Saturday, February 19, 2011
ALMOST A MILE HIGH NOON
Almost A Mile High Noon
I imagine its smell and inhale deeply. Almost out loud I’m fantasizing, as the loft’s elevator door clangs closed behind me. With my new bike, I negotiate the lobby. For dinner tonight, it’ll be Pasta and Pepper Scalapino ala Pauline, a dish I credit to my first mother-in-law, Pauline Rossi, a Sicilian, with a Sicilian’s robust appreciation for the pleasures of the palette. In the recipe tonight I’ll substitute sausage for veal.
Sundays, for six years, I attended afternoon Italian feasts at one or another of my first wife’s relatives’ houses, where ten or twenty of us would honor family and life with food and wine enough to rival the lifestyles of the Imperial rich and Roman. Each aunt or cousin or in-law, each mother of the house, had a distinctive flair and specialty; thus, even now, twenty years since my last Sunday sit-down with my first wife, I continue to love all things Italian when it comes to my taste buds and usually cook Italian for my family once or twice a week.
I’m on my way to Mancinelli’s because there some fine homemade sausage can be had, as well as all the ingredients required to feast Italian. Across the Twentieth Street viaduct, Mancinelli’s is a classic corner store, reminiscent of the neighborhood independent markets of my youthful Philly days, before Seven Eleven and Circle K. At the end of a block, with a panoramic view of Denver’s skyline from the sidewalk, visiting Mancinelli’s is always a shot of nostalgia to this East Coast departee. Italian delicacies fill the shelves and imported salami and pepperoni hang above the butcher’s counter. Anise pizzelles fill the glass jar by the register. The most virgin olive oils bottled, indeed, all things crucial to great Italian cooking can be had. Sweet peppers and hot sausage, Asiago cheese, and hand-made ravioli are on the mental list I’ve made of things to purchase, and fresh bread, if there’s any left this time of day, although it’s usually sold out by ten, an hour ago.
Now it’s out of the lobby and through the door, and I’m off to Mancinelli’s on my new Specialized. I love the gear capabilities of this bike. I know I’ll appreciate the low ones on my uphill route across the highway and the Platte; it’s especially steep from the corner of the block where Muddy’s originally was to Mancinelli’s. The neighborhood’s not called the Highlands for nothing. I haven’t really ridden a bike much the last few years, but now living right off the bike path, Marcia thought a mountain bike would be the perfect birthday present for a writer my age with a zest for food and wine not matched by any zeal for exercise.
Two blocks west of the Wazee Street Café on Fifteenth Street, I am joined by Roger Lynch. Roger is a bicycling kook. Well, Roger is a lot of things. I mean he hangs out on his bike all day long. He rides in the heaviest of traffic, and he’s a most assertive cyclist. The rock solid poundage of his calves and thighs is the proof of how hard he rides. And don’t tell Roger that he and his bike don’t belong. Would be like telling a man that he and his family don’t belong. Besides, Roger knows the law and his rights as a bicyclist. A former Saint Louis policeman, Roger quit the force there, not at all because of any dislike for police work, but rather because of his fondness for two things: the strain of the steep grades in Colorado mountain biking and the smoke of high grade Mexican marijuana. Besides, he loves playing guitar and singing the blues, and because he writes songs, RL has an interest in poetry. He’s attended a few of the readings I run, and he frequents the Market on Larimer where I sometimes hang out. Such scenes are one of the perks of living downtown. Marcia had sought Roger’s advice in selecting my birthday surprise.
“How do you like it? A lot, I’ll bet,” Roger questions, answers and asserts as he pedals up along side me. “Where you headed?”
I tell Roger, “I’m on my way to buy groceries at Mancinelli’s in the Highlands.”
“The Dago Market up on the hill above I_25? They got some great pickles. Hey, what the hell, I’m on my way down the bike path to Alameda, but maybe I’ll ride with you. I’ll keep you company and ride for the hill of it.”
Now Roger’s bike is an extension and reflection of the man himself. A bicycle mechanic, he’s worked in a dozen bike shops. He created his own bike from a discarded frame and parts scavenged from trashed bikes. Roger is really hard on his bikes. To him, a bike is like a tank; it should be able to go anywhere. Across stubbly fields and up shale shard-ed mountains. Despite his tendency to be slightly underweight given all the calories he burns up daily on his bike, his physique and appearance are that of a professional athlete, which puts mine to shame, but that’s what this Specialized is all about: getting back into shape. Needless to say, I don’t ask Roger to race.
