Archive for biking

Origin Story, or: Where I Started

Posted in Memoir, Prose, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2016 by sethdellinger

1.

I hunched inside my filthy, smoke-laden 1983 Ford Escort in the parking lot of the corporate office. It had been a three hour drive in the early morning, from my home in Central Pennsylvania to where I was now in Pittsburgh. I had worked for the company for eight years, but this was the first time I was seeing the home office. Although my excitement and nervousness was palpable, I couldn’t deny some disappointment with the plainness of the building. It wasn’t in bustling downtown Pittsburgh like I expected, but in some suburban shopping village, and although it was not a small building, its common brick exterior and clean design was reminiscent more of an upscale middle school than what I had been expecting. But nonetheless, here I was nervous. I was preparing finally for an interview to get into management. I had been a dishwasher and then a cook while I struggled and slouched through my early twenties, and now that I had begun to straighten myself out, my boss was taking notice, and suggested I become an actual manager. It seemed ludicrous to me at first, the idea that people would let me be in charge of something. But more and more, the idea took hold within me. I had, after all, basically been running the kitchen in that restaurant for years. The more that my bosses told me I had a bright future with the company, the more comfortable I became with the idea that I was a leader, that I was already a leader. I didn’t know anything about doing it officially, but it did start to seem like a natural idea. I was nervous as heck though. I had no idea how to answer questions for a job that entailed real-world grownup things. And now that I had been thinking about it so long, it became something I wanted very much, so I did not know what I would do if I just bombed the whole thing. My manager had done the best he could to prepare me, but this was all uncharted territory for me. I was wearing a clip-on tie that I had stolen from my father’s closet. And pants that I had gotten from JCPenney just for the occasion. I swung open the Escort’s door, and, putting on a fake face of bravery and confidence as much as I possibly could muster, I walked toward the bland brick building. Once I swung open the big glass doors and walked inside, I ceased being unimpressed.

2.

I’m in high school.  I think I’m probably 17.  Maybe I’m 16.  Who can remember details like that all these years later?  Details like how old you were.  Those kinds of details or statistics rarely matter.  Anyway I was a kid still, a teenager, you know?  I don’t remember anything about the evening that lead up to this night I’m telling you about.  I know I was with three of my friends–or more accurately, two of my friends and one of their girlfriends.  I began the evening in the backseat of one of the friends’ cars.  We were going somewhere to drink, to get drunk.  But this was a special night, because I had never drank before, or at least, I had never been drunk.  Sure, I’d had a few glasses of watered-down wine at some family wedding when I was a tyke, but I’d never felt any effects.  My friends and I had never snuck or stolen any kind of alcohol yet. Tonight was our first.  One of my friends–the one with the car and the girlfriend–knew a grown man named something like Darius who lived in Carlisle, which was the bigger town closest to our smaller town. I have no idea how he knew this man.  We arrived at his house sometime after sundown.  I didn’t know Carlisle very well then but later I would end up having my first apartment by myself very close to this Darius’ place.  Life is cuckoo like that, no?  So I settle into a deep, plush chair in this guy’s apartment–he has a girlfriend there, too, and they’re so much older than us I assume they’re married.  Darius has procured us all “forties”, or malt liquor that comes in 40 oz bottles.  I crack open the cap with a high level of anticipation.  It tastes horrible.  Wretched.  Very, very hard to drink the whole thing.  But I want it.  I want the buzz, the feeling, whatever it is–I’ve seen other people have it and I want it.  We all sit there nursing our 40s for awhile–I can’t tell you how long, who can remember those details?–and it gets a little easier to get it down as the night goes on.  I feel slightly light-headed but nothing to write home about.  I was disappointed to slowly learn throughout the evening that there was no more alcohol, just one 40 for each of us.  At some point I said to Darius (or whatever his name was), “Hey, I’ll give you a few buck to go get me just one beer.”  Everyone laughed, because you can’t go buy just one beer to-go, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know.  We left then shortly thereafter and by the time I got home, even my light-headedness was gone.  I knew, as I lay there in my bed, that I was gonna chase that feeling, that I was gonna find it.

3.

It’s 5 AM. It is still very dark outside, and it’s cold. I’m taking my very inexpensive bicycle out of the back of my car. I’m in Presque Isle State Park, in Erie, Pennsylvania, way up in the upper left-hand corner of the state. Presque Isle is a forested peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie–Pennsylvania’s northernmost point and only seven miles from (still not-visible) Canada.  It’s about seven years since I started my management career, about 16 years since I took my first drink in that cushy chair with Darius, and about eight years since I had my last drink. I am putting a bicycle on a road that goes the length of Presque Isle, tracing the peninsula’s outer edge. I had set my alarm for 4:30. I wanted to be the very first person out on the peninsula this morning. It was awfully fun loading my car up in what seemed like the middle of the night, driving the 15 minutes through the city out to the lake, but when I got to the entrance to the park, there was a car already there waiting. But shortly after the gates opened, the car went a different direction, so I still felt like I had the entire peninsula all to myself. The crooning of the insects, the chirping of the birds, seems all for me. This solitary performance of nature is just another extension of my current life, the manner in which I am completely alone. Five hours from all my family and friends, when even a trip to the local Walmart poses zero possibility of running into anyone I know, it’s easy to begin to think that the birds and insects sing only for you. As I hoist myself onto my bike, I smile more broadly that I have in years. I recently discovered the joy of bicycling, and having this peninsula cutting into Lake Erie all to myself on this chilly but slowly brightening, slowly warming morning, somehow becomes the most delicious moment I could have possibly imagined for myself. As I pedal faster and faster, following the road that faces the outer limits of the peninsula, that happiness simply grows and grows. How did I come to live this life? How did I come to be so lucky? The birds and insects above increase in volume, as the lake reveals itself on my right, at this time of morning still a black mirror stretching out farther than I ever would’ve imagined, more vast than I want to ponder.

4.

I haven’t experienced as much death in my life as many folks have, but I have seen more than a few people I knew and loved shuffle off.  What a strange thing, too, when people die, right?  Suddenly they’re just not there anymore, like a phantom limb, or a dream you can’t shake.  What always rattles me most is how often the person truly fades from our lives.  Sure, we mourn them, we miss them, we still love them.  But usually we get rid of their stuff right away, clear out everything they spent their whole lives acquiring.  We loved them but not their stuff.  Then shortly after they die we consider it poor form to talk about them too much; why dwell on the past?  It might be considered obsessive to ask too many questions about what their life meant, what it meant to you or the universe, and what they might be experiencing now.  When I used to think about my death a lot–when I was sad, which isn’t now–I would imagine my loved ones saving the books and movies from my shelves, saying Oh Seth loved these, I will read them all as a tribute!  But I know now they won’t, and even that they shouldn’t.  I’ll just be gone, and this mountain I spent my whole journey climbing, crafting myself carefully out of nothing, will just fade, fade, fade.

5.

The boy had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.

Really, I should have seen it coming.  Even though I was only seven and had never been in a fight in my life, I knew that the boy was bad news, and I had seen him in the church yard before I went in there myself.  And he’d been giving me awful, evil kid-signals for months.  I should have seen it coming.  But what do you want from me?  I was seven.

I walked into the church yard with a tennis ball and a baseball mitt, planning to throw my ball against the big wall on the south end of the church and catch the bounces; to this day, one of my favorite things to do.  But I saw him. The neighborhood’s resident bad kid.  The badass. His family lived in that gross house with all the trash in the back yard, and he never seemed clean; always had a brownish undercurrent to his skin, as if he’d just survived a house fire.  And the neighborhood was filled with the stories of the kids he’d beat up, spit on, ran his bike into.  I’d never been in his class at school but I’d seen him on the playground, and it seemed he lived up to his reputation.  But I must have assumed, for whatever reason, that I would somehow be safe from him.

