The broken sidewalks took me where I wanted to be. The tires of my bicycle absorbed every bump, crack and uneven pavement as my bike carried me to my destination. I was a precocious eight year old; usually the leader of the pack, rarely, the follower.
My bike was made and given to me by my friend, Bill. Bill and Marilyn were my neighbors who lived in the house across the street. I never asked about their age, but if I had to guess, I’d say they were fifty year old empty nesters. Both were deaf – which I found intriguing. Why do they use their hands to communicate? Why do their voices sound strange?
When I had the chance, I would watch them from my window with curiosity. I decided I wanted to make friends with them, but my older sister would not let me. As the eldest girl in the family, it was her responsibility to watch over me while my mother worked. After weeks of pestering her for permission to walk across the street so I could introduce myself, she finally capitulated. I was allowed to go, but only if she accompanied me. I had no other choice but to agree, as it was the only way I could meet my new friends. The introduction went smoothly, but with a whisper of confusion on Bill and Marilyn’s part. They must have been thinking to themselves, “why would this little girl want to make friends with an old couple like us?”
Over the next few months, I would go to Bill and Marilyn’s house. Spending all the time with Marilyn; sitting and talking with her on her sofa or sitting at her kitchen table to watch her cook dinner. Because she was born deaf, talking was not easy for her. It was difficult for her to regulate the volume, pitch and sound of her voice in a way that most people can understand. Her words were not clear. To me, her voice sounded like the adults on the Charlie Brown cartoons. She was able to understand me because she could read my lips. Marilyn tried to teach me sign language, but I didn’t have the patience to learn. Somehow we managed to communicate and that was good enough for us.
One afternoon while playing in their backyard, I spied an old, rusty, broken down bicycle leaning against the fence in the far corner. I asked Bill to whom this bike belonged. Bill must have detected my desire to take this jalopy of a two-wheeler as my own because he gave the bike a spit-shine, slapped on new tires and graciously gave it to me a few weeks later. I was delighted and grateful to call this new mode of transportation, my new, old bike.
From that day forward, I rode my bike up and down Berryman Avenue, my street. When I felt brave, I would cross the street and ride the sidewalks of that block. Although broken, the sidewalk cut through the neighborhood’s overgrown weeds and tall grass. On occasion, I could hear the unsettling sounds of something rustling and scurrying alongside me. I was certain the tall grass was home to rats, snakes and lizards.
I loved the sense of freedom my bike and the sidewalks provided. The time and thoughts belonged only to me. No adults to say, “don’t do that” or “don’t go there”. One day, for no particular reason, I biked all the way to the end of my street, near the railroad tracks. It was the outer most section I was bold enough to go. All the kids knew, once you’ve passed Washington Boulevard, you had gone too far. I reached the corner, looked both ways at the traffic light, turned around and rode back to the safety of my block. It really was not a big deal, but I felt courageous for the effort.
One of the places the sidewalk took me was to my friend, Melanie’s house. Melanie lived on a tree-lined street with impeccable lawns and brightly colored flower beds. Although she lived around the corner from me, the houses on her street were far nicer than mine. The driveways on her street were steep and inviting to all neighborhood kids zooming around on bicycles, big wheels or skateboards. We would walk our bikes to the top of these driveways and ride down at top speed. We wanted to separate from the pack, so Melanie and I had the idea to “trick out” our bikes. With clothes pins, we affixed playing cards to the frame near the tires. The sound of the cards flapping against the spokes was gratifying. The other kids noticed and soon after, our idea was a common thing and all the rage in the neighborhood.
I became confident in my cycling abilities and my knowledge of the neighborhood sidewalks grew. With ease, I could describe the people living in a certain house and what types of cars they drove. Some neighbors were nice and waved, others would simply walk by without any gesture at all.
A sizable section of the sidewalk near my next door neighbor’s house was uplifted because of the massive eucalyptus tree roots. I knew to pedal faster there because catching “air” was guaranteed, as was the smile on my face.
My bicycle and the sidewalks fit me perfectly and it was a reflection of my personality. When I first saw the bike, it was alone but not forgotten. After minor repairs and new tires, it looked like a bike on display in a major department store. Despite the scratches and rust spots, it was functional, beautiful and served its purpose. The sidewalk represents my childhood; with the cracks, bumps, and obstacles, I maneuvered around and over them, becoming wiser and unbroken.
When the sun set and the daylight grew dim, I knew my adventures were coming to an end. I relied on the broken sidewalks to show me the way home, to the step of my front porch.