Brooklyn boys & girls

      I don’t hear voices, which is not to say that I am well.  Rather I have heard them.  I have heard voices that were not there.  It’s as if you were standing here and you said, “Hildi Mommsen,” and asked me did I hear you and I said, of course, I heard you; I heard you say “Hildi Mommsen.”  It’s like that.  Something has happened.  In the past.  I don’t hear voices, but I have heard them.

     The voices are not, shall we say, unfriendly. They--and there are several, men and women, both--they are confident; they are resolute, although not authoritarian; they suggest rather than compel, though so certain are they in their opinions that noncompliance with their directives feels less an act of disobedience than an error of judgment and taste, the repercussions for which would be not punishment but pity and disappointment, a sigh and a small measure of despair--the despair of a close friend upon learning of your affair, the disappointment of a favorite uncle in your choice of Chukkas or Brogues. That sort of thing. Or so it seems. So I imagine and can only imagine as noncompliance with the voices I have heard is not a choice that I have ever made. Noncompliance in the sense of open rebellion, I mean; in the sense of thank you, no; in the sense of non, nein, nyet, no freakin’ way. However . . . noncompliance in the sense of something less than full compliance--well. Here I must confess to the existence of daylight between orders given and orders discharged, to a sliver of daylight between the two, just enough daylight to read a restraining order by. Do I fall short? Are there omissions? Yes and yes, although no more than what is required to demonstrate my humanity, my imperfect nature; only enough daylight to keep the shadows mewling in their corner. And it is in these, shall we say, derelictions, these imperfections, these instances of coming up short, that I impart something of myself as well, that I communicate most fully with the voices or, if you like, with the power or powers to which they give expression; it is through my small failures that I commune with those powers, touch them and, if I may, love them. Or so I imagine. For what could be more stultifying, more impersonal, more sterile, more . . . profane than perfect obedience? Zeros and ones, ones and zeros: where is there room for me (or you) in that?

     And so I fudge. When a voice has said, as has occurred six or six hundred and forty-two times, “Ivor Sallybanks, here is the girl for you,” or “Sallybanks, make her yours,” or “Look sharp, Sallybanks, bella donna coming up on your starboard side,” I have always complied with enthusiasm, unreservedly, with my heart very much on my sleeve; but not militantly, not obsessively (not criminally!), not without retaining a measure of decorum and being mindful of the possibility of, despite my best efforts, failure, and for the need to curb my resentment during the inevitable encounter with failure; and if not completely curbing my resentment, then at the very least showing respect for the ideal such curbing evinces, which is to say the ideal of Stoicism, of which I am, in any given circumstance involving a rare beauty--and if she is a redhead or a rasberry blonde, the pain is particularly acute---if not an orthodox adherent, then a fellow traveler. All of which is to say that when a voice that isn’t there has been heard by me to say, “Jump,” I ask, figuratively, “How high?” And though I will always jump, I may not always jump as high as I might. I suppose I suffer from pangs of moderation. Although I hasten to add, or perhaps to repeat, that I do in fact jump. I would never not jump. And so in all this--the realm of a man who has heard voices of beings who are not there and complies with their instructions tout suite--I am something of a middling student. Perhaps a B Student. I am reliable. No teacher’s pet, of course, but no teacher will have to worry about me hurling wads of sodden toilet tissue from deep within the shadowy corners of the classroom when her back is turned. Rather, I am, figuratively speaking, the student who makes the teacher’s job easier. The student who likes her pretty dresses and shapely calves and who is genuinely interested in her summer hiking trip to Machu Picchu. I feel a certain success in this role, a certain pride, and with it, I confess, feelings of entitlement, though entitlement may not be the word I am looking for. I have no basis of knowing other than by intuition, but that intuition leads me to suspect that we--me and them, the voices, I mean—that we have reached an understanding of sorts. To wit: my shortfalls and less-than-absolute enthusiasm for their directives are tolerated because I do step up to the plate and swing hard every time I am asked to do so. Because I am the Lou Gehrig of near-do-wells. Because I do try. In any event, that is my theory.

