Your life is not your own

January 5, 2013 § 45 Comments

Come meander with me.

But before we join one another on an easy Saturday morning pedal, sharing our love for the road, our camaraderie, and our sharp memories of Steve Bowen made sharper by the memorial ride on which we’re about to embark, I’d like you to sit for just a moment in the back seat of my car.

It is an old car in dog years, a 2002 Camry with 198,000 hard miles on it. It has a big dent in the rear, a deep rusted scratch on the right side, several beauty marks on the front and rust speckling on the hood. When you sit in the back seat you’ll notice several patches of duct tape over the electronic window controls. That’s to keep me from reflexively hitting the “down” switch to the driver’s side window and having it pop out of the frame, dangling outside the car. On the freeway. At seventy-five.

I want you to sit in the back seat last night and just observe. You’ll be invisible. I won’t know you’re there, but will still try not to fart. My kimchee and pinto bean + tofu diet has, according to Dan Cobley, unfortunate consequences for those behind me.

Hold Back the Tears

That’s the name of a song by Neil Young, and you’re listening to it with me in the back seat, but the song isn’t working, because I’m crying, and crying hard. It’s the first time I’ve cried for my brother since he died. You’re a little embarrassed for me. I’m a grown man, after all.

But you and me, we’ve ridden together and you know that I may crack but I’m going to recover, pull it together, and keep slogging ahead. I learned that much from Fields. There’s no dishonor in getting shelled, just quitting. Then you watch me, sitting in the dark in the parking garage, check my phone.

“Wow,” you think. “Dude is so addicted to Facebook.”

But you notice I’m not scrolling through “likes” and timelines. I’m reading, then re-reading, a message from Raja Black.

“That’s weird,” you think. “He and Raja have never met.”

Indeed, we haven’t. Then you watch me call Raja, who has messaged me his phone number.

“Hey, brother,” you hear Raja say. “Good to hear your voice.”

And just like that, the two strangers talk like old friends. Because they are. “How you doing?” Raja asks.

I tell him. The truth.

“Well, Seth,” you hear Raja say. “Your life, you know, is not your own. If your brother had known that, maybe he would still be with us. Your life isn’t this thing that’s yours. That’s just a fake construct. Your life is the series of things you say and do to other people. And every vibration of your life touches everyone connected to you, and all the people connected to them. We can’t take life away so casually. It’s not ours to take. We have to live, if we’re to own up to the awesome responsibility we have to those who are bound to us.”

You watched me furrow my brow as I listened as intently as I’ve ever listened to anyone in my life.

“Here’s the thing, Seth. I’m an athletic guy in great shape, but you know, a few weeks ago I had a major heart attack. One or two beats away from death, right? I’m one of those cyclists who’s not supposed to get sick, let alone have heart problems. But here I am. And everything looks more precious to me now. The people who were there for me in my hour of need, they’ve touched me, just like I’ve touched them, just like you’ve touched me, just like I’m touching you. It’s the web of life, and your poor brother, man, if only he’d known that, maybe he wouldn’t have taken what wasn’t his to take. But you know it now, and I know it now. So we will carry on no matter what.”

Then you heard me mumble something and you saw me put down the phone.

You thought this: “Strangers and near-friends, dear friends and loved ones, people reaching out to people because that’s what binds us together. Because our lives, however personal, are not our own. They are not our own.”

Better start meandering soon

You would have reflected on all this if I hadn’t let loose with a trio of kimchee farts, any one of which was strong enough to put holes in the seat fabric and blow out the rear window. You stumbled home. I ambled home. Saturday dawned clear and cold, and even before we’d thrown a leg over our bikes, Steve Bowen’s memorial ride had begun.

Susan Gans had gotten the word out to the entire La Grange club. She’d contacted Ellen Brown and Jeff Sallie at Catalina Coffee and arranged for free coffee and tea after the ride. When she told them that they could be providing for over a hundred riders, they never flinched. They and their staff were more than willing to help.

Somewhere along the grapevine, Cynergy Cycles in Santa Monica heard about the ride. Without being asked, they saddled up their shop van and provided free transportation to Westsiders who wanted to come down to the South Bay and join the ride. Then, Jim and Eric from Cynergy used the van for sag and as a broom wagon, running their flashers to keep the cycling cordon intact.

