Got my hand on your grease gun,
Ooh, it’s like a disease, son.
— Queen, “I’m in Love with My Car”
For the first time in my life, last week, vicariously and briefly, I owned an expensive consumer durable. This is profoundly out of character. I can’t be bothered myself, and Lisa is usually legendarily tight; the local deli guys are still laughing about the time they crazy-glued a quarter to the floor and she tried to pick it up. But she was feeling flush, with her tax refund in hand — the IRS kindly sends you all that free money in May — and she needed a new bicycle, so out she went to shop, and home she came bearing a Giant Prodigy DX, in Aspen Silver. Now this is one flash bike. No boring old wheel spokes for the Prodigy DX, just an inner aluminum frame. Disc brakes. Built-in front and rear lights. A computer that tracks your speed, mileage, and probably heart rate and bad-cholesterol count, although we never managed to figure out its finer points. Cantilevered body, like a Nike swoosh. Adjustable shock absorbers, allowing the rider to control, with precision, the amount of internal bleeding he sustains when he rides over a pothole. Retails for $1649, which our local bike merchant knocked down to $1200, special deal just for us.
Lisa rides the Prodigy home, and hauls it up the stairs to our third-floor walkup, not without difficulty. The bike weighs more than 30 pounds. The handlebars have the approximate wingspan of a California condor, and the cantilevered frame is a lot more fun to look at than to try to carry. We park it in the living room and admire it for a while. Finally she agrees to let me take it out for a spin. If you set the shock absorbers so you don’t feel the bumps the bicycle gives the strange sensation of being about to break in two. If you set them normally, then you feel the bumps. Still, it’s a pleasant, stately ride, the cycling equivalent of an expensive SUV.
Not twelve hundred bones worth of ride, but who cares? The raison d’etre of the Prodigy is to display it before an adoring public. I parked it in front of a line for the Staten Island Ferry. As the attendant came over and asked me, obsequiously, what I paid for the bike; as a hipster child strolled by, muttering “nice bike” out of the side of his mouth; as the tourists in line stared and elbowed each other in the ribs and stared again — then I understood, for the first time, rappers and their bling-bling and dork-knobbed* men and their Lamborghinis. You’re King of the Ghetto, Prince of the Streets. Soon you begin to resent the people who walk by without a second glance. Look at my bike dammit! Can’t you appreciate beauty when you see it?
There remained the small matter of hanging the Prodigy on the wall; we live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and cannot afford to leave it in the middle of the living room like sculpture. Lisa, who is extremely handy, nonetheless concluded, an hour and five gaping holes in the drywall later, that the Prodigy is so oddly balanced that it cannot be hung horizontally with any commercially available bike rack. Possibly it could be hung vertically, by the front wheel, but we don’t have the space for that.
If only I had read The Theory of the Leisure Class with more attention. What Veblen says about churches applies just as well to fancy bicycles:
…the sanctuary and the sacred apparatus are so contrived as not to enhance the comfort or fullness of life of the vicarious consumer, or at any rate not to convey the impression that the end of their consumption is the consumer’s comfort. For the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place.
The inconvenience is an indispensable part of the program. You’re supposed to employ servants to manage these sorts of goods. I looked at Lisa. Lisa looked at me. We shook our heads sadly, in silent agreement that we were not cut out for the leisure class. We lack the wall space.
The protests of our bike dealer were in vain. Back went the Prodigy DX, to be replaced by a practical Stumpjumper, which rides better, is about 20 pounds lighter, has a crossbar for easy carrying, hangs on the wall just the way you’d expect, and is cheaper into the bargain. Lisa and I hereby abdicate as King and Queen of the Ghetto. We shall pass our remaining days in equanimity, without envious stares at our possessions. The old joke about Jaguars turns out to be true: the two happiest days of your life are the day you buy it and the day you finally you get rid of it.
*Dork-knob, n. A pony-tail on a man who’s losing his hair.