Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The Indignity of Commuting by Bicycle on Earth Day: Guilt Complex, Complex Guilt
Last night I was watching television when I came across something called "Car of the Future." Excited, I fired up a bowl of popcorn, poured myself a beverage (Rémy Martin VSOP cognac and chocolate milk with a twist of lime, my favorite drink), settled into the La-Z-Boy, and began to watch. Tragically, a few minutes in I realized it wasn't that movie where Michael J. Fox goes back in time with the guy from "Taxi." I was actually watching PBS, and this was an episode of "Nova" featuring those Click and Clack guys from the "Car Talk" radio show.
In my buzzed and relaxed state, reaching for the remote seemed like an insurmountable task, so I figured I might as well watch. Fortunately, it was also narrated by John Lithgow, so by squinting I was occasionally able to fool myself into thinking I was watching "Footloose." Anyway, John Lithgow talked about our dependency on oil for our motor vehicles and the various alternatives being explored, while Click and Clack amiably visited various scientists and entrepreneurs to see these alternatives for themselves. The show was interesting, though it was obviously a repeat, since Bush was still president and everybody still seemed to be taking GM seriously. "Car of the Future" was followed by "Frontline," which was about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound. By this point I was so drunk on my TV cocktails that I was burping up chocolate milk and popcorn all over my lounging smock, and was too incapacitated to raise my head, much less change the channel. Like all episodes of "Frontline" I've seen, it made me feel hopeless and despondent. This in turn led me to drink more TV cocktails (I didn't have to get up--I pour them from a pitcher next to the La-Z-Boy) and before I knew it I had passed out.
The next thing I knew it was morning. Eventually I collected myself enough to embark upon my morning commute, at which point I realized why all the environmental stuff had been on last night: it's Earth Day! Predictably, there were more bike commuters out there than usual, including people using trailers like this:
I suppose I should have been pleased to see this, but instead it just made me feel despondent again. Many people say that commuting by bicycle is an environmentally friendly endeavor, and as such they ride their bikes places in order to help "save the planet." However, according to the "Frontline," there's all kinds of horrible stuff in our water that really doesn't have anything to do with driving or not driving. Basically, just scrubbing yourself with the wrong kind of soap or using the wrong kind of lotion (whether for moisturizing or foffing off is immaterial) is enough to murder a bunch of killer whales. This is to say nothing of the chicken waste. Yes, the Chesapeake is being choked to death by chicken manure, which continues to flow unabated due to the insidious yet comical chicken lobby backed by none other than father-and-son chicken doppelgangers Frank and Jim Perdue. So how is towing a bunch of crap in a bicycle trailer supposed to help that?
Personally, I don't think about the environment when I ride. The only reason I ride is because it's fun and fast. But the "Frontline" thing had freaked me out. When I thought about it, I realized I really didn't want to do anything that was bad for the environment. Unfortunately, though, since simply washing your taint in the shower is enough to destroy the world, it seemed the only thing I could do to be environmentally friendly (or at least benign) was pick a small plot of land, never leave it, and subsist entirely on rainwater and whatever plants I could manage to grow. Even then, I'd have to figure out what to do with my waste. I supposed I'd have to compost that. But this life sounded completely horrible to me. The only conclusion that I could draw was that I'm a scourge on this planet and I should remove myself from it as soon as possible. Thanks a lot, "Frontline" and Earth Day.
Then it hit me: I could just do what other people seem do, which is congratulate myself for riding my bike anyway, even though it really doesn't matter much one way or the other. Perfect! Suddenly I was "saving the world" too, and it felt great. The only thing more fun than riding your bike is riding your bike with a purpose. Not only was I no longer a scourge on the planet, but I was actually better than my fellow human beings! I was beaming like a hippie at a jam band concert until I got to the "sheltered" bike lane and was impeded by a garbage truck:
If the bike lane represented my newly-discovered moral high road, the garbage truck represented reality. I couldn't really get mad at the garbage truck either, since the simple fact is that refuse must be collected. However, before the bike lane got "sheltered" I could have just zipped around it. Now, though, I had the sidewalk at my left and either a concrete island or a row of parked cars on my right. Sure, there's still room to pass it, but that room is also being used by sanitation workers, and people getting in and out of their cars.
My high road was blocked. I was riding on Earth Day, but where had my bike come from? The parts were made in factories, and then shipped from overseas. They were then shipped again to bike shops by trucks, and in some cases even shipped again by trucks directly to me. Certainly the totality of the Ironic Orange Julius Bike had to represent the equivalent of thousands of car trips, right? And here was this ridiculous bike lane, now a manifestation of the absurdity of my delusion that I was somehow "saving the world."
I guess the truth of it is that you can choose to use a bike as a tool, or you can choose to use it as a symbol. It could be a symbol that you believe in "saving the world," or it could also just be a symbol that you're fashionable, as illustrated by this photo of the Ralph Lauren store on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, taken by a reader:
These Pistas don't say "I'm saving the world." They say "I create a character and a persona for myself and my possessions are props." While you may not actually do active things like ride bikes, you like to look as though you do and you may even like to keep bikes nearby so if you're inadvertently photographed there will be one in the shot. I suppose I can see why this appeals to people. As I'd already experienced, deluding yourself into actually believing you're saving the world is hard, but kneeling in front of a bike that matches your outfit is easy:
Instead of fretting over whether or not I was aiding and abetting killer whaleicide on the way to my destination, I should have been picking crowded corners, leaning my bike against a wall, kneeling in front of it, and staring pensively off into the distance.
Of course, as we saw last week, the current leader in the bike fashion popularity contest, the track bike, has a formidable challenger: the Dutch city bike. As that Times article mentioned, clothing retailer Club Monaco is now selling Royal Dutch Gazelles (those are bikes, not actual gazelles) and a reader was kind enough to photograph the display for me:
According to the Club Monaco X Royal Dutch Gazelle collabo "microsite," these bikes cost about $1,000. There may be cheaper city bikes out there, and they may be equally practical, but they all fail where the Dutch city bike succeeds, and that's in allowing you to create a fictional backstory for yourself. Can you pretend you're on your way to a Cold War rendez-vous with an Eastern European femme fatale on a Jamis? Maybe, but it's a stretch. Of course, as I also learned last week, fans of Dutch city bikes don't like when you imply that to some extent they're fashion accessories, even though fans of Dutch city bikes also endorse the concept of "cycle chic." I guess that, while they enable riders to be fashionable, it's not acceptable to say the bikes are themselves fashionable, just as it's acceptable to say riding a bike can help you "save the world," even though it's not acceptable to point out that the bikes are themselves environmentally unfriendly.
But what if you want a practical bike that is also fashionable and is manufactured in an environmentally friendly fashion? Well, you better have a lot of money to spend. A reader recently forwarded me this Seven Earth Day special, which is built in an extremely smug fashion and costs $5,900:
I don't know enough about manufacturing to say if this stuff makes any sense or not, but I will say that the price tag alone is enough to choke a killer whale. Seems to me the most "responsible" thing to do is keep an old bike going for as long as you can:
Incidentally, we have now reached a point where people are putting riser bars on absolutely everything. Riser bars are to urban cyclists what peanut butter is to stoners. "You know what would taste great on that? Peanut butter!" To me, this bike is like a slice of pizza with Skippy on it.
PS: Speaking of guilt, Fatty's contest is ending today and they're a hemp fiber strand's width from their goal, so if you still want in you can donate here.