I couldn’t have been more than ten years old when scooters became fashionable. They slid along like modern skateboards, but attached to the board they had a vertical shaft with handlebars.
Tony, son of the perfume merchant Dimitri, was the first to get one. He brought it out into the street the day after Easter and the kids looked at him as if he had just landed from the moon.
Since his father travelled all over the world in order to find and buy new scents, Tony often had such foreign toys. The chubby blond boy was totally ignorant but he was forever eating Dutch cheese or chewing American gum, while throwing strange words and expressions around. The scooter, however, surpassed all previous wonders. The girls were fascinated and every one of them wanted a ride on it, so, in front of our jealous eyes, he went up and down the street giving tours to the cheering girls.
His scooter was made of red-lacquered metal tubes.
In less than a week Basil appeared with a rattling, creaking, wooden scooter. Only the brackets attaching the vertical steering shaft to the board were made of metal. A very successful imitation! The wheels were large, solid ball bearings, which made a terrific noise when he sped along on the asphalted street, so much so that we almost got tears in our eyes from sheer enthusiasm. It was a robust, plain, and practical thing, just like Basil himself.
“My machine is not for girls,” he said when his sister wanted a ride on the scooter. And actually, his scooter was more difficult to balance and steer than Tony’s, which had rubber wheels. But, best of all, he had made it himself. And he was the first to call it “his machine”.
I could hardly sleep the following nights – in my dreams I saw myself speeding along on a scooter, often with the parrot Coco on my shoulder. The reason the parrot appeared in my dream may have been that since the day Basil introduced his machine it had stopped talking, instead it imitated the roaring noise of the ball bearings all day long.
A week later the owner of the parrot, a widow, stopped hanging the cage in her window onto the street, moving it instead to her kitchen window which overlooked the courtyard.
The auto repair shops in the neighbourhood were inundated with requests for ball bearings. Finally, at the very end of the Christian quarter I found a repair shop where they had two beautiful ball bearings left. They were even larger than Basil’s, and the bigger the wheels the faster the scooter would go.
“You’ll have to work three afternoons in the shop: cleaning up, making tea for the workers, and fetching their sandwiches from the restaurant. You have to come every afternoon from two to six, agreed?” asked the boss.
And did I agree!
For three days I cleaned and swept the shop, I served tea, sandwiches, and cold water, as soon as I had finished my chores at home. I already knew how to make good tea. The boss and the workers were happy because I absolutely refused to serve my tea in dirty glasses, which they were used to. I washed the glasses carefully – then rinsed them briefly with hot water so that they were steaming and shiny. My father, a passionate tea drinker, had taught me how to do this.
In the end I not only got the ball bearings but also the fittings and the steering shaft with mounting straps and screws. Even more important than all these rich gifts was the valuable advice about how best to build the scooter. When I said good-bye, the owner handed me a simple u-shaped stand made of a small iron pipe.
“Then your scooter can stand up proudly everywhere like a noble Vespa. It won’t have to lean against a wall like a tired, rusty, old bicycle,” he said laughing. This man looked like a criminal in American westerns, but he was kindness itself.
But his youngest worker, also a dark man with rumpled hair, gave me the most wonderful gift: a brake. Neither Tony nor Basil had a brake. It consisted of an arched piece of a rubber ring to be fastened over the rear wheel like a car fender so that the wheel could turn without touching it. As soon as I wanted to stop, all I had to do was to step lightly on the rubber and the scooter would brake elegantly without my having to put my foot on the ground.
With my bag full of metal parts I went to see my cousin George, who was a carpenter’s apprentice and whose master was a true miser. I hung around outside until the carpenter went home for lunch. Only then did I sneak into the workshop to visit George. At first I didn’t tell him about the scooter, but instead stood about asking how his father, my uncle, and the rest of the family were. I kept setting the bag down in different spots until George finally asked me what was rattling in the bag. I told him that I had the metal parts to make a scooter, but that I needed the wooden boards for it.
“What a rascal you are,” he laughed and asked me to explain the design for such a scooter; I showed him right away. George took everything in and within half an hour he had made all the parts for my machine; he tied them together in a bundle, put it on my shoulder and smiled: “Hurry up, before the penny-pincher comes back. You can screw it together yourself, but you have to glue all the pieces first,” he said, handing me a jar full of glue. I ran home. What did I say – ran? With wings from Fortuna I flew home. At noon the street was empty. I worked for two hours, then the wonder stood there. But I didn’t want to take it out into the street just yet.
From my brother’s broken bicycle I got a small rear-view mirror, which I fixed to the left handlebar. From my aunt Rosa who had been watching me tinkering for a while I got a number of small stars and moons made of brightly coloured tin.
I copied the famous motto against the evil eye from a sign that hung on the mirror in the barber shop of my uncle Elias, my mother’s youngest brother. It portrayed the palm of a hand with a blue eye in the middle, pierced by an arrow, and below it in beautiful Arabic calligraphy it said: The eye of envy shall be struck blind! Arabs hang such signs on beautiful objects which they want to protect from envy.
My uncle had always had a weakness for large, majestic glass mirrors, and two of these wonders had broken after a customer, greedily salivating, had remarked enviously: “What a beautiful mirror!” This man was famous for his evil eye. It was said that he could kill a pigeon in flight, if he so desired, but people exaggerate a lot.
The oval piece of cardboard with the protective saying was fastened with shiny brass tacks on front of the steering shaft, which on my scooter was two hands wide. With paint I added a sunflower and a canary to the front, and on the following Sunday, my hair freshly combed, wearing cologne, and dressed in a white shirt and blue trousers I went out into the street with my scooter.
“Wonderful,” cried Basil after he had taken a ride on my machine. He braked, balanced in place for at least a minute, got off and kicked the stand up. The scooter stood there in all its splendour.
When Basil praised something the boys listened, since this brilliant do-it-yourselfer was very difficult to please. He was very handy and ran his family’s whole household smoothly, keeping everything – from chairs to doors – in good repair. He was thirteen years old, but already at ten he had taken an iron apart, repaired it, and reassembled it. I got tears in my eyes, but again Tony had no clue why. Today, however, he was riding his scooter visibly nervous.
After three weeks there were ten wooden scooters with ball bearing wheels whizzing up and down the street, and our mothers cursed the auto shops who were to blame for this horrendous noise. Each new machine was fancier than the previous one, and soon my “wonderful” scooter only rated a modest place in the middle of the scale. Now there were scooters with ostrich feathers, some with bells or horns, and several had an upholstered seat for little sisters and young girls from the neighbourhood. I made a small basket for my spaniel puppy Tutu, who enjoyed the rides so much that he joyfully barked at everyone we passed.
Khalil was the first to drink lemonade while riding. The bottle stood securely in a holder fastened to the middle of the vertical shaft and the small, clever guy was able to drink from a straw without taking his hands off the handlebars or his eyes off the street.
Every Sunday afternoon a heavenly sight could be seen in our street now. Ten dapper boys rode in two rows to the square in front of the Catholic church, where they slowly turned under the admiring eyes of the girls in all their finery, who were waiting for the arrival of the scooters. The riders got off stiffly, almost nobly, kicked their stands up in slow motion and sat down on the stone benches in the square to discuss their machines.
“May I take a turn on your machine just to the tobacconist and back?” begged Tony humbly. He had never let me touch any of his toys.
“Go ahead, but be careful,” I said.
“Yes, be careful!” shouted Khalil, “his machine likes to bite little kids . . . “ “ . . . who eat Dutch cheese,” added Basil laughing. We all laughed and for the first time Tony's scooter was lying on the ground completely ignored by all.
Translated from German by Ulla Kasten