Sunshower is not what you think it is. Sunshower hit me hard a long time ago and has found me again. It left my head warm and my skin red, as I was overwhelmed with the message the rush of water brought to me.
Robbie and I were peddling our dirt bikes on the streets of Wakefield, Massachusetts, forty-six years ago. We were eleven, it was summertime and didn’t we look just fine. Rob had come up with an idea, and his brainstorms were sometimes dangerous, often illegal and always ill-advised. In those days, he would float each of his ideas to one good friend at a time, just to gauge whether or not it was out of the question. Today, it was me.
Rob’s dad kept various lengths of metal tubing in his barn. Rob thought it would be cool to stick those tubes onto our bikes’ front forks, to extend our wheels like choppers. How did I feel about this idea? Well, my dad had a saw that cut through metal and a drill I could sneak out of the house when my mom was making the upstairs beds. I was game. We planned to do the work the next weekend; his parents would be on a few hours’ trip and we’d not be spotted on our secret project.
My small, mismatched Frankenbike could certainly use some wow factor. Its flaking handlebars were stripped, which meant that they would swing up or down when I leaned forward or back– not very safe but we’d tightened it as much as we could. I had an authentic BMX saddle seat that was the envy of friends but truth be told, it felt hard after an hour or so. I spent a lot of time riding “standing up” on my pedals– just to keep off the seat for a bit.
Worst of all, my bike was heavy. It wasn’t made of lighter-weight alloys like the rich kids’ bikes. Those boys had gorgeous straight-bar frames that just seemed to jump into the air. And their colors! Chrome silver or red– kids would stare in awe. The paint finishes were certified GCS– Gum Chew Stopper. Mark, a kid from across town who we’d catch glimpses of but didn’t know personally, had such a bike. Rob and I knew he competed in racing, and that he was tough, but we didn’t know much more than that.
My frame was curved, common steel, rattle-can-painted by me and Rob on newspapers spread out beside his barn.
“Not everyone is like you,” he said. “And so’s the same with your bike.”
I had ditched my wimpy stock tires for new knobby versions– encouraged by Rob who helped me put those tires to good use. They gripped the road better, and I loved how they sounded on our streets. That’s right, a pedal-bike’s tires had their own noise quality. You had to be a rider, with your ears positioned as only a rider’s could be, to hear them at their most glorious. Turning the bike in slow Ss gave the best wet, rippling sound imaginable, and boy, did I get carried away doing just that. Each street had its own personality– Kimball, Cordis, Vernon and Lowell– and their surfaces would come to life when good tires gripped them.
Rob and I cut the four longest tubes we could from his dad’s stock, to about sixteen-inches, and fitted them to our front forks. We drilled a hole through the tubes for the wheel to screw on, and as quick as that, we had what no other kid had– choppers!
“The tender chicks will dig us,” he assured me.
“How could no one have thoughtten of this?” I added.
At first all went well. We were riding high! Then Rob popped a wheelie and his chopper assembly dropped off– the wheel and its two clanging tubes. This led him to yell for help as he frantically peddled in a mad game of Keep Your Fork In The Air. He crashed, of course, he couldn’t ride a wheelie forever, and a millisecond before he and his bike ground to a stop he said, “We just need screws to hold these on.”
Our chopper forks were too long. We didn’t want to admit it, but it was true. Our desire for attention was so much that we just couldn’t bear the thought to go shorter. The tubing gave us a high front-end posture that looked racy, but boy was it hard to pedal and steer. We could ride quite well going downhill, and even peddling on level streets wasn’t too hard for short periods. Going uphill was impossible and Wakefield was a hilly town.
There were other problems. My knob tires would scrape the tubing– the metal wasn’t curved to accommodate the wide rubber. And we didn’t have a good screw and nut system to keep the extenders straight and sturdy. I went to Schwinn Cyclery on Albion Street where I’d bought my tires and hand grips. The man at the counter smiled when he saw what I’d done. “You can’t do this,” he said, giving the tubes careful study. “Oh my gosh, no. Not this way, at least.” He paused, rubbing his chin. Then he said, “There are other options.”
I looked at his $75 Mongoose forks and aluminum star wheels he had for sale. I didn’t have anywhere near that kind of money. Heck, I had hardly any money at all. The waffle grips I’d bought from him cost $1.26. I remember the price because I had to count out the coins on this very counter, partially from pennies I found in parking lots on the trek to the shop. I didn’t want to hear about options.
Rob and I quietly restored our bikes to their stock configurations. It was a relief for our tired legs. We returned the chopper tubing back to the barn, and never said another word about it.
One day I was riding home from the bike shop and I ran into Mark, right at the corner of Main Street at Aame’s Drug store. There was no avoiding him. I’d got off my bike to take an admiring look at the plastic oval racing placard I’d just bought. It was bright blue and the Schwinn owner had thrown in a large sticker of the number of my choice– Black 7. He’d tie-wrapped the perforated placard to my handlebars, which thankfully Rob had sanded, painted flat black, and torqued real tight before I’d set out that morning.
