Archive for October, 2007

A Taste of Chicago (or Orange is the new Yellow)

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

I’ve been riding my bike to work quite a bit lately. In general, it’s much better for my health (unless I’m stuck behind a bus, huffing diesel until I’m drifting through Candyland), and I get to work quicker than by bus or train. That’s the high road. The honest road betrays the true workings of my “reason”. First, I’m cheap. I would rather risk my life twice a day, dodging car doors and 9am stumbling drunks, than fork over $1.75 to ride a train that I enter a block and a half from my apartment. That’s $3.50 a day, folks. If I ate fast food, that would be a free lunch and then some. Of course, riding my bike in order to eat faux-flame-broiled cheeseburgers is basically Working For The Man, so I’m usually a brown bag biker. The other big motivator has been my co-worker Mark. Mark made the cycling commitment some time this spring, and the guy has not let up. He rides in just about every day. While I sit around yammering about the chance that I might ride my bike some time later next week, running the hamster wheel of perpetual pontification, Mark is living the dream, riding hard, packing away that $3.50 like a miser-god. I don’t know where he’s spending all that extra cash. Bike parts? Sweat bands? It’s all making me look like a chump, so I decided to use the damned bike and get some freaking exercise in the process.

I’m not alone in this motivation. Cheapness is essentially a coward’s form of greed. Greed and embarrassment are the prime movers of history. Really. Take Iraq as an example. Hot topic. Big news. The left-wing screwball opinion is that we invaded the country with motivations of greed. First it was all about oil. Then oil prices went up, not down, so it must have been about something else. Jobs? Blow apart the country and then employ some mega-corporations to rebuild it. Okay, I can buy that. Before all of that, though, the initial motivator was embarrassment. First, there was the unfinished read-my-lips business from 1991. Then some people attacked us on our own soil, destroying towers and killing innocent civilians who were just trying to make a buck. How embarrassing! How many times have you been so embarrassed over something that you flipped and yelled at someone? It’s easy for that embarrassment to escalate into taking a swing at some poor bastard. Or, in the case of our country, we decided to shoot someone in the face. Only it’s been more in the fashion of a drunk at a party. Someone throws a drink at your back. You don’t know who did it. You turn around, stammering, and shoot a few people you didn’t like anyway. Doesn’t that feel better?

So instead of shooting someone in the face, it’s better for everyone if I start riding my bike to work. And the added bonus is that by risking my life for a fixed quantity of savings ($3.50), I am adding to the value of my life every day. Currently, it looks like my life is worth around $80.50. In technical terms that’s somewhere between an iPod Shuffle and Nintendo Wii. I’ll make a special blog announcement when I surpass the value of a Playstation 3.

Some factors have really been conspiring against my achievement of PS3 status, though. I recently moved to a more urban area of the city, so I no longer coast about the winding bucolic lake shore path during the morning commute. Instead, it’s all Tron Light Cycles in the gutter margins of city avenues, trying to pass the slow-poke three-speed cyclists while watching out for whisper-silent Tour de France maniacs who seem pretty exasperated that my chunky mountain bike can’t top 60 mph. The randomly opening doors of cars parked along the side of the street transforms the ride into a sort of Whac-a-Mole experience. I used to love Whac-a-Mole. My first job was at ShowBiz Pizza (Chuck E. Cheese), and it involved unjamming coins from video games and making some minor repairs. I would test all games from a technician’s crouch. Hence, I’m pretty good at Skeeball and really good at Whac-a-Mole, but only from a crouching position. Move me up the evolutionary scale to a semi-erect ball-tosser and I really start to suck. Anyway, I can now empathize with the Mole of Whac-a-Mole, even though bike riding relies on the reverse instinct of not hitting the car doors as they swing open.

The real trouble, though, has little to do with the serpentine vectors of wayward cyclists or the befuddlement of the common pedestrian citizenry. The dark heart of the matter is the growing fissure of festering mutual contempt separating bikers from drivers. The road, after all, wasn’t created for bicycles. It exists for Stupid Useless Vehicles, trucks, busses, cabs and a variety of contraptions powered by the black oil. They all own their little piece of the infrastructure. Many people quit riding bikes as soon as they were old enough to buy their first rust buckets. Bikes are for kids who chase ice cream trucks, dirty dirt-poor hippies, and chronic weirdoes. They belong on the sidewalk, even if there’s a “bike lane” painted in the area where one is supposed to parallel park. And they certainly aren’t allowed to break the law every chance they get, cruising through red lights, weaving in between stalled traffic, riding too far out into the road with that taunting blink-blink-blink little red taillight. And their butts are always sticking out.