And there he was, in the church yard on an otherwise abandoned afternoon.  Who knows what he was doing?  Probably breaking branches off of trees, throwing rocks into bushes.  Something pointless that seemed mildly primitive.  I chose to ignore him and walked around the church’s large beige utility shed toward the wall where I’d throw my ball.

(most of my life, this day at the church yard stood as my definition of terror.  Powerlessness.  Rigid cold fear.  What death might be like)

So I threw my ball.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  A joy in the mindlessness, in the solid feeling of the ball entering the glove’s sweet spot, in the lively reaction of tennis ball meeting brick wall.  And the emptiness of the church yard, the silence, the perfect echoes.  No cars, no distant sounds of grown-ups on telephone calls, just me, the ball, the mitt, and the echoes.

And then the boy was beside me.  I managed a weak “Hi” but I could see this wasn’t friendly.  The hairs on my neck stood up, my heart dropped to my knees.  He ran at me, but neither a fight nor a flight instinct kicked in.  I did not fully understand this development.  The moment before he struck me (with what the kids back then called a ‘clothesline’) I tried to speak, to say something, to reason him out of this, but it was too late, and I flew to the ground as though I’d been pulled by stage wires.

I stood up, not yet crying.  Bewildered and disoriented, trying to focus my vision,  trying to ask him why he did that.  I mean, I was just playing with my ball.  Had he mistaken me for someone else who had wronged him in the past?  Was he rabid, like the dogs my parents told me about?  Was he—

—and then I was hit again, with another clothesline, and was knocked down even harder than the first time.  I hadn’t even seen him coming, I simply felt the hit and went down without any warning.  But now I had wizened up just a little bit.  Still having no idea why the attack was occurring, I had at least figured out that it was occurring, and I got up immediately and began running.  I did not run toward home, as it was too far away and he would catch me for sure.  Instead I ran toward the swings and the slide.  Kids seem to figure out pretty early that playground slides are an excellent tactical position; once you’ve climbed the stairs of the slide and are safely perched atop it, others trying to get at you will have a tough time; if they try to come up the stairs, you can just slide down, then as they are coming down, you can go back up.  This is not a foolproof system, but it does buy time, and so it was to the slide that I presently ran.  And I made it to the landing at the top, swiveled around, scanning for the boy.  Sure enough, there he was, ten yards away, in front of the slide itself, as though I might be foolish enough of a child to just see a slide and go down it; as though I would have some Pavlovian play response.  He stood there grinning like the Devil himself, like he wanted to kill me.  And at that moment I believed he would.

As far as I knew, I was not just in some childhood tale of woe.  I was in a fight for my life, and I knew nothing about fighting.  I was a tiny kid by any standard.  Short, skinny.  I was also quiet, shy, a little withdrawn.  Nothing had prepared me for a moment like this.  I knew to go to the slide by watching other boys fight during recess.  It’s been largely my experience that contrary to what is portrayed in films and television, boys typically avoid beating up small boys.  It does little to advance their hierarchical positions and may even make them seem weak.  Up until this day in the church yard, I’d been left alone.

I held my ground on the slide fairly well.  He came up a few times, I escaped down the slide, and then I made it back up again after he came down after me.  A few times, as he lurked below, simply watching me atop the slide, I called down to him, asking him why he was doing this.  I imagine it must have sounded pathetic, pleading, like a man begging his executioner for his life when he knows he’s doomed.  I pleaded my innocence and the senselessness of what he was doing.  I did cry.  He was sinister.  Truly sinister.

After an interminable amount of time, he did a perplexing thing.  He sat on one of the swings that was directly beside the slide, and he started swinging.  I was, however, only perplexed for a short time.  I saw the ruse.  I would either think he was done with the attack and try to leave, whenupon he would murder me, or I’d actually go sit on the other swing to swing with him, whenupon he’d murder me.  I decided I could do neither, and so I simply continued to stand atop the slide, watching him swing.  It felt like days passed.  I wasn’t sure if maybe I could actually die atop the slide merely from the passage of time.  It seemed I probably could.  But leaving the safety of the slide also equaled death.  My young mind swam.

I finally made a run for it.  I wooshed down the slide steps, through the lawn of the playground area, onto the newly built, woodsmelling porch of the Newville Area Senior Center (an old house that stood and still stands on the church property), around the side of the Senior Center and into the bush-lined, circular sidewalk toward Big Spring Avenue.  Only about thirty more feet of church yard to go!  I could see Big Spring Avenue, and the houses that lined the street!  Civilization, and grown-ups, and policemen inhabited that street.  Certainly I couldn’t be killed within sight of the street!

But then he hit me from behind.  I catapulted through the bushes, off the Senior Center’s sidewalk, and out of sight of the street.  And then he was upon me.

He had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.  But he was also seven—a thought that hasn’t occurred to me until just now.  How two boys can have such different breadths of experience with headlocks mystifies me.

I couldn’t breathe.  He had all his weight on me.  I was crying without breathing, the most alarming bout of terror I have ever experienced sweeping over me.  Here was death, here was the end.  I did not think of any of the cliché things dying folks supposedly think about.  I simply thought how horrible dying was going to be.  I was pretty sure nothing happened after you died—nothing at all.  Just an infinite blackness.  Why would he do this to me?  I had just been playing with my ball.

And then it was over.  He was off me.  I still don’t know how or why.  I never saw him get off me, or waited to speak to him.  When I felt him release me, I got up and ran as fast as I possibly could toward home, which was only one block away but to a seven year old it’s a decent little distance.  I was crying so hard I thought I’d throw up.  I was so mad, and sad, and confused.  Then, as now, being made helpless is about as bad as it gets.

I hated him for showing me that for the first time.  As I ran, I thought of the most horrible things a seven year old can conjure and wished they were at my command:  the light that shines on nothing, the mirror that reflects only another mirror, the fruit that ate itself.  These things were worse than helpless, they were hopeless, and I would engulf the world with them.

When I got home, Mom was working in the garden out back.  I hugged her so hard and cried so hard.  So much of my life has been about fear: about how much I had or how much I didn’t have.

6.

I was born on a frigid Friday in January of 1978.  There was a snowstorm, this much I know because the story is often told by my family.  It was snowing and maybe somewhat icy that day and it was a treacherous trip to the hospital.  Many of the finer details have been lost to time.  It seems as though maybe my father stayed home with my older sister–she also famously fell on some ice on the day of my birth, when she was home with Dad–but I have always got conflicting stories about when and how everyone arrived at the hospital.  It was cold.  It was snowy.  All these people that would become my family were probably very nervous and confused.  How challenging to think there was a day when you weren’t here, and the next day, you were.  Or: one hour you aren’t here, and the next hour, you are.  All crying and red and scrunched-up, a big ball of mushed-up senses.  You just…popped into existence.

7.

