It’s a spoil island.”

“What’s that?”

“When they dredged the Houston Ship Channel, they had to put all the muck somewhere, so they heaped it up into an island. That’s it. Pelican Island.”

“Pretty name for something so nasty. What’s on it?”

“The most amazing thing no one’s ever seen.”

“What does that mean, Turner?”

“It’s a breeding colony for laughing gulls. Zillions of ‘em, right there on the ground with their eggs and their chicks. Stinks like shit, and birds everywhere.”

“Sounds gross.”

“It is. But it’s really hard to get to and there aren’t any roads on it, and so it’s protected, so the birds roost and lay their eggs and raise their chicks on it. It’s kind of a sanctuary.”

The moon was rising and it shone down on Clem’s face. Her black hair was shiny in the moonlight. She turned towards him as the boat cleaved smoothly across the calm waters of the bay. “What’s with you, Turner?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what’s with you? You’re the least curious human I’ve ever met.”

“You lost me, Clem.”

“I did? Have you noticed that you’ve never asked me anything about me? Like it’s just normal for a smarty-boots philosphizer  college student who rides a bicycle in his underwear to hook up with a hooker and never ask her anything about her life. Nothing ever. Not even once.”

“What do you want me to ask?”

“That’s just it! Most people don’t need a checklist, Turner! They ask! They’re curious! But here you are, sitting on a damn boat about to go make a major drug run and maybe get thrown in prison for life and you’ve never even asked me anything about ME. That’s weird, Turner! That’s fucked up!”

Her legs were up on the dashboard and her skirt had fallen down so that the white “v” of her panties were showing at the intersection of her crossed legs. The boat’s engines churned.

“Well, Clem, I’m very curious. Just not about the things that other people are curious about. That’s all.”

“Like what?”

“Other people, you know, if they have a girlfriend, they want to know about her vagina, and who’s been in it, and how she uses it, and how many times she’s used it, and whether she plans on using it with someone other than them, and they get all into that, you know, I call it ‘pussy politics.’”

“Yeah?”

“But I don’t care about that. It doesn’t have an odometer on it, Clem … “

She giggled. “If it did, I have flipped it twice by the time I was eighteen.”

“Right? But it doesn’t. So what do I care how you use your vagina, or who’s been in it, or what and how and when and why you plan to use it next week? I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you do with your elbows, do I? So why should I spend my waking time worrying about the crack between your legs?”

Clem looked out the window. “So if you came home and I was screwing some guy, you wouldn’t be mad?”

“I probably would be, but that’s your business, Clem. We aren’t married.”

“What if we were married?”

“I’d be really mad, then.”

“Would you kill him?”

“You’re joking.”

“Hell I am.”

“Of course I wouldn’t.”

“How come?”

“Because I don’t think I could kill another human being. Especially for something like fucking. Fucking’s natural.”

“You know what I’d do if I came home and you were screwing some woman?”

“What?”

“I’d blow your fucking brains out. Like this.” She made a pistol with her thumb and forefinger, switched off the imaginary safety, pulled back the hammer, and pointed it at the side of Turner’s head. “If you were fucking someone in my bed, I’d squeeze this trigger until your goddamned brains came out the other side of your head.” Then she pointed the finger gun to the floorboard, let the hammer gently back, and clicked on the safety.

There was a long silence as the water hit the sides of the ferry and the diesel engines chugged away in the moonlight.

“What about the woman I was fucking? Would you shoot her, too?”

“Only if she was really cute. But otherwise, no. I can’t blame her. She’s just doing what I would have been doing.”

“You say all this like you’ve shot somebody before,” Turner said.

“Maybe I have. But I didn’t kill him too badly.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You didn’t kill him ‘too badly’?”

Clem laughed, then frowned. “I shot him good enough that he stopped doing what he was doing.”

“What was he doing?”

“What he wasn’t supposed to. Haven’t seen him since and don’t miss the bastard one whit and hope he never shows his ugly face around my house again. You better hope not, either. He’d shoot your narrow ass just for living.”

“You’re crazy, Clem.”

“I’m crazy? You’re the crazy one, Turner. Normal men kill other people for fucking their women. But you, you’re just kind of like ‘Oh, well,’ like she’s making some guy a cup of coffee. Are all philosophizers like you?”

“I’m not a ‘philosphizer,’ whatever that is.”

“Sure you are!” She dropped her voice an octave and scrunched her face up in a mock serious expression. “What is the meaning of justice? How do we know what we know?” She started giggling. “All your philosophizing crap is so dumb. I tried to read one of your books while you were at school and it’s the stupidest crap ever. It doesn’t even make any sense, except the part about the old man trying to fuck the young boys. Why do you care about that shit? Why don’t you just get a business degree and learn how to make money like everyone else? Who gives a shit about ‘What is justice?’”

Turner looked at her. “You know why I’m not curious about you?”

“Why?” She was so eager that her eyes seemed to flicker with electricity.