Paul Che of Sprocket Cycles was there, too, providing support to any rider who needed it. With Cynergy and Sprocket participating, it kind of makes you and me wonder…when’s the last time two competitors got together for the BENEFIT of a third competitor? Then it really makes us wonder…if hardworking men and women running small businesses can put aside their differences for a common goal, why can’t our politicians?

Cruising down the hill

I’ve picked you up at Malaga Cove. You’re freezing, as it’s in the high 30’s and you’re wrapped up in everything you own, but it’s still not working. We pedal, more chilly downhill, and pick up Marcella Piersol on the other side of PCH. You think you’re cold? She’s chattering so hard she can barely talk.

Kim West, Scott and Randy Dickson, and the other Iowans are laughing pretty hard at our wimpiness. They’re riding today, too. In six feet of snow.

But that’s why we decided not live in Iowa. We hit Catalina just as Gus, Marc, Chris, Tom, and a couple of others whiz by in the other direction. We turn around and grab their wheel as they easily tow us up to the bluff above RAT Beach. Marcella is having a hard time just being on her bike. It’s the first time she’s ridden since Steve’s death. You know, she was with him when he died on Mulholland. They were more than friends. They were people who had shared thousands and thousands of miles together on the bike. That makes you into more than a friend. That makes you family.

She had not wanted to do the memorial ride, intense as it was going to be, and now, with the frigid weather, and with her already frozen to the core, you and I can tell that she’s in a bad place. Let’s put our arm around her shoulder and suggest we head back to the coffee shop in Redondo. I was going to get there early for the ride anyway, and we’ll see Gus & Co. shortly anyway.

If three’s a crowd, what’s three hundred?

We get Marcella some hot coffee, and the Cynergy van pulls up. Out hop Cheryl Parrish, Lisa Giardino, Miki Ozawa, Deborah Sullivan, and a couple of other lovely ladies from the Westside. Before long the coffee shop has over fifty people in it. Some are local South Bay riders who leave here every week with the Donut Ride, like Vickie Van Os, Renee Fenstermacher, and Craig Leeuwenburgh. John Wike’s there. Many others are from distant locales. Jim Miller has driven up from San Diego and is chatting out front. Michael Marckx got in the night before from Carlsbad, but a sudden stomach bug kept him in bed. We’re going to miss him. We’ll also miss Doug Peterson, one of the South Bay stalwarts. His major knee surgery was recent, and he is still on the mend. You can’t do a ride like this with a sliced up knee unless you’re made out of some stern stuff.

You’re looking at me now, and I know what you’re thinking. “What the hell is going on? There must be two hundred people milling around out there.”

Indeed there are. And it’s time to go.

We gather everyone together, and it’s an ocean of friends and people we love. Suze Sonye, Kelly Henderson, Alan and Simone Morrsette, Greg Popovich, Dennis McLean, countless friends of Steve’s wearing his PVBC club kit, Jennie Enriquez, and even Shon Holderbaum shows up with his broken hand, all bandaged up and unable to properly ride. Jake Sorosky has to work, but he’s gotten there in jeans with his camera and has taken a bunch of photos. Then he’s gone.

Tammy Hines is there, and the one-woman tornado behind PV Bike Chicks, Kim White, is there, too. Brad House has put the word out on his network, and numerous friends and riding buddies of his have answered the call. The Steeles are there, and so is Marcel Hoksbergen, Big Dutch. He takes a video of the start and before day’s end has edited it into a moving, gripping tribute…but we don’t know that yet.

“Enough of the names!” you say. “We’ll never finish if you mention every single person! Plus, you’re hurting the feelings of people you don’t mention. David Caren? Jonathan Frederick? Gerald Iacono, whose gesture of kindness and generosity to you–an honorary PV bike kit–is the nicest thing you can remember? Tom Best? The entire contingent of South Bay clubs: Big Orange, Bike Palace, Ironfly, SPY, South Bay Wheelmen, PV Bike Chicks, Beach Cities Cyclists, and so many more.”