Mark stopped his beautiful Redline-brand machine next to me and smiled. Oh, crap, I thought.
“Nice placard,” he said, bemused. “We use those for competition, not for the street.”
“Yeah,” I replied, as if he’d said, “You’ve picked the best color out of all they have to sell.”
I couldn’t believe Mark was standing with me. He was the perfect BMX kid, muscular, not too tall, and good-looking. My friends guessed he came from money. We knew so little about him, and here he was! He had a reputation for being tough– not a bully, but tough– and I was glad our schools were a mile apart. Mark was not the kid I’d want to run into in the hallway.
My friends regarded him as the top racer in our part of the state. He was reputed to have a professional bike, fully tricked out, in addition to the sharp everyday ride he was on today. His eyes were on my bike. “Caldor special?” he mocked. “What have you done to it?”
It didn’t take much for me to feel very small, very quickly. I must have turned a shade of red and I’m sure he noticed. I say this because he started his “What have you done to it” in a degrading way, but changed his tone mid-sentence. It was fascinating to hear, really. What started out as “Oh my God, you’ve ruined an already crappy bike!” had transformed into something more of a peer’s curiosity.
Just because he’d seen my reaction.
I rubbed the front of my nose and said nothing. What could I say about the choices I’d made? My small plastic Count Chocula propeller spun lazily in the wind, clamped near my left handle grip– it was the cereal box toy that Rob had begged me to throw away. Mark smiled and got his bike in motion. He rolled past me towards Schwinn and then stopped and turned around. “I’ve seen you ride,” he said. “Those wild Ss. Nice control, Hagopian. You have good posture.” And then he was gone.
Later, Rob was incredulous. “You saw Mark?”
“He’s seen you riding?”
“HE KNOWS YOUR NAME?”
“He saw the stupid Count Chocula thing? Hey, teach me how to do those Ss. You ride ’em standing on the pedals, right? That’s your secret. It’s your thing. You pedal for speed and then you’re coasting? Let me try it.”
A week or so later Rob and I were out riding. I don’t remember what business we had on Emerald Street that day. It was very hot, and the street was steep. Maybe we were collecting on Rob’s paper route? Perhaps we were simply exploring an area just past Salem Street and outside the familiar edge of our neighborhood. We rode up the hill, to a place new to me.
In a quick turn of events, heavy clouds appeared, and it began to rain– hard. Within twenty seconds we were soaked. We didn’t dare ride down the street– no one was going anywhere at this moment. We laid our bikes on the sidewalk and watched the flash flood slosh down the hill.
Within seconds an impulse struck us. We both picked an edge of the street and laid down in the surge. It was as simple as that. Laying by the curb, we were engulfed in the rushing rainwater, turned hot by the street.
Don’t believe for one second that the water was particularly dirty or contaminated. That street was cleaner than most public pools. I was there– and in it! No leaves or trash of any kind. We weren’t ducking debris or anything gross or rancid– that water was as fresh as could be.
A fast, heavy volume washed over me. Oh, the feeling of natural liquid heat! And then words came to my mind: “You’re a happy kid.” I was inspired to rejoice in that sentence, over and over, as the seconds passed. “You’re a happy kid! you’re a happy kid.”
It was the pleasure of a lifetime.
The rainwater, at that temperature on that street at that age drove those words into me. I basted in them. It wasn’t a command. It wasn’t a cue to study harder, or to be a good boy, or to stop stealing candy at Lil Peach, or to appreciate the things I had in life. The reveal was an understanding that I was, and had been, and would always be happy, in my days before and for today and a lifetime hereafter. Not everyone was going to be. Not all the time, and for some people, hardly ever.
I lay in the road, and the message came to me. Over the years I would have setbacks, a sprinkling of unhappy moments in time, but the childlike joy is my compass. This is how my bottle floats. Sunshower was a blessing.
Today I live in a house I bought this month. The neighborhood was recently built in a forest clearing and one Saturday morning I noticed something. At about 8:30 the sun eclipsed the pines and shone through my bathroom’s narrow opaque bar of windows, fully illuminating the tiled bathroom shower. That may mean nothing to most people. To me, it had glorious potential. Being showered within bright natural light took my mind back to the sensations and ideas of July 1976.
The hot water brought it back to me. It’s so easy to recall so much. The people from that summer came alive.
The shower is relieving. There are no cares because it’s a Saturday and I can stake my hours as I wish. I can stand still as long as I want to, daydream and think.
And then, oh, there it is! Someone had said something to me that July. You read it when he said it. When I’m standing on the tile with the hot water on my head, I can hear his voice and see his expression. And– I wish I had responded. Wish I could get the moment back. I want to try it again, my reaction to him I mean, because I think I missed a great opportunity. I was foolish and didn’t do anything with his words.
That’s what sunshower brings to me. It brings me a chance to make remedy.
