07 August 2010

Assembling the Pieces

Whenever I visit my parents in Florida, I see people riding "adult trikes."  They're different from the three-wheelers some of us rode as toddlers because the adult versions have chain-and-sprocket drives, just like almost any other adults' bike, while most toddler trikes have cranks that are attached to the axle of the front wheel.  And, of course, the versions some of us rode before we could balance two wheels are smaller than the ones one sees in the retirement communities.

Most of the adult trikes also have baskets, or some other sort of carrier, between the two rear wheels.  Those bikes are something like this:

However, what this man is riding didn't start off as one of those bikes men in golf hats pedal around artificial ponds.  Rather, it was once the sort of balloon-tired bike many kids--including, perhaps, you, dear reader--rode during the 1950's and early 1960's.  Some were quite elegant, in their own ways.  Some others made conscious efforts to emulate the "streamlining" of the vessels made during the automobile's baroque era/the space program's early days.  

I tried to get the man to stop and tell me how he put the bike together.  But he didn't hear me or didn't want to talk.  Given that he was porting something in his rear basket, he may well have been in the middle of some appointed round or another.  Having been a bike messenger, I understand how he might have felt.

My guess is that the rear wheels and axles came from some kind of bicycle pushcart.  When I was a kid, Good Humor ice cream and other things were sold from them in Prospect Park and other large public spaces.  Or the parts may have come from a regular pushcart or vendor's wagon.   Whatever went into that bike, making it was certainly a creative endeavor.

Here in New York, one can see all sorts of odd, interesting and sometimes scary permutations of bikes and parts.  Nearly all of them are contraptions I would never think of riding myself, much less putting together. Then again, I've been fortunate enough to have worked in bike shops and to have found ways to gather the means necessary to put together the sorts of bikes I've wanted.  (I can't remember the last time I bought a new complete bike; I've either bought frames I've built up or have bought--or was given, or found-- used bikes that I've modified.) I have custom bikes and others I've modified, but bikes like the one in the photo are unique in ways that I never could imagine.

They make me think of some of the ways people take whatever they find and use them to create, or at least assemble, something that suits (more or less, sometimes) their needs and whims.

So, perhaps, it's no surprise that they should remind me of how languages are formed and how literature and other creative forms of expression come to be.  Much about the "product" may not make sense to those who had nothing to do with creating it or who don't use it.  It doesn't make any sense that a word that sounds like "thru" could be spelled "through" or "threw" until we realize where each of the words--and the combinations of sounds and letters that comprise them--came from. 

English, like most living languages, was assembled from bits and pieces of other languages and other kinds of sounds in an attempt to communicate as e ffectively as possible in the environment in which it was created.  Dialects and other variants of the languages come from the grafting of still other pieces in an attempt to portray realities that previous speakers didn't encounter.  The kid who first rode the bike that became the trike in the photo probably never rode a poorly-paved street in an urban area or had to carry much beyond his or her bookbag to school.  But the man riding the trike contends with those realities.  He probably doesn't have much money, so he (or whoever put the bike together) used whatever could be found that could be made to do the job.  In the process,  some of those parts were altered; on some bikes, things might be altered beyond recognition.

That's not so different from what's happened to all those words we use every day but are pronounced differently--and might mean entirely different things--from the way they were used by those who first used them. Something similar happens to music.  Listen to Julie Andrews' My Favorite Things, then hear what John Coltrane did with it and you'll better understand what I mean.

When I was young and broke (as opposed to merely poor), I assembled a couple of bikes from what was available to make those bikes work in ways and under conditions the makers and orginal owners may not have envisioned.   I have also made meals, put together outfits and, yes, written reports and even poems in a similar way.  And, as you might've guessed, I was doing something similar, in a way, when I tried to explain how I feel to members of my family and friends, not to mention doctors and others from whom I sought help.  I pulled together various words and other expressions, images, metaphors and other ephemeral intellectual and emotional flotsam to convey something that would be as new a reality to them as it was for me when I first understood it about myself.

To be one's self and to master, rather than to be subsumed by, one's environment is itself a creative act.  So is making whatever is necessary in order to be able to function in the situations one encounters.  Whoever built the bike in the photo did exactly that.

I'd love to know what that person would do with this:

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