The 1950s had our family living on Chicago’s West Side on a street with apartment buildings and two-flat brownstones. When I outgrew a tricycle, dad bought me a 20 inch red colored bike with training wheels. The wheels were a crutch to give me the confidence to race up and down the sidewalk on the 4400 block of Jackson Boulevard. My first taste of freedom- moving about on my block without a parent or responsible older person by my side.
It got to the point where the training wheels had loosened and no longer skimmed the ground. Dad observed this and decided it was time to get rid of the cheats and conned me into riding without them. No longer an athlete in training of the sport, I expanded the area to roam. Now I was riding easterly past the open lot a few doors up from our building all the way to the alley a building or two before the corner at Kostner. To the west a bit of bravado took me to the corner at Kilbourn and back. When accompanied by older kids, I rode in the alley to the back of us.
Riding a bike at the age of five or six years provided needed exercise along with a growing confidence that I could do what older kids did and not be looked upon as a baby by them. A few years later, it taught me a little something extra about pride of ownership and the responsibility that went along with it.
By 1962, we had already moved more than a mile further west in the Austin neighborhood a block north of Jackson. By the time I was ten, I was old and big enough to ride a larger bike. My parents bought me a 26 inch red Schwinn that had coaster brakes. The three speed handlebar gear box model cost too much. I was probably not coordinated enough to master it anyway. At first I kept the bike in our enclosed back porch. When it became a hassle to go through the kitchen and out the back door, the bike got confined to the garage in the back of our building.
One time I took a ride around the block to Lotus, then Jackson, Central and back to Quincy. Along the way two boys on bikes tried to chase me down to steal my superior vehicle. I pedaled harder and make it back to the safety of Quincy where they figured it was not smart to start up.
I treated that red Schwinn as a friend. It had a horn with a deep beep that sounded like I was driving a Jeep. My buddy Perry and I often went on long bike rides westward through the entire length of Columbus Park (whose east end was Central) past its western border at Austin Boulevard. This took us into the suburb of Oak Park. There was bragging rights for a kid to know that he could leave town on his own. We rode down a side street for quite a while. Each new block was a further notch on our freedom belt, like Lewis and Clark exploring and discovering new territory. At one point, I had to think, “okay, I’ve gone far enough- time to turn around.” But we kept going until we knew our sense of discovery was over. It always seemed quicker on the way back than out.
They say all good things come to an end- right? One day I arrived home from high school that was half way across the city as usual around 6:30pm. A teacher who lived in the nearby suburb of Berwyn gave me a ride home from school in the Lakeview area near Belmont and Broadway. After exiting the (then) Congress Highway at Laramie, she dropped me off at the corner of Jackson and Lotus. Walking from Lotus west on Quincy towards the middle of the block where we lived, I noticed a police car parked in front of our apartment building. I began to get worried when I saw a uniformed cop in our living room near the front porch windows. Had they come to arrest Dad or worse- me?
As I entered the apartment, Ma took me aside and said she had bad news. I asked her what had happened and she explained that someone had broken into the garage and stolen my bike among other things. It was one thing to try to take a bike from a kid out on the street while he was riding it. I could not fathom someone trying to break into our garage and decide on my bike as his treasure. But then again, this was the mid-1960s in a supposedly nice middle class neighborhood.
It left a very bitter taste and resentment for having anything of value. I felt that it would just end up being taken away. After that, I never owned another bike. Years later, when going to college during the summer, my brother-in-law let me borrow his three speed bike to get around instead of having to walk six blocks to the bus stop. There was never any sense of attachment to his bike nor pleasure in using it. When the time came to give it back, it was no big deal.
But it did give me an opportunity to learn another important lesson. While taking a summer class, I would ride the bike on side streets in the Hollywood Park north side area of Chicago on the way to Northeastern Illinois University. One time, I arrived at school and got off the bike seat and felt that my back pocket was thinner. Immediately I realized that along the way my wallet fell out of that pocket. Retracing the identical route back, I found it several blocks away resting comfortably along the curb with everything intact. From then and on, I carried my wallet in a front pocket even if it resulted in a strange and unattractive bulge.