Sunday, May 01, 2005

Stoked and Spoked: Rebels with a Cause

The title of this post is just a little homage to the naming convention frequently used for individual episodes of Freaks & Geeks, one of televisions brighter moments—the kind that lasts for just a season because it doesn't attract enough viewers. I remember when the series originally aired, but I never got around to turning on and tuning in that direction. My bad, but as it has so many times since I've joined Netflix, DVD came to the rescue. The sole season is available, bringing 1980 at Detroit's fictional McKinley High back to life. Incredible ensemble cast, delectable humor, wicked use of music, deadly dialogue—it was and is a fucking fantastic show. Watching the very last episode tonight was actually a very bittersweet (and hilarious) experience. I'll miss the burnouts and freshman that populated a school that was very much like my own high school experience. In fact, I've heard that Freaks & Geeks was more popular amongst people who had been teens in the late 70s-early 1980s, than it was with people who were teens when the show aired in 2000. Anyway, enough about that; I sold my tv for a reason, but Freaks & Geeks is one of those truly inspired shows that reminds one that real art can come out of the medium.

The other title reference refers to Critical Mass, which I finally participated in as I've been threatening to do for the past five years. Critical Mass, if you don't know, is when bikers take over the street, disrupting rush hour traffic patterns in an effort to, among other things, "assert cyclists' rights to the road." The Critical Mass movement has been described as an "unorganized coincidence." There's no sign up list or initiation process, it's not a club with dues or leadership—it's a happening, one that originated in San Francisco 13 years ago and has spread across the country and world. One could call it a sort of, non-violent political action though riots have occurred, arrests have been made, and the City of New York is currently trying to ban any further Critical Mass events. Here in SF, it's become a time-honored tradition, taking place on the last Friday of the month, rain or shine. If you live in the city, you're not to be surprised when hundreds or even thousands of bicyclists come barrelling through your neighborhood with no advance warning. The route is never predetermined and the geography of the city is such that hundreds of people on bikes can cover most of the city in a matter of a couple hours.

Anyway, I had a blast. I rode my bike to work that morning and was ready to roll at 6pm, when the ride began forming at Justin Herman Plaza. Every style of bike and every style of rider was to be seen, from the fully decked out Lance Armstrong types to the down and dirty, bike messenger contingents. BMXers mingled with folks on single speed or handbuilt models. One guy was even riding an authentic high wheel bike. I even saw a mother with her grade school age boy; they were wearing matching bike jerseys.

The whole experience was bravo, with a few moments really standing out. For instance, picture this if you can: a huge empty parking lot, like that of a shopping mall on Christmas Day. You're on your metal steed, reveling in the commeraderie when you look up to see two things, a stream of cyclists ahead of you pouring out of lot's farside exit, like a swarm of bees, and a swirl of riders riding in circles and curliques like circus performers or molecules expanding to fill the empty spaces of a flask. It was an achingly beautiful scene, but I was afraid to stay lest I witness it's demise so I re-entered the fray and we charged off, down 3rd St. to Caesar Chavez. That's when I started to get the hang of it.

At each intersection, riders would take it upon themselves to put their bodies and machines in front of the cars to make sure that all of us made it through the successive number of light changes needed to accomodate that many riders. The reactions of motor vehicle drivers were pretty similar to those you might imagine when one gets caught behind a train—some exasperation, some boredom, some who are actually happy to see the train roll by. A Muni driver who was unable to move his N-Judah gave us the thumbs up and honked his horn; his passengers didn't seem to share his enthusiasm. More than one driver got hostile, a few getting out of their cars and verbally or even physically challenging the "blockers."

To my knowledge nothing too terrible happened, probably due in some small part to the motorcyle cop escort. They paced alongside us making sure both the cyclists and the stalled drivers didn't cross any lines. At Caesar Chavez, we turned on Delores to San Jose—the San Jose that leads to 280 South. As with the Cirque de Soleil moment, I didn't anticipate what was about to happen because I was in the middle or last two-thirds of the pack with a few hundred people in front of me. But from behind I heard someone sing out, "Do you know the way to San Jose?" followed by Soyboy's "What the f--? Look!" followed by insane giggles. I looked up to see two large signs looming up ahead, one indicating which lane to stay in for San Jose and one indicating the upcoming exit. That's when I realized we were on the freeway! It was insane. It was so cool. It was craaazy, so crazy that the cops were forcing us off by hook (those who followed the exit) and by crook (those of us who scrambled up the embankment—Soyboy and I chose the portage), all of us rejoining to invade the next neighborhood.

Adults brought their children out to watch as if the carnival had just come to town. We rode past one house where an elderly gentleman was in frozen repose, his accordian in mid-squeeze and his jaw completely dropped. Pre-teen girls waved from their bedroom windows. We mounted steep hills, some on foot and some dogging it out, and careened down dangerous descents. I almost fell off my bike on one steep downhill, simply because there were so many bikes congregated at the bottom of the hill that I was nearly track-standing at a more than 45 degree angle, which is impossible.

There were several bike casualties along the way—blown tires, popped spokes, derailled chains, and a few tumbles caused by the careless carefree ways of so many bikes in motion together and bikers losing track of time and place, drawn into the wonder of all the events. More than once, my bike and Soyboy's "kissed" at the handlebars but always gently, making us laugh because of the sensation it brought on of dozing off somewhere where you shouldn't and waking just as your head drops.

But most of us made it through Eureka and Noe Valleys and the Castro, where we came upon a motorcyclist hemmed in by bicycles all around. The cyclists were getting a little surly and sadistic at that point, forcing the lone motorman to wheel his bike all the way back to the beginning of the intersection until they were good and ready to get out of the way. Meanwhile, some jokers yelled out the window: "You people are so lazy! Why don't you get off your bikes and walk for a change!" That's when I noticed the temperature had dropped and the sun was quite low. What had been a mad crush was becoming more and more diffused, with splinter groups doing their own thing. Soyboy and I decided to park the bikes and get some chow after all the excitement, and that's just what we did, newly annointed bike freaks and city geeks.


Blogger Zenslinger said...

Nice piece, there, mpho!

11:29 AM  
Anonymous patty boss said...

since i missed you that night, now i feel sorta like i came along!

9:49 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home