Let’s say it’s 1982, and we’re in a small town in Minnesota, where we find a kid who rides his bike every day. He rides to the park, he rides to his baseball games, he rides to the library, and he even rides to school when he can. One day, he randomly decides he’ll bicycle with a helmet on (perhaps he likes the look of it, perhaps he read in a medical journal that it was a good idea, whatever…), and off he goes.
He’s feeling pretty good about himself, riding along, and it doesn’t even occur to him that the day’s ride is a rare-if-not-pioneering event because kids just don’t wear helmets in small towns in 1982. He becomes aware of what he’s doing when, with his helmet on, he rides past some other kids, and because kids in small towns in 1982 don’t wear helmets, he is teased so much while within earshot that the kid removes the helmet and flings it in the nearest hedge.
The incident scars this boy for many years because the other kids feel obligated to give him a nickname in honor of that day: “HelmetBoy.” Because kids are persistent when they think something is funny, the name sticks.
Well into high school, classmates continue to use the nickname, and eventually, they use it reflexively, without even thinking, many never knowing the nickname’s origins. He even starts answering to the name without getting mad because that’s all anyone ever calls him, even his parents. He can’t unload the unfortunate name until he leaves his boyhood home and arrives at college. Like the letter jacket, the name HelmetBoy finally gets put away and forgotten.
Let’s say it’s the present day, 25 years after the boy became HelmetBoy, and gas is in the $3.30-range. The world is melting because we burn too much oil. That same boy, now a man, has never lost his love of the bicycle, despite the painful memories and the long-time moniker he put behind him. He bikes to work every day of the week when it’s warm enough, and he always wears a helmet, just like many others.
People might raise an eyebrow when he tells them how he gets to work because they are only beginning to imagine that driving less might be a good idea in this day and age, but he won’t be berated or belittled. People won’t call him HelmetBoy. In fact, people don’t say it, but they admire this boy, now a man, and wish that they could do what he does. Because times have changed, he is a pariah no more.
Lately, I find myself trying to be more like the HelmetBoys of the world, who I don’t really know but are definitely out there, by commuting to work on my bike. It’s a new way of thinking and doing for me, no doubt, so I’m easing into it. I haven’t completely abandoned my car, but biking has virtually no downside. I get the exercise that I complain I never have the time for. I save money at the pump. The environment is happier. Once I get used to the patterns and routines of biking every day, because there are so many benefits, I may never go back. This is what I keep telling myself for motivation.
But there are some obstacles to an all-bike commute for me, not the least of which is the childish yet ever-present fear of being made fun of as if I was a kid on a bike in 1982. At least I can admit that I am a grown man afraid of being called names, but I am otherwise weak and unable to convince myself I don’t care about maintaining a minimum level of cool. For years I made fun of people with bike helmets because I never wore one as a kid, and now I must become HelmetBoy to save the earth for my children? This is some sort of karmic retribution – no one else may think I look dumb, but I will think it.
Logistics are part of it too. How do you deal with the shower/don’t shower/there is no shower only deodorant issue, carrying clothes to work, sporty vs. business casual footwear, bringing a lunch, lugging the laptop around (or not), leaving earlier, storing and locking the bike, and meetings outside the office, etc.? Most of this is pretty easy to work out, but it causes me stress because overcoming each issue usually leads back to my desire not to look stupid (i.e. being seen with your bike or in bike clothes draws attention, because it simply feels out of place). Although I’d prefer it, I guess you can’t save the environment and fly under the radar at the same time.
Obviously I need to get over this what-kind-of-man-needs-a-bike-helmet mentality if I’m going to make this biking commuting thing happen. I guess I could go without the helmet, but is that really an option with the maniacs on the road these days? What I need is some motivation, a merit badge, a support group, or some sort of riding club to spur me on.
Yes, that’s it. I need a group of others to reassure me that I don’t look dorky on a bike, or that I don’t look any dorkier than they do. I need reassurance that the biking is virtuous and my appearance is secondary. Of course this group needs a name, something iconic and memorable, something intriguing and mysterious, you know, so we can feel that minimum cool. And we need a leader, even if he doesn’t really exist…
So I say let us resurrect your buried name, oh HelmetBoy, as a badge of honor, as one who will lead the HelmetBoys and HelmetGirls out of oil dependency and into a new era of environmental commuting, thereby saving our community, our country, our planet. Be a shining symbol to all of us in spandex shorts, rain-repellent windbreakers and gloves with no fingers.
Be our inspiration when we’re cold, or windblown, or when we just feel like sitting on our butts and listening to drive time radio in a traffic jam. Be our rock when we see the businessman in the BMW smirk at our choice of transportation. HelmetBoy, take back thy name, lead us out of our fear, and take your rightful place as our hero!
The Head Fake is featured regularly on www.readthebridge.info and every month in the print edition of The Bridge. You can email Jay Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his web site at www.theheadfake.com.