The bikers generally hate the drivers, too. Everyone, each and every single person driving, is an idiot. That is a valid assumption proven on a daily basis. Each traffic-light intersection is a battle of wills, as cars inch into a no-turn-on-red infraction, cell phone babblers drift about the boundaries of lanes and curbs, and screaming SUVs have discovered Orange, the new signal color in between yellow and red, computed as the .7 second transition from a red light to the moment the other cars notice their switch from red to green to that heartbeat buffer of space during which gas pedals are engaging engines. Orange is the signal to turn your SUV into a cannonball and just blow your way through the intersection before anyone pops a clutch or mouths a reaction. No prisoners, dammit. Some drivers apparently see orange stop signs, too, so any side street can be a launching point for an anti-bike salvo. It keeps your muscles tense and your brain on edge, and after riding five blocks behind some moron with a blink-blink-blink going-around-the-world-to-the-right persistent turn signal you start imagining all sorts of anti-vehicular add-ons that could be welded to your handlebars, or at least you wish for a handy carton of not-so-fresh tossing eggs.

Enough pontification. Here’s an example.

A few weeks ago I was riding to work, pedaling like hell down my usual route. I take Milwaukee, a diagonal street, down to Chicago Ave, and then head due east on Chicago, straight into my office. Two straight vectors, relatively low-impact. Unfortunately, maps tend to deceive. In early 2006 Rachel and I visited the great city of Los Angeles. We meticulously planned all of our activities, including a day downtown to visit the gigantic public library. Yahoo Maps gave us everything we needed, and it was a quick walk from the train stop to the library. On the map. The X and Y axes were easy to follow, but Yahoo, Google and Mapquest didn’t bother to tell us much about that cantankerous old Z-axis. I grew up in the Midwest, and we generally don’t have a Z-axis in the Cartesian Shangri-La of the heartland. Our simple visit turned into a march up Golgotha. Then back up, back down, trying to figure out where the hell we were. A quarter-mile of travel required five miles of effort. Stupid Z-axis. It reminds me of the old spiritual I used to sing with a co-worker at Starbucks: “take the coffee up the mountain, coffee up the mountain; take the coffee down the mountain, the mountain, yeah” (repeat 8 times while cranking out lattes and stupid Frappuccinos). Sometimes both the map and the internal gyroscope betray the true magnitude of a given Z-axis. Note point ‘A’ on the map below. On bike, the incline of Chicago Ave as it approaches Halsted seems to be an innocuous 13 degrees or so. That’s about 100 feet before point ‘A’. Then it’s as if a tremendous ass-sucking vacuum has been engaged. Or perhaps it’s a high-gravity zone that no one told me about, some pocket of intense density deep within the earth, pulling down like a clawed hand from a grave. Pedaling becomes exponentially more difficult with each revolution. The delicate balance between sweat and headwind is shattered, as I can feel a glistening sheen transform into a slimy gush, all glands simultaneously demanding contract renegotiation. Meanwhile, the terrible green eye of the traffic light taunts me from the intersection ahead. It’s usually at point ‘A’, right where the ass-sucking and malignant g-force become partners in oppression, that the traffic signal changes from red to green. The road becomes some Wonka illusion, lengthening as the green light recedes like a Kenyan front-runner in the Chicago Marathon. Hope turns to sweat and even though I should be pedaling like a maniac toward the green light (for a green light is the biker’s orange), it is soon evident that I’m going to have to pound maniacally at this anvil just to make it through the next green. Gasping, dripping and creaking, I finally edge over to the curb at the intersection of Chicago and Halsted.

