Lincoln Street in Gardner Massachusetts is mid-way up the hill. Higher than the rows of worker housing that sit tight to the shuttered mill buildings below. Less elevated than the formerly grand mansions of the mill owners above. A solid street of century old dwellings, originally inhabited by foremen and moneymen. Now sheltering a smattering of immigrant families moving up, old-time malingerers floating down. A mid-rung on the American ladder of success. Its Victorian detail sheathed in vinyl siding.
My friend Huguener recently bought a house for his family on Lincoln Street; a 3,000 square foot behemoth. Huguener wants to figure out how to how to make his mark on a place that began life as a sturdy single family, was cut up into four units, damaged by fire, and rebuilt as a maze of purple partitions. There are several potential solutions, but first step requires accurate drawings of the existing condition. I just spent four hours with tape measure and pencil, angling into every corner, basement to attic. It’s great to return to the autumn air, primed to ride my bike ten miles to Wachusett Train Station, and then let the rails roll me back home.
A husky guy with a beautiful dog comes out of the house near my pole. ‘Jerry’ is chatty. He’s lived in the house all his life, except for two years in the Army. He thought of moving on, but then his parents took ill. Now they’re gone. So he stays. The unique particulars of a universal story. Jerry reveals reams of information in the short time it takes to load my pannier and don my helmet. He’s genuinely pleased about his new neighbor, and Huguener’s plans for improvement. The thought races through my mind that perhaps we are making progress. A generation or two ago a Haitian family moving into a neighborhood would trigger white flight. But ideology can’t fester on this glorious day. We’re just a couple of real people having a real conversation in a real place.
I linger in our chat, even as I know I have a train to catch. Finally, it’s time to pedal on. I roll my bike away from the post.
The loudest blow-out I’ve ever heard. My ears ring. Jerry shouts, “What’s that?” He looks about, leery. “I thought it was a gun.”
I see my tire, in shreds. The tube is slit and mangled around the frame. I have no idea what occurred. I’ve got well over a hundred miles on that tube; thousands on the tire. It rode fine all the way here. Foul play? I look up and down the street. Dismiss that theory.
“Wow, that was loud.” Jerry pulls at his ear as echoes ricochet up and down the street. “What are you going to do?”
“I carry repair tools and a spare tube.” True. Yet I lie. This blow-out is beyond anything my spare tools can fix. I’ll wheel the bike out of Jerry’s sight, pretend to make a repair, and call an Uber.
“You can’t fix that. Let me drive you to the train station.”
“No, I can’t impose.”
“Forget it. I’ve got time and you’re not going anywhere on that.”
An hour later, I’m riding the gentle downhill path in the train from Wachusett to Belmont. October’s passing leaves create a brilliant collage. The day could so easily have been a tragedy. But I’ve learned, when things go wrong on your bicycle, the world responds with generosity.
At Kevin’s insistence I threw the damaged bike into the bed of his pick-up. Along Route 2 I heard about his military experience and his current ailments: described with equal enthusiasm. I shared the triumph in his voice proclaiming how walking his dog helped him lose forty pounds. I offered Jerry money when he dropped me off, well in advance of my departure time (cars and truck go so fast). He refused. Perhaps pouring his stories over my fresh ears is his compensation.
When the train trucked up the hill, a friendly conductor emerged, gave my bike the once over, and motioned me to follow her. She put me in a particular car to ease my exit in Belmont Center. Later, when she collected my fare, we chatted about the book I’m reading. Pressed the boundary of mere transaction with actual conversation.
I have come to believe bicycles are perhaps the world’s best diplomats. No one is ever wary of a person on a bicycle. Ever. People jump to service of cyclists in distress; simultaneously intrigued by our peculiar transport and gladdened at the chance to extend themselves in such a clear yet virtuous manner. The bicycle enables each of us the comfort to express our best selves.
I have hassles ahead; navigating the deformed bicycle from train to home; replacing my damaged tire and mutilated tube. But all of that is later. In this moment, as the yellows and oranges and reds stream in and among the fleeting green outside my window, I am pleasantly satisfied. My near-tragedy triggered not one, but two, memorable interactions. That’s a sweet deal.