I refused to buy a new bike, but my in-between child was hitting his knees on his handlebars so not buying a bike wasn’t an option either. And so, for that reason, I left the boys with their griping father on a typical, miserable, gray Pittsburgh Saturday and followed New Texas Road into the heart of Plum to check on a black and green used mountain bike a friend had seen for sale by the side of the road.
Praying that no one would rear end me as I slowed down on that 30MPH road that everyone likes to take at near 60, I rolled into the inclined driveway flanked by trees and saw that my friend was right. It was a perfect bike, and it would have been perfect for my son. If he were 6’2”.
I’m not sure if I was more disheartened by the prospect of not bringing home a bike for my boy or of pulling out of that hidden driveway back onto New Texas. But, moments later, having survived the venture back onto the road, I felt confident that miracles could happen. So I kept my eyes peeled as I twisted my way back down New Texas, past the one lane bridge, the enormous cemetery by the creek, and the horses quietly munching the lawn in front of the house near the corner of New Texas and Renton Road. And then I saw it. About a 100 yards down the road, just a little past an ancient red tractor sitting off on the other side of the road was a sign that said, “YARD SALE & LEMONADE,” and behind the sign two ladies sat on lawn chairs, two early-adolescent girls did cartwheels, and one tween with a hopeful smile held a pitcher of lemonade in one hand and a stack of paper cups in the other. And in the middle of it all sat two used bikes.
I pulled off beside the tractor and made my way across the street. They wanted ten dollars for the bike and a dollar for lemonade. Remembering the many summer days I sat at the end of my own driveway with a pitcher of lemonade and a stack of paper cups, I immediately forked over the dollar and sipped the lemonade as I sized up the bike. It would be just a little on the big side for my oldest son, BJ, but he would probably grow into it quickly and could manage it now if I put the seat down. I smiled to myself. It was perfect. Except for that fact that it was purple. And was a girl’s bike.
The fact that it was a girl’s bike actually brought back memories of the year I was to turn seven, like my son, when my grandfather took me out to buy me a used bike—my first two-wheeler (what can I say? I’m not a natural biker). I loved that bike, as long as it had the training wheels. I never did catch on to riding without training wheels, no matter how hard my family tried to teach me. But the point of my memory was not about training wheels but about the fact that the bike had been used and a boy’s bike, and I had learned the important lesson that things don’t have to be perfect in order to be fun and useful.
So I handed the older of the two ladies a twenty and the younger one handed me back ten dollars in change. I walked the bike back across the street and, with only a few prayers and some minor manipulation like removing a car seat, putting down half of the back seat, and forcing the front wheel through the new hole, managed to coerce the bike into my trunk and shut the lid.
BJ had different ideas about that bike, but after some tears, a discussion with Grandpa, and a trip to Stanford’s Hardware Store for a can of red spray paint, he had been persuaded that the bike could be made palatable enough for his use.
In the end, we never did paint that bike because the instant we returned to the house and the neighbors saw us wheel it from the back patio to the front parking lot, we were surrounded by cries of “Is that yours?”, “What can it do?”, and “Can I try it?”
Every boy in the parking lot—about six of them that day—wanted to—and did—ride that bike. And not a single one mentioned that it was a girl’s bike, and one even said, “Cool! This purple makes it look like Buzz’s space bike.” It took me a moment before I realized that, yes, indeed, Buzz Lightyear from Disney Pixar’s Toy Story, which comes out with a new movie every ten years—just often enough to keep all of the toys marketable—is predominantly purple and white, just like the bike. If I added neon green accents and lasers, it would be Star Command compliant.
The kids had a wonderful time, and not just that day but all summer. The bike was part of a larger lesson in sharing that I had been pushing on the boys since we came back from Korea. Although I had always harped on not touching other people’s stuff without their permission because it’s a nearly unforgivable sin in the US, I had equally pushed sharing your stuff with others because not sharing is an equally unforgivable sin in Korea and, and the key to raising kids who are culturally fluent in more than one context is to find a way for them to negotiate those conflicting and equally rigidly-held “morals” from the get go.
And so they learned to share with those who don’t share and to not hold it against others when they didn’t share. My kids understood that they lived in two worlds and couldn’t expect anyone else to live in those same liminal spaces. But the amazing part of the whole thing, and maybe by virtue of some other kids whose families were two-culture families making their kids third-culture kids, was that the whole community of our little parking lot seemed to follow those rules that summer and for several summers after that. If the bikes were left out front, most of the kids were willing to share them. After some lessons on breaking communal property early on, they treated all of the bikes with care and respect because, in the end, if they ruined the bikes, they ruined their own ability to ride them.
Then the other night, I went to take out the garbage and saw that bike sitting next to the dumpster. I sighed as I gave my final farewell to that dear old friend. Most of the kids that used that bike have moved on and/or outgrown it. The seat is completely worn and ragged across the back. It no longer stays elevated no matter how much you tighten the bolt. One handle is missing half its grip, and the back tire is permanently flat. But the lessons and love it stood for were all learned, and now those slightly older kids are learning new lessons—caring for those younger than you, setting a good example for little ones, listening to BOTH sides of the story before you pronounce judgment, and being fair when you don’t feel like it.
I don’t think I’ve ever invested ten dollars better.