     Complying with the mandates of a being who, practically speaking, isn’t there, is harder than you might imagine. Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “Pish, pish, I could do it easily enough!” Perhaps you have read a book or have seen a movie or TV show in which the hero sees or hears a being--a ghost, an angel, God Himself, a talking horse--that no one else can see or hear, and the hero struggles with the assignments given to him by this being, struggles mightily with the probability of being thought insane and, because such heroes are almost always given wives and children, struggles with the probability that full compliance with such assignments will result not only in heaps of ridicule tumbling down upon him, but upon his long-suffering wife and their issue who are, thanks to dad and due in no part to their own acts or omissions, about to suffer ridicule, public humiliation and want. Perhaps you’ve seen those movies and considered those innocents and their unmerited suffering and were not unmoved by them, not unmoved to such an extent that you might even have acknowledged that the hero was, for the moment anyway, in a bit of a pickle, that he was, for the time being, in a bit of a jam, that, yes, that was a tough spot to be in, sure, but . . . but not too tough a spot for you! “I mean, after all,” you are probably telling to yourself, “doesn’t every one of those heroes--Noah, Moses, George Bailey, Wilbur Post--come out all right in the end? So really, how hard can it be? So what if no one else can perceive the supernatural? I can. And I am a confident, self-possessed man who is comfortable in his skin and certain enough in his opinions and moral judgments to know right from wrong; and if orders conveyed by unseen conveyors comport with my beliefs, which is to say if they are just and true, and if the evidence of the existence of the source of said orders, which is to say the conveyors themselves, is scientifically or theologically sound, then, yes, I would do what was required of me by he or she or it or them and let the chips fall where they may. I could and I would!”

     If you are such a person, hats off, chapeau. Truly, we the inhabitants of earth are lucky to have you here among us, especially during these difficult times. We are grateful to you and pray that you are never tested, but that if you are tested, that you retain the resolve that is so much in evidence here today. And if I may, if you are thinking that the dramatic conflict which propels this little book forward relies on a premise which is false or feeble--that the execution of instructions delivered by unseen beings is a devilishly hard thing to do (that being the premise), then I would still invite you to stay, to read on, if not to change your mind, then to confirm your good judgment in yourself; and in return I shall concede that in your good company I will have the better of the bargain, and I shall do my best to entertain, to make the effort of turning these pages worth your while.

Ivor Sallybanks. Buy a bicycle. Buy a bicycle. Buy a bicycle, Ivor Sallybanks.

     When a voice told me to buy a bicycle I was puzzled, as theretofore no voice had ever compelled the acquisition of an object, a fact I had not appreciated before . . . and had I appreciated it before I might have ventured the opinion that the acquisition of a material object had never been compelled before because the discharge of such a duty would be just so damn easily done--assuming the price of the object was not far beyond my means, of course.

     Which begs the question. What if the price of an object I had been compelled to buy had been beyond my means? What might I have done if compelled to acquire, say, the Crown Jewels? 

