Among the things I’ve learned in my years in Chicago: Road tubulars don’t corner all that well on black ice, even tenured classics professors can be fans of professional football, and you simply cannot find a decent madeleine in our fair city.
A few days ago - you’ll remember it, it’s the one where the mercury dipped a few degrees below zero for the first time this year - I decided to head out into the cold, Proust in hand, in one final attempt to locate even a marginal example of this buttery, heavenly pastry. I checked the weather. My phone said “lovely!” and so I fingered up a pair of black 5blings and reached for the door. But my cat was all, “I don’t think so,” and nodded towards the window. There was a bit of frost around the edges, and I could see schoolchildren outside, huddling. They were mittened up, and wearing huge puffy jackets. They looked sad and desperate, hungry, and very cold. “Thanks, homie.” I said to the cat, and grabbed a pair of mittens and a huge puffy jacket.
An hour later, I reached the shop, and then it hit me. All morning something had been bothering me, somewhere in the back of my mind there was a single important task - but it was fuzzy and shapeless, and I simply couldn’t recall. And then there it was before me: a cumbersome and heavy bike box leaning against the far wall, a box which I had promised to deliver to Evanston the previous night.
The ride through the city had been pretty uneventful. I was on a prototype city bike - a steel fixed gear with a rather nice low bottom bracket, room for fat tires, and a very slick integrated front cargo basket. As I had rolled through Pilsen, the aroma of freshly baked tortillas filled my nostrils, and for a moment, I imagined what fun it would be to deliver freshly baked tortillas by bike. And how perfectly a few hundred would stack on this cute, sturdy basket. But a couple hundred tortillas and a full sized bike box are not the same thing. And… I thought to myself, even if I could balance the box on the basket, how could I stabilize it?
It’s been a busy year for this little shop. The move from parks Hyde to Wicker in the spring, while not exactly traumatic, was a bit of a logistical nightmare. Business spiked, so naturally I cut operating hours and began mostly working between midnight and dawn, in order to avoid the hullabaloo. Built a few hundred sick wheels. Glued a couple hundred sick tubulars. And repaired all varieties of flotsam & jetsam along the way. It was then that I took a look at the flotsam & jetsam section of the store. Neatly stacked in a corner, between piled of old Rouleurs and cases of Nutella embrocation, is where I keep my busted tubular carcasses. This year there were so many that I decided to only retain the fancy stuff: Veloflex, FMB, Dugast. And then: a satori.
One of the many regrets I have in life is not sticking it out and making it to Eagle Scout. I made it to Life, or Star, or something like that, and was well on my way to Eagle, when my cycling coach put the kibosh on all that. “Racing is everything.” he said. “Racing is everything.” I said, and so I quit the scouts. If I’m honest, I never really liked being a Boy Scout. Sure, the uniforms were pretty sick. I liked the formality, the hierarchy, the casual hazing of inferiors. But I hated everything else about it. Except for the survival skills. In fact, very early on, I discovered a preternatural skill with knots. I might have made a pretty good sailor. Had I not been preternaturally seasick, even at the mere thought of the ocean.
Eight sick (and rotten) Dugasts and six Alpine butterflies later, I’d secured the box to the basket. “Aight, Playa.” said the cat in my head.
The trip to Evanston ended up being pretty quick and uneventful. The recipient was so thankful that she offered to buy me some coffee as a tip. We walked over to Unicorn for Americanos and vegan muffins. She noticed the Proust in my pocket, and I admitted with embarrassment that it was a translated copy, that I’d never be able to get through the book in the original French. And then, for a moment, things got weird. I don’t even know how this all happened. I don’t even know how I awoke that morning and decided to grab the Proust off of the shelf. Because at that moment, we both realized that here we were, at Unicorn Cafe, with a copy of Remembrance of Things Past between us, a zef fixed gear cargo bike piled high with rotten Dugasts leaning against the window, two delicious Americanos on the table, two half eaten vegan muffins… and her name, awkwardly enough: Madeleine.