Francis is my new bike.
Before I wax poetic on the new steed between my legs, let me take this opportunity to digress a bit with a few words about the personification of one’s transport.
I was once in love with a guy who drove a truck – lived with him for over four years actually – and it fell to this unlucky fella to teach me to drive (see note 2). During my schooling, he also taught me the importance of naming your vehicle. Your car (or truck or bike) has a personality, he explained. You need to communicate with one another and work together. A name facilitates this inorganic synergy between man, movement, and machine; completes the anthropomorphic picture so to speak. I took his point. The one and only car I owned (co-owned and only for three months), was a beat up Audi named Otto. My mom’s Subaru is Harriet the Chariot. My sister’s 1982 Peugeot is Bruce. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Rocinante, Mugsy, and Hoss – great cars all.
When I got my new bike, I knew I had to have a name.
But after a month zipping across Puente Almendares, pedallling the pristine macadam bordering Parque Monte Barreto, and bracing my ass against potholes and train tracks, I still didn’t have a name. Clearly it was time for outside counsel. I put it to my friend Lucia, she of the Bambi filets.
Her first question: male or female?
Ever-practical, Lucia cut to the obvious question I’d failed to ask. I had been so focused on a name that would translate equally well in English and Spanish, that I’d completely neglected to consider gender. Standing there in her bedroom it occurred to me that I didn’t want only linguistic inclusivity, choosing a name that would make sense in both my languages, I also wanted gender inclusivity.
“How about something gender neutral?” I wondered aloud.
“There aren’t many gender-neutral names!” Lucia’s 10-year old wunderkind piped up. After a few beats she asked: “How about Michel(le)?”
“Good one!” I said, knowing that girls of a certain age (even hyper talented Cuban ones) need encouragement and positive reinforcement. “But this bike doesn’t seem like a Michel(le).”
Wracking my brain for neutral names I’d come across in Cuba, I asked: “How about Francis?”
And a bike was born.
That was a long digression, I know, but I’m taking the Vin Scelsa defense here (see note 3).
I first cut my two-wheeled teeth in Manhattan (site of my one and only drunk “driving” accident, when I went down hard in a greasy Chinatown alley, erasing a patch of freckles the size of a one peso coin in the process), then in San Francisco, and now in Havana.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to glide along a deserted big city street under a moon so full it makes even me want to lactate, there’s something of the magical hidden from you. Every city has a side that only night owls see, of course – anyone who has walked home from a bar or ballgame in the wee hours has experienced this frisson with a city’s secret side. It’s exciting and slightly illicit somehow. With the wind in your face and the caresses of night billowing your hair and clothes about the faster you pump the pedals only heightens the sensation. Whether I’m coasting down Paseo or along Avenida 31, dodging potholes in Playa, or startling stray cats from their dumpster diving, on my bike I feel free in a way approximated only by orgasm. In short, city cycling unshackles something in the spirit.
Gliding through Havana’s landscape on a bike makes me look at things differently from when I’m walking (or driving, it goes without saying). I’m higher up for one. I see over hedges and into windows. I discover shortcuts and side streets I didn’t know existed. I note every parked car (my greatest – and most realistic fear – cycling in Havana is that I’ll get “doored”) and each driveway. In my experience, riding in a city requires a level of alertness not necessary while walking and opportunities for observation not possible while driving, which makes me keenly aware and appreciative of my surroundings while mounted.
I carefully consider other cyclists now and their habits, from the old dudes who poke along, pants rolled to the knee, to the shirtless young studs who ride as confidently as any Midtown bike messenger, cigarette dangling from their lips. The deplorable state of Havana’s street lighting is hammered home on these late night jaunts, as is the real possibility of encountering a drunk driver. And is there any city that smells like this one? Pedalling along, I get glancing whiffs of savory sea mixed with the off-putting tang of rotting garbage and wet earth if it has rained, dried leaves if it hasn’t.
By day, Francis takes me wherever I need and want to go: to check my PO box across town; to immigration; the grocery store; the theater; and my sister-in-law’s house. Errands that used to take an entire morning using public transportation are completed in an hour or two with Francis. Friends I put off visiting because they live far away now have me landing on their doorstep any day, any time. This in itself is liberating, not only for the time and money I save, but also for how refreshed I feel when I arrive – tired, sure, but refreshed like after a long swim or hot bath.
And oh, how the boys seem to like a girl on a bike. Perched on Francis, riding along 3ra Avenida or the Malecón, I bask in all the piropos trailing me as I pedal by: ‘¡Mami, llévame!’, ‘Que rica estás, rubia’, ‘¡Ay! Si yo fuera tu silla, mi cielo’ make me smile. And the best part is that I can mutually admire these men of all type and stripe and then be safely, happily on my way.
This post is dedicated to Chris and Alexis M, and Julia F who made my partnership with Francis possible; and to Cornelius S who introduced me to the joys of cycling the big city.
1. Though largely ignored or unknown in the United States, International Women’s Day, observed each March 8th, is a huge deal in Cuba when every guy shows appreciation for the women in his life with flowers and shouts of ‘¡Felicidades!’ Even strangers proffer the celebratory phrase and many restaurants gift a single gladiola to all female patrons on March 8th. It’s one of the silver linings of machismo, I guess.
2. I’m fond of making rules for others to live by – have been ever since I declared several decades ago that white people should not have dreadlocks. More recently, I’ve decided that men – I don’t care if it’s your dad, brother or lover – should not teach women to drive. It just adds to the universe’s general conflict and woe.
3. Vin Scelsa has been making what’s known as freeform radio for some 40 years now. His show Idiot’s Delight helped shape the paradigm which holds that the DJ can play and importantly, talk about, whatever the hell he wants. As you might guess, Vin talks a lot on his show, often about stuff not at all music-related. And as he’s fond of pointing out: if you don’t like it, change the station. Precisely my philosophy at Here is Havana.