Thursday, April 30, 2015

Precarious but Jubilant Control: On Oliver Sacks and his Bikes

Earliest I can get out for an evening ride now is 8pm. Traffic is just starting to ease. It is hard to squeeze in a ride, because a ride is for getting out from being squeezed. But a squeezed ride is better than no ride.

My neighborhood is called Shaw or U Street Corridor. Sometimes I feel guilty for living here, since it once had a vibrancy and community that could never be mine. I am an immigrant to it, and others like me have overrun it, so links to its past days are now just gestures, ways of cashing in, what some call "swagger-jacking."

Not all was good. There used to be an open-air crack market on the corner of S and 7th, near the Wonder Bread factory and the UNCF building, where these days Howard University girls in Uprising Muffin Shop debate Almond Explosion vs. Cherry Bomb varieties to go with their latte. If I could speak to them, were I not at 20mph riding by in a hurry to get in a workout, I'd recommend what I had on Saturday, the Almond--it has a molten chocolate center. True fact.

Twenty years ago a drug kingpin named Baldie lived there. He owned two adjacent town homes; one for his family, one as a kind of crack and weapons warehouse. When the police came to search his house, they found nothing until his young daughter let slip that everything was next door. They found bricks of uncut crack and an arsenal of automatic weapons, and Baldie went to prison.

Florida and T's Howard Theater, where Howard Scurlock took this pictures in 1936:

I'm forced onto the sidewalk when 7th hits Florida. "Maaaaaayn," says a man on the corner, "ten years ago I'd 've knocked this white boy off his bike."  The prepaid phone shop on the east side of the street plays go-go's bump-ba-ba-DUMP-baaaa-ba-DUMP beat from 9 till 5 every day but Sunday, and the streets and sidewalks are blocked off and pitted with craters from the trucks and cranes building the huge condos for the rich people somehow drawn here. I almost apologize.

Was a parking lot flea market and host of crackheads and slingers and prostitutes and Velvet Lounge proto-hipsters, and the brave gays of Nellie's.

Is new condos, bars, out-of-towners, bros, douches, $1,000-dollar strollers. Where I live.

I head up 13th Street's steep hill next to Cardozo High School, site of "Don't Copy that Floppy" in 1992. Now host to rugby practice, recreational co-ed soccer leagues, and a shrinking student body.

I turn on my lights as I hit Mt. Pleasant, head down Park into the park, and then start climbing the hills I've climbed for almost a decade.

I think about the words I'd read earlier, written by the great Dr. Oliver Sacks'--a character Robin Williams played in the film Awakenings--about his own life, viewed from the edge of its own death.

"Most of all, I loved motorbikes," his memoir begins. "Images of bikes and planes and horses merged for me, as did images of bikers and cowboys and pilots, whom I imagined to be in precarious but jubilant control of their powerful mounts."

That's some fairly gay imagery right there, and also compelling, even to a sad ol' hetero like me.

Up 27th street I think of Christopher Hitchens, who, like Sacks, wrote a death memoir. His begins:
I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.
Death leads both men to put into words a feeling--Sacks' of liberation and power, Hitchens' of the opposite.

Up Brandywine I try to remember another death memoir from philosopher David Hume, who wrote :
In spring 1775, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution.
I remembered how he moved himself into the past:
To conclude historically with my own character. I am, or rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments); I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions...
Would I have the balls, discovering my own limited time, to move myself into a bygone, a has-been, a done deal? Would I be cool with myself in the past tense?

The past...this is what Sacks uses when he writes that he loved motorbikes, even as he is still alive and still loves them. (If you don't have time for memoir, read Sacks' perfect piece about it in a New York Times column last month.)

The death of a neighborhood is not at all like the death of a person, but Sacks' death feels to me like the loss of a small shop where I have sometimes lived. Same with Hitchens. These little shops of thought pass on, closed down, and soon the whole neighborhood is transformed into private residences of others, who have enough money and privacy to avoid us.

We are moved by what moves us, Sacks wrote of music, but the words could easily be meant as literal--the bike.

But less literally: goodbye, Dr. Sacks. You move me.

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