MENDIGUREN ELIZEGI, Xabier:
Our neighborhood 1975

Artola

"Artola is here! Artola is here!"

The word spread like wildfire among the boys in the neighborhood: Artola! He was the only hero we knew. We knew where he was from, we knew his house, his parents. We saw him on the street and he looked ordinary, but he had a hidden side; there was something about him that made him special. They said he was a thief, a delinquent, had had run-ins with the police: they put him in jail and he escaped, they put him in jail again and he escaped again, in a spectacular chain of events that was much better than any movie in the theater or on television.

Artola would arrive on a motorcycle and even without asking, we all knew that the bike also was stolen and this made the vehicle even more wonderful. It was fascinating to see the shine of its metal, heady to touch the imitation leather of the seat or the motor, still hot, and dreamy, like stroking the sky, to go for a ride, sitting on the back and holding onto Artola's waist. But that highest pleasure was forbidden for most of us. Jose Andres and Oscar were the only two privileged ones, not because Artola liked them better than us, that much we knew because he treated all of us the same, but because they were Puri's brothers.

Girls... We did not understand why or for what purpose Artola would pay attention to a girl. They didn't know how to play soccer, or ride a bicycle, run fast, or build forts, or climb trees. They didn't know how to do anything; they deserved only our deepest scorn. But Artola - none other than Artola! - all those terms of endearment, all that charm for girls... We didn't understand it, but neither did we condemn it. It was all a mystery to us, true, but we were resigned to its being that way and, though we didn?t understand it, we accepted the mystery, not so much because we were still kids and there were things we didn?t understand, but because it was something that Artola had chosen to do and if he had chosen it, there must have been some reason for it.

And besides, Puri, she wasn't even pretty. We paid no attention to such things but we knew what movie stars looked like and the girls in bikinis in magazine pictures, and Puri didn't look anything like them, not in the least. Jose Andres and Oscar didn?t give a hoot if their sister was pretty or ugly, but because of her they got to go on Artola's motorcycle and have the most fabulous rides. Especially Jose Andres, because he was a year older and more daring and, saying that he had to take care of his little brother, he often forbad him to ride on the motorcycle, and that way got more rides himself. The rides were normally short, not too far out of the neighborhood, quick jaunts on the surrounding highways but it was enough for us that the bike disappeared from our field of vision for that ride to become an expedition to unknown lands. All the more so when Jose Andres came back and we heard what he had to say.

"We went way fast. I even heard a whistling in my ears that got louder and louder the faster we went."

"How fast did you go? How fast?" we always asked eagerly.

"I don't know. I couldn't see the speedometer from the back," Jose Andres would tell us. Then, after a brief and well-calculated silence, he would add, "but I think about a hundred."

"That fast? It couldn't have been that fast!" some disbeliever would ask, but most of us nodded. We wanted to believe it was true, even if that old bike couldn't possibly reach that speed.

"Yes, yes. A hundred at least. And faster on the straight part of the highway. About a hundred and twenty, I think."

"Wow!" An amazed chorus.

Then one of us, speaking for all, would ask, "but weren't you afraid?"

"Well, not very. Only on the curves," he would say, in a perfect portrayal of false modesty, "because we leaned over almost to the ground. And besides, once there was a car suddenly right there, right in front of us and we just barely missed it."

If one day they were just barely missing a car, the next, Jose Andres would tell us they had even scraped it and, to prove this embroidery on the facts, he would show us a scrape on his knee, one that he had certainly gotten the day before or a few days before, falling down while running. But we were always astonished all the same even though we knew he was taking us in, because simply going for a ride on the motorcycle with Artola was the pinnacle of all adventures, one that bestowed permission to invent anything.

From there he went on to describe the attributes and powers of the bike, and the rest of us got to participate in that part too because the world of the motor held no secrets from us. One person would defend the Ducatti, another praised the Lambretta, yet another explained the advantages of the Honda, a fourth would side with the Derby, and the last would clarify the differences between the Ossa and the Montesa. All were dazzling to us - even more so if Artola had stolen them - except the Mobilette. The Mobilette was the motorcycle of the workers in the neighborhood. It was a proletarian motorcycle, used only to go from home to work and from work back home; that is, it was a bike for slavery, not freedom. The best proof of the servant nature of the Mobilette was the pathetic speed it managed or the glass and plastic windshield on the front, which, to our eyes, put the Mobilette not in the same class as other vehicles, but on a par with the farmyard mule. And if it had a small grill on the front or a saddlebag on the back, our hatred of it was all the more because both were used to carry a lunch box to work. For all these reasons, the Mobilette wasn't a motorcycle, it was a piece of shit.