Bike Path

Then there’s the Chocolate Cloud (quite different than Chocolate Rain). Crossing over Halsted, crossing the zenith of that terrible hill, the air becomes a chocolate dream. No, this is not a blaxploitation fantasy bike ride. I’m talking about the Blommer chocolate factory, located just six or so blocks south of Chicago Ave. Some factories spew rancid sulphur, others crank billows of coal-powered cancer dust. Blommer fills the West Loop of Chicago with seemingly benign chocolate fumes. It would probably be a good idea for someone to invent a chocolitic converter or some such device that flavors auto emissions. If the EPA is going to allow our communal slow death, it might as well be olfactorily pleasant. Most people become involuntary mouth-breathers as the invisible flavor cascades over them. You can see the impact of these chocolate waves on the illustrated map just below. I generally stay away from the chocolate ground zero of the factory itself, in fear that I might be numbed into a flavor coma, never to leave that little opiate corner of the city again. Chocolate tends to have that paralyzed-with-pleasure effect upon me. Note how the river winds through the nucleus of this flavor bomb. I suppose that the Chicago novice might assume that the scent was coming from the river itself. It would make sense that the Wonka trial of the gravitationally-elongated passage through the Halsted intersection would lead to the decadent payoff of a chocolate river. And there are times when the river is indeed a rich cocoa brown. Our river is a bipolar beast, though, and one day’s brown may become the next day’s green. And some days it is a beautiful metalic rainbow of surface oils. We fear the river, approaching it only from high bridges and helicopters, living in symbiosis as with a twenty foot python that has gorged itself unto crapulence on an array of family pets and taken over your family room. It’s best to just let it do its thing. So if you’re true to the Wonka allegory, mind the terrible lesson of Augustus Gloop. Stay out of the damned river, lest you become just another lump in the bed of Bubbly Creek!

Olfactory radius of Blommer chocolate factory

With the chocolate scratch-n-sniff permeating the air, I joined two fellow bikers, crossing Halsted and cruising downhill, toward the bridge over the river (see Map, point ‘C’). One of these bikers was a bit slow, a woman wearing a red helmet of 2007 style (I sport a blue helmet of 1997 style). The other was a partner of sorts, with the two of us exchanging leads back on the southbound Milwaukee avenue. Both of these women had a head start on me, but I didn’t push to pass them, as it’s better to be single-file as you approach a giant steel bridge. The traffic squeezes from two lanes to one over that bridge, but almost all of the morning drivers are aware of this and start their merges well before the eleventh hour. There are some folks out there, though, who prefer to live in steel bubbles of ignorance. Around point ‘B’, we all witnessed an elongated SUV, something like a Suburban, slowly backing out from the right-side parking lot of the Chicago Tribune shipping facility. This is at point ‘*’ on the map. Readers of Kurt Vonnegut should recognize this symbol, and the rest of you can easily learn about it. As the SUV slowly backed out into the non-lane, the right lane that rapid disappears just before the bridge, the quick-bike woman zoomed around it, weaving between cars and off to the bridge. The SUV continued its 10 mph rear entry, moving across both lanes, slowly but steadily blocking the entire road just as 2007-stylish-red-helmet woman was trying to move away, off to the left, pushed nearly into the oncoming lanes. She slowed and angled and curved, the back corner of the SUV missing her by a single inch. This is typically the moment when your average commuting cyclist will give an errant driver a piece of her mind. It’s the horn-honk of the biker (not to be confused with an actual bike horn, which most people think is some vagabond clown or bitchy Tinkerbell), and it’s usually perceived by the driver as “whatthewaitforheywhowhatsthewatchout!” I was hanging back at point ‘B’ when I noticed that the SUV driver was hanging out of his window, yelling back, continuing to coast backwards into traffic. Then the SUV passed Red Helmet, a woman leaning out of the passenger window, screaming. As I slipped into the action, somewhere between ‘*’ and ‘C’, I yelled out at the SUV, just a show of biker solidarity. According to the spirit of this blog post, it should be evident that I’m not a Critical Mass freak or anything like that. In general I think that most people, if they aren’t actual idiots, just don’t pay enough attention to the things they do that make them look like idiots. That includes drivers, bikers, pedestrians and animals. Every now and then you have to stick together in some way, though, particularly when one massively idiotic act trumps any kind of resulting idiotic yammering. So I yelled a bit and rode on.

