The Hills are Alive with the sound of Fixies

As you ride over the Fremont bridge there are these steel plates on the ground. I’m lifting the front wheel as I go over them, as you would if you were mountain biking or climbing a kerb. The plates are only about an inch thick so there’s no real need for this, but I need the practice. When you lift the front on a regular bike you can freewheel with the crank horizontal and just lift when the time is right. On a fixie you have to lift whatever position the crank happens to be in. At first this is strange, you try to freewheel and bike tries to throw you off. Then you start rewiring your brain so that it can lift the bars in any crank position. My brain is still rewiring.

Challenging myself with this weird bike is causing a lot of rewiring. I think it is a good thing. It is a little like learning to ride a bike in the first place. Or when you first play hours of Quake or Halo and you find yourself wanting to throw grenades before you walk around a corner.

Fremont bring is a traffic hotspot. Forget the cars, it is the bikes and pedestrians that have the challenges. The bridge is a commuter route so at the peak times there are a lot of bikes piloted by people impatient to get to their destination. They often speed through a narrow gap and buzz pedestrians. No “On your left!”

There are big signs saying bicycles must give way to pedestrians, and bikes have to give way on every sidewalk in Seattle. Still, most pedestrians are nice enough to move to one side to let the bikes go past. I go slow overtaking pedestrians. I piss off the cyclists behind me.

The next fixie challenge is riding off a high kerb. (Yes, that’s how I spell “curb” when it applies to roads.) This is another situation where I usually freewheel and have to learn a new method.

I ate lunch at Dad Watson’s. Lunch was good – a nice chicken salad. Dad’s has good food for a pub, maybe the best among Fremont’s 10+ pubs. I drank a nitro stout. I don’t drink at lunchtime, it seems unprofessional to me. But it was a sunny day and I felt like it. Here I am, 39 years old, drinking a beer at lunch and feeling guilty about it. I grew up in a place where people would regularly drink at lunch. Perhaps this is still the case, just not in high tech Seattle.

When I was 19 I was a roof tiler. I couldn’t actually do any real tiling so I was more like the roof tiler’s assistant. Today you’d call me his be-atch. Twenty years ago we’d go to the pub for lunch and drink a beer with out food. The weather was usually hot (we were in Sydney) so the beer was welcome. It felt like the heat burned the beer out of us. Its effects didn’t last long.
We wore these khaki shorts called “King Gee” (see “Cotton Drill Utility Short” on the King Gee site). They had little straps on the side so you could tighten the waistband. You would slip your work hammer in there while doing other things. My hammer was a well used Estwing. Before it was mine it belonged to the boss. When he replaced it with a new model gave me his old one. I liked it a lot. It had a stack leather strips for handles. The strips were separating with all the use and had become soft. The boss’s new Estwing had a hard lacquered shine (like the one in this photo).

One day we were in the pub for lunch when the boss pointed out that Chinese Brent had brought his hammer with him. He laughed and teased me that I was looking for trouble. Bringing your hammer to lunch was a major roofie faux pas. It explained the dirty looks I was getting from the other bar patrons.

A day or two later we were working on a house that was constructed ‘double brick’. This is when there are two layers of brick wall with an air gap between them, the space and extra masonry making a better insulated, quieter and more solid house. Most good old houses were built this way. I was amazed when I moved to Seattle to find all these wooden houses, but I think wood is much cheaper to build with when there’s plenty of it around. Also brick doesn’t work too well in earthquake country.

I was on the roof, we had stripped off some of the old tiles. Most Sydney roofs have red clay tiles, which is why the city looks red when you fly in. Nowadays houses are built with concrete tiles, which come in a range of modern colours so you can get blues and greens and tiles that fake their patina. They’re also much heavier and the cause of the scarring to my carrying shoulder. There’s none of this composite roof material that is the vernacular in Seattle.

I was working at the edge of the roof. I was hammering in battens, the thin strips of wood you hang the tiles off. I put my hammer down and it fell in the gap between the two brick walls. Those walls are good for insulation and good for losing your hammer. The boss yelled at me – I had only had that hammer a few days. I had to use a tatty and stained vinyl-handled hammer for the rest of the day. My status was lower.

Next morning the boss hands me my old hammer. He’d got some fishing line and a hook and had retrieved it from the wall. A replacement hammer was expensive – he wasn’t going to let that one go. That was twenty years ago. The boss still talks about me and my hammer whenever I see him. Nothing changes.

I left the pub and headed north, up Fremont Avenue. As I ride up I figure it is a bit like climbing Dexter but longer, and not as steep as climbing Queen Anne. On the whole it is relatively easy, I don’t get too worked up climbing. My picture of cycling in Seattle is a map of the hills I have to navigate. I’ll go on a sixty mile ride on the fixie and I’m more worried about the climb halfway up a hill to get to my house than cycling the 60 miles on a hard track frame. The more I ride the more I complete my mental picture of the hills of Seattle.

I wandered through the back streets of Fremont, zigzagging up and down wherever a street looked good to ride on. Fremont has a lot of cyclists. The traffic and bridgework make a bike the fastest way to get in and out of the neighbourhood. There are a fleet of them parked outside the library. When I used to work at Amazon the bike cage would be full of road bikes and lots of racing bikes, some with their racing numbers attached. Outside the Fremont Library there are a number of hybrids, commuter bikes that are way more practical for riding around town than a skinny-tyred racer. I park my skinny-tyred racer fixie and go in.

The library was again fun, I read a bit of Ellen Langer’s “Mindfulness” which is looking fascinating. She starts by talking about experiments she ran at old folks’ homes where she gives one set of old dudes a plant each to look after and a choice of daily meals and the choice over how to structure their day, while the a ‘control group’ just runs as normal. After some time, not only are the group who have power over their day healthier, there are significantly more of them alive. Those poor people in the ‘control’ group. They had no control over their day. They sacrificed their lives so that we could get smarter about aging. Maybe this is another reason I don’t want to work in corporations. I want to live longer.


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