Illustration by Deanna Staffo
This month marks the re-emergence of what I like to call the Glasgow Tour de France, a group of cyclists who spin down the two-lane, no-shoulder road that leads out of my subdivision. The tour takes up about a lane and a half of the roadway, blocking motorists (especially me) and forcing us to follow behind their snail-paced peloton at about 6 mph.
It’s their little act of defiance, I’ve concluded, blocking the roadway like that, attempting to make that same you-want-a-piece-of-this? statement their burlier counterparts do on their crotch rockets.
I know these so-called bikers see themselves as a kind of Hell’s Angels Lite, rebels, but with jobs and investment portfolios. I sit seething, stuck behind these pencil-thin, clean shaven, financial planners and computer geeks as they pedal along, imagining they have printed T-shirts that say, “If you can read this, my co-invested, significant other fell off.”
I know this about them because I experienced that same spirit of defiant rebellion when I received my first bicycle. It happened like this.
My parents carted me and my new bike to my grandparents’ house, I suppose to let me show off. I don’t know what my grandparents thought about it. My grandmother’s idea of recreational activity was hurling criticisms at my grandfather for anything he did, and his idea of recreation was hiding from my grandmother as much as he could.
I was given strict biking boundaries, a reasonably lengthy rectangle that took me on a path around my grandparents’ neighborhood, which was bordered by the parish courthouse on the south and, on the north, a small gravel road I was prohibited from crossing.
I made several passes on that rectangle, cycling by the courthouse, then along that forbidden gravel road. I was good on that bike, and getting better with each ride. So with each lap, the temptation mounted to defy my parents, to rebel the only way a 10-year-old could: by riding a bike where he’s not supposed to.
My entire moral universe had been reduced to a small rectangle in Chalmette—the courthouse, that symbol of justice and rectitude on one end, and the gravel road, that symbol of freedom from all rules, on the other.
I must tell you that in all the years before or since that moment, my parents had never driven down that gravel road. It wasn’t a shortcut to my grandparents’ house or anything like that. In fact, in all my laps that day, I hadn’t seen one car drive down that stupid gravel road.
And so it was that on that next lap, (my last for awhile, as it turned out), with the courthouse diminishing in size behind me, the sound of the playing cards I had clothes pinned to my spokes winding louder, I took a breath, then rode straight across that gravel road—and directly into the path of my parents car.
It screeched to a halt to avoid hitting me. On my parents’ faces, I saw the same expression I believe was on Elliot Ness’ the first time he saw Capone in handcuffs.
Later, as I would sit on our front porch, serving out my lengthy grounding, I wondered what it was about crossing that damned gravel road that obsessed me that day. There was nothing of more interest on the other side, nothing but Emmett’s Food Store, which was destined to become a whole new prison when I became old enough to cross any street in the parish and was accordingly ordered to Emmett’s two and three times per week for milk, bread and luncheon meat.
I learned one other thing from that one act of rebellion: I apparently have no capacity for getting away with anything at all.
I think I got it from my grandfather.
Reid Champagne walks the straight and narrow in Newark, where he swears at cyclists on his many trips to the supermarket.