April 1975. I am twelve years old and living in Gresham, Oregon, recently arrived from Concord, California. I am the New Kid. In spite of how much I get made fun of for my boyish looks and dress, for my adult vocabulary and 12th-grade reading level, and for my utter ineptitude at ball-centric, team sports, I love riding my bike and my skateboard everywhere. The skateboard I ride in downtown Portland, where the boys can't see me or make fun of me. Skateboarding is not a girl thing in 1975, and I am the only girl I know who rides one. On the rare occasions I take my board to school, I sneak it there in two overlapped shopping bags and leave it in my locker until after school, then I skate the beautifully paved playground area alone.
On Saturday mornings, I ride into downtown Gresham on my cheap Huffy BMX-copy bike (it is pink with black trim, and has a coaster brake! Ugh! SO pathetic). I arrive at the tall dirt berms, like little cliffs, really, that overlook the back of the Gresham K-Mart. I spend the morning trying to keep up with the boys on their real BMX bikes, with names like GT, Redline, Mongoose. I lust after their bikes, and envy their fearlessness; they are jumping off an improvised ramp made from a stolen road sign and two-by-fours, positioned at the edge of a steep drop-in, and getting massive air. I avoid the ramp -- too scary for me -- and stick to the whoops and the rhythm section, trying to go faster and faster on each lap and to find the perfect line through the banked corners that the grownups' motorcycles have carved into the clay-rich soil.
Mount Hood looms in the distance, the sun rising from behind the silhouette of the mountain and lighting up the dirt as we ride harder and harder, wearing ourselves out in that immortal-youth way. The boys watch me for a time, and return to their jumps. We tolerate each other but do not interact much. They are mostly from blue-collar backgrounds, with stay-at-home mothers, and fathers who work in construction and metal fabrication and drink Budweiser or Oly and watch football on the weekend. My parents are professional musicians from big eastern cities, mad for books; they are lovers of art, music and culture who take me and my sister to plays and galleries. At home, I listen to rock and roll with my sister and I listen to Broadway soundtracks, opera and jazz with my parents. My father's idea of a great drink is a very rare glass of Merlot with dinner. My parents don't understand my desire to be more like the children of construction workers, outdoorsy and rugged and "ordinary", or my sorrow at never being able to fit into the fabric of our sturdily American suburb. My parents don't fit in, and neither do I. But I keep showing up at the berms behind K-Mart to ride my shitty little Huffy in the dirt and after awhile the boys get used to me, and to my preference for pretend-racing over tricks. A few will eventually race me, and almost always win. They are stronger and faster than me, but no one seems to mind my being there. We're all just there to ride bikes. The Saturdays go quickly and the summer flies by.
One weekend, someone's dad brings an odd contraption in the back of his pickup truck. It's a homemade start gate, a cobbled-together copy of the ones found at the BMX tracks. It's rickety, made of sheet metal scraps and a wood frame, but it has slots for three bikes, a throw-lever and it works just like the real thing.
We help him set it up on the improvised course, and for the rest of that glorious afternoon, we practice standing starts and going for something the dad calls the "holeshot". I discover that I'm not bad at standing starts, my balance is actually quite good; but my holeshot needs work. By the later afternoon, I have beaten a couple of the boys to the holeshot out of the three-man gate and I am getting the hang of it. I am having fun. The boys aren't sure what to do with a girl who beats any of them to the holeshot, I can see the confusion on their faces, but we all keep riding.
At length, the father who brought the gate takes me aside and gently suggests, with a kind smile, that it might be more fun for me to go find some girls my age to hang out with. I totally get his tone; what he really means, and is not saying, is that it would be better for his son and the other boys if I left. The truth is that girls my age are cruel, manipulative and do not trust or like someone like me; they have made it plain time and again at school and I do not waste my time on them anymore. I thank the father politely and return to riding the berms. I show up a few more Saturdays after that, but now other fathers are showing up, fathers who would not know what to make of my father if they ever met him (but who himself would never spend a morning on the berms next to the Gresham K-Mart). Their presence changes the game, reinforces the idea that BMX, at least in this time and place, is strictly a boys' club. Their presence changes the way the boys interact with me. By late August the situation is intolerable; the boys who once welcomed me with neutrality now yell at me to get out of their way, they call me names and their fathers don't reprimand them. The last straw comes when one of the youngest boys, a scrappy 8-year-old, calls me a vulgar, R-rated name in front of his father, tells me to get lost, and kicks me in the shin for good measure. The father does nothing; I see a tiny hint of a smile start to form at the corners of his mouth as his son storms off in annoyance. Other boys and their fathers stare at me, waiting for something to happen.
I say nothing. Surrounded by all those boys and men, I don't even try to defend myself against the kick. I simply resettle my glasses on my nose, pick up my bike, hop on, and ride home. When I am two blocks from K-Mart, the tears flow and the sobs rack my chest but I keep pedaling. I go home, park my bike in the garage and shut myself up in my bedroom, to cry myself to sleep. I tell my parents I don't feel well and I miss dinner that evening. I don't try to explain to my parents what happened. I'm not entirely sure I can explain it to myself.
I don't go to the berms on Saturdays anymore. Instead, I go on Sunday mornings, very early, while all the boys and their mullet-haired, ripple-muscled fathers are at church. I ride alone, and wonder if there will ever be a time when I can enjoy riding bikes with others who won't chase me off. I keep going back to the berms on Sunday mornings well past the start of the school year, up until the end of October when it finally gets too cold and wet to ride my fake-BMX bike there.
I cannot know then that one day I will find a whole bunch of folks who love to ride bikes as much as I do, and who not only don't chase me off, but welcome me with open arms. It has taken 35 years, but today I have found those people, and I am happy; and believe it or not, that actually makes up for what went before, at the Gresham K-Mart all those years ago.