Reasons 2 B Cheerful (Part II)

Last chapter: While visiting the ‘new’ (15 year) owners of American Cyclery, I learned there was a vintage racer in the area, and decided to hunt her up since the address (but not the phone number) is listed.

Scene: a dreich San Francisco mid-day, high in the avenues overlooking the Doelger tract homes below and the fine wide ocean.

Noriega Street develops a serious wiggle owing to the hills. Very different from flats carefully laid out below in a grid (built on sand dunes).

Mr Doelger “forgot” to include parks.
San Francisco bike legend Oscar J’s first wife, Gay, supposedly lives in this three-story peach colored house.
I’m sweaty through and through, wearing a rainsoaked pink Anne Taylor jacket picked out of a free box about five minutes earlier…because it almost fits, and looks faintly professional.

After knocking and waiting, and ringing and waiting some more, I ask myself what I’m doing here, in a stranger’s doorway.

A) Is it because Brad Woehl suggested I might enjoy meeting a real legend?
B) to find out if she’s still alive?
C) to do a quick interview?
D) because I’m impulsive, curious, and itching for adventure?

An ancient, bent woman opened the door about four inches and looked sideways up at me.
“Who is it?.”
“I’m a bike racer, too. I wonder if I can come in?!” I yelled.

‘Come in. I’m a little disabled” she said lamely, shuffling –unaided– toward the stairway with double railings. I waited and admired her upward progress.

A thought occured to me: maybe stair-climbing isn’t the worst thing in the world for old people. Charlie’s mom lives in a five story house, and she’s incredibly ept. Er, mobile.
We get to the main upper room a very tidy living room/dining room suite, with TV in front of a big black plastic couch, coffee table and the rug just where she sits is threadbare, as if she walks in place there.

Four boxes of chocolate on the table, along with a clock that announces the hour in a mechanical voice (“ONE O’CLOCK”). A few knicknacks as well. And two cats watch from their perches.

“I hope this is an OK time…”
“What?”
“I HOPE I’M NOT INTRUDING”.
“Oh, no, not at all. I am just relaxing”.
“IS IT TRUE YOU WERE A CHAMPION?”
Might as well get down to it.
“Yes, a long time ago”.
“AND WON THIRTEEN RACES IN A ROW?”
“Yes”.
“BRAD HAS THE BIKE IN HIS SHOP. THE CHROME PLATED ONE…”
“I see….”

She tells me that her 17 years with Oscar were the best in her life, she’d met him when she was 24 and he 21…he taught her how to ride, and trained her…and they married the next year (1935 or so). He was so young looking the magistrate insisted on a birth certificate which had to be mailed out….

“I don’t have any regrets” she said.
Long pause.
“I barely remember why I…left….it’s the biggest mistake I ever made, because I am still in love with him, even though he’s gone”.

(Oscar died four years ago).

“CAN I SEE YOUR PHOTO ALBUM?”

A heavy old album appeared from under the coffee table; in it, only about ten racing photos, of them four are her as a twenty-five yr old and older, in her leather crash hat, circling a track, riding on the road, both times in the lead with two other women behind.

If I knew how to look at bikes, I’d notice cool stuff but reader, I don’t notice bikes. They had cool handlebar bends, and looked…simple. The shorts were cut incredibly high, unlike now.
Very white legs. No ripped, defined muscles, but strong legs nonetheless….

“WHAT DID YOU DO FOR WORK?”
“I owned a restaurant at fourth and Mission, Gay & Irene’s’, for twelve years. Hard work. We bought this house when it was new.”

“DID YOU RIDE YOUR BIKE TO THE RESTAURANT?”
“No, I used public transportation…I don’t drive”.
(Inner cheer from me)
“DID THE OTHER LADIES HATE YOU FOR WINNING ALL THE TIME?”
(Now, now, no need to project your own issues on this nice lady).
“No, we had camaraderie, no hard feelings. There weren’t a lot of us. My highest placing was a second at the Nationals in Wisconsin..”

After learning that her jersies, medals, etc. live in a box somewhere in the junk-packed garage, and that her right-hand man Jose would have to find them, I implored her to ask him to do some archaeology for me…

“HERE’S MY CARD (give her the rock-shox card, never thinking it could possibly be rather strong medicine for am elderly woman, let alone her Hispanic aide-de-camp), I’LL WRITE HIM A NOTE”.
“No need. I’ll remember”.
We sit for a couple minutes without a word.
For me this is incredibly hard. But there is something to be said (! wrong word choice) for shutting up, letting the moment just sit there.
And stay where it’s put.

Until…

“CAN I HAVE ONE OF THESE?”
“What, the chocolate? Of course, help yourself”
I am already starved despite my breakfast at a diner over by State U.
“GUESS I SHOULD GO. I’LL BE BACK WITH MY CAMERA. CAN I HAVE YOUR PHONE NUMBER?”

I leave, but halfway out the door, I realize I hadn’t asked..
Run back up the steps two at a time, bucking helmet.
“WHAT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY?”
“September 19th, 1909″.
“THANKS, GAY. SEE YA!”

Race downstairs, and hop aboard my trusty Breezer town bike…calculating 98 years…still clear in her head…
–can’t see much at all but “listens to TV’
..enjoys “bein’ lazy”
–devoted to her cats.
–No physical pain (I’d asked).
–Makes her own meals: one day, tv dinner, next day real food.
–Has a couple of people who check in
–She would never accept living in one of those ‘assisted living’ places…

“I’m content with what I have, but when Benjy cat died last month, part of me died with him”.

When I get back to SF I’ll snap a pic and throw it up on the big black blog background for you all to see.

We have a hero in our mist.

~ by jacquiephelan on December 9, 2007.

9 Responses to “Reasons 2 B Cheerful (Part II)”

  1. I love the bold brash interview. A true legend indeed. Cycling goddess just up the street from me all this time. Sharing is magic :)

  2. Jacquie, I enjoyed this piece a lot. I felt as if I was there with you all. A picture is must …… did you realize she was 98 while you were talking to her?

  3. Jacquie, wonderful story. I hope you follow up on this.
    bruce

  4. Jacquie, thanks for this. It’s beautiful and touching. 98 years old! Imagine the changes she has seen?! And to think she was racing bikes in the 1930s. What an inspiration! I’m so glad you sought her out. It’s important to check in with the old-timers — and no one could have done this one better than you. (By the way: HAPPY BIRTHDAY.)

  5. Wow,

    Cool story!
    Thanks very much for seeking it out and sharing it.

  6. Heart warming. What a gem at 98. I don’t know her, but as a cyclist it’s like discovering a venerable Great Aunt.

  7. 98 years old and still independant….that’s a damm fine reason for continuing to turn the cranks. Keep us updated with pics of her bike and more stories jacquie, she sounds like a national treasure.

  8. Haven’t read Part 1 yet, but holy smokes that’s a good story.

  9. I have no idea what a pingback is… but I’m allowing it for awhile, until I learn what a pingback does

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