The Circus Comes to Town

For gerontologists and migrant farm workers, my birthplace and childhood home was ripe with professional opportunity and social reward. For a single mother whose son had expensive tastes in European mini bikes, 13-inch action dolls and tailored trousers, Bradenton, Florida, counted only misery and Tropicana orange juice among its cash crops. During one particularly hot summer of her discontent, mom decided migration to Palm Beach Country on Florida’s Atlantic coast might better quench her thirst for social enrichment and financial reward. While mom set up shop for us 175 miles east in Palm Beach county, I spent the summer of ‘74 with my aunt, uncle, and cousins Tracy and Jennifer in Sarasota.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Ringling Brothers pitched their big top mere blocks from the old-money neighborhood Aunt Dianne and Uncle Greg called home. Rich WASPs and retired lion trainers called Sarasota home. Art-school nihilists and boozy bettors at the city’s dog track called it “Clown Town.” Except for the couple years mom and I lived with a British upholstery worker and her troublesome teenaged daughter, I’d always been a latchkey kid. The freedom was intoxicating, like the Cutty Sark mom quaffed during nightly freelance speed-typing marathons. Dysfunctional though we may have seemed, what little mom and I had worked great for both of us; I didn’t need additional gear or guidance.

Though the part I played in my uncle’s family drama was a short one, my triple role as surrogate son, feral nephew and big brother was both tedious and rewarding. Uncle Greg may have been the breadwinner in his patriarchy, but Aunt Dianne ruled her pristine showcase home with cast-iron fists. Uncle Greg’s joy for being the father I never had was real, but he made sure the life we shared was his own. That meant duck hunting on Terra Ceia Bay, bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee, and church at Palma Sola Presbyterian every Sunday morning. While her public demeanor seemed quaint, after a dozen years of free-range parenting from my mom, Aunt Dianne’s regimented approach to housekeeping and child rearing was a shock to my system. For a boy who pulled it to Playboy magazines in the bathroom at Circuit Judge Robert Schultz’s beach house on more than one occasion, the whole scene was hard to swallow. My cousins Tracy and Jennifer were the loving sisters I never had; Aunt Dianne and Uncle Greg were sometimes the puritanical parents I never wanted. I needed the change of scenery more badly than mom did.

For reasons still unclear, my mother waited well into her forties before consumating her relationship with Florida DMV. A total dependency on public transportation during my adolescent and teen years was the pennance we paid for her unwillingness to take the driving exam. When friends provided ground transportation, mom’s appreciation manifested itself in disproportionate generosity at the pump; she tipped big for short bursts across town, and covered every tankful on camping trips to Central Florida. Mom’s indentured servitude and fear of steering wheels planted in me the seeds of independence that still drive my soul. With no family car to rely on, the vehicles that moved me—both physically and emotionally—were mini bikes and bicycles.

I wasn’t the only person hooked on going places and doing things in the 1970s. In those days, country singer C.W. McCall wrote a song about cross-country trucking and CB jiving called “Convoy” that became a number-one hit. For a time, cars were big, gas was cheap, and Americans were on the move. Then, OPEC cooked up an oil shortage in the Middle East that made two-hour waits at the pump a weekly ritual for American drivers. American drivers who still clutched keys to muscle cars and 560 cubic-inch Cadillacs in their porcine hands. Not surprisingly, this confluence of cultural and geopolitical factors collided with a force so great it catapulted America’s moribund bicycle industry into the stratosphere.

The Schwinn Bicycle Company—a rustbelt juggernaut that built sturdy, dependable bicycles in Chicago since 1895—sold trendy 10-speeds and flashy Sting-Rays to millions of Americans who were growing tired of the petrol-powered coup d’etat. The function, fashion and practicality of America’s favorite bicycle enabled those over-built machines to coast past cultural and ideological road blocks with speed and ease. Hippies rode Schwinns to save the planet. Republicans rode Schwinns to curry favor with corrupt Chicago politicians. Democrats rode Schwinns to support their union brothers. I rode a Schwinn for the same reason I wore Pro Keds, ate Little Debbie cakes and drank Dr. Pepper—they advertised in the dozens of magazines I bought every month with the money I earned dumping trash at my uncle’s sign-making business. Hot Rod. Car and Driver. Motocross Action. National Geographic. Boy’s Life. Reader’s Digest. If Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold it, I subscribed to it. Going hunting with Uncle Greg? Read Field and Stream. Baking a cake with grandma? Scour Good Housekeeping for the perfect recipe. When it was time to buy plastic fenders for my Hodaka Dirt Squirt, Preston Petty ads in Dirt Bike saved the day. I was a junkie. Magazines were my crack.

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