The Immortal Class


Only he who can view his own past as an abortion sprung from compulsion and need can use it to his full advantage in the present. For what one has lived is at best comparable to a beautiful statue which has had all its limbs knocked off in transit, and now yields nothing but the precious block out of which the image of one's future must be hewn.

--Walter Benjamin

It was not love that made me a cyclist, nor was it any kind of innate passion for alleyways, punk rock, political disenfranchisement, or any of these crude stereotypes that follow in the wake of the messengers' personae. My drive began more simply. I was a cyclist by default; I was broke.

It had been two years since I'd moved to Chicago after earning a degree in theater from an arts conservatory in downtown Miami. I was living a lighter life now, perhaps a more sober one as well. I had developed a few good friends and a few freelance jobs working as an art preparator in River North. In the evenings I wrote plays and enjoyed a quaint domestic life with Lenyr, my girlfriend at the time and a painter from the arts conservatory back home.

My days were spent in basements packing sculptures into crates or suspending gallery walls with airplane cable atop tottering ladders, and even though most of my work was really a glorified kind of manual labor, I could say, with a real sense of accomplishment, that art was paying my rent. Lenyr would temper my pride by reminding me, not with words but with a raised eyebrow or the shrug of a shoulder, that art was hardly paying the rent and, at that, only hardly paying my half the rent. Cash was scarce. We barely had enough for a good dinner, so paying monthly rates on unreliable transit service didn't seem logical at all. The idea of buying a car and driving to work was totally absurd. So to protect my fragile niche in the gallery district and to stretch our resources, I decided, and soon preferred, to bike to work.

I would take Clark Street through the North Side into downtown. It held a diverse strip of ethnic enclaves laid out six miles long, like colored socks in a department store. I enjoyed the sunlight, the circulation, and that ineffable oozy-bouncy groove that only a bike can provide. Wiping the beads of sweat from my brow, I was out there swerving around beer bottles in Wrigleyville and dodging whale-sized CTA buses that swam through the gutters, wagging their articulated extensions and spewing black froth. Even in June, brothas cruised the alleys wearing down coats, looking something like mutated inner tubes. Their black faces and gold teeth seemed to yawn condensed air from their evening revelries.

Long lines of cars would obstruct my path, sometimes violently, and I would timidly veer toward safety. People would shout crass comments out of their windows at me and I would just keep rolling without complaint. Occasionally someone would throw a Coke can into my path. Other times the drivers would bully their way between other cars and the curb and make it hard for me to pass. In stalled traffic I would sit behind their idle bumpers trying to avoid the clouds of carbon monoxide that pumped out of their exhaust pipes.

On a few stretches I would share the curb with a small line of other cyclists--bike commuters, really--who followed each other loosely like a line of orphaned ducklings. Many of them, covered with reflectors and safety gear, were average businesspeople with their pant legs carefully strapped to the ankle. Occasionally I would see a messenger, sprinting through the car traffic, weaving around cabs and buses as if they were little flags on a slalom course. They would cruise past me like I was dust in the road; in their cool arrogant way, they seemed to move with their eyes closed, as if the four-lane wall of traffic at the intersection of Wells and North Avenue was some kind of bluff that they saw right through.

I didn't try to compete. I simply enjoyed being in the public sphere, traveling through the cement canyons of city life. I celebrated my sense of freedom. Like a spy of the metropolis, carefree and car-free, as blasé as a well-fed homeless man, I was in the arena where society lived up to all its best and worst reputations.

Chicago to me was raw, honest, unabashed, and profoundly graceful. I could see the choreography of motorists fighting for parking meters. I could watch the wall-sized ads pop up and down the billboards on train stations and get painted over the brickwork of warehouses. I could see fashionable people and audacious bums strolling down the centerline of a street as if it were their own. I could track the paths of green-coated meter maids, who dropped thirty-dollar parking tickets on the hoods of cars like orange flower petals.

