Trifler No. 12 [On the Additional Joys of Cycling with a Word on Coffee Brewing*]

“Buy a bicycle in Maidstone to visit an aunt in Dover, and you will see Canterbury Cathedral as it was built to be seen.” –G.K. Chesterton

The joys of the cycle are akin to the joys of the seasons. With each turn, each revolution, one finds them the same and, somehow, different; always old hat and yet always surprising; growing even as they remain the same; predictable but begging to be conjectured upon and discussed; a routine that grows more novel as it grows more engrained.

***********

I begin each morning in the kitchen, measuring forty-seven grams of coffee beans, pouring boiling water through a dry filter, swirling and dumping the water into the sink, filling the kettle with another twenty-five and a half ounces and flipping it on. While this heats, I turn the grinder crank and listen to the beans break down and smell their newly-released oils. The parody between water and beans is such that, if I have measured correctly, my grinding and the kettle’s boiling end in unison. Of course, one does not pour boiling water over coffee. The boiled water must sit for about ten seconds to cool to brewing temp. I allow it to do this and then begin the slow process of turning one liquid into another.

My labour does not end here, for the manner in which one pours—placement, speed—has much to do with the result. One should allow the coffee to foam and bloom but not to erupt onto the sides of the filter. One should also remove the grounds before all the water has left them to keep out bitterness. When the filter is removed, I swirl the coffee one last time to even out the flavour. The whole process takes twenty minutes, and I am left with about twenty ounces of coffee—enough for my wife (who will not be up for another hour) and I and no more.

I began this more intensive process by necessity. Cambridge is not bursting with drip-makers, and its hard water—we have heard—will cake and freeze up any such machine within a year. At first the pour-over was a chore, inefficient, inexact, and inconsistent, for I was the brewing machine, and I am inefficient, inexact, and inconsistent. The coffee I produced varied widely and wildly. A slight delay or hesitation could minimise extraction, and a hurried step could burn or wash out the grounds. I had to learn—and I have learned—to brew in rhythm, to hone my measurements, to look to the quality of my water and my beans. Unlike dead machines, I have acquired skill, improved my function, and, in doing so, have improved my morning cup. But, more importantly, I have, through daily attention to the work, learned to rest in the task, and, even more, to make the task part of my rest. Were I to skip a step, or, being in a hurry, whip up a cup of instant, my day would lose a portion of its rest by losing a portion of its ritual. It has taken months of minor perseverance, but the work has become the pleasure—deep pleasure inaccessible by any other route. A quick cup of coffee has its own joys, but they are not the joys of the cup I brew.

Cheese makers tell me the same holds true of their product; there is no shortcut in ageing a stilton or a mozzarella, no substitute for time that equals time. And I have come to believe that something similar occurs on a bike. Just as cheese cannot be aged any faster than the clock can tick, a cup of rich coffee cannot be made in one step, and eight hours’ sleep cannot be crammed into six, the pleasures of cycling cannot be accessed on a vehicle any faster, any louder, or any more confined than a bicycle. This is especially true, incidentally, of the moped, which is the orc of the two wheeled machine—the twisted ancestor of a perfect form that whines and screams and zooms and drowns out and asks nothing of its rider save that he put his life in serious jeopardy for the minimal benefit of going twenty-miles-per-hour more than he could on a cycle. And it is the moped’s driver’s just punishment that he must confine himself to the sludge-stream car lane, which, in the city of Cambridge, usually means resigning himself to a later arrival time than the man on the cycle.

That aside, I have learned to rest on my bike, even while I am straining. I have come to forget the pump of my legs even while I am warmed and energized by their motion and effort. There is a sense in which I can rest more fully while rolling down Mill Lane or up Castle Hill than I can while sitting in some deep chair or lying in bed. The ritual work of moving the bike down well known streets, sidewalks, alleys, and lanes feels familiar, generative, and comfortable. 

Out our window I often see white-headed seasoned citizens on bikes seventy years younger than they, working their way up Carlyle Road at my walking pace. They can no longer rage around as I tend to do, but they continue to cut their old lines down the streets, and, I imagine they find a slow, thick pleasure and even rest in their riding that I will not know for years and years—and perhaps never know, if I re-enter the world of the personal automobile and renew my negotiations with fire and inhuman speed.