Bike Path

The traffic typically crosses the bridge and then quickly expands back into two lanes between points ‘C’ and ‘D’, where there is a traffic light. By the time we all made it over the bridge and down to ‘D’, quick-bike was long gone, Red Helmet was in front of the angry SUV, and I was forced to ride in the middle, between the two lanes, as the cars on the right side were too close to the curb for a bike to squeeze through. Red Helmet then broke the law and pedaled through the red light, the SUV people (the front vehicle of the stopped traffic) screaming at her. That light isn’t a quick one. It’s at one of those weird intersections where everyone gets their own signal, so traffic to the right will get a green, then, after a delay, traffic to the left will get their green. It’s a long light. I coasted to a stop right next to the SUV, the fuming driver about a foot from my face. The battle with the superhill, the waves of chocolate aroma, and the ensuing scene of absurdity had all gotten to me, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

“You got something to say to me?!” the driver said, elbow hanging over the open window, turning to look me in the eye.

He was a fairly large white man, short hair, perhaps wearing a white t-shirt, with a cloudy aura of pure trash. The t-shirt could have been stained, and he was possibly missing a few teeth, but those are the tricks of memory, and more an image of his inner child. Seated next to him was a skinny black woman sipping a cup of coffee. They both looked to be in their 30s-40s. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed about the situation. Don’t forget about what can happen when people are embarrassed.

“You cut us off back there!” I said, not really raising my voice, keeping my eyes fixed on his. “You have to watch out for people on bikes.”

“No, YOU have to watch out! It’s YOU who’s on the road, and you better be watching out, that’s what you have to do.”

“You just have to be-”

“I don’t have to do anything, and YOU have to watch out for ME.”

“And you can’t be cursing us,” the woman added. “We didn’t curse at you, so don’t be cursing at us.”

There’s usually a moment early on in an argument when you can either buy into someone’s Asshole Logic and escalate everything into the next level, or you can pause for a few seconds, take it all in, and just wait for everyone to run at a slightly lower temperature. This was a battle of clashing individuality, with both of us encroaching upon the other’s freedoms. The guy probably would have opened the door and turned it into a face-to-face screaming match with the right prompt, and his special lady-friend was right there to back him up. It wasn’t the threat of the situation that gave me pause, though. Sometimes yelling at some dipshit, even proving that person completely stupid, is just not a satisfying way to start your day. There is a tiny block of satisfaction, certainly, but it is usually followed by a droning darkening of the soul, and you feel that your humanity has been compromised, that you foolishly allowed yourself to wallow in the cesspool of Asshole Logic. So I just waited, looking at them both. Then I started bullshitting.

“Yeah, well, we do all need to be careful. I’ll admit that.”

“Yeah?!” the guy said, waiting for the other shoe, ready to show his woman some white-on-white action.

“And I’m sorry if I said anything offensive. You two just have a good morning, okay?”

Everything suddenly relaxed a bit. I was no longer the enemy. In less than a second, all venom was channeled back toward Red Helmet, still pedaling just a half-block ahead.

“It’s all because of that STUPID Biiiii-TCH!”

The guy started bellowing “BI-I-I-TCH” over and over, screaming at his windshield while his woman passenger nodded, yelling a string of countermelody. I doubt that he ever came away clean from calling his Special Lady-Friend a “BI-I-I-TCH”, so, now that he had official permission, he reveled in the moment as if he had Caught the Spirit. It was an explosion of vitriol, just inches from my face, but none of it directed toward me. Then she looked over to me and said it.

“Now at least someone has some sense. You have a blessed day.”

A blessed day. A god damned blessed day. I tried to stammer out some other comment, some sort of “you too” or “praise Jesus” or something, but the assault of absurdity was just too much. The light turned green. Praise the lord. I rode out in front of them, pedaling hard in order to avoid abusing our tenuous alliance, and moved up the block to the next light. Another red. The SUV screeched across the lanes, to the left, and blew through the red light, both of them screaming at Red Helmet, who was hung up at this other intersection. I coasted to her side, not sure what to say, particularly since I hadn’t done such a great job at defending her honor. Still, the SUV was gone, the situation had come to a close, and I absorbed the verbal confrontation, effectively diffusing it.

“Are you okay?”

“th-blm-bla-blat-me,” Red Helmet mumbled, riding with the opposite green light, crossing the intersection away from me.

“What?” I called out as she moved slowly away.

“They threw coffee at me.”

