In my Uptown neighborhood in Chicago in 1966 we were a marauding mouse pack of seven prepubescent boys riding our bikes everywhere. Unlike today where all eyes are fixed on computer screens or video games, we couldn’t wait to get out and see each other. We would navigate the alleys and gangways where adventure awaited and looked for trouble if it would have us. The staging area for our “bike gang” as we liked to call ourselves was a run down field house that the Chicago Park District had all but forgotten. After school we would each skid - stop with a crescent flourish or drop down from a wheelie to get into side-by-side formation. We rode Schwinn Stingrays with ape hangers, banana seats and gearshifts that were either 5 or 10 speeds (if you were really lucky). Our bikes were tricked out with tassels on the grips or a playing card and a clothing pin for that engine sound we aspired to. We had reflectors in the spokes, lights with rear mechanical generators that slowed you down, but it was worth the ability to night ride in the summer. I had a day-glo orange spray painted frame to change the shit color green bike my mom bought for me. We farkled our bikes to the extreme and were took joy in busting on each other’s latest design change.
Your relative standing with the gang was decided by riding prowess alone and Jeffery Hawk was the clear leader. Not only was he taller than anyone of us, he was better looking and had a girlfriend. Most importantly he never wiped out his bike. I on the other hand was covered with scabs on my knees and dents on my shins from hitting curbs that I tried to jump. I had perfected a flailing vault over my handlebars sans helmet (there were none) while praying to hit grass or at least gravel instead of a deadly concrete smash job during some misguided stunt. Jeffery’s trick was to ride along a CTA bus and grab the metal window flange and “skitch” a ride for blocks at automotive speed. When the bus slowed down he would breakaway like a Blue Angel and fan out to a perfect turn down the closest block. The rest of us would look at each other in that “did you see that?” kind of way and race off to follow him.
At school we were all within a grade of each other so we would schedule our rides via a complicated system of passed notes that were deciphered by the simplest of codes (A=1, B=2 etc.). 1-19-19-8-15-12-5 would spell out “asshole” which was a significant part of our vocabulary. This coding became so familiar to us that anyone who took too much time to respond because they had to write out the alphabet was considered a 16-21-19-19-25. We were an exclusive club with a place to meet, our own language, our own fleet of vehicles and we absolutely took no new members.
One day I was rolling up my greasy levis sprocket side pant leg when my mom came in my room and asked for a favor. Since my mother was in the habit of telling me things rather than asking, this came as a surprise. She had had lunch with the mother of a new kid in my school and described him as “slow” and in a grade lower than mine. “Bobby is a nice boy and he has no friends”. I immediately made the connection to who she was talking about. He was indeed slow, but worse than that I had been spearheading the kids who made fun of him behind his back. “I want you take him bike riding with you and your friends tomorrow”. She had to be kidding! No way could I get Bobby (otherwise know as “Spaz”) Landers into our gang even for a day. “He has a new bike from England that is supposed to be quite nice”. My mother was working me, and still I protested. “This is something I need you to do, and your birthday is coming up”. The blackmail worked and I said I would talk to my friends that night.
As I rode to the park, I rehearsed my plea for a one-time exception to the iron clad membership rule we had. Pulling up with far less fanfare than usual, I was the last to arrive. The vote was an immediate and unanimous “NO” despite my best efforts without mentioning my mom. I knew if I didn’t get Bobby in, my mom would forbid me from going out with my friends. What did I have to lose? “I guess I’ll have to quit the bike gang,” I said. As the gangs collective heads jerked in my direction Jeffery put his kickstand down and walked over to me. “You would quit for the spaz?” Jeff asked. I nodded and then he put his hand on my handle bar and turned to the others. “What the hell, I say let him ride once; better than losing one of us”. With Jeffery’s vote cast everyone fell into line and it was decided Bobby would ride with us.
