Pop sent me an email today titled “The Week in Crazy.” He’s at that age, 77, when dads wake up late, have a cup of coffee, read the paper, check their email, and then forward something interesting to their kids/grandkids before going down to the local junior high to troll for schoolyard trash.
Pop’s wife is a mosaic artist, and an accomplished one, and Pop isn’t, but Pop never met a project he didn’t want to help out with, so he goes down to the schoolyard every day and comes home with a bag full of junk thrown away by the kids. Pens, pencils, bottle caps, love notes, rubber bands, paper clips, and of course lots of pens, pencils, paper clips, and rubber bands. He’s become quite famous, actually, even though most of his fame, at least initially, was in the form of a “high alert” report distributed by the school’s security service.
It seems that an old fellow tromping around the schoolyard in this day and age raises questions, such as the time the football coach accosted him. “Excuse me, sir, what are you doing?”
“Me? I’m just picking up pens and trash and things. My wife is a mosaic artist, and …”
“Sir, you don’t have a permit to be on school grounds. Please leave.”
The coach was burly and quite on the turdesque side, and Pop is gentle and always smiling and about as non-confrontational as they come. “Okay,” he said, and ambled off with his little plastic bag partially filled with goodies, all of which were later deposited, discreetly, by his wife into the trash.
Next day, though, Pop was back. This time the coach was even gruffer.
“You! Sir! I told you not to come here without a permit!”
“Oh,” said Pop, a bit crestfallen, vaguely remembering the fellow from the day before. “My wife is a mosaic artist, and I’m collecting items for one of her works, and …” In mid-sentence Pop spied a broken ballpoint pen and bent over, picked it up, and carefully inspected it. Then he looked at the coach, whose fists were on his hips and whose scowl had migrated all the way down into his soul. “This is a beaut, isn’t it?” Pop asked.
Pop’s smile can melt granite, and something about the whole thing took the coach’s eye off the ball. “Yes, I suppose that is, uh, a nice one.”
“Here,” Pop said, magnanimously. “You can have it. I’ll find another one.”
Coach looked at the outstretched hand and the ancient skin and the kind smile, and took the pen. “Just don’t get close to the kids, okay? These days, you know…” he trailed off, gently, watching Pop quickly shuffle over to his latest find. Coach apparently had a dad, too.
As the months went by, Pop’s initial infamy became a kind of fame. Kids who were still on campus late would see him, run over, and give him their junk. Someone had done some background, and learned that he’d taught at a prestigious university for almost forty years. The kids all called him “Mr. Professor.” Some even added the honorary “Sir.”
“Mr. Professor Sir!” they’d call out. “Here!”
And Pop would thank them with that warm grandpa smile and happily put their trash into his little plastic bag as he moved along, patiently combing the schoolyard grounds for some unheralded treasure.
A little beer, a lot of crazy
As I sat down with a cold beer to read his email, “The Week in Crazy,” he’d notated #9 in the list. Pop’s razor-like brain isn’t the knife it used to be, but here and there it’s still plenty sharp. “I didn’t realize you were so all-powerful,” he’d written. “Congratulations!”
His irony was aimed at this blurb, which I’ll reproduce here verbatim:
Dorothy Rabinowitz [Editorial Board member of the crazy-ass, right wing Wall Street Journal] assailed the newly unveiled bike share plan being rolled out in New York City. She complained that the city’s best neighborhoods were being “begrimed” by the bikes put in place by “totalitarian” Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She also described the “bike lobby” as an “all-powerful enterprise.”
Normally, I shrug at stuff like this. In my world, the world of bicycle commuting and bicycle riding and bicycle racing, endless numbers of people hate me, and a sizable number want to kill me, judging by their driving behavior. Rather than getting angry at verbal tirades, I focus my energy on staying off the bumpers of those with a more physical bent to their anti-bicycle aggression. The hate is part of the package. If you’re going to eschew the car coffin in favor of the bicycle, you better have good life insurance and a sanguine acceptance of your own imminent mortality.
When beer meets rant meets broken ballpoint pen
Today is the day before I go up to Pasadena with Dan Martin to participate in the Chris Cono Memorial Ride. We’re going to celebrate the life of a dude neither of us knew, and we’re going to forgo a Saturday slugfest for a morning of slow pedal, easy talk, and fellowship. Chris is one of a bunch of people who’ve died riding their bicycles this year in Southern California, and as I read Blurb #9 I thought about what it really means to hate people for riding bicycles, and I wondered if people like Rabinowitz know how damaging their words are.
In our bicycle community, we have lots of people with opposing views, and we disagree pretty openly. I think James and Shon and Brad and Matt are whacko gun nuts, and they think I’m a deluded liberal, scheming to take away their contutional rats. Despite our differences, we can still have a dialogue, a dialogue that’s made possible by our shared bicycle community. The act of riding together means sharing the work and looking out for each other. Don’t ever tell them, but I’d actually support a lot of their crazy-ass notions if every gun owner were half as responsible as James and Shon and Brad and Matt.
This is another way of saying that despite “philosophical” differences, the practical community — the coming together of people who ultimately have to look out for each other — means that when push comes to shove we do what we can for those in our tribe, even though we suspect they might be one enchilada shy of a full fiesta. We accommodate them. They accommodate us. That odd two-wheeled contraption brokers a kind of peace, or at least a cease-fire.
But before I got very far with this thought, I thought about Pop out there on the schoolyard, looking the bruiser in the eye and handing him the shards of a broken pen with a smile. Your worst detractors can sometimes be turned in the most unexpected of ways. In the act of giving, a wall came down. Would it surprise you to know that it was Pop who taught me how to ride?