Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Unusual Commute

Fast Old Guys
The Unusual Commute
by Gregory E. Larson
           A trip on the bicycle is a sensory experience. That’s why I’ve always felt so alive while pedaling down the road. Just the memory of various smells takes me back to strawberry fields in Wisconsin, or to minestrone and pasta flavors hovering in the stone alley ways of small villages in Italy. Over the years I’ve pedaled a swath past uncounted lemonade stands, delis, pubs and grocery stores. Did you ever drink an orangina or a gassosa when you were really thirsty? Powerful stuff.
          My longtime cycling buddy, George, asked me recently (for old time’s sake) to get up early and ride with him to where he works, something we did together once a week for ten years from the suburbs to Crown Center in Kansas City. Although I’m retired, I decided to do it for the exercise (and for old time’s sake), so I set the alarm for 5:20 AM.
          The body creaked and groaned while I pulled on my bike clothes and spooned down the bowl of maple-flavored instant oatmeal. I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” but once outside, I pedaled down the street and the world came alive.
          We saw each other’s flashing headlights at our designated Park where we blended together in the pre-dawn grayness, pedaling the familiar route. That’s when the memories came flooding back.
          As we picked up speed down a hill, George reminisced. “Remember the time I hit the rabbit in the dark on this stretch?” The vision came back from years ago, of the rabbit bounding out of nowhere, right into George’s wheel and flipped into the air, just missing me as I followed behind. Anything bigger than a twig on a bike tire at thirty miles-per-hour could spell disaster. This time we both stayed upright and continued on, letting nature take its course with whatever remained of the rabbit.
          Riding through Mission Hills brought back visions of foxes wandering the creek by the country club, and raccoons peering from storm inlets in the dark of the morning.
          As we rode through the Country Club Plaza, I thought of all those early December mornings when the Christmas lights illuminated the fog. In the eerie quiet it was a magical spectacle, one which we had to ourselves as we rode the empty streets.
          Weaving around the delivery trucks, I smelled the coffee as we passed Starbucks, then began the climb out of the Plaza towards St. Luke’s Hospital. In the old days, we rode past the main entry and the chapel on Broadway, stopping at the crosswalk for the doctors and nurses in their blue and white coats, where they walked to the entry of warm air that billowed out from the building — the draft giving us just a hint of the antiseptic interior beyond the doors.
          The route now curves around the hospital — the Broadway entrance shut off from traffic years ago. North of 43rd Street, George said, “You gotta see this . . . you’re not going to believe it.” My mouth gaped open as I looked at an empty field of grass next to a parking lot on the south side of Westport.
          “This is where the St. Luke’s Fitness and Rehab Center was!”
          “Yes, they tore it down. It’s gone.”
          For years, whenever I rode past the building, I thought of the pain and torture I endured inside when I went for rehab on a pulled hamstring. My leg winced every time I looked at the building. Now there’s just a field of grass. In the back of my mind I could hear the voice of the physical therapist as she rolled the muscle-massage machine next to the cot where I lay on my side.
          “Lie on your stomach and relax. I need to work over the damaged area with this massager.” She tried several settings but nothing seemed to stimulate the hamstring. Finally she announced, “I guess I’ll have to turn it up to the Russian setting.”
          “No way! Is there really a Russian setting?
          “Yep. Here it is.” She pointed to the dial and the final position on the far right, labelled Russian.
          “Okay. Have at it.” I buried my face in the pillow and grabbed the corners of the cot with a tight grip. She flipped the switch and I screamed a silent scream at the inner-most part of my being. I screamed and screamed. The only thing worse would have been if a robust Russian lady in a white coat had put all of her body weight into the massage. The memory seemed like a figment of my imagination as I rolled past the empty field where bricks, mortar, and therapists once filled the space.
          The dumpster odors from the alleys in Westport quickly flipped my mind back to reality. As we passed Kelly’s, the smell of stale beer filled the air as sunlight shafts began to peek over the treetops. We rolled on, through the Valentine neighborhoods with stately homes built in the ’20s, the houses now looking a bit tired.
          I said “good-bye” to George as he rode to his office building at 31st and Broadway, and I turned around for the solo trip home. We had a lot of good memories from our commutes. It was a time to visit, like riding in the car and sharing graduations, illnesses and proud father moments.
          I skipped the final stretch I used to take when I rode to work at Crown Center. The cresting of hospital hill was the strongest memory of all. Every time I topped out on Wyandotte St., the Liberty Memorial loomed in the sunrise and the city skyline twinkled before me, while the theme from Rocky played in my head. It was the finale, a cue that told me I would coast the rest of the way to work, knowing that after a hot shower, I’d stop by the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and a sticky bun — my reward for fifteen miles of exercise.
          This morning, though, my reward was reliving all those past rides through the city I love, winding my way home along the familiar streets.
          Thanks George, for the memories (and for old time’s sake).

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