     Well. Certainly I would have done something. I would not have done nothing. I would have gotten a ticket to London and a room at the Savoy, for starters. I would have taken in a show. Visited the Courtauld. Popped by James Smith & Sons for a new bark cherry fit-up. And, at the very least, stood on line for an hour or two at the Tower to gawk and to wait. For what to happen, I don’t know. For the telekinetic powers to move diamonds through inches-thick glass? Sure. For the Queen to emerge from behind a sliding panel and cry out, “Oh there you are, silly boy. These are for you!”? Perhaps. In any event, irrelevant because as I said the bicycle was the first inorganic object toward which my attention had ever been directed. Suffice to say, I was puzzled by the command. I was bemused; I confess, too, that I was shaken. I was walking through Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY USA when the order came. At the time I’d lost something or let go of something or something had been taken from me, and the evening before I had gone out to a place I know, a disreputable place, done this, that and the other thing; made a jackass of myself in classic Sallybanks style, no doubt, and, humiliation complete, was on my way home from that disreputable establishment sometime after midnight. I’d been through the park a million times before, of course, although not a million times in the dark and never in such a humor; and before too long I wasn’t entirely certain about the lay of the land. I must have laid down and taken a nap. When I awoke, I was thinking more clearly, which had no doubt been my plan. I was in the Long Meadow, after all, a familiar clearing. I wore a linen shirt, that much I remember very well, and a pair of jodhpur ankle boots of an ordinarily waterproof variety and yellow corduroy trousers of which I was at that time quite fond; and I recalled this fondness with embarrassment as I looked down and saw they were soaking wet from just above the knee--from what or where I could not recall, but I did recall that a woman at the bar had remarked on my trousers in a way I realized then, standing there in the Long Meadow in the dark, had not been favorable. I am, as a general rule, not given to self-pity, but there and then I was so given and truth be told I felt very, very low looking down at those soggy corduroy trousers and soggier jodhpurs, which sucked down at the damp ground or sucked up at my damp socks and feet, although which sucked at which I couldn’t say for sure as I suffered feelings of disorientation and wobbly unfixedness. Low mists slid to the bottom of the hill before me from either side like rolling freight cars; the sky overhead was as black as blue ink and filled with stars that flickered weakly in the way of city stars, which is to say muted and puny and superfluous, like gray lint on velvet. A mourning dove cooed and a warbler warbled. Beyond the woods before me was the Zoo, and through the trees, through a stand of pin oaks, bare and wet and dripping with dew, came the horrible scream of a peacock. Then silence. Then a scream.  Then silence.  And then I heard what I heard, meaning the bit about the bicycle: Ivor Sallybanks, Buy a bicycle. Buy a bicycle, Ivor Sallybanks, etc., etc. In a woman’s voice, no less. A rather rich, low-toned woman’s voice, one I had never heard before, but had I heard it on the No. 2 train while headed to work, had I heard it behind me in a crowded subway car while pecking at the crossword puzzle, I confess I would have feigned an excuse to turn around because this voice was a very sultry voice, a very suggestive voice, it must be admitted. Which brightened my mood.  Which left me with a glow, a warm glow and the stirrings of a glowing and not inconsiderable tumescence, if you get my meaning. Ahem. But a bike? A bike? What on earth for! I was not an exerciser or a recreator or a fan of any sport. I was a member of no gym, did not jog or skip or hop or move heavy things about. There were no rollerblades in my closet, no mountain climbing boots beneath my bed, no rackets in the trunk, no scuba gear in my past, present or future. Furthermore, I was content with public transportation and found advocates of self-propelled transport to be tedious scolds and moral preeners of the very worst kind. A bicycle--no! But then, once more looking down at my wet corduroys, I quickly (and rather cleverly) concluded that the purchase of a bicycle was but a first step, prelude to the real, and as yet unnamed, labor, a labor that would be revealed to me in due course. And so that very day, after a second quick nap, this one in my own bed beside my very own fire, I went to the bicycle shop in my neighborhood, a shop I walked past every morning on my way to the office but had never visited before, and I went inside this bicycle shop, which was called Joe’s Bikes, and I looked things over.

     Oh, my. There were a great many bicycles in Joe’s Bike Shop, and they hung in the window, they hung from the ceiling, and the balance of them, perhaps forty bicycles in all, stood in racks to the right of the front door, three rows high. In the months that followed I would become familiar with the many varieties of bicycles that existed in the world and the varied uses and terrains to which they were put, but on that day, which was a Saturday in midwinter, I knew nothing or next to nothing about bicycles, save what I could immediately perceive, which is to say the blindingly obvious and little else; the blindingly obvious such as some bicycles were thinly framed and tired, while others were heavily framed and fatly tired. I imagined too that they were variously colored in a manner that would elicit oohs and aahs from people who care about such things, meaning people who are not color blind as I am. In lieu of a preference for this hue over that, I suppose one might say I gravitate towards texture and, secondly, contrast; and when in the presence of a thing that has caught my fancy, I am inclined to touch. Thus, I found myself on that midwinter morning rubbing my fingertips over the very wide and very fat and very knobby tires of a thickset yellow bicycle that was held erect in its very own display stand just inside the front door.

