Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Bike Path

 (picture I took of the bike path in the essay; taken from the other side of the bridge under which the murder happened.)

***
1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox. 
2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.  
~the Dhammapada
***

Seven years a go, I was 21 years old and I wrote this essay for my senior-year creative writing class whilst I was an extremely shy and secluded student at the Ohio State University.

I just rediscovered this piece and -all in all- I think "the Bike Path" is pretty good considering that when I wrote it I was just two years away from being a teenager and just eight years separated me from the time when I first moved to America's golden shores and hardly spoke any English at all, let alone wrote essays with words like "misanthrope" and "nihilism."

***

The Bike Path

Cycling causes impotency. A New York Times article told me that much in the spring of 2005. The story –more than anything else that I read in the news- threw me into existential despair. Forget unending wars, famines, and genocides in distant lands; these were abstract blurbs of suffering that didn't stick to the sheltered, pedestrian reality of my college life.

This impotency thing on the other hand; it was different. I actually owned a bike and I rode it regularly. Cycling was the only athletic activity that I relished and I now discovered that the very bicycle that I though was my friend was treasonously laboring to make me impotent.

The problem is that bicycle seats are unnatural. When sitting, our body weight is supposed to be dispersed on our “sit bones” yet the narrow bicycle seats throw all of the body pressure on the small and vulnerable part of the body called the perineum. Vessels run through the perineum that carry blood to the genitals, thus continuous pressure on the perineum leads to erection problems (the article mentioned a twenty-six-year-old mountain biker who had the blood-flow of a sixty-year-old man). If your perineum could talk while you’re cycling it would probably scream, “Get the fuck off me, you moron!”

But of course perineum cannot speak so its human advocates are giving voice to the perineum’s silent suffering. One Boston urologist opined that, “there are only two kinds of male cyclists - those who are impotent and those who will be impotent.”    

That sentiment flabbergasted me. I emailed the article to everyone I knew and in the aftermath I could never look at a bicycle in the same way again. From a harmless transportation apparatus every bicycle I saw on the street morphed into a cleverly-designed torture device created for the sole purpose of slowly sucking sexual health from the unsuspecting rider.

I could see the inquisition party moving into a medieval village, ordering the heretics to mount a bike and laughing menacingly as the clueless heathens peddled themselves into impotency. Whenever I saw a fashionable bike-messenger-wannabe flying through the streets of Columbus, the only thought that came to mind was “blood-flow of a sixty-year-old man.” Once again, it seems, Ivan was in a possession of a rare gem of insight that was beyond the reach of the masses. Yes, I knew the bicycle’s wicked secret! I knew how the world really worked!

Alright, so maybe further research has shown that only five percent of cyclists reported impotency issues and that new bicycle seat designs were available that shifted the pressure away from the perineum . But rationality has a funny way of being beside the point. Cycling has joined my ever growing family of health-related neuroses. I sent my bike to exile in my mother’s basement in Cincinnati.

And that’s where it rested for three years until my impotency-phobia relented a bit and I could once again take out my bicycle for regular rides around Columbus. The reality was that I needed my bike. I had to have cycling’s soothing effect on my psyche even if the menacing threat of impotency reasserted itself each time I felt a bump on the road.

It was now summer of 2008 and I was living out my final months in Ohio and anticipating my last quarter in college. I planned on moving to Seattle right after graduation and needed time to reflect on beginning my adult life in a city where I have never been and knew no one. But it wasn’t just the change of setting that alarmed me.

I watched fruit flies circling a rotten banana lying on my dirty kitchen counter and wondered if I was ready for post-college life after all. My mother paid for college, rent and everything else and I never really had a job. I did hold an internship with the Democrats in the Ohio Senate. And I served the progressive cause proudly by sitting alone in an office on a deserted top floor of the Statehouse, sipping Arizona iced tea and surfing MySpace profiles of people from my classes while making note of their poor choice of pictures, music and attempts at absurdist humor in the “About Me” section of the profile. Occasionally I would descend from my office, go into the bathroom when no one was there and take advantage of the ornate Statehouse mirrors by doing karate chops and making subtle ninja yelps while watching my reflection. To pay for my “services” would be criminal and no one ever offered anyway. The internship lasted for over seven months.  

So as I was saying, my mother paid for college, rent and everything else and I never really had a job. Sometimes, at the end of the month I received an angry call from her wondering how I managed to spend over six hundred dollars in thirty days. “You weren’t even buying textbooks that month,” she would say with simmering rage and begin to read items from the bank statement. The items were rather pedestrian, “Target: $26, Giant Eagle: $7.89, Thai-Tai Restaurant: $8.55” but she read them in menacing way that made it seem that the content was utterly unjustifiable: “Cocaine Fueled Orgies with Eighteen-Year-Old French Prostitutes: $497, Full Replica of the Papal Outfit: $931, Toilet Plunger With a Gold Handle: $1,085.”

