Beauty Smacking Me Upside the Head
A sunny spring day early this May, I hopped on my bike and rode over to Merritt Island. On the ride, I started thinking about the theme for the next issue of Ink 19 — beauty — and I wondered what I could write about that didn’t involve anorexics. Somewhere in the salty breeze blowing in from the Atlantic, somewhere in the path of my spinning bike tires, somewhere between the blue sky and the glassy calm water of the Banana River was something that would help me understand beauty. I had chosen to ride my bike that day because I had to go to Merritt Island and couldn’t stand to drive through the packed weekend traffic of Cocoa Beach to get there. It was a pretty day right on the cusp of summer, before the oppressive summer heat blanketed us all. It felt good to be out in it. So, I rode my bike and checked out the scenery and thought about beauty.
Coming down the high bridge on 520, I saw a man and a woman sitting on the seawall of the park below. They each held a fishing pole in their hands, and they held each other with their free hands. They looked to be straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting (in a fat, working-class Florida kind of way). Okay, I thought: There’s definitely some beauty in that, in two people in love and free to sit on a seawall underneath a bridge and hoping to get a really good dinner out of it. I kept riding, down the bridge, past the park, over another bridge, and past a little hole-in-the-wall of a bar. The bar’s front doors were open, and the smell of cigarette smoke drifted out. Almost as soon as it hit my nose, I reached the fruit stand next to the bar, and the scent of fresh peaches replaced the stench of smoke. Okay, again, a little more beauty in contrast, in moving past the bad and into reward. Still, I felt like I was trying too hard to find beauty. I wanted something concrete, something to smack me in the head and say, “This is beauty.” And, sure enough, I got smacked.
Just past the fruit stand was South Banana River Drive. The traffic on Banana River Drive stopped for a red light. The red hand on the crosswalk sign disappeared and the white walking guy beckoned me across. A truck sat in the crosswalk waiting for the red light. Faced with the choice of riding my bike in front of the truck and thereby facing eastbound traffic on 520, or riding behind the truck and crossing Banana River Drive just behind the crosswalk, I chose the second option. I whipped into Banana River Drive behind the truck just as a big Lincoln whipped off 520 and took a right hand turn into Banana River Drive. I saw him and jammed on my brakes. He saw me and jammed on his brakes. My bike skidded and his Lincoln skidded, and I thought to myself: he’s gonna stop on time, I’m gonna stop on time — it’s gonna be fine. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t fine. Nothing was fine.
Suddenly, my bike was twenty feet down the road, and I was in the air. I landed on my elbow on the hood of the Lincoln. The Lincoln screeched forward. I rolled onto my back and my head slammed into the windshield and my feet flew past in a way I’m just not limber enough to pull off. The car finally stopped. I slid forward a little on the hood but didn’t hit the ground. Then, it was over. I lay on the hood for a second and wondered if I was still alive and if I would ever walk again. That second passed, and I realized I really wasn’t in that much pain. My elbow hurt, sure. I’d landed pretty hard on that hood, but I weigh two hundred pounds. There are no soft landings for me. My ankle hurt from where the crossbar of my bike had hit it after the car had hit my bike, but I could tell that my ankle wasn’t broken. I decided to try standing. I found that I could still do it. I tried walking, and that was a piece of cake, too. I walked over and picked up my bike, walked another twenty feet and picked up my bike lock, then dragged them over to the side of the road. The old man driving the Lincoln stood there waiting for me.
The old man was an unattractive guy, no doubt. He had a yachting shirt on, unbuttoned all the way down, with his big belly hanging out. He had a kinda porcine nose and a big gap between his two front teeth, and even as shook up as I was, I could tell he was wearing a rug. Still, there was something undoubtedly beautiful about him because he was clearly and genuinely concerned about my well-being. He apologized emphatically. He placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye and offered to drive me to the hospital. He even asked if my bike was all right, but not once did I see him look at the hood of his own car. The whole time, too, he said and did all the wrong things to protect himself from a lawsuit. He admitted fault and pressed me to see a doctor (and he had to know, like all people know, that a heavy guy who rides a Schwinn on a ninety-degree afternoon can’t afford to see a doctor — only thin men on Cannondales or better get medical care in this country). I felt all right, though. I felt kinda good, in fact. And my bike was a little banged up, but the good thing about an old Schwinn mountain bike is that it’s built to roll down a mountain without a scratch. I straightened the handlebars and the seat and kicked the front tire back into place and fiddled with the front brake until it came unstuck, then rode off. I didn’t even get the old man’s name or give him mine.