On this gloriously sunny and hot day just a little under a year ago, I found myself at a park about an hour from where I live, with the woman of my dreams and a delightful young boy. The boy is her son, who I am helping to raise, both of whom I found myself suddenly and joyfully living with. On this day, it’s a weekend that we all have off together, and my love has found this fantastic event for us to attend, a kind of history-themed craft and art fair. I have not been playing the role of family man for very long at this point, but already I know that this is what I want, what I need in order to become me, the real version of me. We walk together as a unit, commenting on the smell of the french fries, or the historical paintings made by local artisans. When our little man wanders away, I chase after him as he giggles, imploring him in a high-pitched comedic tone not to run too fast. My lady love buys me iced coffee, holds my hand tightly. We stop at the little kids’ events, little painting and craft tables, things where you spin wheels and automatically win tchotchkes. I love seeing his face light up, and I revel in taking pictures of her with him, as they are experiencing things together. In previous versions of my life, I would’ve come to this fair by myself, taking it in almost as a cultural anthropologist, loving the fact that I was able to be so alone amongst so many people. But here and now, I don’t miss that. I wonder who I was then, how was I like that? These two people are everything I could ever want. Eventually we make our way to one of the smaller event stages, where representatives from our local zoo will be bringing out animals to show kids. First there is a falcon, and the three of us, in the front row, are rightly impressed.  One after another more animals come out, and he shrieks, sits on her lap and then mine, and she leans into the crook of my neck, I can feel her smile against my skin, and when the zookeeper brings out the snake and walks just a few feet from us with it and the boy surprises us by saying snake, she squeezes my hand even tighter, we are so surprised together, and he squirms on my lap and coos at the animals, and I can feel myself, with such absolute astonishment, being born.

Scenes From My Sojourn

Posted in Memoir, My Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2015 by sethdellinger

After a straight shot drive down a highway whose number I now forget, I crested a hill around six in the morning, it still being completely dark outside, and saw for the first time the city skyline of Cleveland. I had the day off of work, and I was still exploring my immediate surroundings, since moving to what I call the chimney of Pennsylvania, so close to Buffalo and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. More than anything the prospect of Cleveland intrigued me, because I had never really considered that I might go there, or that it might be close enough, or what might even be there. So I set the early alarm, and drove straight in there with no plan. All I really wanted to do was park somewhere right in the city, find a newspaper from a newspaper

A self-timer self-portrait I did on a bench in Cleveland.

A self-timer self-portrait I did on a bench in Cleveland.

machine, and a local coffee shop, and read the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper whose name I already knew from years of attempting to be media savvy. Somehow I managed to find just the right exit off the highway, and, with my breath still showing in my car from the early-morning chill, found a parking lot that cost just a few dollars, right in the heart of the city. I hopped out of my car feeling extremely accomplished, walking across the early-morning parking lot, and I noticed many other people on foot, traveling the same way I was, heading into the city for that morning’s whatever. This was the first time I truly felt the call of the city, the desire to move in that hive, to be one of those lemmings. Wherever they were all going, it seemed like it must be interesting, different from what I knew and was accustomed to, and terribly important. Everyone made their way into their assigned nooks and crannies, disappearing down side streets and alleys and into revolving doors. In an almost astonishing short amount of time I found the newspaper machine I was looking for, and I even had the quarters ready, as I had anticipated this even before I left my apartment back Erie. I got myself a fresh-off-the presses copy of that mornings Cleveland Plain Dealer, and in an even shorter amount of time, I found myself in a local chain coffee shop called Phoenix Coffee, drinking a large caramel latte, reading about the Cleveland Browns that year, and the big high hopes everyone had for Colt McCoy.

 

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Shortly after moving in with my mother in South Jersey, a hurricane was on the way. I can’t remember what its name was anymore, because you know, they name these things, all of them. So it was on its way, and after the big news stories that the last few had been, this was supposed to be a big news story too. All the roads were going to be shut down, everything was going to flood, and we were all going to freak out. We all watched on the radar as the thing approached, and everyone from my work kept calling and texting around, wondering if we were going to have to go in the next day, and just how bad

Putzing around in the rain during our hurricane in South Jersey

Putzing around in the rain during our hurricane in South Jersey

everything was going to be. My mother and I were concerned about sleeping in our upstairs bedrooms, there being trees near the house, and that they might crash through the windows, like some goddamn nightmare. Eventually, it was decided no one had to go into work, and I was home with my mother as the danger approached. It started raining, and more than anything I was just intrigued. I’ve been through plenty of different storms in my life, and of course I’ve got the obligatory Pennsylvania drenchings from hurricanes that are almost out of steam by the time they get to us. But this looked like it might be an actual hurricane. Every hour or so I would put on all my rain gear and walk out to the development’s drainage ditch, to check the flooding progress. It’s one of those perfectly manicured little drainage ditches, it doesn’t look natural at all, obviously something that a few men with small bulldozer patted down on a Sunday afternoon twenty years ago. As the afternoon progressed the drainage ditch kept not filling up and not filling up, and the rain, although incessant and quite wet, kept being just that: rain. As Mom got bored from being cooped up inside and watching TV, and I got disappointed by the weather nonevent, the afternoon meandered into just another afternoon, one of those days wiled away looking at images on screens, or reading words in a book, the type of afternoon that you think of as a fine relaxing afternoon, but ultimately one with nothing very memorable. After it had been raining for about four hours I took my final walk out to the drainage ditch, saw that it was in fact actually less full than the previous time, and I took a short walk out to the small woods behind the development, and stood listening to the rain hit the leaves, and the small creek at the bottom of a low-grade hill behind my mother’s house. It was nice to be there, I thought. It was a nice place, and a nice time to be alive, and a very unique, circuitous path to be on. But it was also one of those moments when you think yourself, how in the world did I get here?

 

****************************************************************

 

 

I had been working out and dieting for about two months at this point, and had lost about three-quarters of the weight I wanted to lose. I had been living on my own in the city of Philadelphia for about six or seven months, and summer was in full swing. My new healthy lifestyle coupled with the season had invigorated me like I had never felt before. My typically high energy level was now bordering on manic, with me needing only a few hours of sleep a night, and typically reading thousands and thousands of words a day, in magazines, newspapers, books, and that was just the start of what I was able to accomplish. I would often be caught telling people that the world was actually bending to my very will. On this particular night, I had been out riding my bike all over the city, all day long. Starting out in the sweltering heat of noon, riding all the way from my Pennsport

Taken around the time I thought I could control the universe.

Taken around the time I thought I could control the universe.

apartment to the Art Museum, then back again, then out again and down to the Schuylkill River Trail, making the entire loop, miles and miles and miles of riding. Every time I would come home I would just play Pandora radio, no television on this day, the universe and all its sounds and music coursing through me. At night I threw open the windows in my apartment and let the natural air flow through, stripping down naked and playing air guitar to serious and depressing Post-Rock music and laughing and crying, the music louder than my neighbors probably liked. I put my clothes back on and hopped on my bike, and went to a late night showing of a movie at the nearby multiplex. Afterwards I still couldn’t stop, hopped on my bike and rode down the side streets as fast as I could, the good paved streets, the ones you can really get going on. At that time of night, in that part of the city, you can really blow through the stop signs, when you’re really tuned into the world and the universe like that, you can pick out the headlights if a car is coming the opposite direction, at the intersection, and you can really get up a good head of steam blowing through all the streets, not stopping anywhere, feeling the ions and electrons buzzing, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped, like I could fly if I wanted to, like my tires could just lift off the ground and I could soar, maybe just a few inches off the ground but I could soar, like I could just tell the universe anything what I wanted to do. I still remember the exact smell of that night, of that bike ride down the side streets, the exact feel of that exact quality of air, the way that I knew I could not be that happy forever, the way that I knew in my heart that life is that good, but you just don’t always feel it. I rode faster and faster,  my bike going thirty miles an hour through the streets of South Philadelphia, the warmth, the music back at my apartment, the echo of the movie from the movie theater, the lights all everywhere around, everything still swirling around in me, like some great puppetmaster. Just like every stop on the sojourn, the question must’ve popped into my mind, how did I get here? But it wasn’t very important at that moment, I was almost flying.

