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October 6, 2011

I rolled over in bed to look at the clock.

6:30 AM.

Time to get up and do the morning ride.

I’d made a habit of this – getting up just before dawn to ride – even before we’d bought the little house in Old Town.  Key West, with its not quite four mile length and less than two mile width, is a cyclist’s town.  There are perhaps a hundred miles of streets, walks, paths, lanes – all save Truman Ave are bike friendly.  I had been unable to sleep one winter morn, and decided to hop on a bike to see what there was to see…

I’ve not stopped since.

Now that summer was upon us, the morning ride’s uniform was minimalistic.  I’d pull on a pair of shorts and hop on the bike – that was about it.  Once away from the house, the freedom of a ride sans the trappings of modern life – shirt, wallet, keys and the omnipresent cell phone felt wonderful.  Risky you say?  Nahh.  This is a little island – what trouble can a middle-aged guy get into at the crack of dawn?

The bike of choice for the morning ride was my Phatty – a custom bike I’d built up specific for the island.  Single speed, ballon tires, banana seat and a sissy bar – it was the re-creation of my purple 1969 Sears Spyder, albeit in green.  Once aboard, it was easy to imagine I was nine years old – no adult worries, no adult distractions – just me and my bike.

It helps quite a bit that the average islander isn’t awake at 6:30 AM…much less ambulatory.   The Phatty and I pretty much have the streets to ourselves, save for Latino day laborers riding in from Stock Island (I pass them and say “Good Morning” every day – they peer suspiciously at me from under tattered baseball caps) and some of the local color, like Beer Dog Guy.  Just about every morning, I see this rather thin, dried out guy walking a big black lab – leash in one hand and a can of Bud in the other.  It’s said the island oft increases one’s desire and capacity for alcohol.  If so, then Beer Dog Guy is walking proof.

But enough of that.  I’m a kid, legs pumping, wheels spinning, no-handed, arms outstretched in homage to the first aircraft of the day making its final approach to Key West International.  It’s a beautiful day, my head is clear, my mood bright.  As I approach the eastern terminus of the island, I’m in high spirits with much stamina.  Today’s gonna be a long ride – at least two hours and the better part of 20 miles.  After putting hundreds of miles astride two wheels, an hour is effortless and two is pretty easy.  More to see this way , and the islands have much to offer.

I cross Cow Key Channel Bridge, bumping along at a decent clip.  Off to the left are a couple spread out on a picnic blanket sipping coffee, deeply engaged in conversation.  If the clothes were cleaner, the hair less matted and the bikes less careworn, they’d look like any other couple on a picnic, but they’re not.  The foot of the bridge is their home, and I’m a voyeur into their morning.  It strikes me as odd their faces don’t share the pinched, oft-desparate look of some of their island compadres  – I’m left with the impression theirs is a voluntary state.  There is a story circulating the island of a homeless guy who left his son $600,000 – a lifetime of parsimonious panhandling, so there are some who voluntarily choose this way of life.  I pass them with a pang of envy.

Up ahead on the path there is a gaggle of the ugliest birds to ever walk the face of the earth.  Vultures and condors have their own macabre magnificence; these birds – most likely the bastard offpring of a barnyard orgy – are just flat ugly.  Like God had leftover turkey/duck/chicken parts and slapped ‘em together.  There’s a southern delicacy (originating in Louisiana, I think) which is a chicken wrapped in a duck – wrapped inna turkey.  Turducken.  It’s a word – look it up if you must.  It describes these misfits, these rejects.  No irony in their choice of residence, the former stockyard of  Key West.

Now I don’t mind these turducken, but they won’t leave the bike path to save their souls.  I narrowly miss decapitating a particularly fat and slow one, its plumage matching the finish of a battered back lot transprortation special.  What’s so special about the path?

I ride on.

Golf course on the left, wannabe tourist stops on the right.  T-shirts.  $2 for $5.  Who needs a shirt when it’s 88 during the day and 82 at night?  Not me!  After a little research and exploration, one discovers there are many restaurants who are willing to serve patrons sans shirts and shoes.  A woman walked into an outdoor bar the other day wearing a G-string and some strategically placed body paint; only a few fat sunburned turistas gave her a second look.  The longer I stay, the less I wear.  Fantasy Fest makes sense after a while – the appropriate amount of clothing to maintain comfort is none at all. No wonder shirts are so cheap.

