The Bicycle by Robert Seeley
Cool facts about my grandpa:
He eloped with my grandmother
He was an engineer for NASA who worked on the booster rockets between the first and second stages for the Apollo missions, and did some work on designing the shuttle
He was a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (it took him a while longer to join than my grandmother because he felt he needed to reconcile science and religion)
Before he passed away, my grandfather wrote out this story from his life about his adventures in obtaining a bicycle for his boyhood paper route in 1930 New York. Enjoy!
Entering my teen years during the Great Depression found my parents in desperate circumstances such that they could afford me only a very minimum allowance. One way to earn some spending money was to get a newspaper route. These were much sought after and difficult to find. My first opportunity was a paper route for the local candy store and I delivered about thirty papers on foot around the neighborhood in the evening and on Saturdays. It did not pay much but was better than nothing.
One day, a friend said his family was moving and he had to give up his paper route. He offered to name me as his successor, however, this route covered a large area and a bicycle was necessary. I asked my parents to buy one but they could not afford the cost. Then, I learned that my older cousins had a bike in the basement of their house and that I could have it. This bike turned out to be a relic about twenty years old. I pumped up the tires only to have them go flat. Both tires had punctures which a friend of mine fixed with rubberband plugs. At last, I was on wheels and the paper route was mine.
The bike gave me no end of trouble. The wheels had wooden rims and the tires could not stay on until I secured them with tape. I nursed and cursed this old bike for months until one day, I won a prize in a contest held by the local drugstore.
My prize was a new bicycle, and I was ecstatic until they told me it had to be picked up at a warehouse in Manhattan. We lived in Queens County and there was no one that I knew who had a truck and was willing to drive to Manhattan. My father told me to forget it as there was no way we could get the bicycle home. I was fourteen, angry and frustrated.
On the last Saturday morning before the time expired, I left the apartment and without telling my parents, took the EI to Manhattan. The last stop on the Fulton Street EI, in those days, was Park row which was the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. From there I walked across town to the West side and up town until I found my street. It was a Saturday morning, most of the businesses were closed.
The address was a two-story building with a driveway entry. It looked deserted as I rang the bell and pounded on the door. Finally, when I was about to give up, the door opened and out came a man in coveralls. He listened to my story and examined my claim ticket, then disappeared inside. Soon the garage doors opened and the man reappeared with the crated bicycle on a dolly. Looking around he asked, “Where’s the truck?”
When I explained that I had to ride the bike home because there was no other way to get it there, he looked dubious. “We don’t usually assemble bikes here, but I’ll see what I can do.” Disappearing for a minute he repapered with an adjustable wrench in hand. He then uncrated the parts and assembled the bike. It was so beautiful, I could scarcely believe my good luck. It had a double bar, broad handlebars, and sturdy mudguards. The tires were heavy duty with thick tread. In fact, the entire bike was just what I needed to deliver my papers.
When the bike was finally assembled the warehouseman found a pump and filled the tires. While he watched, I gave the bike a trial run. The handlebars were loose and the tires needed more air. When that was taken care of I thanked the man profusely and started my journey home.
Riding a bike on Manhattan streets is a risky business even though it was a slow Saturday morning in 1930. I made it downtown safely and crossed over to the Brooklyn Bridge entrance. There I studied the approaches for awhile and decided that the stairs up to the walkway were too steep for me to drag my bike. Instead, I waited for a break in the traffic and then started up the truck and trolley ramp. The crossing was a very scary event what with taxis honking at me, trolley motormen clanging their bells, the bike wheels getting caught in the trolley tracks and the handle bars getting loose.
Somehow, I made it to the down ramp on the Brooklyn side out of traffic only to be stopped by a very big policeman. He took me over to the side out of traffic and proceeded to give me a lecture. When I finally had a chance to explain the situation, the handlebars collapsed. As a matter of fact, the entire bike was loose. Surveying the situation and realizing how far I had to go, the officer walked me over to a nearby service station where he asked the mechanic, working there, to tighten up my bike. The mechanic was friendly and when I told him the story he said it was amazing that I got as far as I did with everything that loose. The officer stayed until he was satisfied the bike was safe to use and then, with a final warning, sent me on my way.
I proceeded cautiously up Flatbush Avenue to Fulton Street where I followed the EI to Atlantic Ave. I remember having a little difficulty here in deciding which EI to follow because four different lines came together at Atlantic Ave. Finally, I chose the right one and followed it to Liberty Ave. which passes by our apartment house. From there it was easy going.
At last, with a great feeling of relief, I pulled up in front of the apartment house where we lived. Some of my friends gathered around to admire the bike and hear about the experience. My mother, seeing me from the apartment window, came down to find out where I had been all morning. Upon explaining that I had gone to Manhattan for the bike and rode it home, she flatly refused to believe me. My father, when he heard about, said it was a foolish thing to do but later, I heard him telling the neighbors.
I remember that there was considerable skepticism at the time about my exploit. However, in the end all had to accept the fact that there was no other way I could have gotten the bike home. The bicycle served me well for years as did the story of how I brought it home.
R. MARQUIS SEELEY