Now, the bike has its inconveniences, but, I have found, most of them, with time and a dash of perspective, become new, bracing pleasures. A thorough soaking between Christ’s College and Corner House means a sudden, deep appreciation for the cup of tea, dry clothes, and spot by the living room radiator that await me. Shopping bags that hang from arms and back and handlebars brought safely home make a trip to the store a kind of challenge of balance and agility. The inability to shoot down to London or up to Manchester or over to that other university city means an increased knowledge and love of Cambridge and its appendage-towns.

*********

In my Manhattan days, when I exercised regularly at the Kansas State rec, my workouts were improved exponentially by the presence of other gym regulars. I never learned their names, but I gave them names—“Lady Mary,” “Sweat-Pants” among others—and grew so I enjoyed their company and imagined they enjoyed mine. I would report to my wife if Shoulders was gone, or if Lady Mary stopped texting enough to pump out even one set on the quad machine. We were a kind of headphoned, silent community, forced together by circumstance.**

Something similar now seems to be occurring as I live and cycle my accustomed routes in Cambridge. The same circles of teenagers dot Jesus Green; the same street minstrels play and sing. The same characters pass me without a hello day after day. And yet I know them and some of their movements and attitudes, and furthermore I like them, generally.

The other day I was pedalling up Jesus Green toward the river, a grocery bag in one hand and a handlebar in the other. I was in no hurry and looked around me as I went. There, to my right was the group of frisbee players that often haunts that part of the park. To my left was my old friend, the river, and up ahead was the man my wife and I have begun to call “The Walker.” Almost any day you choose, you will find him holding a paperback and striding with long, lanky steps around a Cambridge garden or green, reading furiously. He follows no apparent pattern, and, like some errant mower, cuts no straight row. This day, he was pacing Jesus Green and snaked across the path in front of me twice before I overtook him. And as I glided by, I felt, perhaps for the first time since our move, that sense of silent community I had built in the rec. I knew that my rickety blue bike and I were members of that community of unacknowledged friends. I thought back to all those years driving around Kansas in my car when I was a community of one, packed and sealed away from those that drove the same highways and streets: warm, comfortable, dry, mobile, but unseen and unseeing.

The Christ’s College Gym is a windowless dungeon into which few descend, and very few regularly descend. So I suppose I have lost the quiet community of my gym, but, on my bike, I have gained the quiet community of my city.

R. Eric Tippin
In my academic gown
Christ’s College, Cambridge
25 May 2016
Transcribed at Corner House, Cambridge on the same date

Image:
"Leamington"
Oil on Canvas - 1940
Stephen Bone

*This essay is a response to Broom Snow’s Gambler No. 18 [On the Extended Joys of Cycling] and is part of an ongoing conversation between the Trifler and the Gambler on the subject of cycling. 

** Bryn Homuth tracks a similar phenomenon—though in far more eloquent terms—in his Hobbler No. 6 [On Hunting]

Trifler No. 11 [On Grilling]

“We grapple with grease-flecked / patties and spice-rubbed spit, breathe / a new human flame, struck to life / in the chest’s catacombs” –Bryn Homuth

When a man finds himself living in a matchbox-sized apartment with no yard, across the street from a park guarded day and night against open fires of any kind by razor-toothed city ordinances, searching out a place to grill beef burgers on a Sunday afternoon has for him the savour of a desperate quest. The street is an attractive alternative, but the peril of immanent death and/or bodily injury outweighs the natural practicalities and public spirit of the thing. The sidewalk, though far more safe and practical on the surface, has a certain distasteful middleness to it that will not do—like sitting in the lobby for a chamber music performance. As I pondered the trouble I could see only two other options: grill inside our apartment or throw myself on the mercy of our neighbours and grill on the bricked and bare parking slabs next to our building. The Corner House attorney general,* vetoed the first option before floor debate even began, so I stepped out our front door to test the charity of our neighbours.

