This afternoon I plan on riding my bike downtown tonight to a meeting at a used bookstore with my writer's group and then maybe hanging out with Elvira and Coraline....or coming home and playing my guitar on the porch. But one by one the writers flake and Alex posts on my Facebook, "Are you riding down for the concert [by the river] tonight?" and I say no, but yes, I will...and I do ride down the hill to the bike path and follow the river to the music. The last free big band concert of the summer and the pavilion is packed. Hundreds of people under the big white tent, many of them ancient, white-haired, slowly walking up from where they parked their Buick Rivieras and their Lincolns on the streets blocks away. Only for this would they venture downtown until after dark. A 22-piece band plays to a full dance floor .... elderly married couples who look like they've lived centuries, women hunched over with osteoporosis -- dowager's hump they used to call it -- and the shrunken men with their bowed legs, socks pulled up high, clean shoes .... but when they dance it's 1942 again and they're so smooth, so sure as they glide and turn with just a touch of his hand on her waist, just enough pressure on her fingers, sexy old people .... of course there are more women than men so some of the men dance with four or five women -- their own wives and their wives friends; they are such gentlemen ... and a younger group, a ballroom dance class, eager, energetic, throwing in an extra hop here and there, laughing when they stumble, trying their new steps along the edge of the dance floor .... and a little boy in a green shirt who dances by himself right in front of the bandstand, arms pumping, legs kicking out to the sides, he is oblivious to everything except the jazzy blare of the horns and the steady bounce of the drums. Someday he might share the dance floor with five widows, but tonight he's a little boogieing bachelor on his own.
As the big band concert winds down, Smooth Jazz texts me and tries to entice me downtown. No, I think I'm going home, I write, but he persists and finally texts "The Century" and I give in. Grogilingus and Steampunk Cynthia say they'll go and Alex and his new girlfriend too. I ride over on the streets, past the old people who won't be back downtown again until next summer unless they've got season tickets to the philharmonic. I arrive at the Century, riding on the sidewalk because I'm going the wrong way on a one-way street, just as Alex and his new girlfriend get there, walk my bike in and Smooth Jazz is already there at the bar with Grogilingus and Steampunk Cynthia, although they don't know they're part of the same group yet. I ask the ZZ Top bartender if it's OK that I bring in my bike and he says, "You can put your bike wherever you want to, sweetheart." And then he makes me one of his tart, pale pink Cosmos filled to the top so I spill it as I carry it to the back .... where we settle at a long table while Cool Jazz puts some old blues on the jukebox. We talk, Thursday night winding down, sharing stories, photos on cell phones, low key, friends from one place getting to know friends from another place .... We don't stay long ... Grog and Cynthia move out first .... then Smooth Jazz ... Finally I leave with Alex and his new girlfriend.
Alex offers to put my bike in his car, but as usual I refuse. The streets are still alive ... too alive maybe. "Walk with us as far as my car," he says. "You know I'm safer on my bike riding 18 mph in the street than I am walking it on this sidewalk with you, right?" I say. "I know," he says, "but walk with us." On the next block a fight has spilled out of a nightclub and into the street. Young men are posturing, pointing at their chests, yelling, rushing each other while their friends pull them apart, and a few young women are circling them, urging them on, yelling, "You see what he did? You see what he did?" The sidewalk is blocked, crowded with people watching as the fight moves into a parking lot. The bouncers watch to make sure it stays off their sidewalk. I slow to watch the fight, but Alex urges me on, "Don't slow down. It's not our business." "I'm not making it our business. I'm just watching like those other people," I say, but he's uncomfortable so I keep up with them, but I'm not afraid here. The crowd parts to let us through, and as we come out the other side a young black man -- well dressed, handsome -- catches my eye and doesn't look away. He frowns slightly and barely shakes his head. He doesn't want to be associated with that mess behind us. I smile a little smile and walk on past to where I say goodbye to Alex and his new girlfriend. I know Alex doesn't want to see me ride off down the street by myself .... and I know he's eager to be alone with his girl. "Text me as soon as you get home," he says. "I will," I say. He wants to know I'm safe, but whether I am or not won't rest on that text.
I put my foot on my pedal and wait for a young woman to pass me. She shouldn't be walking alone on a night with unsettled streets, voices too high pitched..... "Be careful," Alex says. "I always am," I say over my shoulder, pulling into the bike lane, going the right direction on the one-way street. Half a block away I hit a red light and a car full of young black women stops kind of sideways across two lanes. One of them yells, "What you doin' out here?" I look over at her and raise my eyebrows .... "Not you, ma'am," she yells and points to another young woman half a block behind me. I smile and we all take off as the light gives us the go. Two bright green metro buses pass me on the left, the heat pressing against me like a wall .... as we come to the end of the street and take a left turn, one of them ends up on my right and I'm trailing behind the other. I can see my shadow on the back of the bus, bulbous helmet-head, legs pumping, spokes turning. I wish I could take a photo, but pulling my phone out and trying might be one of those dangers Alex is so worried about, so I just follow it through the light and blow by when it stops to pick up a passenger. I pick up speed and ride the outer edge of the bike lane, watching the parked cars for opening doors and the street for sunken manhole covers and large chunks of gravel .... and soon I'm climbing the hill under the interstate to the bridge, crossing the river, lights from the Masonic Temple reflected below me ... and then I'm gearing down for the final big hill up to my neighborhood ... and then I'm home. I listen for Melvin's voice to come from his porch, "Hey, baby. Whatchoo doing? Come over here and have a drink of gin and juice with me...." But he's still out drinking. It's not even midnight yet.
I text Alex, "I'm home" ..... but I was all along, tonight, in this city .... and yet I think, Five years ago I never would have imagined this night, these friends, this me. But, yes ..... for now, I'm home.