I was feeling a kind of flirtation with the roots of trees growing out of their cast-iron collars in the sidewalk and the slowmoving black asphalt that buckled over curbs and tore down street signs. I watched the graceful lines where cement, like splashing water, had crushed into gray spots around the corner of a building. I was attracted to the human nature that I could read in the man-made landscape, I was falling in love with public space.

I once saw a garbage can lined with a black plastic bag launch a beer bottle under the pressure of gusting wind. The bag inverted, filling up like a hot-air balloon. The bottle flew ten feet into the air, smashed over a gridded strip of subway ventilation, and vanished into the underground without a trace.

When I arrived at an art gallery filled with these images, I would always wonder, Which was the more honest arena? The street? Or the exhibition? And which was the more profound? The street, of course, the street, in almost every case.

On the thirteenth day of June, I was working alone in the Maya Polsky Gallery, straightening one side of a warped diptych and hanging it just out of a line of sunlight that came in through the loft's tall windows. The city had just begun to see the first signs of summer: 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and clean, dry air. Beams of white light reflected off windshields and wax jobs. Outside the gallery I could see the couriers hanging out on the steps of 225 West Superior. These tough-looking rebels with thick arms and heavy gestures were still pale from head to tail by the markings of their winter gear. They smoked cigarettes and looked up at a big sky and a few soft clouds that passed overhead.

Fuck it, I said to myself, letting a bad idea consume me. I stuffed away my paint-spilled work clothes in the back room of the gallery and rode off in shorts and a blue guayabera, leaving my checklist of odd jobs for another day.

Rolling through the crisp air, I felt like an angel. A cool draft of wind shook my hair into long gold ribbons. I sped around the buckled intersections of the gallery district, cutting off taxis, timing my way through the buzzing traffic and crosswalks filled with workers in gray suits sweating in their black leather shoes. I was heading to Oak Street Beach to enjoy Lake Michigan just before it got warm enough to be pissed in by the rest of city. I looked forward to hanging out with a group of funky jugglers and jumping into some kick circles with the Hacky Sack showmen who haunt the lakeshore there.

I flew through flush green parks, parting flocks of pigeons. I pulled up alongside a yellow bus, sharing smiles with kids on their way home from school. I sped ahead of its barreling engine as it forced its way through the narrow streets of the Gold Coast. On Oak, in a small strip between State and Rush, where the traffic is always backed up, I skimmed past idling cars that sat--crack!

Suddenly I was thrown, good-bye, into the clear blue sky, like a white egret launched from mangroves.

I wasn't quite sure what happened. Even midflight I was enjoying this clean, dreamlike high. The painted asphalt was still moving beneath me, but my motility had changed. I was less agile, more inert. I felt like a javelin whose only obstacle was the wind. I thought: Maybe my bicycle has vanished. Maybe I don't need it anymore. The street continued moving and I kept gliding along. Instinctively my arms crossed my chest. My back twisted and my shoulders came up to protect my head, curving me backward in a crescent shape. Then, in a wave of motion, the strip of black asphalt reached up and pulled me out of the sky. I heard a series of cracks and snaps ricochet through my torso as I absorbed the intersection and slid.

My right arm, braced by my left hand, went limp slapping the pavement as I collapsed around it. My left shoulder came to the street as my right bounced away, turning me in space like a skipped stone. My left shoulder was ground into the grain of the asphalt, which scraped off patches of blue cotton and flesh from my sides. My legs, now twisted to the left, smacked the street and pulled me along behind them into the oncoming traffic of Rush Street.

As I fell, my head did not touch the ground. After my landing, it dropped to the earth, exhausted.

When I opened my eyes the street was hot against my face and cars were moving past. My arms were coiled under my body like thick rope. There was no pain and no sound. My knees and ankles throbbed from their impact against the street like steel tuning forks ringing dissonant tones. My neck was pinned into my right shoulder; I could see the open sky between the long skyscrapers. For one still moment, this landscape sat peacefully on its side.