“Because the easiest way to kill what I feel about you is to examine it.”

The silence filled the car. They sat there.

After a while Clem spoke. “You see these other cars on the ferry?”

“What about them?”

“Any of them look funny to you?”

Turner surveyed the handful of vehicles. “No.”

“Why don’t you try to tell me what each one of them is here for?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“See that pickup? Guy and his wife and two kids. They’ve been on the island for the day and are headed home, somewhere on the mainland. The big Buick with the two old people? What are they doing?”

“I don’t know. Same thing?”

“Probably. What about the two Mexicans in the Pinto?”

“Working on the island? Going home after a day’s work?”

“Yes, I’d say so. What about that one?” She nodded over towards a rusted out Chrysler 300. “What are they here for?”

Turner looked. The car was really beat-up, with a huge dent in front chrome fender. The driver had a scraggly beard and was wearing an Astros ballcap. The passenger was slouched low, wearing sunglasses, but evidently not asleep. “I don’t know. They aren’t fishermen, that’s for sure.”

“No, Turner, they aren’t.”

“Tourists?”

Clem laughed. “Yes, probably birdwatchers finishing up a day over on Pelican Island.”

“Who are they, then?”

“I’d say they’re drug dealers.”

“Like us!”

“Yes, like us. Which means … ?”

“You think they’re going the same place we are?”

“I do.”

The ferry’s engines strained as they reversed the screws, slowing the boat as the captain guided it perfectly into the ferry landing.

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America’s first sporting superstar

March 1, 2014 § 21 Comments

I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5′s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”

Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.

Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”

Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”

“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.

“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”

“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”

“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”

Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte

Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.

Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800′s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.

In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.

I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”

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When the well runs dry

February 28, 2014 § 27 Comments

As Rudyard Kipling so famously wrote in his epic poem Gunga Din

YOU may talk o’ gin an’ beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

It’s been the nicest winter imaginable for riding a bicycle, so warm and sunny and pleasant that the news from Chicago and the East Coast and other weather-challenged climes seems almost unfair. Then I remember that Karma Bitch and Karma Bastard always have the last laugh. That’s always as in “always.”

This afternoon I got my first taste of what it means to experience earth’s warmest January since humans began keeping temperature records, when I read a brief little article about California’s drought and how it has caused the Russian River to essentially dry up. You see, even though bicycle riders love sunny, warm winter days, and even though it makes them happier than a stoner at Hempcon to be out pedaling when their Midwestern counterparts are chained to the trainer in a cellar, there is one thing that California bicycle riders love every bit as much as riding bicycles, even more, perhaps.

Beer. Because unlike the soldiers in Gunga Din, bikers don’t do their work on water. They do it on beer. Over ‘ere.

And they don’t just love any old beer, they love California beer. And the California beer they love more than any other liquid refreshement in the whole pantheon of malt, barley, hops, and yeast is the beer with names like Lagunitas, Pliny the Elder, and Racer 5. Each of these treasures shares at least one thing in common: They exist due to the rolling blue bounty of the Russian River, which in turn depends in large part on Lake Mendocino, which in turn will go dry this summer if California doesn’t get more rain in the next two weeks than it’s gotten all year. That would be “last year.” The river itself is barely gurgling in the middle of a “rainy” season barely worthy of the name, a time when it should be raging, roaring, and plunging with clear blue water.

The deluge predicted for the next few days, if it happens, won’t be more than a tiny Band-Aid on a gashed, gaping, open wound. We’re in negative water territory and a few days of hard rain won’t save us.

How will California’s bicyclists get their beer?

“Nothing ever happens until it happens to you,” or so goes the old saw.

What’s about to happen to California cyclists is this — they’re going to finally have an endless summer, and it’s not going to be pretty. Most of the state is naturally a desert anyway, and if the megadrought that’s already in the works comes to full force, the manmade greenery here will wither and blow away like dust. Car washes will shut down, pools will empty, and a lawn or two in Palos Verdes may actually go brown (a little bit, maybe).

But we can still ride our bikes, right?

Wrong.

You can’t ride your bike if there’s no West Coast IPA at the end of the trail. It’s not so much that you can’t, it’s more of a “Why would you?” kind of thing. Tens of thousands of California drinkers have a cycling problem, and without the beer, well, the drinkers just kind of go away. And you can forget your precious California wine. The 2014 vintage isn’t even a hope anymore.

Until now you’ve probably not given a second thought to your 30-minute showers, your weekly carwash, and those endless lawn-watering sessions where you also make sure the asphalt gets good and doused as well. I hope after reading this you’ve gotten religion.

Your beer depends on it.

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I brake for nobody

February 27, 2014 § 33 Comments

I got an email today from a very pissed off bicycle rider. He said that the main reason motorists hate cyclists is “usually that cyclists don’t obey the rules of the road. And that is absolutely right.”

