At the time, some twenty-three years ago, I knew instinctively that This Was An Important Moment In My Career As A Writer. My opinion has not changed since then. But I don’t know what I was supposed to learn from it. So I’m going to share the moment with you, and maybe you will know.
Here’s the background: As most of you know, the original BMX bicycles were Schwinn Stingrays and similar products, sized for ten-year-olds. When purpose-built BMX frames became available from companies like Redline, they were still sized for ten-year-olds. Eventually, slightly longer frames became available, but none of them were truly large enough for a six-foot-three racer.
In 1986, Free Agent, a small-time BMX frame maker, introduced the “Limo” frame. It was about two inches longer than the “Pro” frames sold by everybody else. It revolutionized BMX. Obviously, it worked better for tall riders like yours truly. My father got me a black Limo frame and fork in early 1987 and I was immediately faster on it. Interestingly enough, however, some riders who were well under six feet tall also were quicker on a Limo.
The entire industry promptly copied the Limo idea. By the end of 1989, everybody sold an “XL” bike. Some frames, like the S&M Holmes and GT Pro XL, were effectively angle-for-angle copies of the Free Agent original. Others had different geometry or tube lengths. Rarely were the changes an improvement.
In 1991, I was writing for Bicycles Today magazine and I was also running my mail-order bike shop, Squidco. In addition to that, I was working a succession of $5/hour temp gigs doing everything from construction-site cleanup to repacking dog food. I dreamed of the days when I would be an adult who worked one 9-5 job and relaxed in the off-hours. (Yes, I’m still dreaming of those days, even as I approach the end of middle age. The joke is on me.) Near the end of the year, I came up with the idea of using some of my bike-shop inventory to do an “XL Frame Comparison Test” for the magazine.
Then, as now, comparison tests at the major BMX rags were deeply suspect and thoroughly corrupt affairs, often determined by the ad department in advance. Some underpaid “pro riders” would be convinced to lend their names to the verdict and there would be a few photos of those kids “gettin’ rad”. Well. Thank God I work in automotive journalism now, where nobody would ever use the name of a pro driver to lend credibility to their ridiculous, advertising-and-PR-related “winners” of comparison tests.
My comparison was different; we used the best guys I could find to ride the bikes but a lot of attention was paid to quality of welding, geometry choices, and other things that we could measure in a less subjective fashion. I can’t remember all the frames we actually tested and I’m too lazy to dig into my archives. The important thing is that two of the frames were:
* The Free Agent Limo
* The GT BMX ProXL “Elite”
The GT bike was, as noted before, a complete copy of the Limo. As such, it shared the Limo’s sterling handling qualities, particularly in mid-air. Which caused me to pen the following line, concerning the GT:
…it’s also the only bike here that could really be considered a jumper, save for the Limo.
Now, do you, my adult and well-educated reader, know what I meant by that? I mean that the GT Elite ProXL was the only bike we tested that was easy to jump, with the exception of the Limo. That made sense because they were basically the same thing.
The test was published, leading to the usual advertiser complaints and small-time drama from various sponsored pro riders who said they would “set me straight” the next time they saw me. None of it really came to anything and I was already working on next month’s article. And that, dear reader, was the end of it.
Until I arrived at the Brookville BMX track late in the following summer for an evening race and I found myself confronted at the “moto boards” by some scruffy-looking eighteen-year-old clad in the de rigueur flannel-and-denim aesthetic that we’d all stolen from Nirvana or vice versa.
“You’re… JACK BARUTH!” he said. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had come to expect something like to this to happen whenever I visited a new track. When it did not, I was secretly upset.
“Yes, it’s me,” I graciously allowed. “What’s your name?” The kid told me all about his life and his riding career and his McJob and his frustrating girlfriend and his Mazda truck and so on and so forth. We talked about the Brookville facility and the various rumors, of foreclosure and expansion and sanction change and asphalt berms and whatnot, that swirl around every BMX track in existence, at all times, from its birth to its inevitable death. Then he said, with a grin,
“And you see what I’m riding, right?” I looked down: it was a brand-new Free Agent Limo, chrome with black stickers.
“A Limo!” I yelped. “Dude! I had one!”
“I KNOW!” he replied. “And I read your test last year about them! And I took your advice!”
“You took my advice?”
“YES, I TOOK YOUR ADVICE! I was all set to buy a GT Elite, but then your article showed up and I read it and I decided to do what you said!”
“Which, um, was?”
“I decided to SAVE FOR THE LIMO! It was $154.95 instead of $139.95 for the GT, so I worked extra shifts for two weeks! I SAVED FOR THE LIMO!” Rarely am I speechless in this world but the moment he said, “SAVE FOR THE LIMO!” my mouth acquired a kind of yokel-esque slack and I found myself temporarily unable to form any words. I considered my two options here.
Option A was to explain to him what I mean by “save for the Limo”. I’d explain the turn of phrase, its historical origins, and its current usage. We would have a laugh and then we’d go ride. It would take twenty minutes, tops. Well, the kid had admitted to me that he’d had trouble passing the written exam to work at the local grocery store. So maybe thirty minutes, tops.
Option B was to say, “Fucking RAD, man!” and go ride my bicycle.
I chose Option B. “Fucking RAD, man!” I said, and we grabbed our helmets for a few practice laps in which I was absolutely and thoroughly smoked by this illiterate man-child whose difficult and semi-literate parsings of my offhand phrasing had caused him to spend several extra hours of his life cleaning up a warehouse.
On the drive home, I tried to understand what the universe was communicating to me with that incident. Was it just this: “Write as simply as possible?” But if that was the case then I might as well give up writing, because I’ve never had Hemingway’s flair with the monosyllabic. Perhaps the lesson was “Write for your audience”. But what about all the times in my own life that I’d found myself inspired to read or learn more about a particular subject because one of my favorite writers had forced me to stretch a little?
The memory of that night remains strong with me, though it was more than half my life ago. And though I never settled on what the Universal message behind it was, I settled for this: “Be careful.” Remember that your readers are real people. That they make real choices based on what you give them to read. That the mere act of reading is, in a sense, an act of trust, and to take what you’ve written seriously is infinitely more so. That you cannot take your readers for granted, and you cannot take anything about them for granted.
It might not be the correct lesson, but it’s one I can live with, and one that I try to pass along to my fellow writers whenever I can. What you write matters. It affects people. And whenever I’m tempted to indulge in a real four-alarm-fire of a literary flourish, I think about my friend, whose name I cannot remember, riding his BMX bike to the warehouse for a long evening of work. Pulling up, clocking in, putting on his gloves. Long, tough night ahead. But he smiles as he casts a glance back to the long chrome frame, the number plate with the state championship sticker on it. Thinking to himself. I’m glad I saved for the Limo.