Our house is like a library without any books. I don’t read books and I don’t remember seeing any books at home. Besides my mom reading the Bible, I never saw anyone reading anything, ever. My mom’s real religious but she doesn’t talk to me about church. She doesn’t talk to anyone about anything – it’s not just me. Same with my dad. If they ever talk to anyone at church or anyplace else, I sure never saw it. My mom writes letters to her sisters but they don’t call. The only time my mom touches the phone is to clean it with so much Lysol your ear’s wet if you use it. We have a TV, at least. One TV. My mom likes to watch her shows and that’s it. If you don’t like what is on TV, you are lost.
I can’t pay attention to anything that isn’t exciting to me. If it doesn’t go fast or blow up or do something, I honestly cannot pay attention. I can’t focus or concentrate long enough to understand anything that doesn’t hold my interest. I’m drifting through school, not in reality at all, ever. You know how everybody has a favorite subject? Mine is P.E. Hard as I try, I can’t get myself to enjoy anything else. I don’t have friends. The way school in Florida is, if you make bad grades, they don’t care. They pass you anyway.
I go out to the garage and sit there for hours, trying to figure out what to do. I don’t want to do anything with explosives anymore. I want to do something more mature, something guys do - something manly. That’s why I’m in the garage. It’s the man room. There’s more that’s interesting in here than in the entire house.
That’s where I get this idea. I‘m obsessed with the concept of having a motor on my bicycle. I’m fascinated with Harley and Davidson because they were interested in the same thing – going somewhere without having to work for it. They wanted to get to their fishing hole quickly and I want to get anywhere quickly. I’m preoccupied with the idea of having power on my bike and letting my feet rest. It’s all I ever think about now. I went from thinking about the Civil War, guns and blowing stuff up to sitting in the garage thinking about how I could put a motor on my bicycle. I want to escape and the idea of a motor on my bike, right now, means escape.
I walk around the neighborhood looking behind peoples’ houses, in lawn sheds, trying to find a motor that I could somehow put on my bicycle. I knock on our neighbors’ doors and ask them if they want their lawnmowers. They look at me funny and shut the door. I keep knocking. A few neighbors have old lawnmowers lying around that they tell me are junk. “It’s of no value to me,” they say. “You can have this one. It doesn’t run, though.”
I push the junk lawnmowers home and bring them into the garage. I get out my dad’s tools and disassemble the motors from the lawnmowers to try to attach them to my bicycle. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no mechanical skills, no welding skills, nothing. I’m pulling junk apart and making a big mess.
Dad notices all the junk motors, lawnmower bodies and the rest of the stuff in the garage. There is old rusty crap everywhere. I left parts, bolts, lawnmower blades and greasy junk wherever they were when I stopped working on them. Dad stands in the kitchen and opens the door to the garage. “What do you think you’re doing with all this garbage?” he says.
“I want to make a mini-bike.”
Dad shuts the door and I can overhear mom talking to him in the kitchen. They don’t talk to each other, ever. I can hear pretty easily through the thin jalousie door. She says, “Why don’t you just get him a mini-bike so he doesn’t get arrested for stealing?” Stealing? Mom thinks I’m stealing? Dad doesn’t say anything back. Maybe he left.
My brother stops by after dad’s car is gone and I hear mom talking to him in the kitchen. He’s curious about all the junk and what I’m doing with it. I don’t communicate with them or announce what I’m doing. I don’t tell them what I am interested in or any of my plans. I get an idea and I try to do it by myself.
“I have a friend who has a bicycle with a motor on it,” my brother says. “Do you think he’d want that?”
“Anything,” mom says. “Anything to get him to stop dragging old lawnmowers home.”
I don’t hear them talking anymore so I go back to my parts. I don’t know what George does or where he goes and I’m pretty sure my mom doesn’t know, either. If she knows what he’s doing all day and night, she doesn’t tell anyone. They’re both very private like that.
In Florida, you don’t go out and play. No one goes outside because it’s too hot. It’s difficult to figure out who lives in your neighborhood and especially difficult when you don’t have the confidence to knock on doors to find friends. The only source of information about people my own age is from my school and from seeing kids getting dropped off at bus stops or being driven home by parents. I’m so unsure of myself I don’t do anything like talk to kids in my class. I’m paralyzed by my insecurity.
Walking home from school I see this kid I recognize. I follow him for a while and find out where he lives. He seems like me, not confident. He’s shunned by some of the white kids. It’s neat he’s different, though. The next day I walk behind him and I walk faster to catch up with him. He hears my footsteps and turns around to look.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m Charlie.”
“Hi,” he says and he keeps on walking. We’re shoulder to shoulder, walking, both of us looking down at the sidewalk. We walk about twenty yards without saying anything.
“I think you live near me,” I say.
“Probably,” he says. “We’re walking the same direction.”
“I live on Rainbow.”
“I live on Mars.” He’s so nervous that he makes me feel pretty good. We don’t say anything else until we get to his house. He turns at his driveway and starts walking up to his garage. “This is my house.” I look in the open garage. This really old man is in there, tinkering with something on a car. “I’m home,” Danny says to the old guy.
“Who’s that?” the old guy says. “Who is that, Danny?”
“That’s Charlie,” Danny says. “He goes to my school.” The old man looks at me. He turns around and goes back to tinkering. I think I’ll go now. I turn around and walk out of the garage back to the driveway. Danny follows me out.
“We should be pals because we live so close,” I say.
“Danny, your dad’s really old,” I say, kind of quietly so his dad won’t hear.
