A good set of wheels


THE DAY of recognition came when I realized my salary was not enough to fix my flat tire. It was my first job. I was 13 and making $2.50 a week. My bicycle was the love of my life and my transportation.

When the back tire went flat, a week's salary could not fix it. My self-sufficiency went flat also. I had to ask my parents for money to fix the tire. That's when my mother stepped in with her ever-present assertiveness, something she failed to pass on to me.

"Dr. Adams should know better than that," she bellowed. "After all the time you spend up there at the office cleaning up and running errands, you deserve more than $2.50!"

The doctor knew the family. My aunt had worked for him as a receptionist, and he had treated many of us. He was a tall, handsome black man with a complexion so smooth it seemed he had never had a blemish or scar. After my mother called him and hassled him about my barely existent salary, he announced on my next day at work that I was getting a raise to $5 a week.

I started dreaming of what I could do with five whole dollars. My beloved bicycle, a Christmas gift, had come with whitewall tires. My machine was a Cadillac on two wheels. I thought some streamers for the handlebars would be nice, as would some mud flaps and mirrors -- maybe even a horn.

I'd have to save, but I'd never been much of a saver. With my salary doubled, I felt like a high roller. The only high rolling I did, however, was the torturous bicycle climb from the bottom of the hill at Broadway up Preston Street to Caroline Street.

I thought the work was hard. It was this time of year in 1964, and I knew nothing of the melting heat my father endured at Sparrows Point. (I took my mother's labor for granted. After all, she got to stay home.) I had to climb that hill to Dr. Adams' office two or three days a week and perform a variety of tasks, from scrubbing the marble steps out front to taking blood samples down the hill to the clinic near Caroline and Madison streets. Blood held some fascination for me then, as it does now. But I didn't want to see too much of it. I was afraid I'd walk in and see someone being dismantled, with fountains of the precious juice spurting upward.

That never happened in Dr. Adams' office. I never saw anything he couldn't handle. Always the cool professional, he never lost his composure. He was a member of the black upper-middle class, and on more than one occasion he told me that he thought I could do well in the world. I could travel to Martha's Vineyard, where many blacks vacationed then. I could drive an expensive foreign car. (Five dollars a week was a long way from Martha's Vineyard, however. Dr. Adams was long on inspiration but short on cash.)

I fixed the flat, and the raise helped me buy a few more things. For 35 cents, I invested in a hamburger, french fries and soda at Gino's, the first fast-food joint in our neighborhood. I didn't begin to understand where Dr. Adams fit in the economic scheme of things, but that job at his office was an important first step in my life-long attempt to assess the world around me.

In the 27 years since I worked for him, I've often thought of the good doctor and of what he thought I could accomplish. Whenever I visit Baltimore and cross Caroline Street, I think of him and the long haul up that hill to his office.

For a while, I thought of being a doctor. When I worked for one, I was intrigued by the science of the profession. I thought also that the doctor is a kind of sentinel between patients and death. The doctor can give a nod or a toss of the hand to the death angel -- and perhaps delay a patient's last breath for a time, maybe for years. Ministers, too, have this relationship with death, and I also considered that calling, a calling so honored in the black community.

But I became a teacher and poet. Medicine, religion and art. At this point in my life, I think they are all the same: healer, priest, poet.

Each one appreciates a good set of wheels.

Michael S. Weaver teaches at Rutgers. His second book of poems, "My Father's Geography," will be published next month.

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