As she was talking, I would detach the receiver from my ear and silently fume over the indignity I was enduring. I lusted for the time when I could make my own money and not have to get grief for spending $645 on myself. But looking at prospective jobs in Seattle made me reconsider my indignant anger with the hand that fed me.

I always knew that an undergrad degree in Political Science was not the most rational way to spend tuition dollars but looking over jobs with wages ranging from $12 to $16 an hour really drove the point home. An employer scanning a resume with a B.A. in Social Science, Humanities or English sees a message saying,

“Hey! First of all, I am really bad at math. I’m also not too big on ‘practical’ things like business and accounting. But if you want a self-indulgent essay about my troubled relationship with a distant father, I’m the one!”

Sure, the middle-aged white men who run the universe might see a degree in Political Science as more practical than one in Woman’s Studies or Art History, but that’s hardly saying much. Bottom line was that my prospects weren’t that great. A middle-class Russian immigrant with a work ethic of a French aristocrat living off a family fortune is not in high demand in a capitalist economy (or any other economy for that matter).

There is a big lie that people tell children: “You can be anything you want to be.” They look in the young faces and explain to them that the only thing separating the child from their desired life-goals is will. And unless the child’s goal is to manage a Wendy’s one day, that advice is total bullshit. One can’t will himself into being the next Einstein or Picasso no more than one can will himself to have blue eyes or be ten inches taller.

To say “you can have anyone you want to have” would be a promotion of rape. To say “you can be anything you want to be” is to promote inflated illusions that will be slowly chipped away by the realities of life. As these children grow up their faces become less cute and more weathered, they gain weight and their flaws will lose their youthful charm, they will no longer be told that “that can be anything they want” but will still struggle with the notion that their disappointments are to be explained by a failure of will. The truth is that our life is defined by our limitations. Not the psychological limitations that society tells us must be shattered by will, but real, tangible limitations that are with us for the duration of our lives. One can dream through high school and fantasize through college but after getting that degree, the shit hits the fan. One is dropped into the market place and is assigned a monetary value for his hourly unit of labor. After college, my life is no longer going to be “anything I want it to be” it’s going to be $16 an hour (if I got lucky). And that takes some getting used to.

This is why I needed my bicycle. The break before the outset of the summer quarter was an ideal time to ride in solitude and digest the new reality awaiting me. In the first weeks of June, the unbearable heat and the absence of a social life have propelled me toward a nocturnal lifestyle. I would go to sleep at six in the morning and rise at around four pm.

I would be awakened by the fan pushing warm air into my face and the sun burning my eyes. Heat always inflated me with ennui. “Dry-mouth nihilism” was the way I christened that mood. Hot air enveloped my body and seemed to isolate me from any meaningful sensation. I would float through the humid streets of the city like some ghost dwelling in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. I would make my way to a That-Tai restaurant, consume Mongolian pork with fried rice and then float back to my apartment eagerly awaiting the outset of night.

During those early weeks of June, I was only truly alive after eleven pm. This is when I began to prepare for the nightly bike ride. I would load my MP3 player with music to suit my mood, put on blue shorts and a gray t-shirt defined by a smell of dry sweat. I would fill my canteen with cool water and laze around on my bed until the time seemed right.

Darkness redefines a dull landscape and adds mystery to it. The bike path stretching from campus to the waterfront is a perfect example of that metamorphosis. During daytime it is filled with cyclists. Weaving as it does alongside bridges and greenery, the path seems perfectly boring and even a little constraining. At night, it is a different creature. Feral cats lurk around the edges hunting for rabbits. Homeless men can be spotted sleeping here and there (making me hastily turn off my light lest I disturb their sleep and collapse into liberal guilt). Unlit paths under the bridges look as if they hold untold secrets.

At night, the family friendly bike path becomes a misanthrope’s delight. The air is warm and inviting, the night hugs the solitary cyclist; his silly anxieties and angry proclamations against life are dissolved in the dark sky.

I ride to the waterfront, swiftly emerge to the street level and embrace the abandoned downtown. I would ride by my old apartment on Franklin Avenue and then descend to the Columbus State Community College campus where four years ago I began my uninspired life as a college student. After my nightly campus tour, I would make my way back toward downtown and halt my impotency-inducing machine by one of the benches of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

It’s a well-lit, imposing building. I would sip water from my plastic canteen and listen to melancholy tunes on my MP3 player. The library is a scary place for me to be (and that’s not because of the homeless people who spend the night on the benches).

A year ago, I passed a note to one female librarian as she was taking a smoking break. The note apologized for interrupting her smoking break, included some self-deprecating jokes and my email address. She and I were in a film class together at the community college in 2005. I found her to be intelligent and pretty, her slender figure nourished by a nicotine addiction. And after almost two years of seeing her at the library I took my chance. It was intended to be a part of my consorted campaign to “be more social.”

Her email reply was nothing if not cordial. She said that she was in a long-term relationship, noted that I was “the only articulate, intelligent person in the film class” and concluded by saying, “now that we have an informal introduction to each other, I hope to see you at the library. Stop by and say hello some time soon.”