I began with our nearest neighbour on Carlyle—a woman in her nineties. I rang the doorbell. She answered. I introduced myself, and when she understood our dilemma she said, “Well, I don’t own any of those parking spots, but, you know, I do like the smell of a barbecue.” To my shame, this was the first time I had met this good lady, and after speaking with her for a few more minutes, it became clear to me that she is a local treasure—full of memory and the street’s many changes. She remembers when our building was a shop and when the plane trees lining the park were half their present height. She punted the river before brutalist monstrosities began to pepper its banks. She walked down King’s street before Christ’s College scarred the skyline with the typewriter building. She recalls a time when Alexandra Gardens was not a refuge for slow-strolling drug peddlers and hooligan night-knockers and drunks who use one’s wife’s bike basket as a trash bin. She lived here in the days of Lewis. 

I asked her if she attended the university and what her College was. “Newnham,” she answered. I offered her my late congratulations. She smiled and said, “But it wasn’t difficult to get in in those days . . . if your father had money, and I suppose mine did.” After an agreement to have tea within the week, we parted, and, somehow, I felt I had all the justification I needed for grilling on that slab. So, grabbing a folding chair, our bucket grill, charcoal, matches, and a book on poetic form, I began again the ancient ritual of kindling fire under meat.

                                                       *************

On three occasions since I arrived in Cambridge, I have watched and have listened as British academics have grilled American academics, and the process is not unlike a barbecue. Both the grillers and the grilled grow red and hot, and, by the end of it, the arguments of those grilled (inevitably burnt) have a certain charred, carbonized brittleness to them while the grillers themselves remain generally unchanged. I thought about this as I sat alone by my tiny barbecue, listening to its intermittent sizzle and waving away smoke when the breeze shifted.

Maybe it was the smell of the rub and the grease mingling or the charcoal, but my thoughts suddenly took a turn. I thought then how I missed Kansas and how this small grill was only a weak shadow of other, larger grills filled with burgers and brats and skewered vegetables, presided over by men holding cans of local beer and trading puns. I thought how the rickety back door of our Manhattan home used to slam unevenly like it might fall off the hinges or crumble every time I ran back into the house to check on the girls or retrieve a forgotten ingredient. I remembered the mosquitoes and how the grease-smoke of the grill (and Off ‘Deep Woods’) would drive them away. I remembered feeling warmth upon warmth when I opened the hood to temp the meat. I remembered the the scoldings from the women-folk if we did not melt the cheese over the patties before removing them and placing them under foil. I remembered my sense in those days that I was one griller among many; I knew that Manhattan from Bluemont Hill on a spring Friday evening looked like some civil war army camp and smelled like heaven. I remembered our prayer on those evenings: ‘Lord of the harvest and Maker of every animal—You who turned water into wine and fed five thousand by breaking one loaf and filleting one fish, thank You for the meal before us.” I remembered the laughter at table. I remembered the linger of the smell on clothes and skin.

*************

Carlyle Road is one of the great pedestrian and cyclist freeways in Cambridge, for it connects the City Centre to the northern necklace towns, and—what is more important to the cyclist—is generally avoided by roaring, fiery machines; they prefer roads with numbers for names. Our road is the small-end of a funnel that siphons walkers and bikers onto Jesus Green and, through that, into downtown. Many pass through, but few stay. This Sunday afternoon was no exception, and, as I sat there, filled with memories, trying to read my book, I noticed that most passers-by were noticing me. Some smiled. Some looked quizzical. Some laughed. One child, filled with wonder, said ‘what is he doing?’ Another child said, “I like meat.” A few looked scornful. One woman, catching a whiff, wrinkled her nose, turned to her husband, and said, just a bit too loud, ‘stinks . . .” I had never considered for a moment that charcoal under beef could smell like anything but gameday, summer evenings, and joy. But I was not in Kansas, and these were not Manhatters. Loneliness hit me. I felt like an alien. I felt like a stranger within the gates. I felt like Daniel in Babylon.

And yet, after the first shock-waves of cultural scorn, this misunderstanding, this near-hostility, this alienness began to have a different, slow-burning, wonderful effect. I looked down at my sad little grill, puffing away, doing all I asked without a complaint, and I was thankful for it and for my folding chair—we three all alone in a bare-brick, three-walled enclosure somewhere in Cambridge, providing lunch for two homesick Kansans.

It was only then that I thought, perhaps this is not a shadow of those other grills and grillings but a participation in them—a renewal now of the ritual we observed then. Perhaps.

The grill sizzled back, “yesss.”

