Post 56. Tandemonium

Guest post by Anna Mirocha

From Kay: When I first went carless, my daughter was 10. I bought us an old tandem bicycle to get around town. She was too young to fully appreciate my planetary concerns, or the fact that we’d save money, or the exercise benefits. It was a case of the parent making a decision and the kid not having much choice but to go along. Recently I asked her what she remembered about that time, and what she thought about it, looking back. This is what she wrote.

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When I was 10 years old, I lived mostly with my mother in our little house on 17th Street. I had the tiny bedroom in the back, with its own entrance to the backyard. My grandpa had originally built it to be a dark room for my father, but it became my bedroom after my parents divorced and my dad moved out.

I’m sure I didn’t love having to move there from the larger bedroom I’d had originally. But I don’t think I hated the new one, tiny as it was, or at least I got used to it. I was pretty small too, so it fit me and all my stuff. There was enough room for a twin bed, a dresser, and a little desk built into the corner with shelves, where I listened to the radio and did my homework. I even had a little old black-and-white TV my grandpa gave me when I turned 10. I was alone a lot, and I liked the TV as company, so I had it on all the time—cartoons and reruns of The Wonder Years after school, the Home Shopping Network in the early morning before the regular shows came on. I got up super early, sometimes before dawn, to get ready to catch the school bus at 7:15.

Me at 10(ish).

I did hate that my bedroom had plumbing and a big, dark-room-size sink. What little girl has a freaking sink in their bedroom?! At some point later—weeks after I’d finished a science project “racing” mealworms, when I’d found a mealworm crawling around in that sink—we uninstalled it and covered up the pipes projecting from the wall. (I clearly remember how that worm totally freaked me out, as much as I’d treated the little things as pets during my “experiment.”)

Nowadays, the sink is back again, in smaller form, because my tiny old bedroom is now my mom’s bedroom, the only room in a “real house” she lives in. Although that sink is about the size of a bathroom sink, she uses it as a kitchen sink—her outdoor kitchen is right on the other side of the back door, the same back door I came and went through at all hours when I was a teenager. The corner desk is still there, now a place for her laptop.

It’s weird to go visit her in that room, so different now from what it was when I lived there. But it’s a cool thing we share, a bedroom so central to each of our lives.

Anyway. Back to the year I was 10. Back then, other than school, my mom drove me most places I needed to go: my dad’s house, my friends’ houses, the grocery store.

Until one day when she decided she didn’t want to have a car anymore. I guess we sold it—an old white sedan, as I recall.

I think she did it partly for the environment, partly for the financial savings, and partly for the exercise. (I remember she used to do aerobics, and we usually ate frozen yogurt as a special treat. Sound like the ’90s much?)

Tucson isn’t as bike friendly as you might hear. Photo by Buzz Jackson/Flickr.

I don’t remember my mom’s actual announcement of her car-ditching plan, much less my initial reaction. But I can only assume it was negative. Very negative. Imagine being in fifth grade when suddenly your family decides to go without a car. And our town of Tucson, Arizona, is an especially hard place not to have a car. Kind like a mini-Los Angeles, but hotter, and with terrible drainage, so the streets flow like rivers when it rains. And the public transportation system is terrible, so I knew we wouldn’t be taking the bus much, if at all. We were going to bike everywhere.

I had my own bike too, but mainly what I remember is our tandem. My mom bought this beautiful, classic-looking, bright red tandem cruiser with wide seats and chrome handlebars. Sadly, as a kid, I couldn’t appreciate it. I hated the color, too—not the red so much as the bright.

More than almost anything, when I was 10 I hated standing out, getting any kind of attention. I hated getting a haircut because someone might notice and say, “Hey, I like your haircut!” If I got new shoes, people might say, “Hey, I like your shoes!” Ugh.

So this massive, shiny, fire-engine-red tandem bike was the last thing I’d have chosen as a mode of transportation. And that’s not even considering all the other aspects of traveling by bicycle that a 10-year-old (or adult, for that matter) would hate, like all the time, exertion, inconvenience and bravery it takes.

This is basically how I remember our pre-pink-makeover tandem. Except I think ours had black seats. Photo by Davide Gigli/Flickr.

Since I didn’t like the tandem’s color, my mom changed it to pale pink by neatly taping pink paper on top of the red paint. From a distance, at least, it looked like it had been painted. I don’t remember loving pink at that point in my life, but I must have thought that color was less garish than red and accepted it. (My mom later told me the pink paper ruined the bike’s paint job because the sun faded the original red wherever it showed through, in the gaps between the sheets of paper. She eventually donated it to the community bike shop. Whatever the paint looked like, I still think they scored. I wonder who got it and where it is now.)

