Flat bicycle tire brings me into world of Air Hose King

I had four tickets I didn’t want for a baseball game, and the right thing to do was to trade them in for another night.

And because I live just three miles from the stadium, it gave me a reason to get out my bicycle for the first time this spring. I noticed the rear tire was more than a bit spongy, so I filled it with my hand pump.

Just as I reached the ballpark, it was clear that the tire was flat again. After I traded in my tickets, I started walking my bike home.

The first two service stations I passed had air machines that were broken. I was resigned to walking all three miles, but I saw a third station and figured it was worth a try.

As I put the kickstand down and looked at the air machine instructions, I heard a voice, “I hope it works.”

I turned and noticed a guy walking toward me. ”Does it?” I asked him. “Dunno,” he replied.

I reached for my wallet, saw I had a $10 bill in it and knew I would need change. I considered locking my bike before I went into the store, and I was considering whether my new colleague would be insulted. I chose not to.

“I know you from somewheres,” he said. “But I don’t know where.”

“Did you grow up here?” I asked. “Maybe it was high school.” I was half-joking. His face and body gave evidence of a hard life, but he still was at least 20 years younger than me. “I went to LaSalle.”

“So did I,” he said. “Right over on Elwood. Maybe that was it.”

I started past him toward the store entrance when he held out a small box. Inside was a ball the size of a grapefruit. The box said Mini Medicine Ball with a store price tag of $5. “I can sell you this,” he said.

“I just need change for the air,” I said. He put the heavy box in my hand. “Ten dollars,” he said.

Most likely, he had seen what was in my wallet. “Can’t,” I said. “I need change for the air.”

As I handed the box back to him, a young woman stepped between us. “You need to give me a ride,” I think she said. This wasn’t a lucid day for her. She said something about her friend can’t take her, no was one giving her a ride and that we all were going to be responsible if she had to walk and got hit by a car.

“Hey, he’s on a bike,” the Air Hose King said, gesturing with his finger toward his brain. “With a flat tire,” I added. We stood there at a loss for how to proceed.

“Here’s the deal,” I finally said. “I’ll go see if the air machine works. If it does, I’ll get change and be right back. If it doesn’t, I guess I’m walking.”

The Air Hose King didn’t look happy. “If I win,” I assured him, “we’ll both win. But I’m not buying the ball.”

The store’s cashier gave me change for the $10 bill but only after I picked up a can of Pepsi. The change he gave me was a $5 bill, three ones and five quarters. Wow, I thought, just 75 cents for a can of pop.

The reason I only had $10 was that I had spent $40 in the concession area at the golf course three hours earlier. I bought six beers for $5 apiece, handed the cashier there two $20 bills and told her to keep the change.

When I got back to the air machine, I put a quarter in the slot. “Boom,” I said. Three more quarters – “boom, boom, boom.” And miraculously, the compressor roared to life.

The Air Hose King grabbed the hose and started filling my bicycle tire. “I can do that,” I said. 

“No, it’s me,” he said.

When my tire was full, he asked if I needed air in the front, and I said, “No.”

Before I raised the kickstand, I reached in my pocket and handed him two $1 bills. “Are we good?” I asked him. “You can keep the Pepsi.”

“I don’t drink that stuff,” he said. The slurring woman reached in front of him, took the Pepsi and walked it over to a woman in a van. The driver then backed the van past me so the Air Hose King could fill a back tire that was almost flat. They seemed to know each other.

“Are we good?” I asked again. “Yeah,” he said, still without a buyer for his Mini Medicine Ball.

As I rode away, I thought of Niagara Falls. When my family visited there many years ago, I was having trouble sleeping so I walked from our motel down to the falls. As I stood there, fascinated in the dark, it occurred to me how water crashed over the rocks day and night, week after week, year after year.

And I’m only there once.