I was alive, but doubted my prospects. I knew that taking a headfirst dive into the street without a helmet left me very poor odds for survival. The whole "I think, therefore I am" routine had suddenly developed an important flaw: What if dead men think? Existence may not actually mean survival. As much as I could cogitate, I couldn't move, and so I thought, If I can't move, who is to acknowledge my living?

I turned my neck to sigh, frustrated by the existential dilemma. That's when the relief kicked in: I AM ALIVE! Halle-fuckin'-lujah! In the end, Motion equals Life--that I could be sure of. Suddenly the skyline re-created itself and the sound of passing traffic rushed back in. I rolled my shocked eyes back to the far right to see what act of god, what lightning bolt, had so swiftly struck me down.

The back door of cab Number 876, now over twenty feet behind me, was open, and beside it lay the pieces of my bike, twisted and bent into a pile of loose cables and twisted geometry. A young woman stood behind the cab's door, her mouth agape, her eyes red and frightened as they looked upon me, a motionless, tangled mess.

Doored. She had opened the door into my path. The timing was so perfect that I never even saw it happen.

A crowd gathered. The key witness, the chorus leader, was a daytime drunk talking crazily and walking with his feet too wide apart, keeping everyone on the sidewalk while I lay there like a petrified salamander.

"Don't move, don't move. Call an ambulance! Not you. You, you over there," he said, pointing to the store clerk of Bang & Olufsen, "you." A tall, well-dressed clerk disappeared into his shop on command while the clown bragged of his intelligent maneuver: "He pays real estate tax. See, that's how you get things done."

I planted my left hand on the asphalt and pushed myself back on my knees. "Wait! Don't move! You don't know what could be broken. Jesus, man, what the hell are you thinking!"

I tried to respond but I was nauseous; it hurt to breathe. I tried to stand because I had to know if I would ever walk away from this. Stacking myself up inch by inch, putting my weight on my right foot and pressing the street from beneath me, I found that the back of my left hand could be pulled from the ground. My left leg was not responding, but I forced it into place by tilting my hip. I could see that I was bleeding from my elbow, my left hand, and a line of road rash that trailed from my shoulder to my ankle. I straightened my back and looked up to see myself standing in the path of a mustard-yellow Crown Victoria.

The driver came out of the cab yelling. I heard his voice; he was Indian or Pakistani, and he was trying to blame the accident on the passenger. He insisted that he was not at fault for being a good eight feet from the curb. He said the woman had jumped out of the cab unpredictably.

When the cop arrived, he took a glance at me and proceeded to the passenger in question. She was a PYT half his age. She looked at me from the sidewalk and spoke. I hoped that her words would be meant for me. They weren't. She was looking at me but talking to the cop: "Can I go now?"

But the cop was just warming up to her, trying to get her number, talking about himself with these mellow Al Green tones. The crowd continued looking at me from the various corners of the street silently, shocked and amazed, much like me, hooked by the aesthetics of blood and injustice.

The injuries seemed to have come from every angle. I could track them, counting, noting each millisecond of my progress across the pavement. But then the injuries kept unfolding in the form of the insults and inadequacies of the surrounding crowd. The fool, the cop, the young woman, the taxi driver--all characters in a little play--spread the guilt between them. "What were you riding a bike for, anyhow?" the officer asked, looking back at his sweet thang for approval. Was this to be the moral for the audience and for me, the protagonist spared from certain death? Was I at fault for riding a bicycle? For not driving a car?

As I watched blood pool in my palm, I could see the captivated attention of the spectators. I closed my fist to keep from them the satisfaction, the spectacle, of my mortality and Arlequino walked me to the curb. This was not the theater I had come to Chicago for.

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Excerpted from The Immortal Class by Travis Hugh Culley. Copyright © 2001 by Travis Hugh Culley. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.