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Here’s a poem I wrote while living in Erie:

 

A Slowing of Pace

 

 

For at least ten years you have been preparing

to feel comfortable here in your life,

not a shutdown but a slowing of pace,

a grace of peace, of stopping on your way

through rooms of your dailiness to touch

the woven basket, the plastic vase, walking

through the evening park without voices

intoning from the trees, you must, you must—

these same dreams of solitude since you were very young,

 

and you feel, have felt for years,

that this is how you most would live,

deliberate, considered, easeful, slow,

if your life will only let you,

which it won’t, and this last decade

you have been yearning toward it, plotting,

longing for the book resting on your lap,

pages spread wide, this cup, the open door,

letting in late September air.

 

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It was a rainy, cold day in early March in Erie, and I found my wandering car pointed in the direction of the Erie Zoo.  Although I hadn’t set out to go to the zoo, this new turn of events didn’t surprise me.  I found himself there five or six times a year.  Most people contented themselves with a few zoo visits in a lifetime, but the Erie Zoo was extremely affordable, and the even cheaper off-season price (seven dollars for a grown-up) seemed more than reasonable to spend some time communing with creatures that had no business being on this part of the globe.  It was cheaper than a bad movie, and these animals were real.

 

As I pulled within sight of the zoo, I became a little worried that, for whatever reason, it might not be open.  There wasn’t a single car in the lot.  It was around 11am on a dreary, cold Thursday;  I hadn’t expected it to be hopping, but I wasn’t expecting emptiness.

 

Optimistically cautious, I parked and got out into the barking wind, driving pellets of frigid rain onto my shaved scalp, and nearly trotted the 20 yards to the zoo entrance.  Sure enough, there was a woman at the ticket window, grinning from ear to ear, presumably thrilled to see a customer.  As I neared, I summoned my best “public smile”—my I’ll-

Having a moment with a giraffe at the Erie Zoo

Having a moment with a giraffe at the Erie Zoo

pretend-I’m-one-of-you smile—and returned the woman’s “Hi!” with unrivaled enthusiasm.  Then I said simply, “One, please.”  She paused, then asked “Are you a member?”  I kept his public smile on.  “Nope,” I said.  And then she got the look on her face.  It was a look I had grown accustomed to in this version of my life.  It was a look a clerk or ticket-taker or usher got on their face when they were fighting the desire to say “What, exactly, are you doing here?”

 

I was sure I wasn’t imagining this look.  Aside from being by myself at functions and attractions that normally attracted folks in twos or more, the willy-nilly nature of my work and sleep schedule allowed me to quite often be at attractions and functions on days that were marooned in the desolate middle of the week, when the sad rest of the world were eating sandwiches from vending machines on their half-hour breaks in cubicles and smoking cigarettes under concrete gazebos on the edges of company property.  I had found myself alone or nearly alone in places ranging from early-season minor league baseball games to the Flight 93 National Memorial to the Cleveland Museum of Art.  And almost always, the middle aged woman working the door was quite visibly wondering what me, in my yellow flannel shirt and black

The house I lived in in Erie--the very first day I saw it.  The For Rent sign is still in the door.  I had the top floor.

The house I lived in in Erie–the very first day I saw it. The For Rent sign is still in the door. I had the top floor.

knit cap and imitation Converse , was doing there at 8am or 10pm or whatever the case may be.  But they never quite did ask.  They liked to leave a big pregnant pause where they thought I might offer some form of explanation for my daring to visit their job.  “Just one?” they’d say, wanting me to reply Well, my father used to work here before he got struck by lightning or some other perfectly ridiculous but totally feasible explanation.  But I stubbornly never gave any of them any kind of explanation.  “Are you a member?” the woman at the zoo window asked.  “Nope,” I replied, and still smiling I stared at her.  She waiting a second or two, then said, somewhat stubbornly herself now, “Seven dollars.”  I handed the woman a ten dollar bill, and while she made change, she said “Looks like you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself today”, confirming my suspicion that, in fact, I was the only customer here.  Smiling as large as I could muster, I said “Yeah, I kinda figured that.”  I took my three dollars in change and walked into the zoo.

 

No matter how many times I found himself alone in public spaces, it never ceased exhilarating me.  It seemed to me like I’d won some kind of covert contest that nobody else knew they were playing, as though all of life were a silent jockeying for position in which, on this day, I’d triumphed.  Everyone else was being funneled through the cattle chutes of their typical lives to the choke points of the weekend afternoons and I was outside the chutes, watching from the meadow.  I knew this wasn’t true, I was being funneled by other forces, but my superiority seemed unquestionable in moments such as walking into a zoo I had to myself.

 

Of course, during the off-season, admittance was cheaper for a reason.  Almost half of the animals weren’t on display.  Too cold for them.  Lord knows where the zoo keeps animals hiding during this time.  Some sort of safe house or bunker, on imagines.  A smelly bunker.

 

But I knew where I was going.  I had been here enough times that I had “regular” stops.  Ten minutes communing with the Red Panda (so cute!), five minutes making cooing sounds at the baby (teenager, really) giraffe, and on and on, until eventually I ended up in the orangutan building.  The orangutans at the Erie Zoo were unique in that they were a bona fide family.  A mother, a father, a daughter, and a son.  In fact, the daughter was the older child, making the orangutans a mirror image of my own nuclear family.  The son, Ollie, was still a baby.  A toddler, let’s say.  He had been an infant when I first arrived in Erie, and I’d been able to watch Ollie grow up in little spurts, every few months when I’d visit.  It was when I visited the orangutans that I always got the weird and ecstatic feeling of really, this is right here in Erie.

 

Today was a little different, however.  As soon as I walked into the orangutan building (which was completely empty of humans), Ollie and his mother were right against the glass, in the corner nearest the entryway, Ollie sitting atop his mother’s shoulders.  They looked at me from inside deeply human eyes, and both smiled, as if to welcome me.  “Oh my,” I heard myself say.  I walked slowly to the glass, so as not to scare them away.  But they showed no signed of going.  As I reached the glass, Ollie (who, on his mother’s shoulders, was eye level with me) placed his hand flat on the glass.  I, sensing a moment was occurring, put my hand where Ollie’s was—like we were visiting in a state prison in some sappy movie.  But it wasn’t sappy.  Ollie and I made eye contact and kept our hands overtop one another’s for what must have been a full minute, an odd communion between a man and a baby orangutan in northwestern Pennsylvania on a rainy March morning.  When Ollie finally pulled his hand away, I turned to look behind me to see if any people had come in and maybe witnessed the sweet, unexpected moment.  But there was only an empty walkway and the silly tape recorded sounds of an African forest.  I thought the lack of a witness was both incredibly sad and completely amazing, to equal degrees.

And it was not sappy.

 

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A poem I wrote shortly after moving out of  South Jersey and into Philadelphia:

 

Cage

headphones in, I walk Old City

as if in the presence of an intelligence,

concentrating.  I imagine myself

scrutinized and measured closely

by the passers-by, the foreign tourists,

the horses with their carriages,

the sky and the earth.

my multiple reflections from shop fronts,

high windows, and bus glass stare back at me,

show my belly, my too-long hair, my crooked nose.

wind sweeps off the Delaware, bringing with it

Camden, Governor Christie, and further south,

my mother’s cooking.  home swirls around

this new city, this birthplace city,

where I am so far from everything.

but I keep walking and walking

and it gets darker and darker

and there is a flicker of light or two

far above and beyond my cage.

