A Bicyclist’s Grammar: elk bellows’ life on Two Wheels

I am not your motorist. I am not your pedestrian. I am not your tourist. I am not your handmaiden. I bicycle. I spit and curse and evil eye the rest of you interlopers in my path. If you want to drive, and listen to music, and talk on your phone, take a road trip. Walkers, get out the bikeway, sidewalks abound for your strolling pleasure. Rent a bike on vacation, a cruiser on Santa Monica beach, and stroll the strand on two wheels. I bicycle. I get places without traffic lights and parking signs, without highway jams and parades. I push and pull, weave and waft, as the urban fabric looms. Cry me a river of “Red Light” shouts and “Stop Sign” warnings from fat-fuck drivers waiting at the corner. “Ride a Bike” I shout, but don’t mean it, because I don’t ride a bike. Kids ride bikes, down to the corner, around the block, to the ice cream store. I bicycle, I’m in control – I push the pedals to produce the power, and I knuckle the bars to make turns. I pull the levers or pump the brakes or lift the rear wheel to slow. The only riding a bike that I do is Ride the Rockies, a tour of elevations and mountains, a pleasure without purpose. It is not commuting, or shopping, or making appointments. I bicycle for those, and the only riding I’m doing dictates these lines, the thinking on the bike that foments disgust, revolution, righteous regard for all the blocks, streets, hoods that surround me.

“Rely on the active voice and forceful verbs.” (Harbrace 273)

I start with a bike from Monkey Wards. The guys from the neighborhood shame another friend and I into learning how to ride – otherwise we couldn’t be part of the gang. After a few sketchy turns in the street, I blast into a curb missing the driveway cut, end over. First lesson. I ride the sidewalks to practice, squaring the block over and over. I stick playing cards in the spokes to sound like a roulette wheel spinning. I ride to the garage the guys fix up as a clubhouse, three blocks from my house. I’m a kid riding a bike but it’s called growing up. Soon it becomes growing independent. My mother scolds two twins for riding out of an alley on their bikes without looking for cars. My mother brakes for them. It’s clear to me that cars control the streets. A bicycle is no match. I bicycle to summer camp at Regis High at 50th and Lowell. Smart students from parochial schools attend classes in the morning and play sports in the afternoon. Regis recruits the bright kids with an academic sport camp. Working on my brakes one Saturday morning, still learning bike mechanics, I think I’ve got it mastered and race down the driveway before flipping over the handlebars, having not attached the coaster brake lever to the frame. My sister finds me with my wrist bone sticking through the skin. No pedal pushing, I learn how to play handball at Regis with my left hand, since the right is broken. I learn how to handle adversity. The next summer I commute to the Denver Country Club to caddy. Daily I bicycle across town. I’m steady but can’t follow the golf ball. I guess at where it ends up. My tickets rate me poorly. After that summer I get glasses. I can see the present, the periphery, and the future. A job as a paperboy beckons. Independence, money, purpose.

“This use of evidence to form a generalization is called an inductive leap.” (Harbrace 297)

The bike shop on 44th and Zuni sells me a bike for delivering papers. Old man McLean, not a friendly man, stocks Schwinns, and two Denver Post paper stations sit nearby. It’s a heavy duty bike, compatible for box bars turned up to hang paper bags from, cut to widen the tops of the two sacks, the slices strapped to the crook in the bars with radiator hose clamps gotten from the gas station – the garage guys get bothered by paperboys buying their parts. It’s cars versus bicycles for room on the roads. A steel paper guard prevents the loaded paper bags from slamming into the spokes of the front wheel. I’m ready to work. I bicycle. I deliver papers below Tejon in the Lower Highlands of Denver. The previous neighborhood carrier moves onto high school. I learn the route, toss papers onto some porches 65 feet from the sidewalk, sidearm and overhand hook. People appreciate the accuracy, but I don’t pick up more customers. It’s not my neighborhood, mostly older Italians, and the people don’t know me from Tony. The station manager insists on sales meetings on Tuesday nights, and sometimes Thursdays. The first one I attend after collecting money one month in, I ride to Dairy Queen on 38th and Osceola and buy a banana split. It’s my prize for a good start. I skip the sales for one night.