On the bridge crossing the interstate, Roger tricks out on his bike, doing wheelies and hopping, burping his breaks, all with no hands. To the cars speeding by below, he is reminiscent of the bucking bronco cowboy emblematic of Wyoming, only this time it’s a baseball hat and bike against the sky instead of a Stetson and stallion.
Although Roger finds the uphill to be an easy pedal, I have to really strain the last few blocks as we approach Mancinelli’s from the south. I have to stand on my pedals to gain power enough to keep me going uphill. Roger is behind me a block or so as he has already reached Mancinelli’s and the summit of the upgrade earlier and zoomed downhill, again “just for the hill of it,” back to Sixteenth Street. I am not expecting at all what happens next.
One moment, I’m all heart beat and sweat and strain in my calves, and the next I’m confronted with some variant of road rage.
A Chevy Camaro, breaks screeching, horn honking, slides curbside to a stop, blocking my progress. The guy behind the wheel is livid and yelling and balling his fist, gesturing to me in a most threatening manner, and I jump off my bike, heart pounding from the exertion exacted by the steep grade of the hill. This unexpected verbal assault gets my heart pounding even more.
“What are you talking about man? What’s your problem?”
“You, mother fucker,” he asserts. “You, mother fucker, ran that stop sign, and I had the right of way. Nobody on a fucking bike cuts me off.” He’s out of the Camaro and around the front of the car to confront me in a flurry of heartbeats.
“Look, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What stop sign did I run?”
“Fuck you and your stupid bike.”
“Hey, fuck you and your Camaro. Look, I don’t even know you man. I’m riding my bike to the store to buy groceries for my family’s dinner, and you’re stalking me in your car over some stop sign that I didn’t stop pedaling uphill for. I mean, Christ, I must have been doing a half a mile an hour up that hill. You’re crazy, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What, would you have me stop and dismount at every stop sign because I’m on a bike? Get back in your car, Asshole.”
All the time of this repartee, I’m sizing up this road warrior. He’s dressed well enough. I mean his shirt is ironed, although his jeans have the look of a mechanic. His dark hair and eyes, black and brown respectively, and his thick moustache look almost false, given the European whiteness of his countenance. I figure him to be a mechanic with a passion for cars, half Swede, half Hispanic. Probably lives in Commerce City. He’s in much better shape than I am. His wrenches must weigh a lot more than my pens. He’s not calming down and when I look into his dark sunglasses, I sense from the knit of his brow that his temper is still on the rise.
“Hey, just get back in your car, and get on with it, whatever it was you were doing before you decided to harass me.”
With an impasse of sorts reached, at least he’s not approaching any nearer, I still am prepared to defend myself should he attack. I’m keeping my bike between us. A moment of silence ensues as he steams and I hope for the best, a moment broken by the arrival of Roger.
Roger lays rubber even though he’s breaking uphill and literally throws with his slide gravel and road grit onto the guys shoes. He’s off the bike, which he drops without regard for its safety, and between us in one motion.
“What’s up, Chevy? You got a problem with my friend here? I hope not, and anyway, whatever, you better just get out of here. You don’t want to fuck with us. Unless, you’re crazy man. Are you crazy, man? You ain’t gonna mess with two of us, are you?”
And then a most unfortunate thing happens. Camaro Boy strides forward and throws a punch at Roger. Actually he doesn’t really throw a punch. He sort of throws back his shoulder to launch a punch. Instantly Roger reacts and responds with utter ferocity to this aggression, clocking him with a time machine left, square, in the face. Sunglasses fly and with them reasoning. Cogitation ceases. The crunch of the punch is frightening; its message is clear: don’t mess with Roger.
But the guy has already passed into the realm of foolish unto death, and he advances again, swinging wildly at Roger, who’s totally here and now, head up, eyes sizing, prancing. Mr. Chevrolet’s head is blinded by pain and his original anger. Count one, then not quite two, and Roger’s dance becomes a hailstorm of fists, each blow professionally calculated to do a great deal of harm. A tooth takes to the air from the first shot, and nose blood spurts from the second. The third punch, a right to the stomach, doubles him over, and the fourth punch, a blast to the side of the head marries his face to the asphalt. All before I count three. Ready to hurt him some more, if he has to, Roger stands wary as the guy raises himself up onto his hands and knees trying to remember his name or what life was like when he had all his teeth. He spits out a “Fuck you,” and Roger wallops him twice with shots to the kidneys. The guy rolls once and is up on his feet backing away and raising his arms in an effete gesture of defiance and defense. I can’t believe he’s standing. He’s so beat he couldn’t fend off the rapture of a teddy bear.
