Joining the Bicyclette Gang

Somehow, it just happened. Sooner or later, when you reached a certain age—usually thirteen or fourteen—you found yourself, as a Parisian street rat, just “joining up” with one of the throngs. It’s not as though it was difficult to achieve. There was no shortage of bicyclette “assemblages” to choose from. All one needed to do was turn down any major thoroughfare and voilà, a herd of boys just dying to be dead… at least by the looks of how they were riding. Standing up fully on the seat of the bicycle, lifting the front wheel of the bike as high as possible for a protracted period, playing chicken with a bus. 

Alexandre couldn’t even count anymore how many times he had almost seen a youth of Paris nearly splatted into oblivion by an equally as oblivious bus. RATP concerns itself not with your presence, nor is it impressed by your twee tricks. But these boys, in all their jejune bravado—of the variety that can only come with being an adolescent male—were nonetheless convinced that they were gods: impenetrable, immortal, untouchable. Alexandre had also felt that way once, years ago. It felt like another lifetime now, and he supposed it was. 

He had been part of his own bicyclette gang. In fact, he was the ringleader of it. Their route was known for going up Avenue de l’Opéra to cause their “stir.” A word that, to Alexandre, sounded decidedly like something only an easily scandalized old person would use to describe the “gang.” But it wasn’t a gang, per se. Not really. Looking back, Alexandre, having barely made it out of his bicycling folly days alive, could see that all of these boys who had managed to find one another and congregate en masse to terrorize (that word used merely because all adults feel “terrorized” by seeing displays of pure, unbridled freedom—so anathema is it to them) the streets were really just doing it to test limits. 

Every “youthful person,” in truth, was doing that in some way or another. It was simply a matter of how they chose to push the proverbial boundaries that society thrusts upon you from the moment you’re cognizant. Alexandre might have chosen any number of “outlets.” Huffing glue, smoking crack, shoplifting… the bicyclette option, however, was what “fell into his lap” first. At age twelve, his father would gift him a bike for Christmas. Almost as though an unspoken final token of his affection before he abandoned the family in January. Off to live somewhere with a younger woman he had been seeing behind Mother’s back for a few years. Obviously, that new woman wanted nothing to do with Gustav’s “old” family. A.k.a. his original and true one. But no matter, Alexandre didn’t need a father. He didn’t need anyone. All he needed was the bike. And as he took to the streets more and more on it, he honed his skills, doing all the things he would see other older boys do, and thought himself incapable of doing until he kept persisting. Falling down, getting bruised in order to “succeed.” At what, he couldn’t say, but there must have been something attractive about him to others, for he found himself slowly becoming the leader of the pack, the pied piper of the misfits and the “loose ends.” The boys, in essence, who had nowhere to go and no one to truly care for them. 

Reminiscing back on those days every now and again, particularly when he encountered a bicyclette gang on one of the many Parisian boulevards, he would also inevitably think of André. Alexandre had made the fatal mistake of getting too close with him, one of his fellow “gang members.” Sure, they were a “band of brothers,” but nobody was so naïve as to actually let something like “friendship” cloud the true meaning behind what they were doing: “fucking shit up,” being reckless just for the sake of it. Because they knew that they could, and nobody would have the balls to stop them. André was two years younger than Alexandre when the accident occurred. Which would have put him at just thirteen years old. Sooner or later, a casualty was bound to happen, after all. It was only after he watched the gut-ridden remains of his friend being scraped off the pavement that he decided to stop. “Clean up his act,” as it were, and give up biking altogether. The others called him a lâche for being so readily rattled by André’s death. They tried to tell him it was just because André wasn’t as adept in the “art” as they were. As Alexandre was. Emphasis on the was, these days. 

Now approaching thirty, Alexandre mused back on that brief blip in his youth, wondering how it was that he had ever gotten out in one piece. And, more worryingly, what had really been the point of “escaping” his alternate fate: an early death. For what no “grown-up” wanted to admit was that you’re condemned to die after around twenty-two anyway, when “school age” is finished and you’re expected to ease “effortlessly” into adulthood as though into a coma. Maybe André had ultimately been spared from a “destiny” far worse: terminal boredom, reticent resignation. 

So when he found himself walking down Avenue de l’Opéra one Friday evening after work at the same time as a bicyclette gang was barreling down the street like a horde of tribal warriors from some forgotten time and land, he quickly discovered, to his surprise, that in contrast to the other indignant reactions around him (especially as, comme toujours, one of the boys almost got run over head-on by a bus), he shed a tear. And that tear soon transcended into full-blown weeping. Not that anyone noticed. Even so, he ducked beneath some ornate awning to compose himself, not sure if he was weeping over the flashbacks to all the times he, too, might have been steamrolled or over the fact that this is what he had become instead. 

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