1950s: The Zen of Bicycle Riding: Story by Erich von Neff

The Zen of Bicycle Riding

By Erich von Neff

Ricky Tan walked over the creaking gangway leading from the pier to the houseboat. A hand painted sign above the door read, “Frank McCain, Pure Land Zen Buddhist, Lecture Tonight: The Zen of Bicycle Riding.”

Ricky peered through the corner of the window curtain. He saw some flickering candles, some women in leotards and a couple of bearded guys sitting on pillows. What the heck. He may as well go in. As he stepped inside almost in front of him, but a little to his right, was a Chase and Sanborn coffee can on a small table. Someone had written, “Donations,” on a small piece of white paper which was Scotch-taped to the side of the coffee can.

Rickey put a crisp dollar bill in the can. He noted that others had not been so generous. Rickey now sat down on a pillow. The woman next to him tossed her head back and exhaled heavily as if this presence had disturbed her euphoria.

Shortly a redhead in a short skirt made from Levis’ pants entered, made a donation with a coin that clinked against the other coins in the can, and sat down somewhere behind him.

Facing Rickey, just behind a small statue of the Buddha with a small flickering candle in front of his belly was a man seated on several pillows, slightly above the audience. He was wearing an olive green Marine Corps T-shirt and a sarong, a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. This man, Rickey rightfully presumed, was Frank McCain the Pure Land Zen Buddhist.

“Now where was I? Now where was I? Frank McCain began obviously perturbed that Rickey and the redhead had come in late.

“Yes, that’s it.  Christie had asked, “What about my rusty spokes?’ Rust,” Frank said with a laugh, “is the color of Sandra’s hair.” Rickey presumed this was the redhead who had entered just after him, “Rust is beautiful,” Frank advised.

A man in a black sweatshirt raised his hand. “I’m tired of breaking spokes, man.” Frank stoked his chin for a moment then answered thoughtfully, “Replace your spokes. They connect the rim to the hub of life. And besides broken spokes throw the wheel of life out of true.”

Frank McCain smiled knowingly as he continued to speak. “The wheel of life, like the bicycle wheel is one yet made up of many parts. It appears to be many yet it is one.”

Wasn’t this the Greek philosopher Parmenides’* rehashed? Rickey thought.

“What about when my hubs squeak? “ A woman with a soft lilting voice asked.

“Oil your hubs,” Frank McCain answered. “So that the great wheel of Dharma may turn.”

Just then the redhead spoke up, “When I ride the wind blows my hair.”

“Oh, yes,” Frank the Zen Master answered. “Go with the flow. Don’t fight the wind. Somewhere in that wind is a line, like the form of a dragon, snaking its way through the wind.  Your purpose is to find that way. Observe the flight of birds, they do just this.”

Frank McCain clapped his hands together signaling the end of the lecture. “Sake brings blinding enlightenmentm” he laughed. At this point a burly man who looked like he had been a Navy cook carried in a tray full of  whiskey shot glasses each filled with sake.

Rickey reached for the sake.

“Partake my friends. Partake,” Frank McCain said. “Don’t hold back.”

Rickey partook. One sake, then another.

Bang. He could feel enlightenment bursting into his brain. Well lubricated the great wheel of Dharma; turning until…

“Sake is a dollar a shot,” the Navy cook said sternly.


“You heard me.”

Rickey pulled out two dollars. “The donation can is on the way out,” Frank McCain announced in a silky voice.

“Hadn’t he donated on the way in?” Rickey wondered.

“Remember the way in is also the way out,” Frank McCain explained as if reading Rickey’s thoughts.

Rickey donated again.

People filed out slowly. Some were not so generous. Rickey lingered on the gangway, looking over the rail and listening to the water lap against the side of the houseboat.

The sound of the One. The sound of the Many.

“Soothing isn’t it?,”  a sexy voice spoke.

The redhead. He had forgotten about her.
“Well, yes.”

“My houseboat’s the next one over. We could discuss the meaning of it all.”

“Yeah. It was kind a deep.”

Rickey entered the houseboat where he discovered the true meaning of red hair brushing against his face and of two sake breaths that unite and become one.

And now in a more sober mood back into the night. Where was his car? Yes. There near the telephone pole.

He looked again at the sign tacked on it: “Frank McCain has just returned from Japan and is now a Pure Land Zen Buddhist. He is giving a lecture this Friday night on the Zen of Bicycle Riding. Place: His houseboat berthed at Gate Five.”