At the terminus of Stock Island the bike path comes to an abrupt end.  Keep on A1A?  Fight for a few inches of asphalt with cars moving twice as fast?  Nope.  Not for me.  I turn left and head north along the only available road.

Bike path again.  The east end of Stock island has an entirely different feel than the west end.  Not antiseptic and ordered like the golf course community – no.  It’s filled with non-conformists, folks who wanted to do their own thing at the end of the line but found the end of the line was either not to their liking or just too expensive, so…they landed here.  Any architecture goes – from South Beach chic to doublewide dreary.

About a mile in, I pass an aberration.  It’s a house – a big house – a SoCal McMansion, and it’s in process of being built.  I wonder idly if the proud owner-to-be knows his mini estate has been built on the remains of pig wallow.  Does he care?  Probably not.  Does he know his +1 foot above sea level means he’s the first to go?  Given the choice of granite countertops and a spa vs. stilts, he probably enthusiatically selected the former.

I curse the owner silently – this is the sort of thing I’d traveled far to get away from, and here it is grinning fatuously, taunting me with taupe stucco and multiple gables.


As I pass the house, I wonder idly about construction debris causing a flat.  There were over five hundred puncture-free miles on the skins of the Phatty.  I’d had flats with other bikes – just last month I’d been on a rental on Galveston Island and a carpet tack took out the back tire two miles from the shop.  A forty minute walk in 98 degree heat was no picnic.

About the time finished congratulating myself on my good fortune, I hear a dread noise:

Pfft – – – pfft – – – pfft – – – pfft


Pfft – – – pfft – – – pfft – – – pfft




Get off.

Spin the wheel; a demon staple from the Victorville horror lodged in my rear tire.


At this point, I’m about seven miles out.  No wallet, no cellphone.  I can walk at the rate of thee miles an hour; it will be the better part of two and a half hours before I’m home.  Well…I’d wanted some sun; I was gonna get my fair share now.

Turned the bike around and started walking.  Made it back to the house of suburban evil when I hear a car behind me.

Police cruiser.

Cool!  Maybe I can flag him down and he’ll call me a cab!

The cruiser accelerates, then swerves to block my path, skidding to a halt in the loose gravel on the edge of the tarmac.  Young guy, maybe early thirties, gets out.  Clean cut; crisp white shirt – pressed navy shorts.  The look on his face indicates he’s in no mood to play concierge.

‘Whatcha doin?’, asks the cop cautiously.  Not that it was hard to figure out, but the way he asked was like he already knew the answer, and it was an answer I didn’t like.

“Got a flat – pushin’ the bike home.”  When you get the feeling you’re suspicious, the best thing to do is stick to answering the questions – don’t volunteer information.

“You always ride your bike without a shirt – without shoes?”  He lifted an eybrow as he asked this.  Got the distinct impression I was about to get a free ride to the county jail on suspicion of bicycle theft.

“Yes sir – every morning.  First time I’ve been out this far.”

He spent a long moment sizing me up. “Well…we don’t take kindly to barefoot guys pushing bikes around first thing in the morning.  Be on you way.”  With that, the officer did a military about-face, got in his car and sped off.

Relief and frustration.  Relieved that the Pheebs didn’t have to bail me out, frustration in that I was seven miles from home with no shortcut.  Protect and serve, right?


Took a deep breath,  resumed walking.  About a mile later, the Phatty and I were back at the main road.  An idea overtook. There was a filling station on the corner: perhaps the tire could be filled with air just long enough to get down the road a mile or so, pedaling like hell and gone.  Yeah – that’s it – anything to move towards the goal!

The bright shiny chrome canister holding the air compressor read, “ FREE air to our customers – see cashier inside.  A smaller sign underneath read, “$1.25 – Quarters only, no change.