Of course, I haven’t been inside the library since. It was too painfully awkward for me to resurface there. Instead, my maladaptive brain made sure that I spiraled into a completely irrational depression, drank a bottle of Southern Comfort, and thought about going on Prozac. All in all the aftermath was unfortunate…

Especially since the library has such a fantastic DVD collection of foreign films! Oh sure, I can reserve them online and pick them up at a local library (where I have not yet awkwardly hit on some unfortunate employee) but it’s not the same as browsing through them on the shelves. Alas.

At one am, I sat on the library bench and reflected on my four years in Columbus. I didn’t lead a life designated to college students by popular culture. I haven’t been to a single party. Never attended a football game. Don’t have a single apparel item with “OSU” on it. I led the type of a hermit life that would make a serial-killer-in-training seem like a social butterfly. This doesn’t fill me with some rebellious pride: perhaps I needed to do these things. Soon, the nine-to-five regime may reveal the drunken spontaneity of college as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I let go, preferring the solitary comfort of mental masturbation. But what can I do about this now? Fuck it. My life suited me fine. I got on my cheap mountain bike and went home.

In the early hours of Friday 13 of June 2008, I was riding on my familiar path toward Fifth Avenue where I live. Approaching the final stretch of the bike path, I saw a helicopter with a search light, circling above the part of the river between Third and Fifth Avenue bridges. The entry to the bike path in that area was blocked off by a police cruiser. A cop told me to take a different route. I did and as I got on Fifth Avenue, I looked down toward the bridge over Olentangy River and saw what seemed like an army of police cruiser lighting up the street like a Christmas tree. The whole Police Department gathered to the very spot where I began my journey just a couple of hours earlier. The morning paper revealed the cause of all the commotion.

The bike path stretches under the Fifth Avenue Bridge over the Olentangy River. The place is extremely dark at night and a rocky bank separates the river from the bike path which can easily get flooded because of its proximity to water. On that day at 12:46 a.m (approximately thirty to forty minutes after I rode under the bridge) patrol Sgt. Matthew R. Weekley was heading west on the bridge in his cruiser when he heard gunshots. Weekley called for backup and three young men were arrested as they were trying to leave a nearby parking lot on their SUV; they were armed.

Under the bridge, near the bike path, the officers found Kelly M. Jackson, dead, with gunshot wounds to the upper body. Just four day earlier, Jackson had celebrated his 24th birthday. The police didn’t believe that the shooting was a random robbery; the cops suspected that that Jackson knew his killers. He had a tainted past but was trying to straighten out. Jackson found a job to support his young son and was attending church so frequently that his family became concerned about his fervor while his pastor remarked to a reporter that,

“To come to prayer every day as a young man, that's one of the most powerful things you can see. There's some ministers who aren't that committed.” In fact, Kelly Jackson was at his neighborhood church on that Thursday night, just a couple of hours before his lifeless body was found lying on cold rocks near the shallow waters of the Olentangy River.

If Sgt. Matthew R. Weekley hadn't happened to be driving over the bridge in these early hours, I would be the one to discover the body on my way back. Though it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t notice it at all in the darkness under the bridge. Alternatively, were I to leave my apartment just thirty minutes later, I might have stumbled on a killing in progress. But that prospect seems too surreal to even contemplate.
Seeing as my and Kellie Jackson’s fates seemed to be so close on the time/space continuum on that fateful

Friday, I did my best to elicit genuine empathy toward his death. But I could not muster any. His death just wasn’t real to me. As I tried to imagine what his final minutes were like, all I could see were trite scenes out of every gangster movie ever made. Four men descending into darkness under a bridge, the killers making the victim stand submissively on his knees and plead for mercy. The pleas followed by some menacing farewell and echoing sounds of discharging bullets. I wonder if he felt his back hitting the rocks as he fell? If he felt warm blood deserting his body in these final seconds of conscious life? Did his death mark a reunion with a loving God or a painful collapse into nothingness?

Probably. Maybe. I don’t know.

Choose your flavor. It seems immoral to try to decorate his death with more flowery conjectures. It makes his passing more fictional that it already is. What was Kellie Jackson’s life to me? An anecdote I can tell to acquaintances or include in a prolonged, narcissistic story about my neurotic life?

The next night saw heavy rain pouring on the city so I skipped my nightly ride. I did resume the ritual on the night after that but summer quarter was starting next week and my 11:30 writing class was interfering with the habit of going to sleep at five am. After a few sleep-deprived zombie-days, the regular rides stopped.

On one recent Saturday night, I did go for another journey in the night. After riding for thirty minutes, I noted a squeaking sound coming from the back wheel. Soon my tire deflated and I had to get off and walk home. It was three in the morning and I was alone, walking through the bike path. The night no longer soothed my mind; the speed wasn't there detach me from my surroundings. My only companion now was the squeaking sound of a deflated tire. The bicycle -I realized- was my enemy after all. Actual impotency might need some more time but metaphorical impotency was well within reach.

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