Shouldn’t he have realized? Rickey thought, that something was not quite right? But who knows? Anyway, he did receive  enlightenment of a sort from the redhead.

Rickey sat in his Buick reflecting.

Even though Frank McCain was no Alan Watts**Rickey had spent two dollars for a lecture and another two dollars for two whiskey shot glasses of sake, maybe, he ought to get something out of this.

Next Sunday at Lake Merced*** Rickey was on the starting line with the Gatto Brothers, Nick Magi, Louie Rondoni, Joe Lauricella,  Jim Arbuckle, and the rest. Joe Canciamilla fired his starters pistol in the air and they were off up a slight hill toward the police rifle range, then around the lake. One lap went by quickly enough and without trouble even though Gussie Gatto refused to take pace. Then into the headwind again.

Headwind. Headwind. What had Frank McCain the Zen master said: “”There is a way through the wind. Find it.” Or something like that.

Rickey could hear the Gatto brothers conversing among themselves in their Sicilian dialect. Although he didn’t know what was being said, he figured that if they and all the members of the “Unione” Sportiva Italiana worked a combine on him, he was finished.

“Two to go,” Joe Canciamilla called out as the pack crossed the start-finish line.

“Two to go.” This reminded Rickey “Two dollars blown on sake and another two on donations and now this blasted headwind again.”

“Wait a minute. Didn’t Frank McCain say something about not fighting the wind. That there is a way through it if we seek it?”

“I may as well try,” Rickey thought. At this he turned left away from Jim Arbuckle, the pack and rode crossways into the wind. Seeking. Seeking. Joe Lauricella, and other riders also sought with oaths and curses to bridge the gap, that Rickey had left.

As Rickey continued seeking and losing ground to the pack, suddenly, instantly like the enlightenment he had received from the redhead. There was a wind within the wind.

He had a tailwind now and shortly he was passing the pack on the far side of road. Without warning this eddy within the wind shifted. Again Rickey sought, and again there was a slice through the wind.

From the “point” of view of the pack however, Rickey was some kind of nut. Riding this way and that, sometimes slowing down but somehow always surging away from the pack.

This went on for almost a lap, then the fickle March wind abated. The pack had begun to gain and gain. Rickey cursed in Tagalog. He sat up in the saddle. A flock of birds flew overheard. He wished he could be like them. A blinding thought now occurred to him. Why not be like the birds? Well, not exactly. Why not take pace from the birds****At least mental pace. He set his mind to concentrating. There he was. There he was. Just like that song “The Ghost Riders in the Sky.” He stayed within the pack of birds, then decided: They trade pace why shouldn’t I? A cyclist trading pace with the birds: Did he dream it? The dream of reality vanished. The flock continued north and Rickey had to turn south with the course.

The pack now gained again. Rickey looked in the sky. Empty. The Gatto brothers laughed and joked among themselves in their Sicilian dialect. The pack would now soon mow Rickey down and he surely would not have enough left to contest the sprint. But they did not count on fate.

At that time, 1952, hawks flew ominously overhead around the environs of Lake Merced. Suddenly a hawk swooped down toward the south end of the lake.

While the fate of one animal was sealed another was on the run. Rickey sprinted after the hawk. Mental pace and an ominous fate for an unknown animal. The hawk alighted now unseen in a clearing amongst the reeds.

“Two hundred meters to go,” Joe Canciamilla shouted. Rickey punched it. Victory. Effort through effervescence, Transcendentalized by a redhead living in a houseboat.

The Gatto brothers, members of the Unione Sportiva Italiana summed it up after cursing in their Sicilian dialect.

“You won kid. You won.”


*Parmenides: Greek Philospher.C. 515 BC

**Alan Watts: Zen Buddhist philosopher and writer who taught in Sausalito

***In San Francisco 1952

****The author actually took mental pace from a flock of low flying birds, 1963.


About the author Erich von Neff

Erich von Neff is a San Francisco Longshoreman. He received his masters degree in philosophy from San Francisco State University and was a graduate research students at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Erich von Neff is well known on the French avant-garde and mainstream literary scenes. he is a member of the Poetes Francais and La Societe des Poetes et Artistes de France.


Fatty Arbuckle’s Nephew Gains a Lap on the Old San Jose Velodrome

by Erich von Neff

[story coming]

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