When I was 10, I inherited an oversized boy’s bike from my cousin. I was happy to have my first bike. We couldn’t afford the popular Schwinns of the day. I cleaned and painted it, adding a thunderbolt on the fender to make it look fast and give the hand-me-down a new look.
Once it looked like a bike to be proud of rather than a dust catcher from someone’s basement, I had to learn to ride it. The first step was to find a place to mount the boy’s bike since I wasn’t tall enough to reach over the frame without starting from a stoop. Then I had to manage to stay upright and balanced.
After several falls and scraped knees, I wobbly made my way over the streets and sidewalks of our immigrant Chicago neighborhood in the ‘50s. I wanted to see more and ventured beyond the boundaries of my Greek, Irish, Polish and Swedish neighborhood. I was curious to know what was outside the safety of the few blocks I already knew.
As I rode my bike by their open markets, I saw and smelled unfamiliar foods displayed on sidewalk tables strewn with breads, produce, clothing and trinkets. I didn’t feel comfortable getting off my bike just yet. After all, these were strangers I was told not to go near.
I knew I was breaking the rules by leaving my neighborhood, but I couldn’t pass up the adventure. I didn't dare tell anyone of my explorations just a few blocks away from home. I kept my travels a secret so I could return to these intriguing places.
Thanks to my second-hand bike, I discovered a new world and its natives in Chicago's immigrant melting pot of the '50s.
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