In those days as now, I pedaled a big red monstrosity to school every day. I’d head-in quite early, then pedal back very late every night. Sometimes I rode along Edgewood, sometimes Chapel, sometimes Whalley. Edgewood was nice for its old redbrick schoolhouse, kids’ laughter, soccer balls bouncing on asphalt. Whaley was fun because hip-hoppers bounced in lowriders or drag-raced along it on motorcycles. Chapel was there for when you preferred quiet.
Lovely as all these routes were in their ways, echoes would tell me that I rode on borrowed statistical time…
I recalled telling a sweet older couple I’d worked for that I would be going to Yale. They’d looked at me gravely and said that New Haven was dangerous. Nothing to say about Yale, just New Haven. Poverty, crime, violence… Might as well live in Beirut or Belgrade. The university plowed nothing back in the city. Dreadful place. This they averred from experience, having been students there decades before.
Not just them. It seemed nearly everyone in Kansas City had a horror story about Yale just because yah, New Haven. One guy said ‘coal town’ or some such phrase I’d never heard before and feel dirty repeating. Another couple said keep off of Whalley especially, then exchanged serious, ‘remember-that?’ glances.
This all surprised me. Not just the warnings, but also the intimate knowledge they all seemed to have of New Haven topography.
I didn’t worry, though. I’d lived in allegedly ‘rough’ places and liked it. Even chose my first flat in Kansas City partly on the strength of a prostitute’s propositioning me there from the stairwell. ‘Hey Baby.’ No one had called me baby before. I was surprised by how happy it made me. So I stayed.
I’d had this old yellow Moped back then, back in Kansas City, an olive drab GI helmet from World War II, torn clothes that I wore red pajamas under and a ragged old bees-waxed hunting jacket from England. I’d ride everywhere east of Troost – ‘bad area’ – with impunity. Buzzing through scary-rep neighborhoods early mornings in April when it was still cold, tartan scarf waving behind at those staring.
(Yah, ‘dangerous’ people just gaped in apparent confusion. That meant I was safe, seemed to me – Dick Nixon ‘mad man’ theory, I reckon – so I sought a job with the Pinkertons on Broadway. Harmless hipster or Section 8 dweller. What better disguise?)
I figured I’d play this same gig in New Haven. I didn’t have the Moped – that had got stolen – but like I said I had this big monstrous bike, a strange-looking one-speed with crooked red top-bar. At a store I’d found rollerblade helmets were cheaper than bike ones so I bought one for riding. It was gigantic and red, made me look like a four-limbed part-amputee insect. Still does, really… So I’d still look Section 8.
Anyway, nobody bothered me along Edgewood or Chapel or Whalley any more than they had east of Broadway or Troost, even on ‘rough’ bits and even though sometimes I’d hear about shootings or stabbings that happened on my route within hours of my passage, before or after.
(New Haven had wonderfully detailed local news reporting on TV at night. Very weird shit – teenage prostitution rings run out of mayors’ offices, bears killing old people on walking trails, governor getting free work from construction companies on his private mansion. Everything right out of Dostoevsky or Hammett. Best shit on television.)
People offered to sell me drugs or sex when I rode and they often seemed friendly or curious. Commerce and conviviality went together here like I figure they might have done at an old village fete or a medieval fair. ‘Simpler times.’ I smiled and waved, sometimes stopped and talked and said I couldn’t stay long enough to buy anything even if sometimes I wanted to. This simply wasn’t a problem, so far as I could tell. But still I heard echoes of warnings. ‘Only a matter of time,’ ‘luck runs out,’ ‘frequency theory of probability,’ etc.
Then this happened on Chapel.
The day’d begun bright blue and yellow, a billowing-Swedish-flag kind of day, and the weather reports promised no change for hours. I left my rain clothes at home and rode in to school.
All day was bright and the same. I went to a guest speaker’s talk – they always had Famous People there giving talks – and hung around outside with colleagues thereafter till seeing the sky outside suddenly change. It got dark charcoal gray just like God had been smoking a cig and now made us the ashtray while talking to somebody else. Big scary black-ashes sky, God out to lunch without mobile access.
I ran to my bike to head home and said shit about not having brought along rain clothes. Then I raced fast along York up to Chapel. I was hoping I might beat the storm.
When I got there and turned right the sky began rumbling and suddenly clapped. Fuck… I was just instantly freezing and soaked. Cold dark and gray as the cigarette sky, only hosed now as well. New Haven here was the Long Island Sound in an early March squall. Everything water and weight and the worst kind of from-the-bone shivers.
I can’t overstate how much this sucked – the sheer weight and violence of this cold heavy water. It was slapping me hard, down, like it wanted to crush all my dreams. I couldn’t see anything. I hunkered my head to keep all the Niagara out of my eyes, and slowed down the pace of my ride to a bit less than sluggish. Chapel was leading me someplace that I couldn’t see.
Ever walked into Canadian wind?
Halfway home I looked up and then seemed to be seeing an intersection. The only one with a light and it looked to be dimly green. I sped up to make it before it went yellow.
And now he was there. Huge human form, head bowed, baggy-clothed-soggy, all wet and mute. Right here before me as if he’d materialized ex nihilo at that instant. Seemed rather big and I am 6’5”.
I yelled fuck and yanked both my brakes but too late. Too wet: braking had no effect. I slammed into the human and flew over my hands toward the street. I heard a thin, crackly clacking sound as what I guess was the plastic of my helmet hit asphalt.
I was probably knocked out a second because I recall slowly waking. I looked up and saw that the human was standing, all vague and wet. Benjy Compson, Benjy Compson. Maybe I’ll die now, I thought. I could see all my Kansas Citians shaking their heads, telling my body that I had been warned.
‘Fuck! Ugh, man,’ I sort of groan-moaned bewildered and slowly rose back to my feet. The rain was still slapping us down. ‘I’m so sorry man. Shit. I didn’t see you. My brakes didn’t work. The rain. Rain’s in my eyes. God, I’m so sorry. Are you all right, are you definitely OK?’
He was still groggy and blinking. Evidently like me trying to reorient. He didn’t seem to hear me at first. Then he did. He said slowly ‘yeah, I’m all right…’ Then:
I’ve not been back to Kansas City long enough since this happened to tell them about it. I stayed northeast. I hope that they read this though. I’m all right. You?