Bicycles

Our only motorcycles ran without gas. We puffed out our cheeks and went "brrrum-brrrum" to start the motor, while pedaling as fast as we could go, imagining that we made it all the way up to those hundred kilometers an hour. On our way to the dream that was the motorcycle, the bicycle was our beloved tool, as much a part of us as John Wayne's horse was of him.

When the Tour began, we set off wildly on our bicycles. Since it was during the holidays, we went outside right after lunch and had long afternoons to ourselves, hot and eternal afternoons far from the eyes of parents and teachers, to play ball or soccer, ride bikes, build forts, play war or marbles or whatever, because the world was wide even without leaving our small neighborhood.

But as soon as the Tour started, our favorite activity was bike races. At night we would find out on television who had won the stage of the day. Finally, of course, it would be Eddy Merckx who won the whole thing. Merckx always won, he was the best, there was no doubt about it, but sometimes there were surprises, the mountain stages, the breakaways...

In any case, what we liked best wasn't seeing those televised reviews. We were active sportsmen and, rather than applauding the feats of the favorites, we preferred trying to imitate them. We took our bikes and rode this way and that, dripping with sweat, without having to go too far beyond the narrow limits of the neighborhood since it in we could ride uphill and down, there were straightaways and curves, and even fields and bogs for those who wanted to do cyclocross.

Once in a while, caught up in the excitement of the previous day's stage in the Tour, instead of our usual crazy comings and goings, we preferred to stage highly regulated races.

"Bike race today," someone would announce.

As soon as we heard the call, we all got to work like an army of ants. One person would call in cyclists riding here and there, another would run home for his bike, someone else would tell the people playing soccer, and someone with an instinct for organization would mark out the starting line with a piece of chalk.

With no greater formality or publicity, about a quarter of an hour later there would be more than a dozen cyclists packed together at the chalk starting line, waiting for the person who had taken on the job of judge to give the starting signal.

"Ready...set...go!"

Sukia was always the first to take off. Most of us had a BH, except for a few who used their fathers' awkward bikes, but Sukia still had the bicycle he had had as a kid, a little red bike, one of those that has training wheels at first. All the rest of us, to start, had to push the pedal with a long and slow stroke from top to bottom. Sukia in the meantime had pedaled three or four quick strokes and he was always the leader in the first breakaway.

There was always someone who, following a greater calling as announcer than as cyclist, stayed behind with the spectators and organizers, brandishing the handle of an umbrella or some other thing as a microphone, and broadcasting the exciting start for all of us with all the emotion and flood of words worthy of the climb up the Alpe d'Huez.

"Sukia in the lead! Sukia is ahead of all the rest and is rapidly advancing toward the turn by the auto body shop. He?s at the turn, he turns to the left and holds the lead. Sukia in the lead at the beginning of the race. A breakaway by Sukia, ladies and gentlemen!"

By then, both cyclists and pedestrians would have arrived already at the corner by the auto body shop to tackle the first difficult part of the race: the hill by Montero's bar.

"Sukia still in the lead as the race now approaches Montero's hill, but wait! Ormazabal is coming up fast. Ormazabal, and behind him, Garcia. Ormazabal passes Sukia and so does Garcia. Ormazabal, ladies and gentlemen! Ormazabal is now the leader in the tough ascent by Montero's!"

Sukia held the title of leader only a short time, to be sure. If the faster ones had caught up with him by Montero's hill, everyone had passed him by the time they had climbed it.

Those races were the only times we crossed the borders of the neighborhood since we went almost as far as the edge of town, all the way to the La Cadena crossroads and back again. The whole race lasted only about twenty minutes, though later even less, about a quarter of an hour, and time was no joke because we measured precisely both the winner's time and how far ahead he was of the rest.

The purpose of that measurement, however, was not so much to spur the competitiveness of the racers as to ensure the participation of those who were not cyclists. There were always some who couldn't participate, at least not directly, because they didn't have a bike or because their brother had taken it or because they didn't know how to ride one. On the other hand, tasks like firing the starting gun or broadcasting the first breakaways, microphone in hand, were only good at the beginning of the race. From then on, the best way of really experiencing the race was to be in charge of the stopwatch.

Nobody had a real stopwatch, but that was what we called it, using the term of sports competitions. At the most, some of us might have a watch with a second hand, but there were differences among them: the second hand on some watches went across the whole clock face, while others had only a tiny second hand on one side. We didn't like the latter much because they made it difficult to determine the differences in the times of the racers. And besides, the second had was so small that only the owner of the watch could see it.

Without a second hand, a watch was useless. Why have a watch if not to see how many seconds of advantage the winner of the race had over second place? So when there was no watch with a second hand, we counted the seconds out loud.


Š Mendiguren Elizegi, Xabier. Gure barrioa 1975 (Our Neighborhood 1975), Elkar, San Sebastian, 1998.

Š Translation: Kristin Addis