Then I could see it. Beads of tan liquid all over her backpack, on the back of her red helmet. The Special Lady-Friend wasn’t just leaning out of the window and yelling as they passed Red Helmet. She was dousing the poor woman with coffee. All because Red Helmet didn’t want to get hit by their vehicle. All because the Special Lady-Friend was embarrassed.

“Oh my god,” I called out to her.

I probably should have crossed over to her and really checked to see if she was okay, but she was already moving on, heading back onto her morning path. My light changed, so I slowly moved on, careful not to zip around too many cars, taking the lesson that any one of them could be some insane bastard ready to throw coffee at my head. I was stunned during the rest of my ride. In shock even as I settled into my office. The rest of the morning I intermittently thought of the largess of the SUV, the red of the helmet, and, most of all, that woman’s final morning salutation.

Have a blessed day.

And I had planned to end all of this with that hanging quote. The absurdity speaks for itself. A simple detail of this story has gone unattended, though. When I told the story to co-workers later that morning, I wanted to convey the sheer absurdity of the people in that SUV. Some crazy couple. Screaming. Throwing coffee. White guy and black woman. The interracial aspect was just part of the absurdity, but why would that ever be absurd? Is it racist of me to focus on that, to bring that detail out in order to paint a picture of the ridiculous? It wasn’t the interracial aspect of the two people, it was really the white-trash aura of the guy coupled with this woman who looked so much more refined. She wasn’t poorly dressed. She drank coffee from a sippy-lid. She wore her jewelry well. In all manners, it seemed that, until she actually opened her mouth, she was just a passenger, while the guy was some twisted bastard. Even by the end of our conversation, she seemed slightly more civilized, trying her best to wish me well. But then there was this “blessed” business, and I can’t seem to let go of that.

Violence and confrontation are common components of city life, but so is racism. I never notice white people instructing me to “have a blessed day.” The times that I’ve heard it, it came from a variety of black people. And it has rarely seemed genuine. It’s as if some people see it as their duty to go around blessing people, empowering their day with blessings like Ralph Fiennes “pardoning” people in Schindler’s List. It just seems like a cultural colloquialism. There are times when a person genuinely wants your day to be positively affected by such a wish. Most of the time, though, it’s both a greeting and a dismissal. I pass a guy who wants some change, look into his eyes and say “no”, and he tells me to have a blessed day. The train conductor announces the next subway stop, apologizes for the delays, and tells us to have a blessed day. This woman throws her coffee at a biker who did nothing to her, and then wishes me a blessed day.

I didn’t want to go into this because I was afraid, particularly after dissecting these online advertisements featuring dancing black women, that I was edging into some racist ranting. But how could I ignore this crap? I think that overt spirituality is much more integral to African American urban culture than white urban culture. Sure, there are church-going folk everywhere, but I usually don’t see white people bestowing blessings in the city. That seems to be more of a rural thing, where churches tend to have more of a neighborhood and social role. I envy the common solidarity of shared spirituality. I don’t take offense when someone is honestly trying to share that with me. But hypocrisy began with religion. And it continues with these people who bestow empty blessings. I’m taking a very extreme example and applying to situations that might not be nearly as extreme, and that’s a key component to racism. So I don’t claim this to be an issue to race, it’s an issue of the actions of a particular type of person. Hopefully I’m not being blessedly hypocritical. The blessing comes across as a curse, though, and ultimately just a simple device that someone can use to exorcise both shame and responsibility.

But I’m a responsible person, dammit. I ride my bike to work, crusing through a world that is sometimes crazy, often ridiculous and every now and then too absurd to even understand.

(A final note about this blog, about blogging in general. I recently started using a blog reader and it has made all of this Internet business so much easier. Instead of clicking to someone’s site and seeing if anything new has been posted, I just subscribe to the blogs I enjoy reading, and the blog-reading software tells me when a new entry has been posted. I encourage you to do the same with this blog. Look at how long it took me to post a new entry. Most of you abandoned the Megablog quite a while ago. Well, please try using Yahoo or Google Reader and subscribe to this blog by going to the bottom of the page (scroll way down) and clicking the “Entire (RSS)” link. Or just paste this into your blog reader: feed:// This makes it easier for all of us. Have a blessed day.)