Vary the length of your sentences, avoiding a series of short simple ones.” (Harbrace 280)

I methodically canvas the streets of my route, trying to sell subscriptions, trying to win prizes. My manager handles me, but I’m doing everything right. They are not my neighbors. The spring of seventh grade, my pace delivering papers slows. I find that I need to rest every few blocks. After a week, I realize I must be sick, since the route is taking me twice as long as usual. I tell my mother who works for doctors. Dr. Charles sees me the next afternoon, and hospitalizes me that night. I have mononucleosis, the “kissing disease” everyone chuckles. I’m in the hospital for two weeks. It’s the only time I miss delivering my route. My mother and sister handle it for two weeks. Residents tell them I’m the best. I stress over school and work, but am forced to rest, and recover. As soon as the route opens around my house, I take it.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: The assumption that because one event follows another, the first is the cause of the second.” (Harbrace 304-305)

The carrier who is giving up the route in my neighborhood takes me around during a sales meeting to teach me the sequence of streets he follows to favor the right armed toss over the hook. He shows me the new stairs in old man Tatum’s scary apartment house just a block from where I live. He says someone hanged himself in the stairwell, and that’s why the stairs had to be replaced. My bike gets stolen before I make the move. Rumors fly that it’s a paperboy who delivers the News. Another carrier lends me a spare. As soon as I can, I buy the best bike for delivering papers from old man McLean, with heavier wheels, a two-speed Bendix rear hub that switches gears with a back pedal, knobby tires for snow, thick thorn-resistant tubes, reflectors attached to the spokes where I used to insert Aces, Kings, and Queens. I’m a businessman.

Occasionally arrange ideas in an ascending order of climax.” (Harbrace 272)

Because I deliver papers in the afternoon, after school, I bicycle to St. Catherine’s. It’s not cool to bicycle to school when I could be talking to girls on the walk home. My mother covers my textbooks issued by the nuns in cut up brown paper bags from Safeway. In the early grades, I would walk home, carrying the books stacked neatly on my binder, in my left hand. If you carried a book bag or briefcase, you were uncool. Now I bicycle, because the Denver Post outshines the Rocky Mountain News that kids deliver mornings before school. The Post carriers are a community. We build circulation. We make more money. I try to play football, but I am forced to bicycle to the paper station at 32nd and Zuni, fold papers, stack them, load my bike, deliver my route, then speed back to Rocky Mountain Lake park at 46th and Grove, where the team practices. I am always late for drills. Without a father, I didn’t learn the basics early on. I can’t make it work. I resign myself to delivering papers, and pick up another route. I deliver more papers than any carrier but the head boy. People subscribe to the Post because they know me from the neighborhood. I win a baseball glove, clock radio, a large portable black and white television with a rolling stand that I give my mother, to replace the old Magnavox. I bicycle and I provide.

“A compound sentence consists of at least two independent clauses and no subordinate clauses. (Harbrace 26)

Sunday mornings, because of the comics, advertisements, and Empire magazine, I make three or four trips from the paper station to my routes. I’m up at 3:30 to get the papers out by 7 am. For years I deliver papers without missing a day, except when I was in the hospital. My mother helps me deliver papers once, from her car, on a Sunday, through a snowstorm. I wrap plastic bags around my boots to keep warm during the winter. Stainless steel lighter fluid-fueled pocket warmers offer relief to my freezing hands on early Sundays. One night collecting money at the end of the month, three guys corner me in an apartment house and rob me. I tell the police one was Negro, one Mexican, one Asian. The mix confuses me but that’s who I saw. I can’t identify anyone at the police station on 32nd Avenue, near where I fold my papers. The cops tell me to look through the outside windows at the suspects. It’s night and they can’t see me. I don’t recognize anyone. They let the teens go while my mother and I are walking away. We get a German Shepherd puppy, not as a pet but as a bodyguard for me on Sunday mornings and my collections at night. Ginger eventually follows me on the route, and when we finish on Sundays, I treat her to a hamburger from Rockybilt at 38th and Federal, where my last route ends. I eat pancakes at the outside window with her. A dog’s purpose. Late Sunday mornings, I bicycle out Zuni to 52nd Avenue, to brunch with my girl friend Carol and her parents. Her dad makes me more pancakes, and we sit in the backseat of their new Chevy driving around. I get distracted with how flabby my thighs look planted on the leather seats.