     “That’s a Santa Cruz,” said a voice behind me, a voice that when I turned around belonged, I saw, to a real human being who was there. Or so it seemed. So it appeared. Because there stood before me a man, a tall man breathing audibly through his rather red and rather runny nose, a man who looked at me exactly the way you would expect of a man who had uttered the words that had prompted my pirouette: expectantly, eagerly, keen to share his expertise, to educate and per chance to consummate a sale. And yet I have more than once heard behind me a voice, turned around to find a man or woman (or a boy or girl) looking at me and assumed they had spoken when, in fact, they had not spoken at all, but were looking at me because I was looking at them, and they, having never spoken, but being spoken to now by a stranger, were merely returning my gaze! And so I have developed, with respect to those whose first address is made whilst outside my field of vision, the habit of turning around slowly, nonchalantly, some might say suavely, to face these putative speakers with the most neutral mien that can be summoned, fixing my focus to the middle distance between their eyes and mine in the manner of an intensely thoughtful man, and waiting for them to speak again, if indeed they did speak already.

     And so it was with Joe Gide, the owner of Joe’s Bikes, who stood before me waiting, briefly puzzled my silence, but, like any good salesman, undaunted.

     “Santa Cruz,” Joe said, this time pointing to the bicycle’s downtube and the manufacturer’s name which was emblazoned thereon, this unnecessary gesture prompted, I suppose, by my silence and rather blank stare which were perceived by Joe Gide as cues to the possibility that I did not speak English.

     “Santa Cruz,” I said in perfect American English. “Very respectable.” And I introduced myself and we shook hands and we both looked back at the bike and Joe Gide said more about it; about Santa Cruz the California city, Santa Cruz the bicycle manufacturer, and about this Santa Cruz bicycle in particular, which was meant to be ridden on the roughest roads imaginable, through sand and mud and, especially, with its very fat and very knobby tires, snow.

     “I see,” I said, once again running my fingers across its front tire. “Not exactly a Brooklyn bike.”

     Joe laughed. “Oh, you’d be surprised,” he said. And then he laughed again, and I thought I detected in his laugh a hint of relief as though he found my comment amusing and was, if not reduced to a state of incapacitated hilarity, then at least grateful that the small but charming laugh that bubbled up from his diaphragm was one he could simply release rather than expel.

     He was a lean man (and here I continue my physical description of Joe Gide), athletically built, tall as I said with auburn hair that flared from the rounded edges of his long, rectangular skull; with a strong chin and jaw whose muscles flexed vividly at the corners just below his ears whenever he thought hard, which was often and to good effect, this muscle flexing a tic that gave him a formidable, severe countenance, or might have but for the expression that always followed which was a very wide and very open gap-toothed smile. Joe’s eyes moved around quickly, intently, and, it must be acknowledged, none too smoothly as if he were strictly limited in the number of items that were permitted to be the subject of his attention at any moment, and his gaze flickered from one to another---from my face, to the Santa Cruz, to the palms of his hands, to the ceiling, and back to my face---with peculiar regularity that reminded me of the staccato movements of a second hand on an enormous clock in an enormous train station; although it also became clear that the varied objects of Joe’s gaze were the result of his complete attention to me, to what I was looking at, or, when they turned upwards to the shop’s tin ceiling, to a general enquiry made by me which left him thoughtful. But the most extraordinary feature Joe Gide possessed where his hands which were long and wide and appeared at the ends of his slender arms like two paddles that seemed, whenever he was deep into the explication of the history of a given bicycle or bicycle or bicycle manufacturer or bicycle accoutrement, to float up before him and flap and fold together like the wings of a bird--either a long distance sea bird (e.g., albatross) or a bird folded from square white paper that is shiny and sharply creased. Yes, I do mean an origami bird because that is exactly how Joe Gide’s enormous hands appeared to me. Like the wings of an origami swan. Although much larger than the origami swan you might find sitting on the desk of a lonely school girl or boy.

