I was darn pleased with myself for riding my bicycle to my favorite early-morning AA meeting for the first time. As I locked up my bike with my mega-strength U-lock and headed towards the door at two minutes ‘til 7:00, it dawned on me that the journey to this particular meeting began almost thirty years ago during a missed encounter with twelve-step recovery.
It was a Saturday morning in the spring of 1987. I had recently finished college and moved to San Francisco in December, barely six months earlier. I was standing on a corner in the Haight Ashbury, waiting for a bus to take me to Noe Valley to meet up with a woman I’d recently met. She had invited me to something called an Al-Anon meeting and I decided to go see what this was about.
Except the damn bus wasn’t coming and now I wasn’t going to make it.
I found getting around my new city on public transportation to be pretty cool but often unpredictable. Being dependent on something I had no control over frustrated me. In my just-completed school years I’d always had a bike for transportation. Now I envied the urban bicyclists I saw and knew a bike could work here too. I gave up on the bus—and the Al-Anon meeting—and resolved to get myself some wheels.
After visiting a few bike stores, I found a red Specialized Hard Rock mountain bike at Noe Valley Cyclery, in the same neighborhood as the abandoned Al-Anon meeting. The bike was solid and really fun to ride. I’d always wanted a mountain bike and this seemed like a good one for navigating the traffic and hills of San Francisco. I plunked down my credit card and made a lame joke about eating ramen forever. In return, the sales guy made a few adjustments, gave me a helmet and a bike lock, and sent me out into the urban wilds with my new red bike.
For the first three years I lived in San Francisco, I rode my red bike everywhere, day and night. I loved the freedom and independence of exploring the “City by the Bay” on my bicycle. I bought a leather gig bag for my saxophone so I could it sling over my shoulder and ride to jam sessions and rehearsals. At night I rode it to the jazz clubs near the Marina and North Beach. I rode it to the edge of the Tenderloin where I worked as a security guard from 4pm to midnight. I rode it through Golden Gate Park to the ocean, then out over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. I was fearless and foolish. I didn’t have lights, gear or fancy bike clothes. Nothing. Just the energy, enthusiasm, innocence and bravery of being young and on my own in a city that fascinated me.
Then in the spring of 1990, I took my red bike to a downtown bike shop to get it tuned up—I don’t remember my logic for taking it to a shop so far out of my neighborhood. I went to pick it up during a rainy rush hour, and somehow I had the sense to walk with it on the sidewalk until I got to a safer route. As I came up to a busy intersection, I witnessed a pedestrian get hit in the crosswalk by a car making a left turn. The woman screamed as her body was sent flying over the hood of the car crashing into her. She landed in the street and several people rushed to her aid, but since I was some distance away and not able to assist, I kept moving. Even though it was not a close call for me, seeing this while I was with my bike really scared me because I realized how vulnerable that woman was against the car. This marked the end of my fearlessness as a bicyclist in San Francisco.
I continued back towards home on Dolores Street, in the same yuppie neighborhood where I’d bought my red bike a few years earlier. As I traveled down funky Guerrero Street, I passed a small bar that I’d been hearing about and decided to stop in.
I was really shaken and freaked out by seeing the pedestrian get hit by a car and I needed a drink. This was the beginning of my relationship with Café Babar. I took a seat on one of the three bars stools, and Alvin, the owner, poured me an Anchor Steam and chatted with me as the brew calmed my nerves.
Café Babar was a tiny living room of a joint, barely a storefront with a couple of tables and a small curved bar. There was a back room but the hipness was all in the front bar with Alvin. Lanky, fiftyish, with a shiny pate encircled by flowing hair and a bushy moustache, Alvin was the last of the original San Francisco bohemians. Babar was a holdout from the true hipster days of SF. It was upscale Kerouac. To sweeten the appeal, Alvin hosted jazz on Wednesday nights each week to complement the various literary readings. Since it was only a few blocks from my apartment, it was my favorite SF hangout. I became a regular at the jazz nights and performed there many times as a novice bandleader. I even occasionally played tennis with Alvin during the daylight hours at nearby courts.
As my Babar adventures began, my red bike adventures waned. After that day, I lost my nerve and only rode my red bike on gentle, judicious jaunts. In 1992 I did the unthinkable and bought a car. The red bike collected dust. Eventually it ended up stored in a closet in my mother’s house in Albuquerque when I moved to NYC. To add insult to injury, it was sidelined with a flat tire from a rogue New Mexico thorn, left unrepaired until years later when the red bike came to Seattle for the next phase of its existence.
As the sun came up over the boathouse meeting, I grabbed a seat and some strong early-morning AA coffee. I wondered what would have happened if the bus had been on time and I’d made it to that Al-Anon meeting, long before I was ready to hear any talk about recovery. I had only peddled four miles that day but my red bike had come full circle over three decades and several thousand miles to carry me to this morning’s AA meeting.
The biking saga continues:
Honkin’ on 100 Miles (Biking Pt. 2)