“Use a simple, straightforward style.” (Harbrace 204)

At Catholic school, to be an altar boy, I memorize the Latin mass, but can’t relate it to the English I study in school. Grammar rules and diagramming sentences make up the bulk of my language learning in grade school. Delivering papers, I recite rules for clauses and conjunctions from memory. The entire grammar book I know by heart. The litany of rules punctuates the blocks of my routes. I picture the pages of that usage guide as I throw papers onto people’s porches. I receive a scholarship to attend Regis in ninth grade. I owe it to my industry and my mother’s confidence in me. I retire the paper bike soon after the headboy’s job opens. I decline my manager’s offer of the position, since prep school now defines my focus, and extra curriculars and studies take up my time. The next summer heralds a new bike.

grammar The system of rules by which words are pronounced and arranged into the structures meaningful in a language. (Harbrace G-22)

As a golf caddy years prior at the Denver Country Club, I would bike the 20th Street viaduct across town to link up with Broadway and the rich neighborhoods east and south. I couldn’t hear the repetitive whooshing sound of the bridge girders I first noticed riding in my mother’s car as a youngster. A buddy from high school joins me as a Western Union telegram messenger. We both buy Schwinn racing bikes, the popular ten-speed Varsity, and cross the viaduct to get to downtown. We deliver telegrams from an office on 17th Street to businesses and residences as far southeast as Alameda and University. I pride myself on climbing Capitol Hill and beyond Cheesman Park in the highest gear, pushing my legs. Rich people get telegrams, so I learn the secluded location of Westwood and Circle Drives. The Weckbaugh mansion above Denver Country Club becomes a haunt of mine; I show my mom where the wealthy live well in revenge. During an August monsoon, I walk into the Federal Mint with a telegram, barefoot, after splashing my steed through flooded streets. We know all the public fountains with the coldest Rocky Mountain spring water. On the second try, I deliver a death telegram, which can only be delivered to the addressee, to a man at the Jewish Denver Town Club on Sherman. Wasting time in Cheesman Park because we’re so quick on our trips, we both witness male trysts beneath the branches of a giant fully dressed spruce. By the end of the second summer, I’m working Saturdays out of a Western Union branch in the Ghost Building on 18th Street. My friend is playing football for Regis. I deliver a telegram upstairs, and a kid steals my bike while I’m not watching it from the office. Coincidentally, my mom is moving us out of the old house to a new place near where Carol lives. I haven’t seen her in years, since she goes to Holy Family and I’m a Regis boy. I ride to the new place with my sister Norine, where I’ll live in a basement room with a window well for light. I hear the whoosh of the girders as I cross the Platte Valley above the railroad yards but don’t care. I’m not talking because my boss could have chased the thief but she refused to leave her post. It’s as dark a day as Good Friday.

“A symbol is an object, usually concrete, that stands for something else, usually abstract.” (Harbrace 502)

Another Schwinn Varsity takes its place a few years later in college. I live off campus in Highwood, winter caretaker of a tennis club, a way to finance my education. Commuting for the year the six miles to Lake Forest College, I find that Illinois motorists are less tolerant than Coloradans when it comes to bicyclists. I force the issue, riding the short route up Sheridan along a stretch that is more like a highway, and I blow a tire flattening a rim on a sewer grate I can’t avoid due to traffic. College kids think I’m nuts. No one bicycles, or they only cruise to town for Baskin Robbins. I sell the bike and graduate. It’s time to figure out my life.

