Rick worked part-time at Villa Santa Maria; he stopped by on weekends and played baseball with us boys. He impressed me one day with his ability to fix any bike, however broken, rusted, or in general disrepair. We hung out in the Shop, our affectionate name for the tool shed where each boy stored the bike he brought from home. I asked him to fix the brakes on mine one afternoon. Joe Ibarra was there. So was Tyler the Runaway. They rummaged through boxes of parts and joked about putting a pink seat on my bike.
Instead of reaching his long, soft fingers along the brake cable to show me what might be wrong, Rick pointed at the lever, invited me to do the same. Said, look at what you have. The lever, the cables, the brakes themselves. What do they do?
I pulled the lever on the handlebar; it retracted the cable, and the brake pads pushed against the wheel’s rim. I explained what I saw to him like an 8-year-old trying to impress an adult. Big words where they didn’t belong. He chuckled kindly. Everything he did was kind. In a residential treatment center for boys ages eight to fourteen, Rick showed up after the homework was finished and before the evening’s activities tired us into conflict. He was my pal; a confidant and friend, he didn’t hold me accountable like my assigned counselor, Nikki, though I would have preferred it.
Rick asked me if I understood the bicycle’s brake system. I looked at his funny white tennis cap, then down. I wanted to leave, to joke with Tyler and Joe about nothing. I wanted to be anywhere but there. My eyes welled with tears. Nearly melting into a puddle, I said, no. I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. This is stupid.
Blurry eyed, I felt his hand squeezing my shoulder. It’s okay, he said, look. And he pointed once again to the plastic lever, and to the brake pads. When you do something over here, he said simply, it affects this other thing. Like life, but easier. I smiled, my cheeks red. The trick is, he said, when you do something, to get the results you want. Got it?
I nodded. But can’t you fix it?
It’s not my bike, he said. You’re the only one who can fix it. But you have to understand the problem first. What’s wrong with it?
I walked the bike outside and pulled the brake lever. The cable pulled with it, the pads squeezed the rim, the wheel stopped. Nothing, I said.
Rick smiled and said, then go ride.
I dream about Rick sometimes. His kindness, a trait I seldom witnessed back then, modelled for me something I didn’t know how to embody. He didn’t stick around that long. Or I didn’t. He told me once that he was in college, for what I don’t remember. I remember his dark hair and widow’s peak and greying beard. He must have been in his thirties, at least.
That was 1995, eighteen years ago.
For me he was a monumental blip, a one-page angel in a sad flipbook. I barely recall the sound of his voice, yet seem to know the devastating consequences that might have occurred had he never spoken to me, or not been assigned to my group of troublemakers during those few weekends in spring. Or was it summer? I admired him like few men I knew knew how to accept, wanted the best for him.
I felt at eight the sensation of the traveller in me at 26 when I experience the energy of someone I’d like to spend time with, to learn from, and the visceral emptiness of thinking, we’re not in this for long. I’m going to get whisked away from this place by wonderful and caring foster parents (or a midnight train headed for the Mediterranean coast), and you’re going to graduate college and be a social worker or something. I’ll be one kid in your rolodex of hundreds you’ll affect. And, good for them. They need you.
At the time, I didn’t know how to articulate gratitude. Now I do.
Thank you, Rick.