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LoveFound: The Bicycle

Written by on February 24, 2023

“LoveFound” highlights stories about Chicagoans finding love, in all its forms.

“LoveFound” brings you stories from our listeners, telling their real-life experiences of finding love, and the role Chicago played. When we say “love,” we mean love in all the ways it shows up in our lives — not just romantic love. “LoveFound” focuses on sharing stories of what it means to experience love in its expansive nature, and how love can come from the most unexpected places. 

This week for “LoveFound,” Vocalo’s audio and community storytelling producer Ari Mejia produced an audio essay from listener Carmen as she tells the story of how biking in Chicago led her to find herself, her love of Chicago and so much more.

Artwork for “LoveFound” by Ivan Vazquez for Vocalo.

Ariel Mejia: This is Vocalo Radio, I’m Ari Mejia, host and producer of “LoveFound”: Chicago stories about finding love, in all its forms.

I’m a Chicago native. I grew up on the north side, but I’ve lived all over. When I was 19, I moved to McKinley Park, into a four-bedroom apartment occupied by artists and musicians in their 20s. In this apartment, at 33rd and Western, I lived with a guy named Paul. Paul was a DJ, and, a bike mechanic. Paul and I became friends, and through that, he showed me the magic of getting around the city by bike. I say “magic,” because that is kind of what it feels like. You feel like you’re flying through neighborhoods, you don’t have to wait for a bus or a train, sitting in traffic is a never, and you’re outside — which, to me, is always a gift.

I grew up riding bikes with my dad, in the forest preserves on the northwest side and in Oak Park where we lived, but never had I ever rode around as a way of commuting. Paul changed my life. Biking in Chicago created a new kind of love that, as a native, it was the gift of an  exploration into Chicago, our city, that never ceases to bloom and reveal more and more to love.  This piece today illustrates that particular brand of magic, and romance, with Chicago.

Here is Carmen, with her Chicago bicycle love story.

Carmen: How I learned to love riding bikes, love bikes, love biking… because of Chicago. It is everything, biking in Chicago. Biking, you come to me when I am young and lonely and bored and broke. I’ve tried you a few times; hauled a heavy cruiser off Metra to ride to the movies, and huffing and puffing over the 18th Street bridge at 21. And then: the beauty that is a single-speed Schwinn, a daughter of Chicago, for Chicago. A pretty blue with a flip-flop hub conversion, so I never learn how to worry about gears. 

There is no love of bikes in my life without Chicago. No way. Nothing that has cluttered in and taken over — no BMX at the Big Marsh dirt jumps, no West Coast elevation, long adventures in the Badlands or the Blue Ridge. No racing, no centuries, no driftless dirt roads, no alleycats. Chicago is what makes it. It starts at 22, when I’m young and learning about this incredible grid. First, it’s to the lake, and then it’s more, and then it’s Indiana. Then I’m learning you can get to 103rd. Then I know where the Port is, and the buried missiles, the fact you can go into the 100s on your bike, across state lines. I learn, hard and fast and sweet, to attack train tracks head-on. I’ve been cruising for a bruising, but certainly not flat on Cermak Road in the shadow of a coal plant. 

Photos courtesy of Carmen Aiken.

How vast and sweet and deep and cruel Chicago is, I only learn by bike. I only learn about how I hold fast to my bike, because Chicago lets me do so. I’m on my way to Milwaukee, I’m hauling it up the Pink Line stairs, I’m at Critical Mass. I meet sweeties on the Empty Bottle dance floor after riding down Western in low tops and a dress. We take over the Western overpass and slam into the Bottom Lounge at Halloween Critical Mass, where I almost eat it, but leap back aboard my bike to cheers from all my friends, none of my friends, the rowdy and ragged of being 25 years old. 

I miss you, biking in the city. I’m thrilled it’s safer, I’m thrilled it’s more robust. But something about getting off my swing shift at Washington and Wells and jumping on my sweet Schwinn, hauling tail into the lane straight out of the Loop, between cars, in my boots or cutoffs or anything I wanted. I’m blasting music on my headphones. I am fast as hell. 

One night, we’re riding through Finkl, before it got razed, before it was waiting for condos and the rich. Flame pouring out of its mouth at 11 p.m. on a Friday, coming back from Diversey Lake Beers. B is still alive then. My chain slips, and we make our way into Wicker, where we kiss. Where I want to remain friends forever. Where I would, but he dies. Where, one day, we all go back to Diversey, deep in a blizzard. And so much love between all of us that we make it, and pour our beer into the lake, scream, cry. 

And I keep riding. I outride awful partners, a rape. I outride blackouts through UIC because I’m so sad and broken. I haul tail on my fixie, I meet everyone at bike shops. I make art, I mourn the dead and I love so much the living. I wake up at 2 a.m. to make sure 20,000 people can see a sunrise on their pedals on Lake Shore Drive. It is worth it every year. 

Photo courtesy of Carmen Aiken.

Oh, my bike. Oh, biking. Oh, Chicago, where I came to love biking, for better or worse. I know people grouse, and cry, and yell. But, god, you’re a great town on two wheels. And I’m gonna yell that, until the cows come home. Things could always be better. But there’s no other town like you. And what a place to keep realizing — my legs pumping, my eyes open — everything I still have to discover, the places to see, the people to love. I will defend you to the death, riding in Chicago. We don’t need them, anyway. Be mine, be mine forever. 

AM: This piece was produced by me, Ari Mejia, and written by Carmen Aiken. Associate producer of “LoveFound” is Joshua X. Miller. To find this story and others, go to Vocalo.org.

Hear more stories of “LoveFound” here.

Produced by Ari Mejia

Audio essay by Carmen Aiken

Written introduction by Ari Mejia and assistant producer Joshua X. Miller

Editorial support from Ayana Contreras and Mara Lazer

Transcription, editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Illustration by Ivan Vazquez.

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