I saved up my lawn mowing money for a year to get my first Huffy. The Bicentennial version. I got a ton of shit.
“No one’s too stuffy to ride on a Huffy.”
My second was a mono-shock. I thought it looked cool. I was eleven. Eleven-year-olds like complicated-looking bikes.
I rode to Bucklin Park for the last day of cross country practice with the Imperial Valley Suns. It’d been a long season. Sharon, Rosanna, Robert Castillo, Conway, Billy — we’d run close to a thousand miles from late summer to December.
The previous week we competed in a ten-mile race from the College of the Desert to Indio. Somehow I dug deep enough to break my hero Mitch Zinn’s course record. I ran a 1:01:43, but it took a lot out of me. I hadn’t been the same since the race.
I was preternaturally beat. We did our normal warm-up jogging a couple of miles before climbing the Eighth Street Overpass to the canal banks. Night fell early. It was hard finding my footing in the dark.
Back at the park, we said our goodbyes to each other and Coach Pat Barringer and his brother, Mort. I loved my Suns family. I stupidly hadn’t brought a sweatshirt. My own shirt was soaked, so even though it was cold, I peeled it off and tied it around my waist.
Shirtless, exhausted, I unlocked my bike and was riding up Imperial when the front forks snapped. I wasn’t coming off a curb or anything, they were just shit forks. I endoed, hit the ground hard, and must have been out for a minute or so. When I came to, I realized I was bleeding. I’d cut up my face, chest, arms, and legs pretty bad.
I was so tired, I just wanted to lie on the pavement and sleep. A car passed, then another. I forced myself to stand and pulled the two halves of my bike to a service station on the corner of Ross.
I saw a light in the office. A man sitting behind a desk reading a Hustler. He looked old; not old old — probably twenty or so.
He glanced at me and went back to the magazine. The look was so dismissive, I spoke again almost to gauge if what was happening was real.
“What do you want?”
“Can I use your phone to call my parents? My bike broke and… “
My lip started quivering. I knew I looked bad. Couldn’t he see?
“My bike broke.”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
He put his feet on the desk.
I stood there for a beat. I wished I was bigger. I wished I was older. I wished I was stonger. I wished God could turn me into Tommy Hearns for five seconds and I could put my fist through the magazine into his face.
But that's not what God's for.
"You deaf? Get the fuck outta here."
I stumbled out of the office and dragged the pieces of my bike to the sidewalk. Gio Bertussi pulled up in his truck. Mr. Bertussi owned Gio’s Mobile Home Park. My best friend lived there. Probably five of the ten most significant events in my youth happened in that park. The Bertussis were family to me. They took me to San Diego. Talked to me when I was down. Mr. Bertussi and Dutch Gares taught me “pepper” when I was struggling in Little League. The next game, I got a double and both of them stood in the bleachers dancing and cheering.
“What happened to you?”
“My bike broke and I fell.”
“Why didn’t you call your folks?”
“I tried, but…” Water works.
“It’s alright; it’s alright. You tried but ‘what’?”
Through tears, I got out that I asked the guy at the gas station if I could use their phone to call home, but he told me to get out.
“He told you to get out?”
I nodded. “He said the “f” word, too.”
I knew I was dropping a bomb.
Mr. Bertussi went quiet, a heavy quiet. He grabbed my hand.
“Come with me.”
He pulled me into the office and the guy glanced up again but did a double take when he saw an adult with me. He dropped the Hustler to the floor. Even though I could feel the steam coming off of Mr. B., I still remember his initial restraint. The first sentence was measured.
“Did this child ask if he could use the phone?”
Then came the menace.
“Don’t “Ah” me. Are you blind? Can’t you see this child is hurt?”
“You didn’t what? You’re sitting here, looking at a tittie mag- Yeah, I saw it, you pervert, when a child, bloody & hurt asked you for help.”
He'd been so smug when he told me to fuck off, now his lip was quivering.
“Shame on you. SHAME on you. Don’t you dare, ever, ever turn away a child in need. I want you to feel this shame. Do you understand me?”
Mr. Bertussi squeezed my hand hard. He was so angry, it wouldn’t have mattered if he was facing an army.
“I do, sir.”
“Say it. Say you understand me.”
“I understand you, sir.”
He looked so scared, so ashamed, so dirty, so pathetic with his magazine on the floor, I wanted to cheer. This was better than any movie I'd ever seen. It was instant Buford T. Justice.
God didn't turn me into Tommy Hearns, he sent an angel.
Mr. Bertussi put the pieces of my bike in the back of his truck and took me to my house on Sandalwood. He made sure I got in okay and gave me a hug goodbye. He didn’t care he got blood on his shirt.
I hopped in the shower and poured rubbing alcohol all over my body. I couldn’t even feel the sting.
I went to my room, collapsed on the floor, and slept for sixteen hours.
I’m fifty-two-years-old and remember this like yesterday.
What you do as an adult matters - good and bad.
A child never forgets.
Thank you Mr. Bertussi for being there and having my back.
Maybe that man learned a lesson.