My first set of wheels was a red Radio Flyer wagon. My grandpa used to drag me to the butcher and the fish store in it, which always seemed like a lot of fun until he bought a bunch of chicken livers, or the fishmonger gave him a bag full of old fish heads to take home for our cat. I’d wind up with this stink in my lap on the way home, and then all day the kids in the neighborhood would make fun of the way I smelled. Also the wagon was never very reliable transportation, because Grandpa was in his eighties and sometimes had bursitis, so I was often left to drag around my own stinky wagon, which was never as good as having Grandpa power.
Before long I got my first tricycle. It was blue and had streamers hanging off the hand grips, but I could never get the thing going fast enough to make them stream. I tootled around in front of my house in my underwear for hours on end, carrying around a water pistol and pretending I was a policeman chasing speeders, jaywalkers, and Nazi spies. Eventually the front wheel went flat and nobody would fix it for me, so I piled it into the back of the garage with my stinky wagon.
My first bike was a Schwinn one-speed with enormous, fat tires. My dad helped me learn to ride it by guiding me around the back yard, so that when I fell (often) it wouldn’t hurt as much as falling on the asphalt of the playground. I spent a lot of time riding around the block to see if anything interesting was happening. It wasn’t. Once I figured out how to make this bike go fast I crashed it head-on into a parked car and bent the front wheel so badly that riding it felt like going on a merry-go-round pony. I eventually traded the Schwinn to a kid down the street for a used chemistry set, which turned out to be a disappointment because all the chemicals that you needed to make things explode were already used up.
When I was ten I got a paper route and used my stinky wagon until I saved up enough money to buy a three-speed Raleigh bike. It took longer than I thought to save up because the tips were lousy, maybe because too many of the newspapers wound up smelling like the wagon. The Raleigh allowed me to go uphill with ease and downhill with speed. On this dream-machine I got my first taste of the freedom of the road, venturing for miles out to the mall to look at the parakeets and hamsters at Woolworths or down to the park to play pick-up games of ball or throw nuts at the squirrels and my friends.
I got my first car in college when my brother sold me his old Ford LTD for 300 bucks. It was limited in many ways, not the least of which was how far it could go before you needed to pour another quart of oil into the engine, more coolant into the radiator, or more brake fluid into the master cylinder. This Ford gave me the most important lesson about cars that I’ve ever had, which is that, even though it might be inconvenient, it is OK if your car won’t start, but it’s really not OK if your car won’t stop. It also taught me why cars have emergency brakes, and how to have the presence of mind to use one when you’re about to die.
When the Ford finally conked out I had an extended phase of using my thumb to get around. The way this worked was I’d stand on the side of the road, trying my best not to look like a psycho killer or a drug addict, and stick my thumb up in the direction I hoped to go. Then a stream of hundreds of cars and trucks would whiz by, occasionally acknowledging my existence by giving me the finger, or shouting something witty like, “Get a job, hippy!” Eventually, if I had the patience, some old wreck of a vehicle, driven by a guy who probably was a drug addict and/or psycho killer would stop to offer me a ride, and I’d happily hop in to see how much closer he might bring me to my ultimate destination.
I finally scraped together another 300 bucks and bought a 1961 Ford Econoline van. Like my first Ford this one barely ran, but it had the tremendous benefit of being able to double as my apartment. When I was finished with my daily activities I’d park on some quiet residential street, pull the curtains and crash in my sleeping bag. This saved me a lot of money on rent, but periodically I’d get woken up in the morning by some of my neighbors pounding on the side of my home and threatening to perform even more bestial acts on my van and me. I took this as a cue to drive away to the diner for breakfast.
I’ve gone through many other sets of wheels since then, from the pick-up truck of my back-to-the-land days to the seven-seat mini-vans that often still weren’t big enough for all the kids and their teammates days. I’ve gone from zipping around on ten-speed racers to cruising bikes, with built in shock absorbers and big, fat padded seats. Lately I’ve been thinking about the coming stage of wheels, when I’ll just stick my thumb out to my iPhone and a self-driving robot will appear at my door within seconds to take me where I want to go. I just hope it doesn’t smell like chicken livers and old fish heads.