     “This bicycle will take you anywhere you’d ever want to go, Ivor,” Joe was saying about the Santa Cruz. “This bicycle will take you places where you probably don’t want to go. More than anything, this bicycle will take you downhill.” They were hands that might be guard rails on a lonely mountain road, that might catch you if you fell, that could nudge you back onto that downward winding course if ever you started to lose your line.

     “I see,” I said. “And briskly too, I suppose.”

     Joe nodded. His gaze travelled from the tips of his black steel-toed shoes, to the brochure I held in my hands, to my face. He smiled. “Very briskly, Ivor.”  Magnificent!

     At the back of the store three stairs rose to a landing; at the front of the landing was still another bicycle rack, this one filled with half a dozen bicycles whose only common trait was the post-card sized tag that dangled by twine from each bike’s handlebars, each manila tag bearing the name of the just-repaired, or the waiting-to-be-repaired, bicycle’s owner. Behind the rack was a counter and a register; and behind these was an open square surrounded by blue metal cases that had absurdly thin red drawers, drawers that were rolled open and shut by two mechanics, each in plaid, each in jeans and each in a wool cap, each mechanic turning between his set of drawers and the bicycle to which he attended, which bicycles were raised two feet off the wooden floor on steel stands and clamped in place above a modest clutter of orphan valve caps and empty inner tube boxes by a vice sheathed in rubber. The mechanics paid no attention to Joe or me, or, in any event, they feigned indifference. Joe was still talking and I was still listening. And with respect to the song coming from the two speakers, each one propped on the sash of one of two windows that looked out over a backyard--a backyard that was no wider than the store and only ten feet deep and filled with snow and bicycle boxes freshly discarded, and across which backyard their hung a dripping clothes line which could not possibly be less than fifty years old--one mechanic sang along softly while the other whistled, “Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E Lee . . .”

     “Not a racer any more but I once was,” Joe Gide said, his hands rising to his waist, then to his chest, then taking flight above his shoulders.

     We’d moved on to the road bicycles, and Joe had moved on to racing, which was a passion about which I was about to get an earful, but I stopped him. “Joe, I like what I see,” I said. “I like the look of things. I like the way you’ve got things laid out here. I like your tin ceiling and I like your brick wall. This bicycle here is a beauty. That one there, the Santa Cruz you spoke so well of, jeepers, it’s fine too. I can see the appeal for some, and for descending to the lower circles, as it were, but it’s not what I’m looking for. What I’m looking for is something different. What that something is, I don’t know, not yet, although I feel that knowledge coming on because I like you and I like this store and I feel like it is probable, very probable, probably a certainty that I will be spending a lot of time here and that you and I will become great friends, and if not friends, there will almost certainly be mutual respect. And if that respect in reality flows only one way, meaning from me to you, well, that’s all right too,” I said. I put my hand on the top of Joe’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Then I reached behind, cupped my hand and gave Joe’s neck a little squeeze too. This was the Sicilian Neck Squeeze, which I learned from my grandfather, who was Sicilian, though he had never given a name to this gesture of affection. Rather, I named it in his honor. Anyway, there is no defense against it. And if you’ve ever felt it, you know that you have been loved. Am I saying that I was in love with Joe Gide? Yes. Make of that what you will. From behind the counter the whistling and singing had stopped and the two mechanics stood turned away from their bicycle stands looking across the length of the store to where Joe and I stood, at us, or so they appeared to be doing as their expressions were invisible, so strongly backlit was each mechanic by the window behind him, by the sunlight and by the snow on the weathered picket fence outside.

