Thoreau wrote Walden to answer the question, “How much does it cost to live?” Is there one of us who does not thirst for a simpler life? We look back to Thoreau’s time with nostalgic yearning; yet Thoreau discovered that farm families labored their whole lives for their cows.
I have done my share of yearning. At fifty-five, I look back on a life so complicated that had I set out to make things hard for myself, I couldn’t have done a better job. Is there anyone who feels differently?
This year, by accident and against my wishes, I happened onto the utter simplicity for which I have always yearned. Trouble and loss opened under me like an earthquake: my wife died, my business collapsed, my house was sold. I clutched to my possessions like a beggar to his bowl; even my automobile, that last vestige of respectability in American life, had to go. But good health, a simple life, and happiness were the unexpected results. After six months, I’m only beginning to understand how this happened.
The centerpiece of this unexpected transformation was a fifty-dollar bicycle.
Two years ago, a friend of mine sold his car, bought a “mountain bike,” and has been extolling the joys and savings of a car-free existence ever since. He became obnoxious in his zealous exhortations to convert everyone he knew. He found no takers.
Until the Gulf War. For everyone but George Bush, the connection between oil and war became apparent. During the months of mobilization preceding the fighting, I found myself desiring a less bloodthirsty diet, a way of life that made me less a part of a system geared for war. My bike-riding friend increased his irritating sermons.
Meanwhile, the country was in a recession, the worst and most tenacious since the 1930s, one brought about largely by our profligate lifestyle. Both individually and as a country, we embraced lavish expenditures for anything that caught our fancy; we believed such expenditures necessary for the good life. So what if Reagan’s economics left nothing but war and debt and death for the rest of the world?
The publishing industry has been hit hard by the 1990s depression, and my little business was no exception. Not only did we spend more than we had, we began to rely on the public dole — the National Endowment for the Arts, local arts council grants — to bail us out at a time when they were no longer willing or able to. Support for the arts isn’t part of the New World Order.
In 1990, thirty-two years of marriage to a wise and virtuous woman ended with my wife’s death. Then, my ten-year-old car broke down, and I couldn’t afford to fix it. The insurance rates on my home rose so high I had to sell my house. My credit card was at its limit, and all my other lines of credit were depleted. There hasn’t been any money in the bank for some time.
Everything I had relied upon, from my car to my wife, was dissolving. When there was nothing left, I had to rely on myself. Self-reliance had occurred to me before, but it looked too hard, too unused, too odd, too out of step with what I observed around me. Self-reliance was merely a buzzword, like nonviolent.
By this time the war over unrenewable natural resources and for bragging rights to number one required daily demonstrations. Then, my friend Susan showed up at our peace vigil with a bicycle. She explained that an acquaintance of hers had bought it new five years ago but seldom rode it. I could have it for fifty dollars. I could try it out for a month and pay her later.
I had never ridden an English racer, a twelve-speed with curved-horn handlebars, a high, hard seat, complicated gears, and straps on the pedals. That first day I rode four hours in one low gear; Susan had tightened the water bottle against the gear cables. I took my new acquisition in for a twenty-dollar tuneup. I bought a forty-dollar helmet and, with a twinge of embarrassment, a pair of professional-looking gloves. I’ve since discovered that these save your hands if there’s a fall. Susan had given me a pump. Ken, the fanatic bike-riding friend, installed self-generating lights. A yard sale unearthed a carrying rack.
Now I go around town hassling people with tales of my biking prowess. I pedal everywhere and bore everybody. When it rains, I get wet. Stashes of dry clothes are stored in homes in strategic corners of the city. I’ve written a dozen poems about my conversion. Sunday, I went to a picnic with a ten-gallon container of tea balanced on my bike rack, then played seven volleyball games and outlasted all these svelte young women and weight-lifting men half my age. You see how it is.
I found a job working twenty hours a week as a receptionist in a women’s center. It’s only five dollars an hour, but the work is meaningful, the company pleasant, and it’s easy on a man growing old. There’s a bedroom on the premises, and I share the bathroom and kitchen. This bedroom is only six-by-twenty-feet — the house I sold is 2,700 square feet — but it holds everything I need to dress, sleep, and read, or to write an article like this. There’s a telephone and a typewriter at the reception desk (but I spend most of my time in the kitchen, cooking for everyone). In return for free rent and utilities, I work an additional ten hours a week.
I’ve turned into a bit of a miser. My ledger for October 1991 indicates I spent $281.75. But I earned more than $415. My biggest expense is food, but my new garden helps.
Unexpectedly, my bicycle has turned out to be an enjoyable toy as well as a practical transport. I invent minor excursions so I can play with my bike. I call her Barbara and have grown fond of her in a bachelor sort of way. Barbara bears almost everything that must be carried and hasn’t dropped me or cost me any money in six months.
It goes without saying that a bicycle saves you the strain and cost of a car. But there have been a few unexpected benefits, too. The bicycle has made me health conscious; I’m careful about what I eat for the first time in my life. A car can be soporific, but I am eternally vigilant riding my bicycle. I am careful about how I dress, and I pay attention to the day, the weather, and my environment. Hills, wind, and chill elicit awareness. I’m also more conscious of squandered energy, the labor that goes into things, and what is truly essential to life.
Perhaps because it is so devastating an expenditure, so unbalanced and aggressive, a car informs a profligate lifestyle. But a bicycle is such a bargain, so minimal an expense for such maximum gain, that it invites you to narrow your willingness to spend. I no longer use a credit card, and I have abandoned the conspicuous consumerism that once characterized my living. I expect to be declared seriously un-American soon.
Today I live a simple life on two wheels, some ball bearings, and a few gears. This morning I wrote a poem:
Here is my bedroom. Here is my chest of drawers and my bookcase. Here is my little desk and my chair. Here is my lamp. Here is my bicycle. Here is my poem.