By Barry Gantenbein
Riding my bike home from a second shift job in Milwaukee’s Third Ward in the 1980s, I always felt a sense of relief when I’d see an arc of lights casting a faint glow in the front yard of a home near my East Side apartment.
A statue of Mary in a homemade grotto, typically a buried bathtub to form a protective arch, is a Midwest icon. This one was lighted, which made it visible from the apartment where I lived at the time. When I’d see the Bathtub Madonna, I knew I’d made it home safely.
While I tried to figure out how to make a living with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, I was working as a floor care specialist for a cleaning service headquartered in the Third Ward. Every night, three-person crews of floor care specialists were dispatched in purple vans to strip and wax tile floors for clients across the Milwaukee area. We’d start at 4 p.m., and wrap up around midnight.
When the weather was good, I’d make the four-mile or so ride on an old Schwinn Collegiate Five Speed with upright handlebars. It was brown, and at least 20 years old. Every bit of shine had been knocked off, and it had a dull, matte finish. The derailleur was so messed up that it functioned only as a three-speed, which I learned is all the gearing that you need most of the time. Low is for uphill, middle gear is for flat roads, and high is for downhill.
I called it the Five Dollar Bike because my older brother had purchased it for that amount at a police auction in Minneapolis. He gave it to me because he figured that I could use a beater bike. He was right. I rode that bicycle hard in the two years that I lived in Milwaukee in the ‘80s.
For all its shortcomings, the Five Dollar Bike actually rode very well. The bike worked well enough that I would ride it to Mequon and back, and good 20 miles round-trip. It was solid, rode quietly, and was just about indestructible. Heavy, steel rims easily survived banging into missed curb cuts (a common occurrence when riding a bike at midnight).
My fiancée (now wife) and I moved to Milwaukee after graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She was attending graduate school at Marquette, while I was taking journalism classes at UW-Milwaukee and working odd jobs while I tried to launch my career.
I worked a string of “six-month jobs” and rode the Five Dollar Bike to most of them. I rode the bike to work at a book store, movie theatre, bowling alley, and, worst of all, selling the Milwaukee Journal over the telephone. (Sales tip: Don’t cold call anyone living on Forest Home Avenue. You will get your head bit off way more than you deserve.)
But the commute that I remember best was the ride from the East Side to the Third Ward and back. Milwaukee was a much more industrial city in the 1980s, and the Third Ward was a patch work of cold storage buildings, factories, wholesalers of produce and flowers, bars, and a variety of other commercial buildings.
It was an adventure riding from my apartment near UWM, through Downtown, and into the Third Ward. The best part was riding down the Brady Street Hill, racing past Laacke & Joys and the tanneries that lined the Milwaukee River at that time, and into Downtown at 20 mph.
The trip back home wasn’t nearly as much fun. For one thing, it was uphill. And it was dark. My bike had no lights, although I did have a plastic light that I’d strap on my left ankle which supposed to alert drivers to my presence.
Anyone who has lived on the East Side knows that the side streets, which comprised the last half-mile or so of my ride home, are terribly under-lit. Riding virtually invisible, there were plenty of times that cars braked suddenly to avoid a collision. That’s why the sight of the Bathtub Madonna always elicited a quick prayer of thanks.
After two years, my wife and I left Milwaukee for Chicago. I decided that the Five Dollar Bike wasn’t worth hauling out of state, so I gave it to my buddy, Chris. He rode it for a few months before it was stolen off the front porch of his Bayview home. I was amazed that someone thought that bike was valuable enough to cut the lock, but it happened.
Thirty-some years later, I remember that bicycle fondly. Proof that a bike doesn’t have to be expensive to be a good ride.