The next day I bee-lined for Bobby at recess and I must have been moving so fast that he threw up his hands like I was going to hit him. He looked at me through thick black frame glasses and gave me a nervous smile. “You embarrass me and I swear I will kick your ass”. Bobby had no idea what I was talking about; the deal was between his mom and mine and he was clueless. I explained the situation and Bobby nodded his head convulsively. I could not imagine him balancing on a bicycle, let alone riding with my friends. “ We meet at four o’clock at the field house and don’t be late.” I said. More nodding and I was gone.
The horror on my face must have been evident when Bobby rode up on his Monkey shit brown Raleigh 3 speed, repeat with book clamp on the back fender. It was the consummate nerd bike, a vehicular abomination. He was riding like a drunk doing his best to keep his balance. He stopped with a foot-assisted skid and I could tell he was racking his nuts on the frame. My friends rolled their eyes and snickered as more than one of them commented, “Nice bike”. I introduced Bobby to the gang but Jeffery didn’t even look at him and just pulled away and we all followed.
My job was to bring up the rear since Bobby was obviously my problem. I was running up against his rear wheel and screamed, “Can’t you fucking ride faster.” He didn’t answer as I swore a blue streak behind him. After a half hour of this I couldn’t take any more and passed him to catch up with my friends who had become dots on the horizon. The faster I peddled, the guiltier I felt. I had caught a glimpse of Bobby as I passed him and I could tell he was crying. I had tried to ignore it but couldn’t. I stopped my bike and let him catch up. “Just stop.” I said. He did his awkward foot stomp and slowed to a shaky stalled out kind of finish. His nose was running and his glasses were smeared and sliding down his nose. He had sweat through his short sleeve dress shirt and he was clearly out of breath and exhausted. His face was dirt streaked with tears.
“We’re not going to catch up to them and they aren’t going to come back so lets just get a coke and call it day”. I suggested. “Thanks”, Bobby said, obviously relieved. We walked our bikes slowly out of the park.
We sat at Johnnie’s Red Hots and drank our Cokes in silence. I was pissed but I wasn’t sure at whom. Myself for sure, for getting myself into this situation and Bobby for, well, being Bobby. Mostly I was angry with the gang for leaving us behind. Bobby wasn’t cool and neither was his bike but he didn’t do anything in my mind to deserve to be abandoned. All he wanted to do was ride along and make some new friends. We rode back to his house and he invited me in. I wanted to go home but his mother came out and asked me in as well. Mrs. Landers was portly and loud but clearly happy to see that her son had come home with a friend. She fed us Oreos and milk while Bobby showed me the most amazing record collection I had ever seen. It spanned years before he was born all the way to the Beatles latest. There were 78’s, 33 and 1/3”s and massive stacks of 45’s stacked around his bed. He was suddenly a lot hipper than I gave him credit for and he educated me about Blues and Rockabilly music, both new to me. I had stopped thinking about the bike gang’s ditch job as Bobby methodically went through the evolution of pre 1960’s music. My head spun at the amount of information he had about each record as he gingerly wiped down each LP before he put the needle down. The phone rang and it was my mother; it was much later than I thought. When I arrived home my mom gave me a big hug and thanked me and said, “You did a good thing”.
The nickname “3 speed” was glued to Bobby like an unwanted medal. The moniker denoted his intelligence and his level of status among my friends. They were merciless and the name stuck. “3 speed in a 10 speed world” was Jeffery’s own creation and it got a lot of laughs. Bobby had started to grow his hair out and I joined him and this was our bond. The gang had become a bunch of delinquent Ricky Nelsons to me. They were my “3 speed” as I moved into a new persona. I found myself wanting to be as passionate about something as Bobby was and art became my focus. I visited at the Art Institute at every opportunity and raced home on the “L” instead of my bike. I came to realize over time that Bobby's singular oddities were not something to marginalize him but what made him so unique and interesting. I didn’t need to be like others to be cool; I too could be a gang of one.
I have long since lost track of my friends from that time in my life. Jeffery Hawk ironically died in a car accident and Bobby “3 speed” Landers simply disappeared somewhere in Oregon some time ago. The world has moved on and my memories are the small dots on the horizon that no matter how hard I pedal never seem any closer.