Bandwagon: An argument saying, in effect, ‘Everyone’s doing or saying or thinking this, so you should too.’” (Harbrace 304)

I live in Denver with a Schwinn Le Tour, parked and locked on the porch of my place on Capitol Hill. I meet a bike guy and he asks why I’m not riding. “Messed up wheel.” He replaces it two days later, so I can bicycle, he says. I ride everywhere after that, ride all around the town, from friend to friend, enjoying the freedom and flavor without a car. I walk to work across Cheesman Park to the gardens, where I’m a temp. In the Spring, I take a job on the grounds of an apartment complex at Alameda and Monaco, and bicycle most days through Cheesman and the 7th Avenue Parkway to the Country Club neighborhood, past Circle Drive, and east out 3rd Avenue past Holly to the Crestmoor neighborhood. I know all the side streets from years of delivering papers and telegrams and commuting through Denver. I find an old cruiser and spray paint it purple with metal flake. Now I have a punk bike to wander late nights. I meet a girl with a yellow Motebecane – an oh-so-cool babe from Boulder. She bicycles all over Boulder, and around the Mile High City when she’s in town.

Verb forms indicate not only the number and person of their subjects, but also tense, voice, and mood.” (Harbrace 76)

I slide down the default bike lane on 13th Avenue, between one-way cars and parkers, expecting to slice by a driver turning into an alley but instead I strike the right rear of the Packard limping with a bust muffler and I carom across the pavement, broken glass everywhere. Unforeseen by me is a pickup exiting the alley, forcing the Packard to stop suddenly. The drivers stop, concerned for my safety, and I laugh – the glass is from my pack: I was returning an empty milk bottle to the co-op market across Broadway. The laugh is hardy. The situation of bicycling in Denver is comical. A friend tells his son who is entering the public realm to “watch out for cops and cars.” I second that emotion.

Choose words that are exact, idiomatic, and fresh.” (Harbrace 208)

Riding through downtown to meet my girl at Auraria about 7 o’clock on a Wednesday night, I am stopped at 14th Street and Court Place, pushed off the road and ticketed, twice. The police say I ran two lights. I had stopped at both, but no cars were in the mix. The officers say the tickets will cost me 24 and 32 dollars. Comes time to pay them, I ignore the bills, a first for me. I shouldn’t have to endure this disrespect, this ignorance about bicyclists’ code of conduct. I receive two notices of an impending warrant for my arrest, if I don’t ante up. They threaten to confiscate my vehicle. I’ve ridden that bike into the ground – it’s hardly worth the price of two tickets. I don’t like the prospect of jail, and defend myself in writing, with a check for partial payment. They refuse the check and dictate that I must show up in court to make arrangements. I pay my fines and pass on a lengthy explanation of this harassment to the Rocky, which covers more local news than the Post. They don’t care to print it.

Use the subjunctive to express wishes or a hypothetical, highly improbable, or contrary-to-fact condition.” (Harbrace 92)

I break the frame of the Japanese-built Schwinn Le Tour by the rear hub – through torque and tear – and buy an Alan tricked out by a Boulder shop owner, an aluminum frame with a bronze perforated sprocket. People stop me to talk about it, but I’m clueless about the components. The bike has the brakes reversed on the handlebars, French style, and I flip end over near Circle Drive front-brake stopping for a big-haired blond in a Jaguar. For a summer solstice party, I ride up to a friend’s house near Rollinsville and barrel down CO-72 passing a pickup on my return to Denver. I experience a wobble on the Alan, and find the glued aluminum frame doesn’t handle like my steel Le Tour. My bike guy adds screws to the lugs, and pink streamers to the drop bars – I go with it. Too many serious bike-nauts. Then he cuts the cable lock on a Gitane track bike locked at a friend’s house, demonstrating how easy it would be to steal. He offers me the bike for $75, what he gave the guy to make a point. I bicycle to work without brakes on a fixed gear, and slide into stops more than once before I learn to hop the rear wheel.

“Occasionally, writers deliberately use fragments for emphasis.” (Harbrace 30)

The guys from Turin who bicycle seriously don’t invite me to join the club, so I take a trip with my cycle buddy to Bisbee, to tour all day and drink all night. Two weeks later, we drive to Chicago with my Alan on the roof of his Pinto. He drafts a semi for over a hundred miles to save on gas. He drops me in Downer’s Grove where I stay with friends, before bicycling across Chicago and north to Lake Forest for a college reunion. The warehouse delivery trucks and railroad tracks on the West side pose repeated problems. Sheridan Road north is no more accommodating to bicyclists than it was ten years prior. Bicycling for the sake of transportation emerges as a conscious decision: it is now in my blood.

