california candor

Non-fiction, 9/17/10

The plane gently taxies up to the gate. I clutch my panniers to my chest, my mind racing a mile a minute. The “fasten seatbelt” sign chimes off, and, as if on cue, everybody stands up and begins rummaging through the overhead compartments for their bags. The man seated next to me, having been remonstrated twice already for prematurely un-stowing his luggage and piling it at his feet—“Sir, you can’t keep your bags there! How many times to I have to tell you? You’re seated near the emergency exit and the aisle needs to be clear!”—he’s likely halfway to the terminal by now, gripped by some unheeding sense of urgency. I hope he makes it, wherever he’s going.

At the immigration desk I hand over my passport and declaration form. “What were you doing in Central America?” asks the officer, peering at me over frameless glasses. “Riding my bike,” I tell him, “and I’m planning to ride it home.” He grunts, looks from me to my photo and back again, and inks my passport in reply, in what I take as his solemn stamp of approval. “Riding a bike from L.A. to Seattle? I’ve never heard of that before. Be safe out there.”

The luggage carousel is crowded with bags, totes, suitcases and the like, but it takes me no time at all to spot my quarry: a huge, jerry-built cardboard box containing my beloved bicycle. In a prior life the box had housed a horizontal freezer; now, after much duct tape and some imprecise cutting and folding, it has more or less taken on the dimensions of a bike box—that is, a box in which dismantled bicycles are transported in. I wasn’t exactly proud of my handiwork when I finished packing the box in Antigua, but it held together, at least. That was before the flight. Loading the cardboard-duct tape Frankenbox onto my luggage cart, glancing with trepidation into the gaping holes along each side, I couldn’t help but wonder what the airline workers had thought of my creation: “What the fuck is this?” exclaims Stevedore Steve, shaking his head at the ticky-tacky mess before him. “I’ve seen my kid make sturdier boxes out of construction paper.”

I wheel my belongings—one big box, two little panniers—to the final security check. A young police officer with braces and a shaved head calls me over and asks what’s in the box. “It’s my bike, and I’m riding it home,” I say cheerily, my mind finally warming to the prospect. He gives a little bark of a laugh, smiles at me, and turns to another officer standing nearby. “Hey check it out, this guy’s gonna ride his bike from here to Seattle!” The other officer looks from me to my Frankenbox and laughs, too, more out of disbelief than anything else. As I push toward the exit, he adds, “Good luck with that, man!” I can’t really tell if they’re making fun of me or what, so I just say “Thanks!” and enter the gleaming plenitude of LAX.

For the next twenty minutes I stand around, eat fried lima beans with soggy blue-corn tortillas, and consider my options. Do I call a taxi to take me and my stuff to a bike shop, where I could assemble my bike in peace, under the watchful eye of trained professionals? Or do I call my Uncle Bhunat, even though I scarcely know the man, and ask him to pick me up from the airport on this sunny Saturday morning so that I might use his house as my base of operations? Or—and this is the charge-free, guilt-free route—do I simply rebuild the bike here, ask for directions and ride off to the coast? I finish my grub and tear into the box. Miraculously, everything’s still there and I have no trouble getting the bike back in one piece. Now I’m on a roll, ready to hit the road. A woman working at the information desk nearby seems like a perfect candidate for my vague inquiries, so I walk over and ask her how one might find the beach from here. I explain that I’m basically trying to go west toward the coast, and that I’ll be riding my bike. “You’re riding your bike?” she repeats, incredulous, completely oblivious to my entreaty. She is black, probably twenty-five or so, with beautifully braided hair and drawn-on eyebrows. I try throwing out the names of roads I hazily associate with the California coast. “You know, maybe a street that connects with Highway 1, or Highway 101?” I offer, looking for some spark of recognition. “A street going west from here?” No dice. She doesn’t know the area very well, she admits sheepishly—after a long while spent gazing at my bike with her mouth half-open—but she thinks her coworkers might be better informed. Within minutes we’re joined by a matronly Japanese woman and a middle-aged Latino who both know exactly where to direct me. “You gotta get on Sepulveda Boulevard,” they tell me, pointing out the sliding glass doors toward the street. “It’ll take you right to Highway 1.” I even get a hand-drawn map from the Latino, who refuses to let me leave without taking the grapes he brought for his lunch. “They’re good, man—I washed them at home. You’re gonna need ’em.” I thank them all profusely and am about to start loading up my bike when the woman at the information desk waves me back. “Hey,” she says, reaching into a drawer and pulling out a brand-new bottle of spring water, “you should take this.” She holds the bottle out to me. Why are people just giving me stuff? This is great! “Oh wow, thanks,” I say, “but usually I just fill up from the tap, so you should keep your water.” I turn back toward my bike, but out of the corner of my eye I notice she’s still hoisting the bottle up in the air. “You mean you’re not gonna take my water?!” Eyebrows fully raised, she has the most appraising look on her face—how dare I refuse her Arrowhead Spring Water?—so I hasten back to grab the bottle. “Be careful on those roads,” she warns, in a tone heavy with genuine concern, “There are some crazy people out there.” Duly noted, dear benefactor.

At last I start to ride. It is 11:30 a.m., skies are blue and clear and the late morning sunshine has Los Angeles simmering at about 75 degrees. I follow Sepulveda for a few miles before stopping at a bike shop to buy a new pump. There are a number of different models to choose from, of course, but I have my eye on the big one—it’s actually called the “Mammoth”—with the “Clearance” sticker prominently displayed on its package. “Why is this pump so cheap?” I ask Becky, the clerk who has come over to dissuade me from wasting $10 on the Mammoth. “Because it sucks,” she replies. “If you want a pump for your touring bike, you should get one of these.” She points to a smaller, sleeker number whose price tag almost trebled the Mammoth’s. “Ahh,” I say, and quickly change the subject to routes. It turns out Becky rode along the coast from Portland to L.A. a few years back and absolutely loved it. “The route is pretty well-marked,” she says, “and if you get lost, you just have to find the Pacific and keep it on your left.” She made the trip as a consummation of sorts: Moving from Oregon to SoCal, after shipping the big stuff down first, she decided to take the long, scenic road home. As she relates her story to me, I cling stubbornly to the Mammoth with every intention of buying it still because, well, I can’t afford the other one. “You know what,” she says, looking down at the scorned pump in my hand, “you can just have that. Let me cut it out of the packaging for you.” More free stuff! I love this place!

Becky sends me off with good tidings and a new pump, and I make my way to Venice Beach. Riding along the boardwalk, I get my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean in months. That, plus more half-naked white people than I can ever recall seeing in one place at one time—oh, the humanity! Oh, the sun-burnt, surgically enhanced, platinum-coiffed humanity. I drink it in and revel in the sudden, overwhelming affinity I feel for the beach, the people here, the blazing sun overhead, the California gulls crying to the wind, begging for scraps. How wonderful it is to be surrounded again by English speakers!

In Malibu I stop at a grocery store for some bagels and fruit. The clerk checking me out notices my bike gloves and asks where I’m headed. “Seattle,” I say, “hopefully before the weather gets too bad.” He takes my bananas off the electronic scale and hands them to me. Tearing off my receipt, he says, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Summer’s been late to arrive this year…I bet you’ll have sunshine all the way up.”

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