Our one big fear

You watch me give a brief talk. It’s inadequate and bumbling, but you and everyone else are gracious and, more importantly, are focused on our memories of Steve. We continue to be deluged with stories of his friendship and goodness, of his decency and humanity, of his acceptance of people for who they are, how they are.

Marcella is feeling it, too. I’ve taken her under my wing, or at least under my pink socks. She’s starting to see how deeply Steve was loved. Everyone closes their eyes for a moment of silence. Then we roll out.

Michael Norris is there. His presence is comforting. With Michael around, we know that nothing can go wrong, but still, we’re worried. We’re worried because this ride had become so huge. By day’s end we’ll learn that people stopped counting at 350 riders. With so many riders on the narrow PV roads, the potential for congestion is practically guaranteed. The worst thing imaginable would be an accident; someone getting hurt while coming out on Steve’s behalf. It’s the last thing he would have wanted.

We’re afraid of the police, too. When they see this rolling peloton of 350 people, they’ll have to take action, and we fear the worst. But you and I look at each other and shrug. “What can we do?”

Michael and I sit on the point, Marcella and Tammy and you behind us. The goal is simple: Ride slowly, ride safely. Keep any idiots who want to turn it into a bike race in check. Try not to fart excessively. Or even once. These things are noxious.

Up against the wall, lycra-clad-mother

As soon as we cross the border from Torrance into PV, we see the dreaded police motorcycle. The cop takes one look at us and flips on his flashers. We look at each other. Even Norris won’t be able to get us out of this jam. And given the run-ins we’ve all had with the Palos Verdes police, the ride’s going to end before it even starts. The cop has his Bub This is Serious face on.

The officer nods his head, whips his bike around, and pulls 100 yards ahead of us. At the first intersection, a PV squad car dashes up and blocks all turning and cross traffic.

“What the hell?” you and I say to Norris.

He grins. “Looks like Steve just got himself a police escort.”

For the entire length of PV Drive, the police create a rolling enclosure, blocking off intersections and preventing Saturday traffic from mowing us down. “Who told them?” I ask Michael.

“No one. Steve worked with a lot of the PV cops, many of whom ride bikes. He was a liked and respected friend. And the cops take care of their own.”

Marcella had been with LAPD for twenty-two years. “It’s family,” she says. “Family.”

Can’t keep a tough man down

As we push up from Malaga Cove, a dude in a red Cynergy jersey taps our shoulder. It’s Doug. “Dude!” I say. “Your knee! How are you even out here?”

Doug grins. “There are more important things in life than a knee,” he says. “This is one of them.”

We crest the first climb and someone else taps our shoulder. It’s MMX. “Hey,” he says. “Just wanted you to know I made it.”

“Dude!” I say. “You were on death’s door with a stomach bug last night! You were too sick to go get beer, even.”

MMX smiles. Then he takes a breath, as if he’s rehearsed the whole thing. But you and I know him, and know that he’s composing as he talks, the way musicians do. “The greatest truths are the simplest, you know? Steve had a real gift to be simple, yet he himself was very complex. His gift of simplicity was in breaking down things to their essence; to reaching and helping others reach the simple truth in things, in us. In the most meaningful sense he had a way of letting go of all expectations. His love came with full acceptance, even celebration of your personhood, your love of riding a bike or maybe your fear of getting on a bike, your trepidation and your bravado—he not only accepted who you were, but found enjoyment in you. We’re celebrating his life today, simply—riding our bikes and remembering the simple yet memorable.”

It came out smoothly, like music, MMX never needing to catch his breath as his legs rolled the big gear over the climb. He drops back. We don’t see him again.

Sick or well, fit or not, Steve’s friends are making the extra mile, then an extra one on top of that. The longest yard, indeed.

Dave Jaeger and Harold Martinez roll up to the front. These two guys can put anyone at ease, and they shoot the breeze with Norris. I should be more talkative, but I’m not. Words haven’t come so easily of late.

