In the late ‘70s, a new store opened in my hometown. Let’s call it Street Smart.
I know—or at least suspect now—that what I thought of then as the grooviest shop run by the coolest cats was just another retail effort run by a likely undercapitalized and indebted crew living in a heavily mortgaged split-level in the neighborhood’s newest subdivision, one that wouldn’t weather well with age. These people did not drive Ferraris or work as real entrepreneurs and likely never read all seven volumes of Proust. So why was I enamored?
Oh, I just thought they were the shit.
As with many small-town grinds, I don’t even recall whether they survived or failed. Regardless, it doesn’t matter.
For a brief period, though, during that special awakening teens commonly experience in junior high, Street Smart’s owners and customers were the privileged ones. These, I figured, were the affluent with the country club memberships, summer European vacations, river views and probably a Mercedes. You know the ones. The tank-like 300Ds resembling uninspiring boxes. This was the monied class, the one with the kids wearing new shoes sporting the colorful swoosh on the side, the brats traversing town on their Peugeot 10 speeds or, better yet, sprinting around on Puch Maxi scooters.
These teens rode their prizes to school, then walked the halls with those shoes. No way to compete for girls with that competition. No sir.
You could buy all that shit—American Nikes, French racing bicycles and Austrian mopeds—from the same fucking store. Except, well, unless you weren’t of that caste.
There’s no way in hell my mom was paying the going rate for a pair of Nikes. Wasn’t going to happen, not when her favorite clothiers were Value City and T.J. Maxx’s.
It got worse.
At some point my mom decided she fancied a Garelli Sport. These things were all the rage. This is when my dad became an official Street Smart customer. But I don’t know what happened, really. I was never invited to accompany him, and now I believe that was no accident or oversight. My parents definitively didn’t view me as possessing the maturity or discretion necessary for riding a motorbike in traffic, though the law would have permitted me, as a 14-year-old, to obtain the required license.
No, I was forbidden to even ride the damn thing, though I’d sneak it around the yard and neighborhood. I even managed to auger it in, once, trying to ride it while locked (the steering mechanism would freeze the front wheel in a tight right-hand turn). But a kid’s got to try, right?
Soon my mom face-planted. Likely she panicked approaching US 20. Front brake on gravel. Forever a bad combination.
Our neighbor—a Vietnam vet, police officer and childhood hero—raced to the scene and helped my dad get her to St. Luke’s across the river in Maumee, after first cleaning up the blood in a gas station bathroom. That’s how I remember the story, at least.
The ER docs sent her home with a broken nose and bandages. One septorhinoplasty later and there was no chance my nagging could wear her down down and I’d receive permission to ride that little blue beast.
Two more years would pass before I’d convince my dad to buy me my own bicycle, all my other rides being hand-me-downs until my 16th birthday, when I’d receive a beautiful gloss-black steel 12-speed Concord Selecta Freedom Deluxe with Kuwahara tubing and pinstriped lugs, a bike I’d later convert to a classic Campagnolo drivetrain with quick-release 27-and-a-quarter-inch wheels.
Though the rest of the Street Smart gang were probably receiving coming-of-age favors from girlfriends or BMW 320is for their sweet sixteens, I didn’t care. I finally had, for the first time, my own wheels. And off I went.
Later I’d purchase meticulously manufactured carbon fiber frames mated to indexed shifters and fine imported French wheels shod with handmade German rubber. Imagine my surprise when my favorite 50-mph record downhill outside town remained unsurpassed with these indulgent technologies. As seasoned cyclists say, steel is real. The old lead sled was special. It’s the one I wish wouldn’t have gotten away.
My dad passed. My mom turned terminal. There was an estate to settle. I had my own kids and the proverbial mortgage, so what was I to do?
I’ll tell you what I did.
I bought my kids Nikes. Then my daughter a Gary Fischer, complete with colorful spokey-doke wheel decorations, and later my son a motor bike he’d use touring the neighborhood. So much so he destroyed the rear gear, necessitating talking my local bike shop guys into hacking off the crappy factory cog in favor of a machined and serviceable BMX race-ready sprocket.
Our home may not boast river views. We might not tour the Vltava. I may not indulge cocktails Fridays at the club. But we have wheels, as well as sporty shoes and some well-developed street smarts. And enjoy them, we do.