Well – I wasn’t a customer, and I didn’t want to risk another run in with Mr. Clean who was presumably keeping the Victorville horror safe from the presumed down and out likes of me.  I gave the filling station a wide berth.

Back on the bike path, the sun higher in the sky.  Back’s getting warm, pavement’s even warmer.  About a half mile down from the station, the roughness of the sunbaked asphalt is getting to my feet – I can feel the hotspot preludes to blisters forming at the edges of both heels.  No longer nine, I find myself alternating between the need to see this through and wishing for an easy out.  How much trouble can a middle-aged guy get into on a Key West Sunday morning?  More than his feet can endure, it seems.

Moments later, a voice from behind…

“Aay, Bubba!  Some trouble with your tire, eh?”  He was in his thirties.  Small guy wearing a t-shirt, cutoffs and a baseball cap, riding what can best be described as a machination cobbled together from a half-dozen castoff rental bikes – then painted red with a coarse brush.  The paint wasn’t there for aesthetics – no, it was there to keep the rusty bits from abandoning ship.  The cadence and intonation of his speech was hard to place; Latin American, perhaps cubano.

“Yeah, picked up a staple a ways back.”

He eyed the bike carefully.  “That’s a nice bike, bubba!  You oughta put some air in that tire and ride it!”

I found myself thinking this may be where the bike and I part company.  Never heard of a bikejacking on the island – but then again, there’s a first time for everything.

“Thought about just that, but the gas station back there wanted a lot of money to fill up the tire – I’m not paying that much for air.” Couldn’t bring myself to admit that I’d been stupid to leave this morning penniless.  Sure, I’d done it as a kid, but I’d only gone a block or two from the house – no more than a five minute walk to the comfort and safety of home.  Now I was an entire body of land away from home, and faced with the chance I’d be mugged for my bike.  I felt old.

“Aqui, bubba!  You can fill up there!” He came close.  “No money, eh?   Here.”  He dug into his pocket and withdrew a fistful of coin.  “For your air, bubba.”

I felt foolish.  “No, man – I can’t take your money.  I’ll keep walking.”

He handed over the money and  said, “No – you need the air,” and rode off.

I stared at pile of coins in my hand for a long time.  Strange feeling this – a guy I’ve never met, a guy most likely working three jobs to make ends meet, hands over all the change in his pocket simply because I looked like I needed it. Now I felt both old and small.

Well…the tire wasn’t getting any air by itself, the path wasn’t getting any smoother and it sure as hell wasn’t getting any cooler.  Off to the next air pump.




Three feet a stride.  A snail’s pace compared to the trip out.  Joints starting to ache.

On the way to the next air stop, a couple pass me by on their brand-new Schwinns.  They’re recent retirees by the look of things; their skin color and physique indicate they’re new to the life of sun, sea and bicycle transport.  I smile in their direction; get a look of derision back.

Yup – that pretty much clinches it.  I’m a bum.  Only thing missing is my can of beer.

Walk into the filling station just behind the retirees; they’re topping off their nubbin-fresh tires.  Air machine’s runnin’;  I strike up small talk in an effort to bum the back half of their air so as to conserve the coin for the next stop.  Now I’m even thinking like a bum!  What did that take? An hour?  They cautiously hand over the hose, keeping their distance.  I carefully fill the tire, trying to get it as hard as I possibly can so as to extend my travel.

“Well, hopefully that will hold a whil-”


I’d turned my back on the bike to thank the couple and the tire blew with a concusssion that shook all of us.  Turned around to look – the tire had blown clear off the rim, the inner tube in shards.


Back to hoofin’ it.  Most of the length of Stock Island had been covered; the proof was in the return of the turducken.  There they were – square in the path, the biggest one blocking passage.  Before they were ugly; now they looked mean and ugly.  I think the big one recalled the narrow miss earlier and was ready to even the score.  My feet hurt, my back hurt, my shoulders were sore and I was in no shape to outrun a turducken.

Made it to within 20 feet of poultry’s answer to the gargoyle when the bugger did a 180 and waddled quite purposely away.  Huh?  Seemed like he’d decided to go somewhere instead of pecking my kneecaps off…sure enough, he was on his way to meet someone.  Not just anyone, mind you, but someone special – someone he clearly recognized.