Kenny Lam shoots ahead of us with what is easily twenty pounds of camera gear. He’s not just doing the ride, he’s shooting it. Greg Leibert has shown up with a helmet cam. He dashes off through Portuguese Bend and sets up on a rock to chronicle the endless stream of friends.

Paul Che wheels up behind us. “Guys,” he says. “I stopped at Calle Mayor to help a guy with his bike. When I finished, I got on the end of the group and worked my way up to the front. I didn’t get to the front until we reached Lunada Bay.”

We look back. The end of the line is invisible. The riders go on forever.

The Honor Climb

We turn onto the Switchbacks, where Steve staged so many hillclimbs. Jon Davy shoots ahead, picks a spot, and peels off some video. Miles Irish blocks the oncoming traffic at the entrance with his Chevy Avalanche. He’d be riding if he hadn’t shattered his scapula and torn his rotator cuff the week before. Instead he runs interference, keeping us safe. We’ve lost our police escort, but LA County Sheriff’s Department has been keeping a helpful eye on our progress.

The Switchbacks are the weekly scene of drama and untold suffering…except today, I realize for the first time, that they aren’t. Billy Stone has said something earlier in the day that resonates with truth: Cyclists love to talk about how much they suffer, but it’s all bullshit. Their suffering stops the minute they decide to stop pedaling. Suffering is what happens when no matter how hard you want the pain to stop, it doesn’t stop. Cycling is a hobby. An avocation. A pastime. When you choose to hurt, you aren’t suffering. You’re choosing to hurt.

Death, disease, grinding poverty, mental illness…loss…these things are suffering. As we move through the turns I feel the truth of Billy’s observation. We’re fortunate to be here. Pedaling our bikes, no matter how hard, is a gift. It may hurt, but it’s not suffering.

You and i glance back at Marcella this moment. She’s one of many today who is suffering. She’s suffering the loss of a friend and loved one. No matter how easily she pedals, the pain remains.

Michael raises his hand. We’re a quarter mile from the top. The sky is glorious. The brilliant sun has turned the ocean into a deep hue of the richest blue. The curvature of the coast spreads out beneath us, a viewscape so grand that it takes our breath away, and you and I, we think about Steve. This is a day for Steve. The line of riders stretches back all the way down the Switchbacks, and beyond. “Ease up,” Michael commands.

Then you and I watch him push Marcella forward. “This is the honor climb, Marcella. Just you. Now go.”

He gently pushes her forward. She bites down on the pedals and moves away from us. We see her sides heaving and her shoulders shaking, and we know that it’s not from pedaling. You and I, we’re crying with her. She crests the hill alone, with three hundred and fifty riders in check.

That was for Marcella. That was for all of us.

That was for Steve.

Norris brings the group up over the hill, and you and I pull over. You politely turn your head as I sidle up to the wall and take the world’s longest piss. Finishing a long climb feels good. Emptying a near-to-busting-bladder feels better.

Once I’m done, everyone’s passed by. I feel empty inside, and not just from the roadside stop.

Catalina Coffee Rendezvous

We get back to Redondo Beach and Catalina Coffee. Robert Min is there, and a throng of others. Marcella’s ex, Frank, has shown up with Irving, Steve’s shop dog. Irving is swaddled in love and attention, just as he was in the shop. Steve’s girlfriend Vickie, and Steve’s cousin Scott have flown in from the East Coast to be with us this morning. Susan Gans has arranged to have a large card placed next to the coffee. Countless riders come up and sign the card, many leaving incredibly poignant messages.

We sit at the table with Pablo Maida, who’s driven down from the Westside to show solidarity. Like many of the riders, he didn’t know Steve, but he had friends who did know him, and, well, family’s family.

You look at me, and we’re both thinking about Raja. We say it at the same time. “Your life is not your own.” Pablo looks at us in a bemused way, but he understands without explanation.

You and I speak briefly with Vickie and Scott. “For every one of the people who showed up today, there were another hundred who couldn’t come because they had other obligations, or they were too far away, or they didn’t find out about it in time. For every one of the people who showed up today, there were another thousand who Steve knew and touched but who don’t cycle, or who don’t cycle enough to keep up with the pace, or who aren’t in good enough health to do the ride. Steve’s web of life connected with countless people. This is one tiny strand of his web.”