Relate each sentence to the main idea of the paragraph.” (Harbrace 313)

After a late night at the Punch Bowl on Stout carousing with friends, drinking warm Guinness, I bang into the chain link fence just doors down from the duplex I share with my girl from Boulder. Bust a thumb. A van on Colfax turns in front of me and I hit him on purpose to make a point. A block from the house we buy, a van pulls out from the driveway at Hirschfeld Towers and runs me over. I’m bicycling with a light at dusk on my Stumpjumper – mountain bikes all the rage. The cop acts like it’s my fault – my bike is totaled; I hobble around after ending up under the front of the van. I take pictures with the camera I always carry, to document the injustices I suffer. The cop doesn’t offer to take me home. I limp the block and a half home, pissed at my treatment. The Stumpjumper gets replaced with an MB-4, the last of the Japanese Bridgestones.

colloquialism” A word or phrase characteristic of informal speech.” (Harbrace G-16)

My daily commute takes me alongside the Denver Country Club, on that narrow walk that doubles as the Cherry Creek path. At the end of each day, I salivate, expectorate, pontificate, want to eviscerate the drivers I face in jams backed up from the worst intersection in Denver, University and the Speer terminus at 1st Avenue. I spit on every car I pass. When cars stop to let me pass at intersections, I yell at them. They break my rhythm by trying to be nice. A green neon light on my down tube run by a generator spun by the spinning wheel makes me the brightest phantom on the road. I realize my anger is dangerous, and so I transfer the aggression to writing sermons like Jonathan Edwards about the redemption inherent in bicycling, and the condemnation that driving in the city forebodes. Like the elk bugling in Estes Park, I’m bellowing about pollution and traffic jams corroding the urban architecture of my green meadows. Elk Bellows becomes my radical guise for bicycling agitprop.

“The position from which the action is observed – the person through whose eyes the events are seen – is the point of view.” (Harbrace 501)

By now I have a shed full of bikes, from a gold English Raleigh touring three speed with chrome fenders, to a Gitane folder I pedal around the campus where I work as Grounds Manager, to the Alan, the Gitane track bike, the purple cruiser, the MB-4, and a pull-apart with a Bendix hub that I pick up for $20 at a garage sale. A child is born, and I attach a seat to the top tube of the purple flake cruiser, with pegs on the down tube for his feet, as he grips the handlebars for a front row view. We pass riders on the bike path as the three of us tour the South Platte. My son gets a bike but can’t quite balance. He takes it up the next Spring, and is standing on the top tube doing tricks the first day. In grade school, the kid outfits a low rider bike that’s the envy of the Mexicans in the hood. In high school, he bicycles to school on the Gitane track bike, a school of rich slackers with learning differences who motor to school in Bimmers and Audis. They find him strange.

Commas separate items in a series.” (Harbrace 132)

Bicycling two miles to campus every day, I race by a dog that persistently tails my pants legs, scratching to grab hold. I try yelling. I try kicking. I try dousing him with water. Nothing abates the attacks. I fill my water bottle with vinegar and squirt the hellhound in the eyes. It works. On the job, I trade out my commuter for the yellow Gitane folder to survey the grounds. My brother-in-law says a woman from campus called into a morning radio show and exclaimed about the great clothes and little bike that the Grounds Manager sports. He knows it’s me. Denver starts building a series of bike paths along Cherry Creek and the Platte River connecting the parkways between city parks. I ride these paths and research the history of roads and parks in Denver. At the Bug Theatre I perform a sardonic piece about an urban planner gone berserk as he sees the parkways of North Denver abandoned to car traffic while those on the south and east sides in richer areas are preserved. As an original North Sider, I say to hell with cars.