If he tries to get at Roger again, I fear he will get himself killed; thus, I step between them, only to realize that the fool is trying to buy time to recuperate enough to go after Roger again. I push him backwards towards his car. His bloodied shirt bloodies my hands, and the second time I push him backwards I leave my hand prints on his shirt. His strength is returning as he resists my second push with more vigor than the first.
“Get out of here, you fucking idiot. This man here could have killed you. You’re way out of your league and way out of line. From beginning to end, you started all this. Your fucking anger got you here. So just go. Just get in your car and go before any police arrive.” I pick up and toss him his sunglasses.
As if possessed of anger incarnate, he stares us down, glaring directly at Roger who still has on his shades. A smirk radiates Roger’s exhilarated thrill of power and dominance.
“Go on. Get.” I repeat, “Get!”
And the guy does strut to his car, get in and lay rubber, turning right onto the eastbound viaduct that crosses the Platte Valley, across which the Camaro’s engine roars. Roger and I walk our bikes up and across the street to Mancinelli’s where we carry them down to the small patio landing that fronts the semi-subterranean storefront. I’m bent over locking my front wheel to the frame when I hear a rerun of the Camaro’s roar. The guy has stopped and is turning the car around on the one way, two lane bridge. It’s not an easy turn around. With each first and reverse, he revs the engine and burps the brakes. And now he’s laying rubber towards us. When he gets to the end of the bridge he must be doing sixty or seventy. He hits his brakes and fish-tails with tires screeching - just like in the movies. He’s thrown it into neutral and is gunning the engine above the screeching tires. He’s regained enough of his senses to be in control of the Camaro at such speeds. After a final U turn, the Chevy winds up facing us right in front of us in the middle of the intersection. The metal flake of the paint job diamonds in the late morning sun. I realize that if he were to drive forward and down the steps into the plaza he’d pin us against the wall, and I am relieved to hear the engine cut off and his car door open and slam.
I want to see what the fool is up to and I hop step it up the stair steps to the sidewalk.
Roger remains on the plaza where he is joined by a woman exiting and the Mancinelli’s, Mr. and Mrs., who have heard the roar, the screeching and slamming.
As our kook goes to the trunk of the car and opens it, I sidestep the sidewalk to see what he’s up to, and I do catch sight of him shoving something, a tool, maybe a large monkey wrench, into the back of his pants. I hope it’s not a gun, and I yell down to Roger a warning: “He’s coming and he’s got a weapon of some kind behind his back.”
When he ignores me and struts the sidewalk to stop at the top of the stairs, I see that it’s a heavy crescent wrench sticking out of his waistband. He’s not ten feet from me and I backpedal to increase that distance. As I arc into the street behind him, I yell out, “Look out, Roger, he’s got a big metal wrench.”
Sarcastically, Roger responds, “He’s gonna need one,” and I see what he means. Roger, somehow during the time between engine off and now, has taken apart the seat of his bike. He has the long extension bar of the seat assembly in his right hand and with it pats the palm of his left. “Actually he’s gonna need more than that.”
It is not actually high noon, but it suddenly comes to mind, both literally and figuratively, that I’ve seen this movie before. Pride and anger over nothing. And a fool to boot! Not once had the guy come close to hurting Roger. If he takes one step down, Roger will put him down for good. High Noon, indeed, for all of us, the Mancinelli’s, the woman, Roger, the kid and me, all bearing witness to how fine the line between a beautiful morning and a deadly morning.
Time does seem to be standing still. No one moves. Ten eyes study the fool at the top of the steps. It’s maybe eight steps down to the patio. I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t rush the guy from behind and prevent him from inciting his own demise. A car heading downtown honks as it rounds the Camaro, and its passenger, ignorant of the tension of the situation, calls out “Assholes,” a remark that gets time rolling again.
“Give it up, man,” I tell him from behind. “It ain’t worth it.” When he turns to look at me, he realizes that not only is he up against Roger, but also that he is surrounded. Mrs. Mancinelli’s sister comes out of the store and announces to us all that she’s already called the police, that “They’re on their way.” Again I say, “Give it up, man. Go home!”
And he does go. He rushes back and into the Camaro and squeals tires down the hill turning right on Fifteenth to disappear. Perhaps, for some reason, he is even more afraid of the Denver Police than he is of Roger.