     “So, Joe,” I said, “let’s do it. Let’s get me on a bike. I’m itching. I can feel it. Today is the day.” Before Joe could speak and while I held his neck in my hand I was struck rather forcefully by the thought that Joe Gide was in every meaningful way more important than I was, that Joe Gide was the better man--which was terrific; and I raised my other hand, palm out, like a giant standing Buddha, and mouthed the words, “Wait, wait,” in a manner that made it clear to Joe Gide that I was at last in tune with his considerable qualities, that I apprehended and appreciated my good fortune, that the world was a place of persistent imbalance and bitter hardship, yes, of rough edges that lean in to catch you as you hurry by, sure, but that in it are good places, and in them sometimes good men like Joe Gide. The bike shop was such a place. I could feel its goodness with all my senses and knew my senses to be spot on the way you know without needing to confirm it with a spirit level that the top edge of a framed photograph of your daughter hanging on the wall above your desk is at a right angle with the pull of gravity, the way you know whether your kicking foot is on track to kick the ball you’re sprinting towards when you are still thirty feet away (or whether you need to do a stutter step to get that kicking foot right), the way you know exactly what your dog feels when you scratch his ears or rub the tips of your fingers across his closed eyes. Call it intuition.


     “Don’t be modest, Joe.”

     Joe looked at me unblinkingly for several seconds, and then his eyes began to flutter about very fast indeed, not so much in the staccato fashion of before when his gaze was locked in a procession that took in no more than half a dozen objects, but an expression of discomfiture I know too well; and the moment I saw his eyes fluttering thusly I felt a little start, a little chagrin and resolved to recommit myself, for the time being at least, to the financial aspect of our intercourse. Oh dear, how utterly dreary, I thought. Here it comes. I braced myself for the parade of the predictable, for the litany of the banal and commonplace.  The correct, the proper.  The expected! The dreary, dreary, dreary! Oh!

     Breathe in.  Breath out . . .

     Listen. I have buckets of self-knowledge.  I am, to use the parlance of today’s teens, self-aware.  Of my manner, of the face I show to the world and the words I use to address it, I am not . . . unmindful of certain idiosyncrasies, of the fact that my mode of expressing myself to others appears sometimes a little . . . unconventional, a little outré. Which is fine, I think. To me the speed of thought in most people has slowed to a glacial crawl, and so I am not unsympathetic when one of the afflicted, which is to say nearly everyone I meet these days, even extra-special people like Joe Gide, stammers and blinks and asks for additional clarification in respect of the simplest observation or request made by yours truly. But I am irked when ignorance is worn like a badge of honor, when my interlocutor’s expression turns from confusion to a supercilious sneer as if to suggest that the source of his confusion, of his failure to discern the obvious and to divine the commonplace, lies not within but without. And so for an awfully unpleasant few seconds while I stood in the bike shop I thought such was the case with Joe Gide, that I had misjudged his excellent worth to begin with and had been mistaken in my initial esteem. 

     But I was wrong. Wrong about my second impression, not my first. Because Joe wasn’t baffled, he was beatific! And after taking a moment to gather himself, after closing his eyes and murmuring softly to himself (a prayer, a mantra, an incantation--at the time I did not know), now it was Joe’s turn to take a hold of me, which he did by gently removing my hand from his neck, taking my other hand and clasping both of my hands together before me, inside his own enormous mitts.

     “Ivor,” he said. He was weighing his words with care, and through his hands I was sure I felt his shoulders quivering. With excitement, it seemed to me, and perhaps with the mistaken fear that he had but one chance to get his words right.  Which was not the case at all! But I could not help but admire his focus, which was fierce, especially after he opened his eyes again. “I do believe we are on the same page, Ivor. Because . . . because, well, since you ask: I believe that there is a ride for each of us. I do. I believe very sincerely that there’s a ride for you and a ride for me. And as I see it, my job today is to get you started, to get you on the right path, to get right all the things we can get right before you ever clip in. And then--to stand back and see where your ride takes you.” Joe was looking through the storefront window and down the street as if I’d mounted the bicycle we had selected together and was growing smaller and smaller against the horizon. “Assuming all goes well,” he said, turning back to me, “and it almost always does, it is a most satisfying experience to be a part of. It is gratifying. To be honest with you, Ivor, I feel lucky. To be honest, I feel like the luckiest man in the world.”