ON YERE BIKE
I took a place in one of the booths near the door, intent on ordering something warm. A traditional pub: darts, fireplace, and a long bar already crowded with Irishmen pouring that dark mother’s milk down their throats. It might have been about ten in the morning. The joint was rowdy enough by anyone’s standards, on a weekday no less, that I wanted to hang around and see how it ended. But this was only meant as a brief pit stop before pedaling back into the breach.
The rain hadn’t really stopped lashing since before breakfast, and the wind, like the higher math I so loathed back in school, was a constant. Seeing as I’d volunteered to bicycle around my ancestral homeland, I felt duty-bound to offer casual disregard in the face of the harshest weather. Given my pitiful state after less than a week of sloshing about country roads, my relatives, were they still aboveground, would certainly have shunned me. Or, at the very least, they would have called me cruel names, like plonker and wank, before letting me buy them a pint.
I was too cold to shed my blue Gore-Tex shell and pants. When I glanced in the mirror behind the bar the image staring back resembled a bulky blueberry as painted by Keith Haring—practically glowing. Had my rain suit always been so loud, or did the sea of muted jackets surrounding me raise its reflective properties to clownlike proportions? One of the patrons, about my age, noticed me noticing myself and leaned over. “What do ya call an Irishman in one of them spiffy rain suits?”
“You call him a tourist. We wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that shite.”
He smiled, a good-natured grin. The rest of the pub must have been listening, because the place broke into hearty laughter. I joined in. What the hell—it was a good joke even if I happened to be the punch line.
Clearly, my reaction suited them, because an open stool quickly appeared and handshakes were exchanged. The comedian’s name turned out to be Brian, and his friends were damn near everyone in the place. When the second round arrived I realized a sip too late that I was participating in my first genuine “session.” To leave at this point would have been beyond rude. Having heard that these things could last indefinitely, I ordered myself a substantial amount of grub, hoping it might absorb some of that potent beer as we went.
“Ease up, lad,” Brian said as I inhaled a thick bowl of soup and tore at something called a doorstep sandwich. “The potato famine ended years ago.” This brought on another round of laughter and more drinks. At least I’d peeled off my blue rain gear by then. If I passed out and hit the deck, I’d seem less like rotting fruit without the blueberry suit.
At some point, between stowing my bike and losing much of the feeling in my cheeks, I reviewed the blind spots in my life, as a young man verging on the edge of drunkenness is apt to do. Everyone has such spots—not obvious shortcomings, but the hidden flaws and conspiring circumstances that duck under the radar, usually until it’s too late. Growing up in suburbia, the land of Wonder bread, Campbell’s soup, and cul-de-sacs, I harbored a nagging suspicion that my blind spot was somehow tied to a vague feeling of rootlessness. Can anyone really claim a genuine sense of place when the landmarks of their youth are a series of strip malls, golf courses, and 7-Elevens?
A childhood of summer evenings spent floating weightless and womblike in a backyard pool regulated to the temperature of blood . . . for a time I cherished my little monocultural world, taking stock and feeling something close to pleasure in its sameness. The way the automatic sprinklers popped up from hidden turf-builder bunkers each day of each month of each year smacked of utter permanence. A manufactured history, but the only one I’d ever occupied. Mine was a community of Tupperware pioneers making damn certain no one would want for anything they couldn’t order from a catalog. I was parochial, insulated, and restless.
It was the writings of a bunch of wayward comrades—London, Conrad, Steinbeck, Twain, and Kerouac—that broke my hermetically sealed (for freshness) world, and all the king’s men couldn’t put it back together again. For the record, I would have fought them to the death if they’d tried. My outward appearance remained unchanged. I continued to float in the pool, swing in the hammock, pedal the streets, and skate the rails and curbs after class, but a virus had entered my bloodstream. Go get your MBAs and fast tracks—I’ll take the road.
Brian asked if I’d buy the gang a shout, and I nodded. God help me, this session was in full swing now.
My first long-distance bicycle adventures were taken out of something close to fear: of growing old before my time, of not seeing and feeling and tasting enough of the world around me before I left it or, worse, grew too jaded to care. I was a middle-class white boy on the road to find out. Sure, I was a cliché. I wanted to say I’d left my zip code and then some. Still, long after the other guys turned in their Eurail passes, stopped writing that Dutch girl they’d met in France, and knocked off the slight British accent, I pedaled on in search of nothing more than moments like this one: a boothful of Irishmen telling lies and teaching me how to pour a proper pint of Guinness.
Act as if you have faith and faith might just find you.
Over the years the road showed me that your place in this world is where you happen to be standing at the moment. Or, in my case, teetering.
Someone stepped into the pub, and I noticed that it was dark outside. When had that happened? I eased back in the booth and tried to focus on the poor sod asleep at the end of the bar. In Ireland the joke goes that Alcoholics Anonymous means a guy who happens to be drinking alone.
“On yere bike,” the bartender hollered in the direction of this seemingly comatose fellow. The scuttered gent stirred, found his footing, and wandered for the door.
“That guy’s not really going to try to ride a bicycle home, is he?”
This brought such a roar of laughter from the gang in our booth that you’d have thought I’d just goosed each and every one of them.
The expression had caught my attention several times already during my Irish jaunt, but alcohol and other lively conversation had distracted me from further investigation. I was certainly thrown by it, since none of them appeared to be avid cyclists.
“It’s a clever way of telling someone to get off their arse and on with their life,” Brian explained. “Out the yard, up your socks, on yere bike.”
On yere bike . . . it was the very battle cry I’d been reaching for these many miles in the saddle. My eyes practically filled with grateful tears as I hoisted my glass.
“Gentlemen, on yere bike!” I toasted.
While not moved to my level of emotion, these newfound friends looked plenty amused as our glasses touched. Clearly, I was the only one at the table for whom the phrase carried untold depth and weight. And in the sober and thankfully gray light of an Irish morning the day after, it had only grown more valid as an evocation, rite, fight song, and prayer. Not the sort of thing you’d expect a Tibetan monk to offer up as a mantra, but who would argue with the clarity and simple wisdom of “get off your arse and on with your life”?
Some days I have to coax it from myself as a whisper. Other times I belt it out so loud and strong along lonely stretches of road that quail are flushed from the bush. As long as it rings true, I’m sticking by this as my operating instructions.
On yere bike!
Excerpted from Riding Outside The Lines by Joe Kurmaskie. Copyright © 2003 by Joe Kurmaskie. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.