Biking With Barley



We’re quite a pair on bikes, Barley and me.

For starters, Barley has a small cowbell attached to his main method of transport, which he begins incessantly ringing at least two blocks behind pedestrians–to let them know that he’s approaching, of course. Reminiscent of the way he used to honk his horn when driving through a tunnel or around a blind curve in the road–“Beeep-be-beep-beep!”–it was always very rhythmic–I imagine that habit must have taken him back to his drum corps days. (He used to tell me stories about how, during parades, he and the other snare drummers always crescendoed their way through the underpasses to hear the reverberations of their efforts.)

It’s nothing new–Barley was always cautious. So cautious, in fact, that growing up, when he used to tote us around in our van, a sticker on his dashboard read: “For safety, do not exceed 55 MPH.” (It was written on a pumpkin sticker that must have been leftover from Halloween.) That being said, I’m pretty much used to passersby, well, doing just that. And considering some of my favorite bike riding memories date back to when I was buckled up in a baby seat behind him, I was really only concerned with the kind of penny candy I’d pick out when we got to the drug store–not double takes from pedestrians.

Barley’s bike seat cushion, fashioned out of plastic grocery bags, sits parallel to a basket of supplies that’s reinforced with McDonald’s french fry cardboard, which, I assume, was added for a splash of color. Supplies include–but are not limited to–a Gatorade bottle full of water (always full), a beach chair and/or towel (weather-dependent), and an insulated cooler bag (for frozen groceries), all neatly secured via bungee cord. There’s a battery-operated headlight fastened onto the handle bars, along with a cracked, rusted “rearview mirror.” Sure, one of Barley’s hidden talents is turning trash into treasure, but that has to do with a greater, even more apparent talent: Barley’s glass–or Gatorade bottle for that matter–is always at least half-full. And that’s a big gulp to swallow for a daughter who misses almost as much as her father does–a Mom but not a spouse, a family, a house.

“You must be an opportunist,” the high school gym teacher told Barley as a freshman, waiting on line for a gym uniform. Then, he tossed Barley the very last shirt in the box. It’s true–Barley would probably describe the mirror on his bike as weather-proof, rather than rusty. He’s continually awed by simple pleasures–supermarket specials; crashing waves, sunshine, and seedlings; a makeshift drum set and records for accompaniment; Wheel of Fortune and Fodor’s books from the public library. After showing him pictures from a recent cross-country college renuion, he was genuinely happy that I was able to experience so much, stressing how important it is to stay in touch with close friends and to stop and see the sights. He even thanked me for “bringing the trip” to him. Simply put, Barley feels “lucky” that he has “food, clothing, shelter, wheels,”  and everything else he could possibly need to survive, including his “three miracles”–myself, my sister, and brother.

Years later, I found myself giggling behind Barley again on our bike ride–this time at the quirky guy ringing the cowbell in front of me–greeting the stares with a yep-that’s-my-Dad kind of smile. “You look like Robin Hood’s girlfriend!” Dad shouted back as we rode, admiring my cherry red peacoat and forest green pashmina trailing behind him. (I guess it’s better than looking like the spitting image of Shirley MacLaine he once pegged me for as a kid; no offense to Shirley, but as a green-eyed brunette, I never did see the connection.) But I surely can see that choosing to be half-full is even better than being a kid in a candy store…or even Robin Hood’s girlfriend. It’s like being a regular miracle on wheels.


--The Cake Vendor of Krakow, Poland, a short story Barley transcribed for me by hand from a book and adapted to incorporate our family history. His Polish grandmother, who taught him how to bake, is the main character.


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