The sun provides beyond light and heat, it works with the materials at hand to transform them, quite obviously and also much less so. Gently today, through ice-block windows. Violently yesterday, with rainwater rushing down its hot pavement servant. The violence brought me exhilaration and the understanding that I was a happy kid. The gentleness– again, all from the sun– allows me, present tense, to pick up what someone said, a long time back, and take it– take him– as far as we can go. Right now.
He said something to me, and I can’t shake it.
Did you notice it too? When he spoke to me? And how I’d done nothing?
When I’m in my house’s sunshower, and the hot water strikes, oh it’s so easy to hear what he said, and to imagine reacting differently. It’s so simple, how can I not share it with you? He wasn’t talking about what I thought was evident. Instead, he was giving me an invitation and I didn’t pick it up. He told me there were other options. What had been my reaction? I’d walked away.
Here’s what comes to mind, and please do come with me on this. The bike shop owner was telling me there were other options than what I was showing him. There were other ways to satisfy the requirement of my bike to look great. I dismissed his pitch because I thought he just wanted to sell me accessories. Yet he never mentioned buying anything. I was a kid who picked up pennies to cover the sales tax on a dollar pair of handle grips. I counted the filthy coins on the pristine glass next to the performance riding gloves kiosk. He knew who stood in front of him that day.
A modest kid.
A kid with some inventiveness, and just basic tools.
A boy completely lacking mechanical experience, or advanced bike knowledge.
I had a few dollars’ allowance due at the end of the week. I’m sure the guy knew that an eleven-year-old’s week in July was just about his whole life. What could be done, right now? He rubbed his chin, remember? Sunshower– today’s sunshower– transports me to 1976 and I answer him: “Do you think there’s something we can do?”
The bike shop owner replied, “What do you have in mind?”
“I want to make my bike look unique, be sturdy, and have a wow factor. You look like you have an idea or two. Anything you can do to help me, I would really appreciate it.”
He pondered my bike. He brought out a tape measure and studied the barn-born chopper forks. “Why are these so long?” he asked.
I nodded. “They don’t have to be. At all. We could cut these tubes in half,”
The owner raised a finger. “How about– let me go take a look at something. This may work out real well. No promises. Hold on.” He went behind the counter and rummaged around. Then he said, “Found it!” and came back to the showroom floor.
“What’s the smallest acceptable length of additional fork you’ll be okay with?”
Without giving it a second’s thought, I told him even a small length would do, anything that just looked not stock.
“Okay. Good answer. Look at these. The stools we sit on behind the counter came with optional length legs. Six-inch heavy gauge steel tubes. We don’t use them. Take a look. Good?”
“Let’s see if they’ll fit.” He took just a moment to test-fit and gave a thumb’s up.
“Okay,” he said. “These are black. You’ve painted your bike black. I’ve got a slightly different idea. What do you think of dark blue? As your bike’s new color?”
“I love it.”
“Perfect. We’re going to spray paint your bike dark blue, and give you these black chopper fork extenders for just that extra bit of specialness. Sound good?”
He showed me how he planned the work. He used a mallet to carefully hammer the tube ends to an oval shape that exactly matched the fork’s. He measured to mark where he would drill the attachment holes. Then he told me that a thin stock tire, not a knobby one, would actually look best and work best.
“What else would you like?” he asked. Then, before I could answer: “I have a pair of competition handlebars I can donate. Yours aren’t safe. Once they’re stripped, there’s nothing you can do. They get stripped because you didn’t tighten them properly the first time. I will show you the right ratchet and lug to use for this. Not an adjustable wrench, as you’ve been doing.”
He also had an idea about my seat. “The rep sent us a banana seat last March even though I told him we weren’t going with that style this year. He said to keep it. It’s yours. It suits a chopper, and you’ll love how it feels.”
“Perfect, and thank you!” I said. “Now I’ll go and get the frame painted, and come back for the assembly.”
“One second,” he said, giving the back of my bike a close look. “This,” he moved his hand in a slow circle around the back wheel. “This could do with something.”
“I don’t know what you mean? I want to keep the knob tire.”
“Yes, keep it. Hold on. Be right back.” He hustled to the back room and came out holding a thin cardboard box. “Could you make use of this?” He reached in and pulled out a star rim. Incredible– that was the single most desired item of all my friends!
“It’s scratched. We can’t sell it. I can’t return it either, because well, we dropped it here. But if you want to prime it, and paint it, I’ll install it. You still have the black spray paint?”
A week later Rob and I were at Wakefield Schwinn Cyclery with my new bike. Robbie was full of praise. The black chopper forks were just the right touch to make my prize look just a bit different. The handlebars were lower than the Caldor version, and rock-solid for safe riding. Unquestionably though was the appeal of the five-spoked star wheel. It solidified the bike, and made it look purposeful.
She was never going to be a racer. Not at that weight, and not with this rider. She was going to be an entertainer, a two-wheeled Hurd School parking lot crowd-pleaser, and a heck of a lot of fun to go off exploring. Right about now, I’m happy to start my day with just the thought of it.