 

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My mother and I did so many things together when I was staying with her in New Jersey, it would be difficult to boil those myriad lovely experiences down to a moment indicative of them all.  We would typically do one thing together a week—from something as small as going to a movie together to an all-out road trip.  We unabashedly (ok, maybe a little abashedly) called these Momma Days.  I think we both knew these were numbered days of a grown form of childhood for both

Mom and I at a Camden (NJ) Riversharks game (minor league baseball)

Mom and I at a Camden (NJ) Riversharks game (minor league baseball)

of us, but they were golden days unlike the first childhood (when nobody knows how great things really are).  I remember every moment of the Momma Days, but the best memory is my ritual: every time we were going to spend a day together, I’d wake up, roll out of bed, and promptly run down the stairs, clapping my hands like a happy toddler, chanting rhythmically Momma-Day-Momma-Day-Momma-Day in a little kid voice.  It seemed, at the time, like something just between the two of us, that we could never tell anybody, because I was 36 and she was older than that even, but here it is, in my blog, because you just don’t get a whole lot of golden days.

 

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Just a few short months after moving into Philadelphia, I was riding my bike home from work on the night of New Year’s Day. About halfway between where I work and my home, one encounters Washington Avenue, one of the last large arterial streets that cuts through Philadelphia, before you get into what I called the Deep South. When I got there, about 10 o’clock at night, there was a police barricade, preventing me from going further down 2nd St., past Washington, which would’ve taken me directly home in about a mile. But it wasn’t an accident or a crime scene, and I quickly remembered what was going on. There wasn’t a whole lot that was notable about the neighborhood I lived in in Philadelphia, except the fact that it is the Mummer capital of the world. And the Mummers are basically men who dress up in very opulent costumes and dance around and ride interesting floats on a New Year’s Parade, as well as play in old world-style string and brass bands.  It is a tradition that only occurs in Philadelphia, and at that, only South Philadelphia, and at that, almost only my neighborhood. But it also turns out, that the whole city loves this tradition one day a year, that being New Year’s Day. And then on the night of New Year’s Day – not New Year’s Eve, mind you but New Year’s Day night – my neighborhood and just my neighborhood

Mummers in the 2014 Philadelphia 4th of July parade

Mummers in the 2014 Philadelphia 4th of July parade

becomes the largest party in the city all year. I hopped off my  bicycle, very interested in what this would look like. I was a bit unprepared. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I am told it is much like this, and people who have been to both say that the Mummers party in Pennsport almost outdoes Mardi Gras in some ways. The crowd down Second Street was so thick, I had to quickly chain my bike to a mailbox, as there was no getting through the crowd. Huge, almost one-story high speakers dotted every-other block, where sometimes electronic, dance or house music played, and other times old world Mummer bands played corny but danceable string music. Enormous floats, gaudy and opulent, set in the middle some blocks, some of them decorated in modern ways, with heads of what looked like aliens or monsters, while other floats simply looked like a gilded golden things, big Faberge eggs on wheels, and all about everywhere strode Mummers, men and the occasional women wearing  long flowing robes of  shiny satin fabrics, embroidered gold and silver tassels, enormous red buttons, masks that looked sometimes scary, like out of a dream masquerade, or sometimes comical, or sometimes indecipherable. It was loud everywhere, chants got taken up out of nowhere that I couldn’t understand, songs were being sung like pirates about to board a weaker vessel. Everyone was drinking, the whole world was there, not just Mummers but teenagers and people in their twenties, kids with funnels of beer going to their stomachs, people on drugs screaming about things, people wearing beads as though it were Mardi Gras but it wasn’t, and nobody was taking their shirts off, weed smoke was an ever-present cloud.  There were food stands on corners, big sliced-open mangoes on sticks that you could buy, heads of pigs roasting over spits. I kept taking pictures and videos with my smartphone and sending them to people who weren’t there, people I wished were with me, people I hadn’t seen in years.  Somewhere around Dickinson Street I hung a left, popped out onto the relative calm of Front Street, walked six more blocks down to my street, stuffed the key in the lock, went inside in time for Anderson Cooper.

 

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In the winter, Erie is a cold, desolate, sometimes dangerous place. It’s not the ideal place to live alone with no friends or relatives within a five-mile drive of you. It snows almost all the damn time, and it’s so cold, and the wind just races across the lake, whether it’s the summer or the winter. Wether the lake is frozen or open, it is 7 miles wide, and there is nothing to stop the wind. On one particular winter morning, I rose to an early alarm clock, to work the morning shift at the restaurant I was a manager at. Our day start pretty early, and it’s always hard to get up, but especially when it’s dark outside, and the wind howls like a coyote, and you know there’s snow out there, and maybe more on the way, and maybe more falling even right then. I crawled out of bed, put on my work outfit, poked my head through the

Snow tubing at a work function in Erie--essentially the ONLY perk of the brutal winters.

Snow tubing at a work function in Erie–essentially the ONLY perk of the brutal winters.

blinds, and started my car with my remote start, one of the best features that car had. Five minutes later I was down there to hop in, excited about the warm inside of my car. It had snowed the night before, but not a whole lot, maybe four or five inches, which isn’t very much when you’re living in Erie. But it was just one of those things, one of those moments where your car and the tires are sitting just right, or just wrong, and despite the fact that you see no perfect reason why, your car is stuck. I had not left myself a whole lot of time with extra to get to work, and I was in quite a bind here. Being late is sometimes easier than others in that line of work, and I can’t remember the circumstances now, but I do know that I absolutely had to be there on time that day, and my car being stuck put me in a moment of desperation. With nobody to call – not even any small friends or acquaintances, really nobody that I knew – I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I was out of my car, looking all around it, shoveling the snow out from the tires as best I could, trying to rock it a little bit. All the small things one can do by yourself to get your car unstuck, but there’s only so much of that. Then, in the predawn darkness I saw approaching a young man walking down the center of the street that I lived on. I recognized the speed with which he walked and the

Lake Erie and the Presque Isle beaches are actually an incredible hidden gem (during the summers!) in Pennsylvania.

Lake Erie and the Presque Isle beaches are actually an incredible hidden gem (during the summers!) in Pennsylvania.

direction he was going as a man heading to catch a bus. Yes, there were buses, but I had never even looked into that. As he came to pass me I walked onto the street, and sent to him, “Hey man! Hi!  Hey man, excuse me!  I’m in a real bind here, my car is stuck and I really need to get to work.  I’m really screwed here.  Can you help me push it out?”

He stood still and wooden, looking at me through my pleading screed.  After a pause, he said, “But, see, I’m on the way to catch my bus to go to work myself.  What if this makes me late?”

This was one of those very touchy moments in life for me.  I absolutely, 100% needed this guy to help me.  But he had a point and I knew it.  Why should he be late to work simply so I could be on time?  I was sure if he helped me, the car could come out quickly and we’d both be on time, but time was crunched so badly, there wasn’t even the moment needed to explain this.  I analyzed my chances, as well as the look of the kid, and rolled the dice.  I said this:

“That’s a chance you’ll just have to take.”

