My bicycle died the other night. It did not go quietly. It screamed out its death throes through the crowded streets of Tokyo and all the way through Tama Cemetery before giving up the ghost.
My daughter, Elsa, was spared the gruesome symphony. She had biked on home alone, earlier in the evening, and I followed later. As soon as I started off, the moaning began. Every time I pedaled forward… creak, creak, creak. I thought perhaps that the chain and gears had gotten rusty by being out in the rain. Just gotta loosen the bike up a little. I pedaled faster. The screeching got louder. Pedestrians turned to stare.
When I stopped pedaling and merely coasted along, the grinding stopped. At least I could control the cacophony to a certain extent. I coasted past a clump of commuters waiting at the bus stop. Blissful silence. But I was losing momentum and soon had to pedal again.
The squealing, grinding sound started in again, louder than ever. It was the loudest sound that I had ever produced on the polite streets of Tokyo. It echoed off the buildings and drowned out the sound of the busses and cars. It was louder than those obnoxious sound trucks that roll through the streets before every election, prompting plots in my rattled brain that involve rocket launchers and explosives. But now, I was the obvious source of the noise pollution. By the dark looks that I was getting, I’m sure that more than a few were hatching plots of their own.
I coasted past some fellow bikers. I didn’t want to cause an accident. It is rather difficult to steer a bike when both of your hands are desperately clapped over your ears. I wanted to plug my own ears, but then I would have to stop and at that point, I wouldn’t be noisy, so what use would that be?
I squealed sheepishly into a bike shop and stopped behind the proprieter who was watching TV. “Sumimasen… excuse me…” He turned to look at the gaijin, the foreigner. I explained the problem in the best Japanese I could muster, and then demonstrated the horrible noise. He knew exactly what had happened and reckoned that the cost of overhauling the bearings in the pedal crank would not be worth the cost considering the general condition of my poor old bike.
“It will eventually just freeze up, you know,” he counseled. “You won’t be able to turn the pedals.” “So, I’m about 20 minutes from home still,” I told him. “Do you think I’ll make it?” “Probably… maybe,” he said, trying to sound hopeful. I got back on the bike and continued to screech through the streets.
“Just let me make it to the bottom of our street,” I prayed quietly, “then I’ll get off and walk so as not to disturb the neighbors.” It was a relief to finally make it to the wide, empty, dark roads of Tama Cemetery, one of the largest graveyards in Tokyo. The raucous scraping sounded even louder with no other noises with which to compare decibels. It was loud… yes, I couldn’t help but think it… loud enough to wake the dead. Fortunately, most of the grave sites there are inhabited by ashes which might only be disturbed by a strong wind, and not merely a loud sound.
I made it to the other side and the quiet of the stones, lanterns and long wooden prayer sticks closed up behind me, thankful to be rid of my racket, I am sure. I few more turns of the pedal and I would stop at the bottom of the short hill. Sure enough, on the last possible stroke of the pedal, the bearings seized up and would not move. I coasted to a stop and rolled my bike to its resting place. It has been there, leaning against the wall ever since. Maybe I’ll bury it in the cemetery.