As a little guy I spent about two weeks every summer with my grandparents in a small coastal town. They lived right across from the beach. House number 34. Their front door, their small patio, a wide sidewalk, the road, in my memory one of the busiest roads I’d ever seen, but really just a slow moving two lane, another sidewalk, a very wide one, sand dunes, the beach and then the sea. The view from the first floor was partially obstructed by the dunes, but the view from the second floor was amazing. The dunes, the beach and the water. The latter important to my grandfather who owned two big fishing boats, one named after my older sister, and for what ever reason he always needed to know what ships were out there at sea. Two sets of binoculars at the ready on an antique roll top desk by the window.
My grandfather had rented a bicycle for me. Already sitting in the garage upon arrival. But for crying out loud, he had rented a girls’ bike, one where the top tube is slanted down so it can be ridden by a person in a dress or a skirt. A boys’ bike has the top tube parallel to the ground. Most of us wear pants. Embarrassing to say the least. I pleaded with him to exchange the bike, threw in a tantrum for good measure, but the man would simply not listen to my reasonable arguments. Being laughed at on the street by casual passersby or worse, being featured in derogatory news paper articles as the boy riding a girls’ bike around town. What kind of boy would do that? All nonsense to grandpa. End of argument.
In my absence, the town had installed a pedestrian traffic light on the Boulevard. The crosswalk was already there, but no car ever stopped. In all fairness pedestrians tended to ignore the old white and black stripes just the same and crossed the road willy-nilly wherever they felt like. But now, lights, only two blocks from number 34. Press the button and eventually the lights turn red for the cars and green for the pedestrians. After I had checked that new feature out I knew I it was just going to be me and the light. Who else else could possibly comprehend the intricacies of it all. People going to the beach now depended on me.
All day long I would ride that faulty bike around town. Always ending up at the new light. Coming up to the light I would act as if all of a sudden I needed to do a u-turn and had to be on the other side of the street. Right in front of the pole I dismounted the bike, standing on the right pedal and throwing my left leg over the back, the boy’s way, praying nobody would notice it was a girl’s bike. I’d then pressed the button. A glorious moment. I could just feel the thoughts of the people behind me. Oh so that’s how you do it, what a genius that kid, I would never have thought of that. A rocket scientist in the making. What a smart young man, going far in life.
As soon as the light turned green I walked the bike across, jumped back on, dismount in reverse, and ride off. U-turn completed. Peddle a few blocks, then toward the center of town, a few left and right turns, and if I didn’t get sidetracked back by kids with better things to do, back to the light for another push of the button and another u-turn.
Mornings were a bit of an issue. I needed to go to the light the moment I woke up, but my grandmother wouldn’t hear of it. Breakfast at seven thirty and not leaving the table until my grandfather was done. At best I hit the crosswalk at a quarter after eight. Always people there to cross, eager to go to the beach. The scary thing, for all I knew, they could have been standing there since six o’clock this morning, or worse, perhaps even midnight, waiting for that light to change.
On the fourth day we went away for the whole day. My grandparents had a small motor yacht and I got to steer on the lakes. Never on the rivers and canals. Grandpa said I could when I didn’t need the crates to stand on anymore to see over the wheel. It was magic and I would eat twice as much as normal that evening so I would grow faster. On a day like that the crosswalk would never even enter my mind. As a rule I wasn’t allowed out after dinner any day of the week. I’m sure people still crossed, but I wasn’t thinking of them.
Sometimes the timing was wrong. I get to the crosswalk, about to get off the bike, and the light would turn. I never questioned it. And of course, I spent considerable time at the beach myself, swimming, building castles and sometimes catching shrimp that grandma would cook. Couldn’t care less about that light.
And then there was day seven. First run of the day. I’m almost there. A boy, a little bigger than me, on the side walk, running for the crossing. His parents a little back, beach bags over their shoulders, carrying a big blue cooler between them. But in between the parents and the boy is a girl. My age, long blond hair, in a red bikini, holding on to a blue already blown up swim ring, desperately trying to keep up, or overtake her brother, but awkwardly running on flip flops, not a chance of getting to the crossing before him. I’m dead even with her, she looks at me and for a moment I think she looks really nice but at the same time I wonder if she notices I’m riding a girls’ bike. She stumbles, recovers, and yells, “STOP! Peter STOP! You always press the button. I wanna press the button.”
Instantly I caught the meaning of what she said and for a split second I didn’t know what to do. The bike was already slowing down I was about to get off, but I hesitated. And when Peter reached for the button I sped up and passed by. For two blocks I was so mad. Mad at whom or what I don’t quite remember. But by the third block I had mostly forgotten all about it.
The rest of the holiday I spent on the beach and riding that ‘wrong’ bike all over town. Never got laughed at. Never appeared in a newspaper article. And on the subject of becoming a rocket scientist, going far in life, or being a genius. Those things never happened either.