 

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A poem I wrote in Philly:

 

Just Past St. Augustine’s

 

where the elevated train slows

just past St. Augustine’s church

off the Delaware river

a row of busted windows

only a single one still whole

open and darkly curtained

 

that’s where I once saw this arm

slip out between the frames,

the hand open to feel for drops of rain,

another time there were two arms

raising a small naked baby

for a breath of evening air

 

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I took a trip to Niagara Falls by myself once, while I was living in Erie. It was only a little over an hour away from there, and I figured I might as well take a look at it. It was a beautiful day, and I was much more moved by the wonder there than I expected to be. I did the whole shebang, the whole big tourist thing, the boats, the ponchos, everything. But the thing that I remember most, the thing that resonated most with me, was Goat Island. It’s a small island in the middle of the Niagara River. You can take a little pedestrian bridge over to it, and walk around. When I was there, I was mostly alone, and the bulk of the island is very unassuming. It’s got a big green lawn, some pasture. You can walk around and not really know that you are

Selfie from my solo trip to Niagara Falls

Selfie from my solo trip to Niagara Falls

so close to those enormous rushing waters, and the touristy sites, and the boats and helicopters. I walked over to the shore of the river, all alone in the little clearing, looking out at the rushing Niagara just a hundred yards or so from where drops into oblivion. I couldn’t believe it. There I was, so close to the river, so close to those falls, and nobody around me. I was happy as a clam but I thought to myself, I can jump right in there. I could just end it. Death has always felt like a very close spectre to me, I’ve always sensed the razors edge that I am on, that we are all on. In that moment, I don’t think I’ve ever sensed that more, I saw it like an actual looming knife: just a few feet away, just one slip or one jump, and there it is.  I went to Goat Island by myself and for a split second I saw through the door.

 

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A few months ago I met the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known.  Her name is Karla and I’ve been gifted with the good fortune of her loving me as much as I love her.  She’s from “back home”, so now, that is where I will go. Not only to spend time with my love and her marvelous son, but to now spend more time with my father and other relatives and long lost friends.  My sojourn ends—and an incredible new one will begin.  I don’t believe “everything happens for a reason”—in fact, I believe quite the opposite.  But I do believe that my lengthy field trip away from home has fulfilled its purpose in the finding of the love of my life.  I think my mom will be happy that, in fact, I am going to get even more golden days now.

 

The love of my life, Karla, our golden days stretching out ahead of us.

The love of my life, Karla, our golden days stretching out ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

It’s Still Like a Secret

Posted in Philly Journal with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by sethdellinger

Just now, I went out on a short bike ride.  I have found that with riding my bike to work and back every day, I often lose sight of the fact that I truly love riding my bike for pleasure.

It is extraordinarily cold out today, but after the horrors of last winter, I am now incredibly prepared to dress appropriately for cold-weather biking.  As I hopped on my bike this morning, I found myself quite pleased with how comfortable I was, despite the 28 degree temperature.  The sun was fully out and beaming its glorious rays onto my face.  Was I cold?  Yes, very much so.  But comfortable, for sure.

I rode west and then south, through the trenches of what is known as South Philly.  The morning was relatively quiet and calm, still almost like a mid-summer afternoon.  Here and there the sounds of a truck backing up, or the birds in the trees that nestle the power lines.  Every few blocks I would get stopped by a crossing guard ushering school kids across a not-busy intersection.  I didn’t seem to mind.

I parked my bike by my bank so I could step inside and get some cash out of the ATM, and also warm my hands for a bit.  A scruffy but polite older gentleman held the door to the inner lobby open for me, not realizing I was just stopping at the ATM in the foyer.  Oh, no thanks, I’m staying right here, I said to him.  He said Oh alright, well have a great day.

I hopped back on my bike and rode a few more blocks down to the local soft pretzel joint.  It was 10am and 28 degrees, and the pretzel joint is just a walk-up window with no seats anywhere, so of course I was the only one there.  I waited for the portly lady inside to see me and open the window.  She was wearing a winter coat. What’ll it be?  she asks.  I could smell the fresh-baked carb-and-salt goodness mixing with the crispness of the morning air; it’s a special blend of perfect that is exceedingly rare.  Just four pretzels, please.  A few seconds later she handed me a brown paper bag and I handed her four bucks.  I took my backpack off and slid my precious cargo inside.  All the way home, I could feel the warmth on my back, as the pretzels heated the inside of my bag.  At stop signs, I could even smell them.  In the cold, still morning, I had a little bag of warmth and perfection riding on my back, like a secret.

Philly Journal, 6/4/14

Posted in Philly Journal with tags , , on June 4, 2014 by sethdellinger

To see all previous Philly Journal entries, click here!

So I had a fairly marvelous day today. One of my favorite days, in fact, in recent memory.  It is finally summer, and I finally had a very nice day off.  I rose early and left the house early, astride my trusty steed (my bike).  My original plan was to explore this, but I got foiled by security guards watching the entrances.  I had planned to make a big exciting video about the experience but was left with only this.  So, barely after 9am and already sweaty and way far from home, I had a whole summer day to find stuff to do.

I ended up doing a whole bunch of stuff, but I was especially taken with my trip around the Schuylkill River Trail.  This is a bike/ pedestrian trail that starts near the Art Museum and stretches in a ten mile loop through what is known as Fairmount Park.  It is a fantastic trip!  I had been aware there was a trail there, but I had never known it was a loop that crosses over the river at two points and allows you to end up where you started.  It was one of the more invigorating, fun, and recuperative things I’ve done since I moved into the city.  So of course, I took some video of it and set it to some music for you.  I understand there are pretty few of you who will actually want to watch this, but if you find yourself truly bored right now, or want to see an area of Philadelphia you may never experience, well, this is for you:

 

 

 

Some video of a bike ride from Pennsport to Center City

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2014 by sethdellinger

I rode my bike into Center City today, and I had the idea that it might be interesting to take some video along the way, documenting the slow change in the city from sprawling neighborhoods into “big city downtown”.  It’s a neat idea, and one I hope to pull off better than this someday.  With some preparation, planned shots, and less wind, this could be an intriguing socio-political concept.  As it is, it at least shows you what it looks like to ride your bike from Pennsport to Center City.

On a nice day (like today) this ride takes me about 20 minutes and covers about 2.5 miles.  This is NOT my commute to work; it’s about the same distance, but a very different route.  My apologies for the wind noise for the first minute or so; it goes away.

 

 

 

I Wear My Heartburn at Night

Posted in Philly Journal with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2014 by sethdellinger

There is something very unique about living alone.  Obviously, I guess.  Certainly it is not for everyone.  Mostly, it is for loners and pricks, I guess, but I must say it does agree with me.  I know I’ve covered this area a lot in things previously written, but I just can’t get over how…interesting…it is to not utter one word to a human being some days other than while I am at work.  Of course, my job requires me to say A LOT (“verbally exhausted” is the industry slang) so oftentimes, the break from speech is quite welcome.  This isn’t important.  Just thinking out loud.002

I was riding my bike down Snyder Ave. in the bike lane this morning and three teenagers were standing in the lane, craning their necks down the street, presumably looking for their bus.  As I neared them they didn’t budge one bit.  I also did not alter my course.  I buzzed by them, inches away.  I made eye contact with them as I passed, and they were obviously pissed.  One of them started to say something, but I wasn’t sure what, and I didn’t even let him remotely finish before I blurted out “Get the fuck off the road, kids.”  Either: A) I am a badass motherfucker or B) what the hell is wrong with me?

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I have watched the movie “Meek’s Cutoff” three times this week.  It is an exceptional film.  I watched it when it first came out, in 2011 (and it even took second place in my top ten movie list of that year) and I promptly bought it on DVD, but I waited until this week to even view it a second time.  But then a second time became a third, and then a fourth.  It is an extraordinary film.  It is now one of the things that I will come to associate with this, the winter I moved into Philadelphia.  Watch this clip:

I rarely hear my neighbors, despite sharing walls with them on two sides.  However, when I do hear them, it is a bed squeaking rhythmically.  Sex or masturbation, I don’t know, but I guess I’ve lucked out, since there are no vocalizations to go along with it.  It’s just awkward, is all.

