Personal Treasures

Hi friends.

I got the yellow Schwinn bicycle with a basket from my friend Elizabeth in 2006, when she was leaving town, moving West, and wanted to get rid of all her shit immediately. She was clearing out an apartment on the Upper West Side and I met her in a park there, gave her fifty bucks, and rode it all the way back to Brooklyn, where I collapsed immediately. (I was still a smoker then.)

It was a cute, vintage bike, in pretty good shape, and I felt good on it. I used to ride it every day across the Williamsburg bridge to my job at an ad agency in Midtown, where I was freelancing between bursts of working on my books. I loved writing my books, but I didn’t make enough money writing fiction to be able to just do that for a living. I hated working in advertising, but I was scared to quit it entirely with only fiction as a source of income. But also, I was scared to fully commit to advertising as a career because I knew I would look back with regret if that was the only thing I ever did with my life. It was hard to write fiction when I was working at these jobs, but I did the best I could, in the mornings, on my lunch breaks. The end result of all of this was I felt like I was doing everything kind of half-assed.

But riding my bike was the part of the day when I felt most free and satisfied with my time. I was accomplishing a specific goal: getting from one place to another. I loved that bike. I had adventures with it. Riding it kept me fit. I saved money on subways and taxis. People complimented me on it. I rode to meet friends on it, and dates, too. I took it out to Brighton Beach in the summer, wearing a bathing suit underneath my shorts. I carried bags of dog food home in its basket from the pet store. Bottles of wine on late spring nights, too.

I am not one who fetishizes objects, cares too much about owning things. I admire the aesthetics of things, certainly. But I live in a small house, and I hate clutter, and if I went bust and had to sell everything I own but the roof over my head, I’d be fine with that, too. (Although if I could put in a small request for a few books leftover in this scenario, that would be great.) But when I moved from New York to New Orleans I made room for that bike in the moving truck. It was part of my adult identity as surely as anything else that came with me.

For the past five years, I rode it all around the city, to the bayou, to the Quarter on a Friday night, to parades all over the place during Carnival season. To the cafes where I would sit and write. A notebook always in my basket.

It got creakier on these bumpy roads. I got more flat tires. I got tune-ups but it never felt quite right anymore. Still, I rode it. I got older, got an older person’s back, especially during book tours where I sat on planes for days, or in hotel rooms, gathered stress in my body, felt it from head to toe to the very balls of my feet. I wasn’t home much to ride the bike anyway. And after this last book tour was done, it was winter, and too cold. I’d worry about the bike in the spring. And then, the pandemic hit.

A month in, after we were starting to surface a little from the lockdown, I tried riding the bike again, but something had happened in the interim. I took it in for a tune up at some point, but it didn’t seem to matter at all. It was slow, creaky, off-center, noisy. The gears shifted poorly. My back always hurt after I rode it. The bike either needed a massive overhaul, or it needed to be retired. I didn’t even know if it was the right bike for me anymore. It was the bike of a younger person, perhaps. A past version of me. But I could not seem to get rid of it. So, the bike sat, unridden in the front room. For ten months.

I am only now realizing I needed it in my house because I was writing about the time I spent riding it – from the age of 38 to 48. I needed to look at it every day and remember those years through it, even if I wasn’t able to hop on it and take it around town. Crucially, I needed to remember the feeling of riding it along the waterfront in North Brooklyn in 2010 at sunset, feeling wistful and broke and struggling, but also on my own and free at the same time. All the things you can feel at once when you are making your art.

“I really need a new bike,” I started to mumble to myself, and yet I did nothing. I could have gotten another bike and kept the old bike, I suppose, and then had two bikes in the front room, but again, it is a small house, and the rule here in general is if you add something new, something else has to go. Clutter kills my creativity. (You got your rules, I got mine.)

It’s started to be clear these past few weeks I truly am closing in on the end of this book. And now we are approaching one year of the pandemic. Which meant that was nearly one year that I hadn’t been riding my bike. I had walked everywhere, miles and miles every day, all over this city. But it felt like I needed to see the city from a bike again. It was time to make a change.

I went to a bike shop. Sucked it up and said I needed one that was good for my back. Made jokes about being old. Ha ha ha. Fucking hilarious. Took a few bikes for a spin. The bike shop was small, and only one person was allowed in at a time. One in, one out. No room for clutter.

I stood in line outside the shop after one of the trial rides and talked to an older man in town from Atlanta. He was helping his sister fix up her house, and she needed some work on a bike, too. I enjoyed talking to him — that casual feeling of shooting the shit with a stranger, we don’t get to have it as much these days. I told him I was going to be getting rid of my old bike and he said he’d buy it for his granddaughter. I sold it to him for twenty bucks, and a few hours later he showed up at my house and took the bike away. No fanfare. Just a little piece of my history gone.

I don’t know why I was making such a big deal about it now; it was just a bike, and now I have another. I’m glad I had it but I’m even happier it’s gone. I took a ride up on my new bike to the bayou on one of the first warm days of the year yesterday and it was as if my soul was shimmering in the sunshine.

Physical objects are part of our identity until they’re not, until we say so. Your core identity, whatever that means to you, lingers within no matter what. “It’s just an object.” Tell yourself that when you need to hear it. It’s just an object, and I’m still me.

Opening up the comments today to hear about your objects.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to World Central Kitchen to support our friends in Texas.