Another mile down the road, I crossed another bridge, this one over Sykes Creek. By then, initial shock of the accident had worn off and the pain had not yet set in. I felt like a real badass. I’d even begun daydreaming about being a Hollywood stunt man. Hell, I could roll off the hoods of Lincolns all day. When I got to this bridge, though, a Rastafarian-looking guy blocked my path. He pulled a cast net up from Sykes Creek. I stopped and waited for him to empty it and get out of my way. All along the walkway, seaweed rotted in the heat. The Rastafarian emptied the contents of his net onto the walkway. A half-dozen mullet flopped out with a couple of jellyfish and more seaweed that would soon start rotting. I leaned on my handlebars and smelled the rotten seaweed and watched the guy pick up the mullet and dump them into his bucket of water. I listened to the fish splashing in the water of the bucket in their attempts in vain for freedom. I thought of that one mullet that probably had been right at the edge of the cast net. The weight of the net probably hit him in the head and dazed him. He must’ve panicked and swam left when all of his friends swam right. Now, six of his friends flopped to no avail in a bucket, and he swam around Sykes Creek with a sore head, sure, but still swimming. I thought of myself and my own sore head and felt glad to still be able to pedal. At this point, the day turned from a pretty one into a beautiful one. At this point, I finally understood something about beauty.
It’s funny, the things we talk about when we talk about beauty. I made a joke of it already, but part of the joke that’s not funny is that when we think of beauty today, anorexia often comes up. As I write this, several glossy mass-market magazines have articles on women like Calista Flockhart and Courtney Cox starving themselves to meet the image Hollywood demands of them. Most of those articles make a reference to the idea that people are “dying for beauty.” While it’s true that people today are dying for beauty, I don’t see what that has to do with Hollywood. I don’t see any actresses or Spice Girls dying to become beautiful people. I don’t see public figures dying to make the world a better place or to redistribute wealth or to work for universal health care (so that heavy guys on Schwinns can see a doctor after they get hit by a Lincoln). All I see is actresses getting sick so they can look like other actresses getting sick, and sick teenage girls getting sicker to look like these sick actresses. Some of them may be moderately attractive, some may be really pretty, but none of them come anywhere near beautiful. The people who are dying for beauty are the Yugoslavians standing in bomb zones with targets on their chests in protest of NATO bombs wiping out their hospital; or the Lakota nation starving in South Dakota because they still refuse to give in to the lifestyle of their captors; or the revolutionaries fighting for the Chiapas in Mexico. Dying for peace so that others can live freely is dying for beauty. Dying of starvation when you have plenty of money to buy food is nothing more than being too stubborn to admit you need help.
This brings us to the second thing we think about when we think about beauty: the old “truth is beauty, beauty is truth.” What the hell does that mean, anyway? That the meaning of life is hidden in the gleam of a model’s eye? Not fuckin’ likely. It means that the two are inseparable. If there is no truth, there is no beauty. Beauty is an abstract. It is a moment when you finally see through the depths of life. It’s a sentence, like when William Kennedy describes a depression-era hobo-camp as “a visual manifestation of the malaise of the age and the nation.” Beauty is a well-timed moment, like when you play a Dillinger Four record at the end of a miserable workday and they sing “didn’t life guarantee me anything besides overtime for low interest loans?” then they tear it down with a bass line that blows your mind and lets you know you’re not alone. Beauty is when you finally see one of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and realize that the paint is an inch deep on the canvas, when the texture of the painting invites you into Van Gogh’s madness. Beauty is when you smell your lover’s bad breath and look at the crust of sleep in her eyes and your heart still races with love because she’s learned to ignore the same things about you. Beauty is fat lovers fishing and fruit-stand peaches and a Rastafarian with a bucketful of mullet. So, you can binge and purge all you want, you can live your life on celery and Diet Pepsi, you can spend all your money dressing just like In Style magazine tells you to, and all of this won’t bring you any closer to becoming beautiful. It’s only when you start to embrace truth that you become beautiful. And I’m not talking about meaning of life/Tibetan monk truth, here. I’m just talking about treating people with honesty and trying to understand what makes other people who they are. That’s beauty. That gets us back to me and the old man and the Lincoln.
When I finally got off my bike that day, when I sat down in the air-conditioning, the pain set in. The muscles in my back clenched up. I couldn’t move my neck for days. I couldn’t sleep for a week. I ate a bottle of ibuprofen and wished I had enough money to go see a doctor who would give me painkillers, or wished I still knew drug dealers who could sell me painkillers I could afford. But that was just physical pain, and it’s gone now. Now, that accident is a good memory for me. It was a beautiful moment in my life. When I first saw the old man waiting for me on the side of the road, his face was excessively red and his breathing was short and shallow. My first thought was, Jesus, I hope I didn’t shock this old guy into a heart attack. I can’t say for sure what his first thoughts were, but his first responses toward me all had to do with my well-being. We were two strangers who met under awful circumstances, circumstances that left us both vulnerable. I could have sued him for the trauma associated with my injuries. I may have even won because I did have the right-of-way and he should have seen me. He could have conceivably counter-sued me for damages to the hood of his car. He may have won because I was outside of the crosswalk when he hit me (though just barely outside), and, besides, I’m sure he could’ve afforded a much better lawyer than I could’ve afforded. But rather than recoiling into self-preservation, we treated each other openly, honestly, and compassionately. That’s a very rare thing in our society. It is very rare for concerns about other human beings to supercede concerns about money. And that’s what real beauty is all about.