My mom and I went to the Hard Rock Café in Center City for my birthday.  Here is my mom there:

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Oh, my birthday, by the way.  I turned 36.  So it goes.  That sounds pretty old to me, but I guess if I’m lucky, someday it will sound young.  People say life is short but it seems pretty long to me.  Longest thing you’ll ever do, anyway.photo12

This blog entry just took a turn for the sour because I have heartburn now.  That’s what I get for drinking coffee after midnight.  There, as far as I know, is no certified medical reason for drinking coffee after midnight to give you heartburn, but alas, it always does so, to me.  And yet, I continue to do it.  Lesson learning is not, nor has it ever been, my strongest trait.

It is unseasonably warm.  Can’t argue with that.  Everyone likes unseasonably warm.  Everyone.

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Polar Vortex, Schmolar Schmortex

Posted in Memoir, Philly Journal, Prose with tags , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by sethdellinger

I am the first to admit in many areas I am a huge wuss. In many facets of life, I am just a fantastic pansy. I am not afraid to admit this. But it should also be noted, especially for the purposes of this blog entry, that there’s some areas of life in which I am a total fucking champ. I suspect this dichotomy is true of most of us. My champings do happen to include working my ass off,  functioning amazingly on very little sleep, and successfully and with very little comment braving the elements. Granted, I complain about the cold a lot and how much I dislike winter, but a brief review of my record I am sure would show I am usually a pretty big champ when it comes to the cold. I begin with these caveats in order to illustrate the true gravity of the story I am about to relate to you. This morning was one of the more terrifying moments of my life.

As most of you know, even if you don’t live in the Northeast, or Midwest, today was one of the coldest days in history of the entire world. (sarcasm, but only kinda) Something called the “polar vortex” snuck down into our region bringing with it arctic temperatures. Now, every winter we are used to seeing a few days of single digit or even negative degrees. What made this day unique was that unlike usual, the temperature was never going to climb into the teens. Today’s high was forecasted to be somewhere around nine, with a low around three. That is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Depending on where you live, wind chills were forecasted to make the temperature feel in the negative 20s all the way up to the negative 50s. I wasn’t too worried about this. This is not the sort of thing I’m ever too worried about. However, there was one small hitch: I was scheduled to open my store today.

Now, I haven’t been opening the store very much lately. For the past five or six months I’ve been working mostly evenings. This has not really been by choice, but a necessity born out of the availabilities of my employees. I’m currently very close to getting back to being able to work daylights, even though I am a night owl by nature, my role as the store manager dictates that things would go easier for me if I was there during the daylight hours. Nonetheless, I am still very much in the nighttime sleep pattern. This morning marked only the second time since I moved to Philadelphia a month and a half ago that I actually worked an opening shift. Now, I did not work extremely late last night. I got home around seven last night, so it wasn’t a brutal turnaround. But nonetheless, my sleep pattern lately dictated that I still didn’t fall asleep until almost 2 AM, so when my alarm went off at 4 AM, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Of course, I saw all this coming. For quite a few days we had known that Tuesday was going to be the most frigid day in the history of the known universe. And of course, I could do nothing but shake my head with grim resignation knowing that that would be the day I would have to pedal my bike 2 miles in the city at 4:30 in the morning. But what can you do? This is not the sort of thing I dwell on, because what was done was done, and I was going to have to do it. I knew that I would not get much sleep. I knew that I would be very very cold. I knew that I would be very very tired. I knew it was going to suck.

Let me now say also, it has come to my attention over the past month and a half that while it may not have been a problem when I was younger, riding my bike in any serious fashion in the extreme cold is not nearly as easy as I expected it to be. Even before the polar vortex showed up in Philadelphia, winter has not been an easy time to be a bicycle commuter for me. My leg muscles simply do not want to work as hard as I need them to work in subfreezing temperatures. I know that it is the temperatures causing it, because any day there is a brief and sudden warm-up, I ride my bike like a champ again. But once again, this was not something I was going to worry about. What can I do about it? Sure, I could’ve looked into taking a cab or the buses to work, but at that time of day that sort of thing seemed almost as much of a pain the ass as actually writing my bike there. So while there was certainly some dread on my part going into the commute, it was just one of those things that I do. Brave the elements, and just fucking do it.

So I begrudgingly rolled out of bed after two hours of sleep. I was really really tired. But this is not a sensation that is new to me. Working as long as I have in the service industry, one becomes accustomed to such turnarounds. Sometimes we called them doublebacks, some places refer to them as Clopens (close+open, get it?), but nonetheless, they will always happen occasionally. They happen to me much less now in my capacity as a Starbucks manager than they did in my capacity as a restaurant manager, but they are still an occasional fact of life. The sensation was not new to me. I got out of bed, and not having left enough time for me to take a shower, pulled on some fresh work clothes and quickly walked down to my living room. I hadn’t planned what I was going to wear. I just knew I had to wear a lot. The news had been talking for a few days now about how easy it would it be for people to get frostbite in these temperatures. It wasn’t something I worried about too much, but I couldn’t have avoided thinking about it even if I wanted to, with all the media coverage. I figured I would just bundle up, go outside and ride to work and I was going to be really cold. But it hadn’t escaped me that I needed to have all of my extremities as covered as possible, and the media stories had made it very clear that no flesh should be exposed for even a few minutes in such frigid temperatures. Overtop of my work clothes I put on a hoodie, followed by my winter coat. I put the hood up over my head, and then put on my big fuzzy extremely warm Eagles hat. Then I wrapped a scarf around my face, put on some gloves, and that was that.  I got my bike and took it out of the house and locked the door behind me.

At this point I will detail for you the two major mistakes I made before I even left the house. On this particular morning, I was opening the store with two other employees. Usually a manager only opens the store with one other employee, but one of them today is a trainee who I am on my way to getting trained to be a manager, so that I can work a better schedule my own self in the near future. And the other one is a normal opening employee. As happenstance would have it (and when I say happenstance I mean my own poor planning) these are actually the only two employees whose phone numbers I don’t have stored in my cell phone. That was a major error.

Just yesterday I had told both of these employees that they should not be in any way early. I instructed both of them to show up right at 5 AM, or later if need be. The idea being that I was going to do I best to show up exactly at 5 o’clock, and as cold as it was forecasted to be, I didn’t want them waiting outside even for a few minutes before I got there. The second major error then would be that I did not leave with more time than normal for me to get there. It takes me about 20 minutes to get from my apartment to where I work on my bicycle, I usually leave about 25 minutes before I want to get there, owing for some time for red lights or cars or whatnot. I did the same this morning, leaving my apartment at about 4:35, to get there at 5 AM. That was my second major error.

When I first walked outside with my bicycle, it seemed cold, but not anything out of the ordinary. Just really cold. I said to myself, I can handle this no problem. I got on top of my bike and started pedaling, and rounded the corner of my block onto Front Street. It was immediately apparent, immediately, that this was not normal. Within moments of being outside and pedaling , the bone chilling cold was absolute. I hadn’t put on any layers on my legs, I was only wearing my work slacks, and I could feel the skin on the tops of my thighs begin to sting within 30 seconds of riding my bike. I hadn’t gotten 100 yards away from my house before I realized that I had fucked up a lot.

My employees were going to be outside the store in 25 minutes as per my instructions, in this freezing ridiculous cold. I had to pedal 2 miles to get there, in conditions that were inhospitable after 100 yards. I could not turn back and look for an alternate way to get there, such as a bus or a taxi, because I had not left myself enough time to search for an alternate way. I could have backtracked and looked for an alternate way and opened the store late, if I had the cell phone number of even one of those two employees, so I could instruct them to stay home or seek shelter somewhere. But I did not. I had no choice but to ride my bike there and to do so in the normal amount of time.