We hug Vickie and give Irving another pat.

Marcella comes up to us. “So glad I came,” she says.

We are, too. We’re also drained, you and I. We’ve been thinking about this since we got the news, and we’ve been mentally preparing for the ride since last night. Time to go.

We hop on the back of Dan, Marcel, Marc, and Pablo as they roll out for a final climb up VdM, which conveniently takes me home.

You drop me off. I undress and shower, wondering what happened to Norris. He’d accompanied us to the coffee shop, then vanished.

I take a nap and check my email. Bing. There’s one from Michael. He left so that he could buy a big sack of pastries and drop them off at the PV Police Department.

Michael’s life, you know, is not his own. And he knows it. So did Steve. May he rest in peace.

It’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to

December 25, 2012 § 141 Comments

Christmas Day is a melancholy day for me and I don’t have to apologize for it. It’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to.

It was melancholy for my grandfather Jim, who was stone drunk by ten every Christmas morning, and on the blind staggers by evening. His elder sister had died on Christmas when he was a young man, compounding what was a sad holiday anyway. Celebration of the birthday of an innocent man who was nailed to a cross? Day of mourning is more like it…

My brother was born on December 27th.

I spent my life chasing him, and for two days every year we were the same age. What a wonderful feeling, those two days of equality, until he would race by me again, reminding me with a thump on the head that he was still the boss. This year I’ll pass him forever. What I wouldn’t give to be the younger one again.

Death and remembrance

I swung by the PV Bicycle Center yesterday to pick up my ‘cross bike, which had been cleaned and overhauled after the bitter abuse of half a beginner’s race season. As I parked, Dave Lindstedt was pulling out. He rolled down his window. “Did you hear about Steve?”

Now you know and I know, that’s a question that’s never going to end well. I expected the worst, of course, which in my world means that another friend got mowed down by a motorist. I braced for the account of the accident, the extent of the injuries, and finally the location of the hospital.

If it was a bad accident, I’d likely be spending Christmas Eve at UCLA Harbor. If it was only terrible-bad, I’d be visiting him at Torrance Memorial. If he’d gotten pegged on one of his longer rides, it might even be UCLA in Westwood.

“No,” I said, opening my door because the electronic window was still broken and I’d just covered the controls with duct tape to keep from inadvertently hitting the button and causing the window to leap out of the frame.

Dave swallowed hard. “He’s gone.”

“He’s what?”

“Gone. Yesterday in Malibu, climbing with Marcella. His heart gave out.”

We looked at each other, me in shock, him in pity as the shock coursed across my face. There’s that moment when anything you say is small and inadequate and rent with cliche, when reflexive utterances fill the void.

“I can’t believe it,” I said.

Lost in sound

Steve Bowen owned the PV Bicycle Center. He, like most other bike shop owners, worked all the time. He knew his customers. He was honest. He was beyond fair. He was always willing to help. He cared about people. He was never too busy to listen to your story, no matter how stupid.

There was always one customer who seemed to live at the shop but who I never saw buy anything. He would stand at the counter and brag about his hard rides, about his toughness, about his great skills on the bike. He would ask a thousand questions about products, prices, components, and repair. He was a single-handed drain on Steve’s bottom line in terms of time alone, not to mention annoyance, making other customers wait, and the bad smell that he brought with him into the shop. He was the kind of guy who sucked you dry and then did his shopping online, where he saved five percent.

I never saw Steve show resignation, or boredom, or frustration at this boob. If it had been me, the second time he walked into my shop I’d have told him to buy something or get the hell out. That’s another reason I didn’t get into retail, I suppose.

Steve marched to a different beat, though, and it showed. Steve was originally a concert pianist, and he had the gentleness of an artist as well as the slightly detached third ear of a musician. He always listened intently, and always seemed to be hearing more than you said.

I think that’s what gave him his profound empathy; it was his ability to hear the rhythm and the undertones and the overtones of the subtext that overlay whatever it was you were saying. His gentleness showed itself in his demeanor towards people and even more so towards animals.