R. Eric Tippin
Corner House, Cambridge
19 May, 2016

Image:
"Still Life"
Oil on Canvas - Date Unknown
Germain Théodore Ribot (1845-1893)

*This eminent person of which I speak also happens to head up the Corner House Ways & Means Committee, the Department of Justice, and the Food & Drug Administration.

Gambler, No. 18 [On the Extended Joys of Cycling*]

“But [Johnson] said he ‘had not had a roll for a long time,’ and taking out of his pockets his keys, a pencil, a purse, and other objects, lay down parallel at the edge of the hill, and rolled down its full length, ‘turning himself over and over till he came to the bottom.’” – W.J. Bate, Samuel Johnson

Scholes, Steven, b.1951; Booth Hall

The joys of cycling extend. Like the leg pedaling the bike, they extend and return back to the rider. The biker does more, experiences more, lives more. The biker looks forward to the daily work-commute and often takes the long way home. One might say that the bike is the metaphysical poem of transportation. A man on a bike is not merely a part of a machine; he is the machine. Yet he is human, almost as alive as the man on foot. He is, in a sense, the perfect mediator between pedestrian and vehicle. He can roar down roads like a car; he can earn right-of-way privileges like a foot. He can, most importantly, force vehicles to stop. But the bike, of course, does have its limits. The man on the bike, unlike the man on the foot, yields to the same temptation as a man in a car: he finds that he loathes stopping and even sometimes grows irritable when forced to. And he should be irritated, when the perpetrator is a vehicle; but the biker should never take precedence over the walker. No. Only the walker who walks and talks, who walks and stairs, who walks and blasts his ear-drums with his phone, only that walker should be stopped and perhaps flogged. For that walker has given up his humanity. But the walker who merely walks should be given the right-of-way in all situations. The biker should stop and bow down to that godlike creature. For that walker is closer to God. Indeed, that walker walks with God. For while man made the wheel, God made the foot.

I

The day begins on Rochelle. A slight uphill climb leads to Tamarus, where I hang a left. I could continue through, but the hill’s slope rises all the more. Tamarus is a quiet street, generally, but it is, what a good friend of mine would call a “freeway.”** That is, while it’s lined on its sides with stop-signs, from Flamingo to Harmon it stops for no man. I should say, it stops for no car. But the walker, and the biker make the vehicle cruising down Tamarus stop. I take joy in this. Then, I quickly head right at the next road, University. A four-way stop at Escondido doesn’t slow me down. At this four-way junction, the night’s leftovers are observed, sloshed and stumbling about. They yell at each other, or at the heavens, and I mildly pass by. Soon, I duck behind the Flame Kabob Persian restaurant, the Cannabis Community Center, the Tatlantis tattoo parlor, and the Moondog Records shop on an ill-paved parking lot, dodging speed bumps, vehicles, and more leftovers. I continue through a 7-eleven, snicker as I smell the gas and remember another life. Catching the sidewalk, I’m at the corner of Maryland and Harmon. I catch my breath waiting for the crosswalk. And as I do, I observe how the cars drive and drive and drive and drive. I hear their noise, feel their heat, smell and sometimes taste their odor. I don’t believe I’ve never seen a demon-possessed human. But I have seen a human-possessed demon. Every day they create as much chaos as they can.

Once I’m on campus, the smell of grass, singing birds, and morning amblers makes me feel right at home.

II

I try to avoid walkers as much as possible. Free-speech walkway is the main hub of campus that also leads to the rec center, where I get swoll. Thus, I take the back way, passing by the student union, cutting through random parking lots near student dormitories, and quite suddenly – so I tell myself – enter Free-speech walkway and arrive at the rec.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is not the prettiest campus in the world. Yet it has its own, unique beauty. On my way home from the rec, I take a long, sweeping route around campus. I’ve discovered a little pathway right by the dorms that leads out to – again, it feels as if I come out quite suddenly – a long, wide-open parking lot. The lot of the Thomas and Mack Center. Suddenly, my Kansas head has left the peace of campus, swimming in decadence, and weaving through the lot, I have the great Factory of Decadence to my left and a large arena to my right. I alternate which I look at during my ride. The Thomas and Mack is home to a mediocre, yet beloved basketball team, yet I can’t help but gaze at the large sign advertising July’s NBA Summer League. I wonder what that lot will be like then. I picture myself rolling up to the doors and getting autographs. Then, my mind wanders further along in time. I see the lot full of vehicles, vehicles with political bumper stickers. The cars are surrounded by an angry mob, probably lighting fires. Half the mob protests America. A quarter protest men. Another quarter protests – and pushes – women. Nevertheless, it’s a cool, October evening, quite lovely considering. The politicians are here though for their little debate, destroying any hope of peace. I picture myself riding up to those doors again on my bike, questioning which side of the debate to join. I sit and think. I consider the options. I join the mob.

