Volume 73, Number 47 | March 24 -30, 2004


To Richard the tattooed runner, with many thanks

By Michele Herman

Sometimes a day goes wrong. When you try to salvage it, it often gets worse. But every once in a while you’re granted what might be called good bad-day karma, and the one wrong thing leads to a whole string of right ones.

Last Monday, our afternoon was planned practically to the minute: while the boys were in their afterschool woodworking class, I would help mount the Writing Festival at P.S. 3, then bike up to a doctor’s appointment on 26th St., and then pick them up. But my older son, who always meets us at the woodshop on his bike on his way back from middle school Downtown, didn’t show.

You can usually set a clock by this kid. So I sent my younger son in and I waited on 10th St., pacing that airless corridor between the quotidian and the calamitous. I’m not a panicky mother, but as the time passed and the space my son normally takes up remained empty, I kept burying the unthinkable thought: he’ll pull up any minute, something terrible has happened, he’ll pull up any minute.

Eventually a boy did pull up on a bike, but not mine. It was his classmate and fellow bike-path rider, a harbinger of both trouble and kindness to come. He told me that the front wheel of my son’s bike had been hit sometime during the day, where it was locked on the sidewalk, and he was walking the bike upriver. This news was not nearly as bad as a broken bone (which we’ve been through too), but a broken bike does hurt plenty, especially a hit-and-run, especially in a family like ours, where we put on our bikes every morning like shoes.

I thanked him and sprang into corrective action. I ran to P.S. 3, called my fellow moms from the security desk to cancel, retrieved my own bike and pedaled Downtown on the bike path, my eyes peeled for a forlorn boy with a broken bike. Eventually I spied the pair. But again, there was someone I didn’t expect: a stranger in running shorts with tattoos up and down one arm. He was walking my son’s bike balanced on its back wheel with the useless, wildly untrue front wheel up in the air.

The tattooed man explained that he’d been out running and, when he saw my son struggling valiantly with the bike, offered to help. (I keep mentioning the tattoos not as an object lesson in not judging people by their appearance, although, being a nontattooed person, that’s exactly what I was doing, but because he really did have a lot of tattoos.) I made some quick calculations. As my son likes to remind me daily, he’s almost as tall as I am. Though he’d never been on a full-sized racer with dropped handlebars, I handed him my keys, my bike and my blessing, and sent him wobbling Uptown to woodshop (wondering, a minute later, how much one little detail might figure later in this story: I didn’t think to take his keys). I rummaged through my brain’s personal navigation system for the nearest bike store, came up with one on the corner of Sixth and Canal, and pointed my afternoon toward it. I would need a phone at some point to cancel my doctor’s appointment.

I turned next to the question of strangers in general and this easygoing, friendly tattooed stranger in particular. Lines about strangers played in my mind: “Never take candy from a stranger.” “I always rely on the kindness of strangers.” “Mother died today” (the opening of Camus’ “The Stranger;” I minored in French). Which motto was the guide here? People are always telling me to trust my instincts, but since I have more than one, I never know what they mean: trust the one that tells me most people are decent, or the one that tells me to be on my guard for the few indecent ones? I have a tendency to trust the wrong ones, like the nice Russian saleslady on commission in the washing-machine department at Circuit City, which is how we came to own a frontloading Maytag with three cycles and 15 separate buttons.

Even though I couldn’t figure out what ulterior motive this seemingly defenseless man in running shorts holding an unridable getaway vehicle might have, I wasn’t completely sure there wasn’t a con involved. I thanked him, three or four times in a row, and went to take over. But he didn’t want to be dismissed. “I’m not in a hurry,” he said, “and the bike is pretty heavy.” He said he’d be happy to walk it to the bike store with me. The bike is heavy, and the New York Lock in the handlebar bag is heavier still. (You know you’re a real New Yorker, the saying goes, when your bike lock weighs more than your bike.) I wasn’t at all sure I could lug the bike that far, or fit it in a cab. Having no keys, I knew I couldn’t lock it up and walk away.

So I relaxed and accepted his help. We chatted about running and about the rare springlike day. As we walked, the city’s dimensions grew distorted, as they do in dreams and adventures. We got up to Canal St. almost instantly, but then its unfriendly western tangent seemed to stretch for miles.

The tattooed man, who told me he was eventually headed to a gallery show in the Meat Market, grew a bit impatient for the first time, and I knew suddenly that I loved him and didn’t want to lose him. I began to fear I’d invented the bike store. Or maybe it had gone out of business years before. We finally got across a series of traffic islands to Varick St., which I know to be a long, long block from Sixth. But then something wonderful happened: the two parallel lines of Varick and Sixth converged, something they have probably always done without my noticing it in 20 years of Downtown life. There, just as it lived in my imagination, was the blue-and-yellow sign of the bike store.

He lifted the bike up the steps for me. Then came a dilemma: was it more insulting to offer him money or not offer him money? I took out my wallet and said, “Let me pay you something to thank you.” He shook his head no firmly, just as I would have, and I loved him all the more. “Then at least let me do something,” I begged. “Give me your address so I can send you a thank-you note.”

“No, no, no,” he said. “I did it for the karma.” All I could pry out of him was his first name: Richard. Speaking of karma, it so happens that my first boyfriend was a Richard, as were my second and third. I thanked him once again, we said goodbye, and he resumed his run Uptown.

The afternoon of the untrue wheel continued to true itself. The bike shop had one 24-inch front wheel in stock. The guy on duty loaned me his phone to cancel my doctor’s appointment, and the receptionist graciously allowed me to reschedule. The mechanic was available immediately, an unheard-of event. While the bike was up off the ground, I had him fix the gears, which my son had been complaining about for months. He lubricated the bike without being asked. Giddy from this well-oiled rescue mission that had taken less than an hour, I rode the bike Uptown, stopped in at the woodshop to give my sons the news, and still had time to help hang the Writing Festival.

Later I asked my private son what went through his mind when he broke the first commandment of childhood: thou shalt not talk to strangers. “Well,” he said, “the guy was in shorts and a T-shirt, so it wasn’t like he was concealing anything. And he asked me if I needed help; he didn’t insist or take over.”

+ Sometimes relying on the kindness of strangers is the order of the day.


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