Then he added that he “for sure doesn’t stop at all stop signs, and doesn’t even pause at some, like remote t-intersections, where there is no one I can impede. But I at least pause at almost all of them, and stop at any with cross traffic, and always yield the right of way unless waved through. But I constantly see guys just blow thru stop signs as if they don’t even exist [Ed. note: As if what doesn't exist? The stop signs? The guys?] A couple coming down the hill crossed onto my road in front of traffic, which was going uphill so I didn’t have to brake but noticeably slowed; they just blew through. I yelled at them  ‘You are giving cyclists a bad name!’ I heard a ‘Huh?’ in response.”

The angry cyclist continued: “Climbing up to a 3-way, stop, where I might have wanted to roll without stopping, since I was climbing, some guy with a huge smile on his face, comes sailing by, ‘Hey look at me, I’m having a great day!” and just blew through the stop. Had I tried to roll through the stop sign as I wanted, I would have been t-boned. I yelled at him too. I’ll soon be known as the grump of Whapdale Heights.”

He concluded with this: “Sometimes cyclists scare me more than cars. I talked to another cyclist who does stop at stop signs, and who said he’d almost been rear-ended by other bikes when he stopped. I know you’ve blogged about this before, but maybe again? Or another angle? Or you don’t think it’s an issue?”

Don’t think WHAT’S an issue?

I didn’t know how to respond other than to say that it’s not my job to explain the behavior of cyclists any more than it’s my job to explain the behavior of motorists, or astronauts, or chimpanzees. I also noted that from a safety standpoint, five bicycle riders had been killed by cars in SoCal in the last five days, and the number of motorists killed by cyclists since the beginning of time is, like, zero.

So, as Noel would say, “There’s that.”

Still, Grumpypants has a point, and I think the point is this: He’s comfortable running stop signs, rolling stop signs, and ignoring the law when he deems it safe and convenient for him, but he damn sure doesn’t think it’s a good idea for you. His premise also speaks for itself: Cagers hate cyclists because they break the law, and that’s as it should be.

He made no mention as to whether it’s okay for cyclists to hate all cagers for the few drivers who also break the law, or whether death and dismemberment are fair punishments for cycling traffic infractions. There was likewise no word on where he stands vis-a-vis the rash of hit and runs in LA (we’re number one!), and on criminal penalties for killing cyclists, and on other minor issues such as the right of cyclists to operate in the lane pursuant to law without having to suffer police persecution and/or death.

My guess is that Mr. Grumpypants didn’t think of these things, or worse, he thought they were of much less importance than his own “close” calls with happy, smiling cyclists who weren’t following the letter of the law.

But now that you mention it …

I suppose I’m also one of those happy, grinning idiots at whom he shakes his fist when I go ripping through a stop sign before he can beat me to it. I am probably one of the people who angry, latte-chugging PV housewives curse in their cages as I happily pedal to work. I’m certainly one of those smilers who controls the lane while livid cagers, delayed for three or even five seconds, spit bile and venom only to whizz around me and beat me to the stone-red light.

Who hates whom?

The nub of the problem, of course, is the assumption that cagers hate cyclists. They don’t, and how could they, when most cyclists are also motorists? Who in the hell are “they?”

For every nutjub who screams and froths and flips me off, fifty others sigh in envy as I pedal along. They know that as between us, the one who’s pedaling to work is the happier one.

In addition to the cagers who are cyclists, and the cagers who wish they were cyclists, there are the great unwashed millions who don’t care one way or another. They see me in the lane, or they see me *pause* through the stop sign, and they could care less. “Bikes aren’t cars,” they think, if they think at all. “It’s a heck of a lot harder to get a bike going from a full stop than it is to mash on an accelerator.”

In other words, I reject the premise that “motorists,” whoever they are, “hate” me. And the ones who do could care less whether I blow a stop, roll through one, pause significantly, or put both feet down and do a little bow. They have deep-seated psychological problems, vote Republican, and are likeliest to shriek “Guns don’t kill people!” after every mass shooting.

Even more to the point, and perhaps this is where Mr. Grumpypants and I really diverge, I get on my bike and am willing to die for it, or at least be horrifically maimed and spend the rest of my life an even bigger vegetable than I already am. It comes with the territory, unfortunately, because when car meets bike, bike loses. Doesn’t make it right, but that’s the way it is in the big city.

So I make it a point not to smash into the cagers and to have them not run into me, and I remind myself every few seconds or so that there are no guarantees, that my fellow cyclists are not the enemy, and that since tomorrow may be my Unlucky Day, I’d better pedal hard and flog a few baby seals while I can.

After more than thirty years in the saddle and a regular output of 8,000 – 15,000 miles a year, if I do eventually get clocked by some cager who “hates” me, it’s still been worth it. I had more fun at age 50 on last week’s Donut Ride than the average cager has in a lifetime of commutes. But if they’re gonna take me out, they better take extra special aim, because chances are slim that I’ll be waiting, cow-like, for them to mow me down at a stop sign as I shake my fist at a fellow biker.

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