I climb a hill in that same parking lot, hopefully making more vehicles stop, and get a good view of the southern end of the Factory. Mandalay Bay rests at its end. There again is the Luxor, MGM Grand, Excalibur, New York, New York, the Cosmopolitan, and the Paris Hotel with its Eiffel Tower sticking out from behind. That great beast, the Las Vegas Strip, is really nothing more than a cell-phone. Everything a man can do on his cell-phone, he can do on the strip. He can be there and yet everywhere. Indeed, he goes there specifically to be everywhere at once: Las Vegas, Egypt, a boxing-match, medieval Europe, New York City, his seventeen year-old daughter’s birthday party, and Paris. This man can be here, there and everywhere; he can change time periods on a whim; he can ignore friends, play games, and work his way towards the modern goal of becoming less and less human with each breath he takes.

III

The cars stop and glare at me as I pass Harmon. I’m safely back on campus. Tennis Courts to my left are getting plenty of use in the cooler spring days. An empty football practice field worries me, as I contemplate their record from last fall. I was encouraged yesterday to see a few men throwing the pigskin. The path leads to the Earl E. Wilson baseball stadium, and I take a back way past right field where the 335 Club sits during the games. If one attends a UNLV baseball game, he will be honored to observe the 335 Club. This club sits on the home run side of right field, 335 yards from home plate. About fifteen bros, perhaps a bit liquored up, yell, hit drums, chant chants, and wave flags as their team takes the field and competes. During Saturday’s Fresno State contest, the drums and flags were in full force. The opposing pitcher was destined to listen to nothing but the dum—da-dum—da-dum—dum—dum of a single drum and some seven or so raucous college students chanting. The others were either observing silent meditation or suffering sunstroke. Sadly, their valiant efforts that day were in vain.

IV

Two long walkways, usually not very populated, even at the busiest times, make a sort of L-shape on the northeast side of campus. They are dotted with trees and a large row of grass separates two large sidewalks. At night, with the lamps lit, their length seems to extend beyond sight, almost as if each lamp obscures the depth of the walk. One sees only the long row of concrete and the lamps, but not the end; one almost senses he’s walking in an enchanted forest and will be allowed to walk forever.

I take this long corridor after I leave the baseball stadium. I pass a few benches and an indistinct hill by the chemistry building, a hill that has been trodden on by bikers from earlier times.

“Let’s do the jump,” he said and took off like lightening, leaving me and his wife behind. We watched as he stopped, turned, and sped back our way; then, he cut through a small pathway amongst the trees, raced across the sidewalk, roared onto the grass, ascended the hill and flew in the air, almost a good inch off the ground.

My nature forced me to attempt the jump. I got less air. After the baseball game, I decided I would pick up speed earlier to really get air. I’m sure people talked about how fast I road as I soared down the walkway; I looked out for the hill, spotted it, picked up speed, veered my front tire to the right, and continued peddling. Then, I was at the point of no return. Then, I realized something. Sprinklers. In a rare moment of exhilaration, my status on campus became mute. As I climbed the hill, my age rolled down its own; as I felt the spray, I was back in Kansas, shirt off and seven, running through the lawn sprinkler; I was a graduate student and English instructor no longer. I may have been closer to E.T., flying through the air on my bike, an entire inch off the ground. But though I may have looked the extra terrestrial, in that moment I was more human than ever.

Broom Snow

The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue

Las Vegas, Nevada

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Painting: "Boot Hall"

by Steven Scholes

Oil on board, n.d.

_______________________________

*This post is a response to R. Eric Tippin’s Trifler No. 1 in what I hope becomes a regular series of essay-duals about biking.

**The aforementioned, R. Eric Tippin.