Ever see Mary Poppins?  Remember the scene about three-quarters of the way through – the one where the poor old woman feeds the birds for tuppence a bag?  Substitute an elderly bearded man on a bike feeding turducken, and that’s the picture on a warm summer Sunday morning on Stock Island.  He’s the reason the birds are on the path approaching cyclists – they see a guy on two wheels, and they think, dinnertime!

I feel small again.  Here I thought of these ugly-assed birds as blights, and they were darned near pets for someone else.  I woulda broke his heart if I’d run one over.  Yup.  That’s me, guilty.  Better be pressing on before the blisters break.

Make it to the end of Stock Island – the Cow Key Channel Bridge – when I hear yet another voice.

“Young man – Young man!”  I think it might be the turducken feeder.  Crap.  He musta read my mind; I’ll ignore him.  Perhaps he’ll go away like any other homeless guy.  “I may be able to help”, he offered, a optimistic tone to his voice.

I turn around.  A spare man, verging elderly – hard to tell on an island that dries people out, uses them up and tosses them away like an empty beer can.  This one was different, though.  His manner of speech, the brightness in his eyes spoke of someone who chose to live out of the baskets of a bicycle.  Kind eyes. Possessions neatly cataloged and stowed in various nooks and crannies of the bike.  Tennis balls tucked in the spokes of the front tire – most likey for a canine game of fetch down at Dog Beach.

“Got some Fix-a-Flat on the back of my bike here – not much, but enough to get you home”, he said.  There was no pity, no judgement – just a simple offer to someone in need.  Didn’t feel threatened…only felt kindness and genuine concern.  I liked the guy right off, in spite of my earlier impression.

‘Thank you, but no – I overfilled the tire back at the station, and blew the tube to smithereens.  The stuff in the can won’t help – and besides, you need it for your bike!”  I could talk to this kind gent who looked an awful lot like a slimmed-down version of St. Nicholas on a Caribbean vacation.

“Aww.”  He let out a long sigh, clearly disappointed he couldn’t offer assistance.  “How far do you have to go?” he queried.

“Old Town.  Blew the tire on the far end of Stock Island, I’m about a third of the way there.”

He looked surprised. “I did that once!  Blew a tire out by Fort Zach; had to walk all they way to my place out by the airport…Whew!  It was a long walk, that’s why I carry a can of Fix-a-Flat…you should, too!”  his mood brightened as soon as he provided that advice.  “Say…All you have to do is get to Roosevelt, and you can hail a cab there!  See ya later!”

He went back to feeding his pet turducken, who strangely enough, didn’t look quite as ugly as they flocked to the man.

“Thanks!”  The idea had occurred to me, but I hadn’t thought it through.  I could hail a cab – then pay them when I got home…

Which is exactly what I did.

I’ve since repaired the flat and the blisters no longer cause pain; back to normal – but then again, not quite.

Things aren’t quite what they seem on the island; I now see people through an altered  lens.  I wave to folks I wouldn’t have noticed before, and they’re pleased to wave back. Feel the need to repay the kindness of strangers – not in a monetary way, but rather by improving the overall karma of the small spot we now call home.

I’ve seen  the patron saint of flat tires since; most recently on a rainy morn by Ft. Zach.  Trailed him for a bit, trying to screw up enough courage to approach him, strike up a conversation and thank him for a sincere act of kindness when none was anticipated – nor proffered by those in a position to do so.

Sadly – I didn’t follow through, for I’m not as big a man as he.  Not yet – give me some time, and God willing – I’ll get there.





2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 5:33 am

    What you lacked in words yesterday you made up for today. Splendid…so glad you put this story (true life experience) to printed word. I am also so glad that our daughter Alicia appears to have the same gift for prose ( a second gift you have given her). Miss you! Pheebs

    • dangerboyandpixie permalink*
      October 6, 2011 5:39 am

      This was 3300 words; since I average about 500 per post – I’m good for about a week of wordless posts, methinks.

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