We were a gang: a gang that rode bikes, popped wheelies, and bunny-hopped curbs. We all wore jeans and plain white T-shirts. The bolder kids wore shirts with clever sayings, like, “What are you looking at?” or the ever popular, “Bite Me.” We all even wore the same kind of shoes: Airwalks. The veteran riders wore black Airwalks with black socks as a symbol of their status within the group. All of the other riders were restricted to any other color shoe, usually brown, with white socks. Airwalks weren’t particularly comfortable or stylish, but at the age of eleven, I was in no place to question the rules of the neighborhood. To do so would have marked me an outsider, someone who didn’t understand the unwritten rules of the neighborhood, someone unworthy of the gang’s attention.
The hierarchy of the group was simple: the better rider you were, the more tricks you could pull off, and the more risks you were willing to take—well, that determined your status within the group. Most of the guys were good riders, but Jay stood above the rest. By fifteen he had already been riding competitively for six years; he’d even gained sponsorship from a local bike shop. Jay was older than most of the kids in the neighborhood, but he acted even older than that—as if he were in his mid-twenties, not his teens; it wasn’t uncommon to see Jay driving his dad’s pick-up truck or smoking a cigarette in a back alley. Not surprisingly, Jay called the shots when it came to riding and every kid in the neighborhood searched for a way to impress him. Most of the neighborhood riders never gained his reverence; as for me, I wish I hadn’t.
It had been a fun summer for the crew, but we were running low on ideas to keep us busy. We sat in front of Jay’s house drinking Hank’s Root-Beer (bottled, of course) and reminiscing on the trouble we had caused in the neighborhood that summer when a voice chimed in with an idea. It was Ryan speaking; he was two years older than I, but was skinny and underdeveloped. He wasn’t particularly skilled on a bike, either, so he relied mostly on his humor and the facade of a do-anything attitude to keep from being ridiculed.
“Dude,” he began, “We totally need a ramp right now. Do you know how freakin’ sweet that would be? We could totally catch some sick air with one of those bad boys.” His excitement was too much to hold in; he even began miming his ideas when the words wouldn’t come out. “We could make it like this high, and this wide, and and and…”
Usually, we didn’t take Ryan too seriously. He was by far the most twisted kid in the group and just loved to hear himself speak. Besides, his ideas usually involved vandalism or some sort of property destruction, arson at the very least, so he was relatively easy to ignore. We depended on him more for laughs than for ideas, but there was something different this time. From the time he uttered his first “Dude,” I knew something was different. The boredom in the air must have mixed with the sugar high from the root-beer because this time, for a second, he had everyone’s attention and the familiar formula for trouble was complete: bored teenagers plus interesting idea always equals trouble for the neighborhood and danger for all those involved.
It was late in the afternoon when we finally completed the ramp. Lucky for us, Jay’s dad was always building something and had tools and pieces of wood lying around in his garage. And a few of the guys had taken woodshop in middle school and knew their way around tools pretty well. Although our ramp resembled neither a toolbox nor a birdcage, the woodshop guys pulled off the job in the end. The finished product was bigger than even Ryan had imagined and clearly had more nails in it than it needed, but it had potential and, more importantly, it had given us something to do.
Ryan seemed to be the most excited about the ramp. “Dude, that is totally sweet! We are gonna catch some crazy air on that thing man. Now, who’s gonna go first?”
The question seemed bizarre. It had been Ryan’s idea, and he was clearly the most excited to see the ramp completed, but now he was asking who wanted to go first? We soon found that Ryan had no intention of using the ramp; he was just excited that the group went with his idea.
Jay jumped in before anybody else could. “What do you mean, ‘who’s going first?’ You are, you chickenshit! It was your idea, so you’re going first.”
“I can’t man,” Ryan said. “You know I have a bum knee. If I get hurt I might never play for the Yankees.” For some reason Ryan always stuck to the idea that he would someday play in the Major Leagues. No one thought he would, but no one ever told him that, either.
“Whatever,” Jay said. “Since this guy’s too much of a chickenshit to jump, who wants to go first?” He was addressing the group, but he never took his eyes off Ryan.
I stood there for a second, wondering who the sucker was going to be, when I noticed Jay was now staring right at me. “What about you little man? You wanna give it a go?”
I knew not to look at him in the eye, for if I did, I was done for. I knew I wouldn’t say no if I looked him in the eye. All I could think was no; no, do not volunteer. Sure, I wanted to see someone jump, but I didn’t want that someone to be me. The curve of the ramp just looked wrong and I didn’t want to be the one to prove it. Yet I could feel an answer brewing in the pit of my stomach and before I could stop myself, I blurted that answer out.
“Sure,” I heard a voice say. It sounded like me, and I felt my lips moving, but that wasn’t the response resounding in my head. I felt as if I had been possessed by the collective will of the group. I was supposed to say no, I would have said no, but the group had spoken and there was no turning back; someone had pulled the lever and I was going down the toilet.
“All right,” Jay said, “little man’s got some heart, more than any of you dipshits, anyway.” And with those words, my fate was sealed.
I circled the ramp, stalling for time, for as long as I could. I went around once, then twice, then a few more times. The more I circled the ramp, though, the more daunting it became; it was no longer just a mass of boards held together with entirely too many nails, it was a sling-shot waiting to hurl me into the heavens, it was a mountain waiting to be climbed, it was my ticket to neighborhood infamy.
I had to do it.
I felt my legs peddling faster and faster; my hands ached as they gripped the handlebars. I approached the ramp. I knew they were all there watching my every move, but all I could see was the ramp. My heart raced as my bike carried me toward my destination. By that time the only sound I could hear was the beating of my heart, every thump echoing in my ear. Before I knew it, I was airborne; my adrenaline rush reached its tipping point as my upward climb came to an end. Soaring through the air, with the world beneath me, I came to a realization: I had nowhere to go but down.
My tires yearned to be reunited with the ground—and the ground was more than willing to oblige. As soon as I hit the ground, I knew something was wrong. My bike wobbled wildly and I wrestled for control. I wanted to go straight, but the bike was determined to keep me from doing so. As much as I tried to take control, my bike was always one step ahead. I pulled right, but it took me left; I pulled left and it was determined to take me right. Just as I thought I’d conquered my bike, it one-upped me once again: rather than allowing me to take control, it self-destructed. A screw in its frame must have been jarred loose by the impact of my landing. The lost screw allowed my handlebars to bend forward, sending me through the air once again, although this time, there would be no bike to cushion my landing.
My heartbeat, which had echoed in my ears as I flew through the air, now pulsed through my entire body. I lay on my back, facing the sky, and I could hear familiar voices all around. I tried to focus on what those voices said, but the beating of my heart muffled all sound.
“I didn’t think he’d go through with it,” said a raspy voice. “Kid’s got some heart, though. He’s tough, too; he’ll be real good someday.” It was Jay’s voice. All of those years of smoking made his voice unmistakable. I tried to focus my eyes on the talking silhouette. I wanted to take in my moment of glory, but it was no use; my eyes were in no condition to focus on anything. Then I tried to get up, but my body wouldn’t allow it. Finally, I closed my eyes. I gave in to the pain.
I was lucky to come out of the ordeal with only a few scrapes and a broken collarbone. I was the talk of the neighborhood for a while, but my notoriety was short-lived: a few weeks later, Jeff from across the street broke both of his arms trying to jump from his roof onto a trampoline, so a fractured clavicle was no big deal.
Soon my name was no longer mentioned when kids reminisced about crazy stunts, and the fleeting nature of glory became painfully clear. My stunt eventually faded from everyone’s memory—except my own.