What do I remember, specifically, about actually riding the tandem with my mom? Very, very little. Maybe that’s because at the time, I wanted that part of my life to be over as soon as possible. Now, of course, I wish I had more memories of it.

I remember going to Treat Street Frozen Yogurt. I don’t remember a specific time we arrived or left on our tandem; I don’t remember locking up the tandem or taking off my helmet (we both wore helmets, I know, though I can’t remember that either!). But I can feel the sunlight and see the Treat Street building in my head, and I think we always got there going north on Treat Street (yes, an actual street name) instead of the busier street going east to west.

For some reason I have only one solid memory of us riding the tandem together during the day. It’s us going north on Plumer Ave., a street that intersected with one of the busiest streets near our house. I remember sitting on the bike and pedaling, with my mom in front of me doing the same thing. But I don’t remember where we were going, where we were coming from, the time of year, or even the time of day. So I have no idea why I remember that moment.

Most likely that’s because it wasn’t one moment but many. Since Plumer was much less busy with cars than the other north-south street nearby, we probably rode up it dozens or even hundreds of times. But they all blend into one time for me. And there’s an arroyo on the way up Plumer, which creates a huge dip in the road. It’s really fun to drive fast through it, so I bet it was fun to ride through (at least the downhill part).

We rode at night, too. I presume the nighttime rides happened less often than the daytime rides, since biking at night is more dangerous—besides, where would a 40-year-old woman and her 10-year-old daughter be going at night, repeatedly? But I remember more night rides than day rides.

In fact, my main memory of that whole year is riding through dark neighborhood streets at night, when it was quiet and we only had the light of a few dim yellow streetlamps, our bike light, and maybe the moon. I spent most of those rides trying to look in people’s windows. And you might be surprised how many houses didn’t have curtains in the rooms facing the street. Most of what I remember seeing inside were pretty, plush living rooms with soft lighting. I guess we mostly rode through wealthy or at least upper-middle-class neighborhoods. The poorer areas would’ve probably had even worse potholes.

A rare Tucson bike lane without potholes. Photo by Travis Estell/Flickr.

Speaking of which: I don’t remember the feeling of riding over potholes on our tandem, even though there were surely a lot of them. I do remember my mom calling out to warn me when we were about to ride over a hole or obstacle.

“Bump!” she’d say.

Or, “Big bump!”

I vaguely remember a coordinated effort to take off and to brake. And we always signaled when we turned: left arm straight out if we were turning left or bent at the elbow if we were turning right.

I presume my main view when I looked forward was the back of my mom’s helmet and her back, slightly bent over the handlebars. But I can’t envision it. I suppose I got used to looking everywhere but straight ahead, since I couldn’t see where we were going—only she could see that. And only she could steer. (Hey, that’s a good metaphor too!)

I had to pedal while she was pedaling, no matter what, because the front pedals were connected to the back pedals. But I didn’t necessarily have to put much effort into it. Many years later, she told me that I often didn’t.

“I’d be struggling along, pedaling for both of us,” she said. “But then I’d feel you start pushing on the pedals, and it would get easy—like, wheee!”

One day, a little over a year into her no-car life (I don’t remember this either—I was probably living with my dad by that time), my mom was riding down a busy road near our house and was hit by a car driven by a little old Shriner, in a tassled hat and everything, while she was passing the exit to the parking lot of the local Shriner temple. He didn’t see her, and I guess he didn’t stop before crossing the bike lane. His car hit her in the left leg, just below the knee. She couldn’t walk, much less bike, for a long time. So she had to use some of the money from her accident settlement to buy another car.

In addition to my mom and I both living in that same tiny bedroom with a sink, there are lots of other little weird ways our lives are parallel. Getting hit in the left leg by a vehicle while biking is one of them. When I was 26, I was on my way to a bike path near my house and was paused at a corner, trying to cross the street, when a semi-truck turned right without seeing me. It knocked me over, crushing my bike and running over my left leg, below the knee, with two sets of its back wheels. It pulverized my tibia, and I almost lost that leg. But somehow the wheels missed my foot and ankle, so years and many surgeries later, I can still walk (and bike).

The cover of the 1998 edition with Kay’s bike article.

My mom says my accident “beat hers.”

A few years after the Shriner incident, she wrote an article for the Tucson Weekly about the whole experience: the carless life, the accident, the tandem. In it, she mentions talking about it with me, and me saying, “Oh, Mom, wasn’t that so fun?!”

“But you know what I remember about it?” she says. “A lot of complaining.”

3 thoughts on “Post 56. Tandemonium

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