“He’s not my dad, I’m adopted. Duh.”
Cherokee? Oh, he means he’s an Indian. He’s really shy. Are all Indians this shy? They aren’t that shy in the movies. Now I have a friend that no one else has and we walk home from school together. We’re both quiet and when we talk we talk about mechanical things. Mainly we talk about how neat it would be to have a go-cart or a motorcycle. We like things that propel themselves. When you have to rely on bikes to go anywhere, bikes represent effort. When you have to pedal and sweat, it’s easy to see why it’d be better to operate something without having to sweat.
Danny never lets me come into his house. I don’t ever meet his mom since she’s always inside cleaning. Mom doesn’t go outside either so that’s not weird. When we’re outside, though, Danny’s mom talks through the window. That is weird. She hides behind the curtain like there’s something she’s trying to conceal. “Danny, come eat,” she says. “Tell your friend to go away now.”
Danny says, “Gotta go,” and runs inside.
After a few days, when I come home dad says, “Go out into the garage and see what your brother got you.” There it is: a bicycle frame with a motor mounted on it. Someone welded a flat piece of metal to the center bottom of the bicycle frame, just above the pedals, and mounted a lawn edger motor on that piece of steel. There were small lawnmower wheels and tires in the place of bicycle wheels and tires. It’s some kind of a failed attempt at making a mini-bike. Somebody took a bicycle and butchered it. Whoever did it didn’t know what they were doing but it looked kind of like a mini-bike if you were partially blind. It was better than anything I could do.
I took one look at that homemade mini-bike and I was probably the happiest kid on the planet that day. It’s a piece of junk but it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s exactly what I had in mind and what I was trying to build with all these junk lawnmower parts laying all over the garage.
“I don’t know if this thing even runs,” dad said. “Your brother found it from a friend who didn’t want it anymore.” Dad went back inside and took a nap. I open the gas tank, put some fresh lawnmower gas in it and try to start it up. It doesn’t start. I try and I try and it won’t start. I remember dad saying that if a small engine doesn’t start, you check the spark plug first. It could be fouled, he said.
I take the spark plug out of the engine and look at it. It has so much oil and grease on it that there is no way it’d ever generate a spark. Now I’m excited because I figure this is the reason it won’t start. If this is all there is from keeping this motor from starting, I’m going to have it running in no time.
I pour gas on the spark plug and use a wire brush to clean it up. I put the plug back in the motor and tighten it very carefully. I put the ignition wire back on the spark plug and take a deep breath. This is it. If this thing starts I will be riding down the street in five minutes. I will thoroughly enjoy that. I am so excited I can’t even pull the starter cord correctly.
After about the third pull, it starts up. This is the best sound I have ever heard. It sounds like a lawn edger. In fact it is a lawn edger. The wheels wobble because it’s belt-driven and the pulleys on the motor that propel the back wheel aren’t lined up with the front. The clutch is a metal arm with a wooden thread spool. When you put pressure on the metal arm it makes contact with the belt to take the slack out of the belt. That’s how you move forward.
I roll it out to the street, straddle it and start pushing off to get momentum. I put my foot on the metal arm while the bike is moving and I take off. It works. I fly down the street, probably going fifteen miles an hour. The front wheel wobbles, the front forks are loose and it’s a miracle I don’t fly off right there and die. I drive it back to the garage, tighten up the forks and tighten up the front wheel. I took it back out and rode that thing all day. I rode up and down the street, over and over. It was completely illegal but I don’t give a thought to being stopped. It doesn’t cross my mind. Rules and laws aren’t part of my everyday life. I’m a kid with a new toy and I want it all to myself. I found something guy-like to do. I’m not bored.
After school the next day, I go straight home. With all the riding I did the previous day, the belt is starting to shred. Danny’s dad might know how to fix it so I ride over. First I knock on his door and show him my new toy. Next, I give him a ride on the back. Finally, I ask him if his dad can help with the fraying belt. Danny’s dad is home, so he comes out to have a look at it. I don’t know his name; he’s just Danny’s dad. He’s a pretty old white guy, he doesn’t have any teeth but he knows a lot about mechanical stuff.
Danny’s dad takes one look at the belt and says, “Your pulleys aren’t lined up. That’s your problem.” He goes back inside his house and comes back with a yardstick. He places the yardstick down on both pulleys to illustrate that the pulleys don’t line up. “See?” he says. “Crooked.” He stands up, takes his yardstick and walks back inside his house. He doesn’t offer to help fix it or anything.
We forget about the belt and continue to ride the mini-bike until the belt breaks. Danny goes back home and I walk the mini-bike back to mine. I show dad the broken belt. “We need a new belt for this.”
“Go to a gas station or something and get one,” he says and he walks back inside.
I push the mini-bike to a gas station. The gas station attendant comes out to look at the mini-bike. “That’s dangerous,” he says. “Do you ride that thing?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Your parents know you ride that?”
“They got it for me.”
“Do you have a belt that’ll fit between the two pulleys?”
“Where’s the old belt?”
“It shredded off.”
“Lemme look.” He measures around both pulleys and goes back inside. I can see him looking at belts on the wall. He takes one down, brings it over and says, “This one should fit.” It does, but the belt is quite expensive for me. I have money saved up and I brought it all so I can buy the belt, but just barely.
From now on if anyone wants a ride on the back, I decide to charge a belt fee. A quarter a ride seems fair. Some neighbor kids want a ride, I tell them my price and they say, “I don’t have any money.”
“That’s okay,” I say and I give them a ride regardless. It’s fun to be able to give rides.