“Use parallel structure to express matching ideas.” (Harbrace 253)

We Ride the Rockies in 1996. It’s an excuse for me to buy a new Schwinn, a Peloton, as the company tries to regain traction after Chapter 11. They play the nostalgia ad game with Ole Blue Eyes trying to win back my generation. Le bon fils has put in time at shops, and packs our road bikes for the bus trip to start. The first night in Cortez, the restaurants are closed except for one Mexican food joint, where the owners call on every member of their extended family to either bring food or help cook. I enjoy my first pass at riding a bike without the purpose of a commute or job. At the top of Lizard Head Pass, the tour marshals hold the ridersbecause it’s snowing, but my son takes off and passes the Fat Tire truck on the way down. Viva la bicicleta, he’s got it. I take up the tour again in 2001, and motor to the top of Trail Ridge ahead of my two younger companions: one misses the second day sick, the other the last day because of leg cramps. In 2003 on a rest day in Gunnison, a crew of friends takes turns riding a tandem in an exhibition race featuring Nelson Vails. We sport cowboy shirts with the sleeves cut off, along with straw hats. Riders and spectators ask where we came from, like Sundance and Butch.

“The indicative mood makes assertions.” (Harbrace 80)

The school where I work as a teacher moves from a campus just a mile from my house, to which I walk or bicycle, to a new facility seven miles away. I bicycle a few times, but don’t treasure arriving in a cold sweat. I buy a Vespa and make that my major means of transportation for more than a decade.

To avoid stringing main clauses together, relate them by using subordination and coordination.” (Harbrace 244)

Come September 2012 I inaugurate Pedal the Plains with a few friends, and fight a head wind for 60 miles on day two. I tell friends to just say “wind farms” if I ask them to ride the next year. I ride the next year. I ride the first four years, liking the flats over the trial of climbing Monarch Pass, always my Achilles heel on Ride the Rockies.

“A writer may omit the comma after an introductory adverb clause if the omission does not make reading difficult.” (Harbrace 130)

In 2013 I resurrect my commuter, a Schwinn Searcher, and outfit it with Arkel panniers, and seriously bicycle once again, carrying shirt, tie, and jacket with me to don after sponging off each morning. The highlights of the ride each day include leisurely rides through Cheesman and City parks, at dawn and early afternoon, and sometimes past the A-frame former Wienerschnitzel cum coffee shop on Colfax, where the hostesses hula hoop in halter tops to attract customers on the morning commute. I ride 85 days. In 2014 I ride 95 days. In 2015 I ride 115 days. No one else on a staff of 60 plus, mostly left leaning progressive types, rides on a regular basis. One techie rides in the Fall but fails to take it up again in the Spring. In 2016 I Ride the Rockies once again, with the boy and one of my friends, and a few other mates all younger than me by a decade. Vail Pass stymies me on the Triple Bypass, but I best the rest of the ride. From the looks of the Rockies’ riders, bicycling is the new golf, as middle aged men cloak themselves in outrageously colorful clothes to make business contacts over relaxed competition. In 2017 I handily climb Monarch on the last day of the Ride.

“Omit the comma after introductory prepositional phrases when no misreading would result.” (Harbrace 131)

I ride a Soma Stanyan, the newest steel steed in my stable of cycles. I continue to yell at drivers who act like they’re the only ones on the road. Colorado fails to institute the Idaho stop. I roll through stops anyway to stay out the way of traffic. Drivers don’t get it. Bicyclists are supposed to adhere to the same laws that govern motorists, but this is fallacy dictated by ignorance. The bicyclist cannot hold his own to a car, keep a lane to himself in heavy traffic. On one-ways, the bicyclist gets pushed far to the right-hand gutter, where drains and the ridge of asphalt that borders the concrete curb turn otherwise simple travel into an orbit of Hades. The bicyclist routinely runs the gauntlet of car doors opening or drivers speeding past to turn across his path at the next corner. Once the bicyclist gains momentum, he doesn’t like to give it up. I work too hard to consider stopping or dismounting at every corner. I bicycle less to commute, more to relax. I vent my stress. I lose ten pounds. I see the world in present tense, the world that surrounds me. Be. Here. Now. I bicycle and the elk bellows. “War on Cars” becomes my political affiliation. I’m 69 and I ain’t gonna suck your exhaust anymore. Thank Jesus I’ve never owned a car, or I would be dead of obesity and anxiety. Get a Life. Ride a bike!

“Use the exclamation point to show strong emotion.” (Harbrace 167)

Quotes are not from Elk’s grade school grammar, long ago memorized and abandoned, but from his college handbook:
Hodges, John C., et al. Harbrace College Handbook, Twelfth Edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

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