His shop dog, Peanut, was proof of Steve’s kindness and easy spirit. The dog was weaned on love and raised on affection, which breeds satisfaction and kindness in animals and people alike.

Firing up the base

Steve did more than sell bikes. He sold people on the importance and enjoyment of biking. His shop sponsored all manner of rides, everything from beginner rides to seminars with local pros. He helped local authors promote their books: Patrick Brady’s bike book sat at the front of the cash register. He sponsored local racing teams. He worked hard to get women into cycling by creating an environment that was safe and fun and not permeated with with the chest-thumping advice sausages who so often intimidate women and ruin their excitement at discovering cycling.

The PV Bike Chicks, a local club that is the largest women’s riding group in the South Bay, was formed in large part due to Steve’s unwavering support. At public hearings like the one in Rolling Hills Estates, when the horse people tried to shout down an extraordinary infrastructure plan that would accommodate more cyclists and make bicycling safer in one of LA’s best riding areas, Steve was always there and always willing to speak.

His demeanor was factual, friendly, reasonable. Shrill, squawking, madman-with-a-kazoo type speeches a la Wankmeister were not his thing. He spoke, he talked business, he talked safety, he talked health, and people listened.

Everyone had a feel-good story about Steve

A couple of years ago, when Michael Marckx was trying to help Blue Bicycles get a foothold in the Southern California market, Steve made the extra effort to carry their bikes. He believed in helping.

When his shop manager, Sean, interviewed for the job he came back home to his girlfriend and said, “I gotta get that job.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because this guy really cares about people. It’s not just push, push, push and grind the bottom line. You can tell he cares.”

I have my own litany of stories about Steve. Most of them involve last minute needs, after-hours wants, inconvenient demands made at inconvenient times for inconvenient products and inconvenient services. Steve was always there for me, and treated my patronage like it mattered.

Most importantly, he was a cyclist’s cyclist and he maintained a dual-repair track. There was one track for bikes that needed fixing. They got put into the queue. There was another track for cyclists who needed their bike so they could ride it.

Those gonna-get-ridden bikes always, always, always went to the head of the line. Steve knew the difference between someone with three bikes who was looking for a particular upgrade and a racer with one bike and a busted wheel who was racing or doing a big ride the next day. He loved bikes, but he loved people who rode them more.

A bad omen

For several years Steve ran his bike shop in a small, hard to find, harder to reach location adjacent to the vet and across the way from a grocery store, tucked into one of the least desirable spaces on the Hill. He busted his butt. He built a loyal customer base. He toiled the long hours.

Then, three years ago he teamed up with Specialized to make a full-service, modern, beautiful bike shop that combined the best of an integrated Specialized operation with the integrity and friendliness of an LBS. If anything, he worked harder, but never lost the smile.

Earlier this year, while doing one of his 100-mile+ mountain rides, Steve keeled over and was briefly hospitalized. The doctors gave him a clean bill of health, but it was clearly worrisome to him as they’d been unable to pinpoint the cause. He kept riding and working and working and riding until this past Sunday.

He’d ventured out to the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu with Marcella Piersol. She was ahead of him on the climb when a motorist flagged her down.

“Your friend back there has fallen.”

She whipped around and sped back to him. A passing driver had stopped; as chance would have it he was a doctor who immediately tried to revive Steve, with no success. Despite her career as a cop with the LAPD, the shock to Marcella was indescribable. Steve was one of her best riding buddies, and a good friend besides.

She tried telling herself that he died doing what he loved, but that never takes away from the loss, it only makes us vaguely thankful. Vaguely. “It could have been worse” never lessened anyone’s pain.

The sound of music

Steve was a cyclist’s musician. He listened to the details. He cared about harmony. He was passionate about the larger, orchestrated movement.

He played a song for us, a song that was all too brief, and a song that was more complex than it seemed at first listen. Part of the coda, though, is this, and it’s something that Steve would have agreed with unreservedly: Life is fragile. Life is brief. Enjoy it now, while the band still plays.

RIP, Steve Bowen. My life is better because of knowing you. I’ll add you to my Christmas melancholy, but even so the thought of your goodness and your friendship will make me smile anyway.

Peace out.

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