I would bet that if you asked anyone raised in the ’70s about the best toys of childhood, they would eventually come to remember the thrill of riding as fast as humanly possible on a low-slung, plastic, primary-colored dervish only to suddenly pull on a blue handbrake and spin doughnuts on the sidewalk.
Oh Big Wheel.
I love you so.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a story for the Chronicle about the rise and fall of the Big Wheel, which took Suburban America by storm in the ’70s but fell from glory until only recently. One person I spoke to said they came to be considered “unsafe” — because falling 3 inches onto the ground is apparently too much for today’s parents. You can find Big Wheels now at Target and on Amazon, although the handbrakes have been removed.
Despite prices as high as $100 online, I had been meaning to order one and was waiting to do so until we got back from vacation. But poking around the Tenderloin today, Emme and I made our way to the back of the New Mission Rescue thrift store and found, shining in a corner, beckoning us, this beaten-down, abandoned contraption of summers yore.
Sure, the pedal foot rests were missing, leaving just metal spikes sticking out from the wheels. And I swore there used to be rainbow streamers hanging off the handlebars. But it was still enough.
When she saw it, Emmeline stopped talking in mid-sentence and pointed. Clothes racks seemed to part before her, and sunlight miraculously glinted off the yellow handlebars.
“What is that?” she whispered, her eyes widening to take in the scene.
“That,” I told her, “Is a Big Wheel.”
“Can Emme ride it?”
“Hop on,” I said.
Looking back, it was a foolish mistake. I should have come back with the car.
I couldn’t get her off the thing.
Later, at home, she sat on the Big Wheel in the living room, her head resting on the center of the handlebars, a hand stroking a grip as if it were a new puppy.
“Emme likes Big Wheel,” she sighed.
She yawned and closed her eyes for a moment, beat.
“Emme wants to nap with Big Wheel,” she said.
I carried her off to bed, hoping, 30 years from now, she might one day remember a magical ride through the city and the sudden rush of finding a new, best childhood toy.
She rode from the store …
Through the ‘Loin …
Into the MUNI station …
On the train …
And finally, two hours later, home.