After a few blocks on Front Street, I then turn left onto Snyder, which is a main thorofare and hence much wider and open. It is here that the wind started for real. This wind would be prohibitive to riding a bicycle in 70° temperatures. As soon as I started down Snyder my progress almost completely stopped. The wind was blowing directly against me, and I had to work with all my might to move the bicycle. Neverminding for a moment the cold, this is where the fact that I only got two hours of sleep the night before, and had just rode home from work less than 12 hours ago, comes into play. The cold was restricting my muscles, they hadn’t rested, I hadn’t had time to recuperate from my previous ride, etc etc.  There were just too many factors working against me.  I had yet to travel even 1/16th the length of my journey, and with every cycle of my legs, I was grunting out loud.  Oof, oof, oof. I was almost immediately desperate. I didn’t know what I was going to do. It became abundantly clear that I might not get there in time, and it is something that is rare for me to do, but I began to panic. Started breathing heavier, my breath making the inside of my scarf against my face moist, and ironically hot. I was grunting and yelling with every cycle, I couldn’t even move this bike faster than I could walk it. The wind started to make my eyes dry up, maybe even freeze a little bit. I could feel the cold on the tops of my thighs like pinpricks, and I began to suspect I might get frostbite through my pants. I veered off the street and onto the sidewalks, thinking if I got closer to the buildings the wind might be lessened. There were absolutely no signs of human beings about at this point in time. No cars, no pedestrians, not even lights on in houses. The wind did not seem lessened on the sidewalks, but I continued to ride on them anyway. After about a quarter of a mile on the sidewalk on Snyder Avenue, I was passing under a tree when somehow, someway, a bunch of branches hit my bicycle. I wasn’t sure what happened at first, except that I noticed that my pedaling was causing a noise that had never happened before. It was like that moment when you know that something is wrong with your car. I couldn’t imagine actually stopping to look at what was happening. The bike was still moving, but it was even more labored than before, and there was this sawing kind of noise. After three minutes or so of continuing to ride, and weighing what appeared to be incredibly difficult options, I decided to stop my bike and get off and look at it. This might not actually seem like a huge deal to read, but at that moment, making the decision to stop the bike and get off and look at it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I could feel my body starting to get colder than it has ever been before, and I was still well over a mile from my destination, with no options for help, and time running short. Stopping my forward motion was not an easy decision. But I was afraid that whatever was wrong with my bike might get worse, and then I would be in an even bigger world of hurt.

I plunked down my kickstand and disengaged myself from my bicycle. There were not incredibly bright streetlights around, but I began inspecting my chain housing for any sort of foreign bodies. The chain around the rear wheel had something poking out of it. I couldn’t tell quite what it was. It looked at first glance like some sort of man-made object, a cigar length rigid piece of plastic. I couldn’t be sure, in the light and in my panic, if it was a piece of the bike that had come off or was in some way damaged, or was some foreign body that had become attached to the bike. I remembered the branches hitting the bike, but wasn’t sure what that had caused. I looked closer at it, but still couldn’t tell in the light. I have very little time to figure it out, and I knew that I had to either keep going or fix it quick. I put my hands down to feel this thing, but through my thick winter gloves, I still couldn’t tell what it was. I knew that taking my gloves off was going to be a huge mistake. There was no way that I wanted to expose my extremities to the direct cold. But I saw no choice. So, despite all my thinking screaming otherwise, I took my gloves off, both of them, and reached out for the object. It was in fact just a stick. It had somehow gotten lodged inside the chain mechanism. I wrapped my already freezing hand around it and pulled, but of course it would not come out easily. I had to try for a good 30 seconds of swiveling it, turning it, and bending it before it finally broke free of the chain. I attempted to put my gloves back on, but found that my hands were already so numb that putting the gloves on was difficult. I was looking at the gloves but could not feel them. After slowing my breathing down and concentrating, I got both back on and mounted again on my bicycle. It was only when I was back on my bicycle seat that I realized that in my panic with the stick, I had actually taken my scarf off. I had draped it over my handlebars. I have no memory of doing it, nor am certain why I thought it necessary subconsciously, but there it was. It wasn’t until I saw the scarf that I realized the entire front of my face was now exposed to the wind and cold, and as soon as I realized it, I felt it.

It was a sudden, jolting pain, like having a face covered in hair, and having them all suddenly and simultaneously plucked.  I groaned, loud and suddenly and without any thought for who might hear.  I now had to get my scarf back onto my face–with hands that had gone numb and were inside bulky winter gloves.  It soon became completely evident that I needed to take the gloves back off in order to get the scarf on.  What followed–including then getting the gloves back onto my hands–was a flurry of disbelief and trauma beyond what I could describe.

I do understand that if one is reading this account from a bit of a remove, it might seem a bit tedious and overwrought; yes, here is a man trying to put his gloves and scarf on in the cold.  Yawn.  But understand: this felt very much like a life or death situation to me, and I’m confident that is exactly what it was.  Here I stood, at a time that is basically the middle of the night, on a dark city street with no humans around me, in temperatures that are lethally cold, in turns again and again exposing my extremities to the air, in a position in which I am responsible for the well-being–some might even say the lives–of two other human beings over a mile away from me, whom I have no method of contacting, who will soon be waiting outside a building which I have the only key to, and the only way I can get to them in time is to stop this foolhardiness and somehow make my bicycle take me there, using my own physical movements to power the bike through astonishing wind.

Add to this maelstrom of physical and psychological plight the fact that my cell phone is the only way I could tell time during this ordeal, and there was no real way for me to get it out and look at it, and so I couldn’t really tell how much time had passed and how much I had left.  Obviously, if I was a few minutes late, these employees were not going to die, but they’d be far from happy, and it was no doubt dangerous to make them stand out there.  And God forbid I would be more than a few minutes late.  I had no was of knowing how well they were dressed, how prepared they were, how desperate their own situations were.

Somehow, someway, I got back on the bike with gloves and scarf on and started pedaling.  But the damage was done.  My hands and face were the coldest I’d ever felt them, and the gloves and scarf were not going to warm them back up now.  For the rest of the trip, my extremities will exist in a realm of frigid pain that I can’t come close to describing, but I was almost certainly close to frostbite.  Add to that the continuing deterioration of the tops of my thighs—getting so cold they felt like they were on fire–and you have a definition of a certain kind of misery.

Now back to pedaling, I had been counting on my adrenaline to kick in to at least power me there, but it was not to be.  My body had withdrawn from the race.  Each pedal was the hardest thing I could remember doing.  For over a mile, I yelled/ screamed/groaned with every single downstroke of my legs.  At some points I even resorted to very dramatic, pathetic cries of “Why?!” or “No!” and other sad things of that nature, and I became more and more certain I was imply not going to be able to continue.

But I did start getting closer.  Finally, somehow only 5 or 6 blocks away, I allowed myself some positive thinking–and my scarf promptly flew off my head.  I have no idea how, or where it went.  It just flew off and my face was now fully exposed.  I didn’t spend any time debating whether to stop and look for it and try to put it back on.  I was very well aware that riding the last six blocks with no scarf was incredibly dangerous (especially since I was actually going quite slowly), but I knew without a doubt that stopping to look for it and then trying to get it back on would be even more dangerous.

(I have skipped over quite a few things, really—run-ins with a car or two, skidding on some ice, a child watching me out of a ground floor window, etc)

I did make it, obviously.  I pulled up to the store door at what turned out to be 4:59, to the sight of two bundled-up employees who were very cold.  As I stepped off my bike and fumbled numbly in my pocket for the door key, I managed to utter to them both, That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, to which they chuckled, obviously assuming I was exaggerating.

We walked inside, and began our workday.

 

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