Gifts-of-Hermes; products of wishfulthinking. Luke and Willie had noticed them earlier; two or three old bicycles, laying in the grass of the police impound lot— or what we thought was the police impound lot but, as it turned out, was just private parking for Official Police Station Business. Converted from the ruins of the Reading Line; ruins we had explored that morning on an urban archaeological expedition. Actually, let me flashback quickly to the expedition, because it sets the anecdote better and, for whatever reason, makes me smile.
It began three blocks from my Poplar Street apartment, leaping over a rust-iron fence and down into the ravine of some nearby traintracks. We were searching for artifacts. I even had a pleather Indian Jones whip; the accoutrements of true adventure. We found ancient vases (which we tagged and bagged for the collectors) and endless ropes, BigWheels hanging from treelimbs, bedding, and little square-inch plastic baggies sold ostensibly as “button bags.” Clues to a lost American civilization—”Seems Man had to sleep in the elements despite the plenitude of their twenty-first century.” The clues dovetailed perfectly. Until we stumbled across a rotting goat with a cable tie in it right ear. Must’ve leapt the barrier and fallen to its death. Mysteries abound, sure, but a dead goat? Jason entered mid-examination, introducing himself as disarmingly as possible. We were the ones examining a goat carcass and he assures us he was not “weird or anything.” He was a fellow adventurer, out to clear and mentholate his mind in the winter’s air. We exchanged names and contact information. Note the irony: others reach deep for bartabs and cover-charges; we Philly jetsetters meet each other beside rotting animals. The pockets of synchronicity in Philadelphia; the colliding variables. I’m telling you it’s all just a matter of time.
The expedition continued, into the tunnel of the abandoned Reading Line; a dark, dank passage, illuminated only by the occasional grating in the sidewalk above. Beautiful brickwork, though. And explosive graffiti around the entrance. We tiptoed by a homeless gentleman, who was all wrapped up like a human fajita. I sometimes admire the coziness of such streethomes, especially when they’re nuzzled under fifty blankets in a stretch of infinite darkness, steaming with Wild Irish Rose. Wretched but liltingly beautiful; the little folks that God forgot.
Then more miracles of persistance: three saplings growing in the thin intersection of sunlight and raindrip. They looked like trophies, golden and proudly lit from above. The tunnel ended with a fence, on the other side of which was the police lot, inaccessible any other way but by jumping this fence ahead or by their entrance. So we made our way back the way we came. Passing the lot again— aboveground this time— on the way to Center City. This was when Luke and Willie spotted the bikes. Somebody suggested just asking the police for them, simple as that. They seemed unwanted; thrown from twentyfeet above by a bikethief or schoolyard bully. We agreed to return, after we went on our somewhat elliptical tour of the Freemason Temple; on which the guide confided that he thought for sure that we “were some kind of assault wave” of conspiracy theorists, assuring the entire tourgroup that the lodge was not “trying to take over the world” and that Our Dear President was not, nor ever had been, a member of their fraternal order. Although personally too agreeable to be a conspiracy theorist myself, the feeling is infectious walking through these corridors. Dusty oilpaintings of past grandmasters. Faux everything. Clandestine rituals and passageways. Maybe a little too Scooby-Doo to amount to anything pernicious though. Luke wasn’t so sure—”Pretty suspicious if you ask me.”
Around eleven that night, Luke and I were still restless. Might as well try the bicycle gambits, we figured. Willie suggested using a rope with a lasso to fish for the bikes as gangs of Philadelphia’s Finest looked on. Luke suggested going down the ramp that said “no pedestrians, no trespassing” and walking the bikes to freedom. I preferred the lasso idea, with all its Wile E. Coyote connotations and overcomplication. Again, I stand by the maxim that the more you think like a cartoon, the better. Like that one zillionaire who wanted to shoot himself to the moon on a rocket, without any help from NASA— a luminary. Or all those Victorians who leapt from the cliffs of Dover, in giant birdsuits and lead balloons, drawing energy from their solar plexus, in the hopes that Man, too, could swim the Heavens. I refer you to page 53 of an otherwise corny Darwin Awards:
“Six young men and women with no sailing experience were rescued from a stolen luxury yacht after drifting into a pier only four hundred meters from the boat’s mooring. They had intended to sail around the world and had packed all the essentials: sixty cans of baked beans, one thousand condoms, some liquor and cola, and a library book on navigating by the stars…”
See, this is what I mean, “a library book on navigating by the stars.” A master stroke.
And our scheme was trickier than you’d think, looping the lasso around a bike pedal two stories down— it reminded me of a Carnival scam, especially, being as it was, on the sidewalk of the police station. Confidence— supreme, oblivious, chrome-metallic confidence— was the only way. At the slightest hint of shame or skiddishness, they would pounce. And we kept working it, without so much as glance over our shoulders, even when the 5-O pulled up behind us and sighed “just what do you guys think you’re doing?” I spun around and, with a feigned disbelief and my signature happy-go-lucky approach to officers of the law, explained to them the situation; about the abandoned bicycles rusting in their lot that could be removed— free of charge— and salvaged for parts or given to the bike church or (sniff-sniff) the local orphanage. A pure and undeniable philanthropic angle.
The cops got out and joined us railside. “Oh man” Cop #1 snorted,”there is no way you’re gettin’ that. Keep trying though.” Cop #2 then recommended we ask inside, for whatever it was worth. I went into the station and bumbled around the bulletproof window until my case was heard. “Trash”— that was the operative word. We would be doing them a favor. The officer came from behind the glass, walked across the street with a flashlight, examined the bikes from above, and told us to take them and “call up to the office if they give you any trouble.” Perfect; open sesame. In the end, all three of our plans were lyrically rolled into one. On closer inspection, we realized how nice the bicycles were too— pristine, sexy even. So much so that it makes me suspect that we obtained them through sheer administrative oversight. If so, our turn-of-luck would make the stuff of legend, the anchormen joshing his at-home audiences “Police Report That Last Night Two Thieves Stole Bikes, From The Police Station. More At Eleven.”
Whatever the case— Life is bicyclical now. Philadelphia is bicyclical. I’m everywhere at once, drinking up experience; oblivious to the laws and flow of traffic. The first molecules of Spring in the air. Passing poor schleps waiting at the busstop for a twelve-block journey. I’ll be amazed if I don’t die on this thing.
(Addendum on the Hazards of Philadelphia Roads: I’ve popped both tires in under two weeks. People play jacks with glass and nails in this city. Bike with care. I replaced the back intertube with another a size too small, rather unwisely. Lucy bet me a penny I wouldn’t even make it to the Art Museum; Willie said I wouldn’t even make it to the end of the block. But she made it to West Philly and back, and I’m two pennies the richer… And they said it couldn’t be done.)