Monday, October 8, 2007

Cycle Killer: Q'uest-ce que c'est?

As I mentioned on Friday, there was a lot happening bike-wise this past weekend. If you're wondering what I was doing, let's just say it didn't involve fixed-gear freestyling. (And not only because I had the borough wrong.) But it did involve suffering. Lots and lots of suffering.

I'm referring of course to an event that took place at Town Hall on Saturday night called "David Byrne Presents: How New Yorkers Ride Bikes." (As for the rest of the weekend's suffering at Southampton, you can read all about it at Velonews and Cyclingnews.) This was part of the New Yorker festival, which takes place every year and in which people like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem and Salman Rushdie graciously allow the public to pay a Ticketmaster surcharge to eavesdrop on their self-indulgent conversations. Normally, I would avoid this type of thing like a freerider avoids lycra. But this particular event was about cycling in New York. More importantly, it promised bicycle valet parking. And the novelty of that is ultimately what sold me.

The organizers obviously put a lot of thought into the location for this event. Town Hall is on West 43rd Street just off Times Square. And as any New Yorker knows, there's no better place to ride a bicycle than Times Square on a Saturday night. From a cycling perspective, it ranks somewhere between Dresden during World War II and the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in terms of convenience and safety. Then again, perhaps David Byrne was trying to make a point. After all, the theme of the night was "How New Yorkers Ride Bikes," and if you didn't already know, then by the time you got to the venue you had definitely learned that it is under constant threat of death.

The sidewalk in front of Town Hall was mobbed with scalpers and people who in their lifetime had clearly eaten more than their share of granola and dried fruit. We were finally able to make our way to the bike valet, where the volunteers did an admirable job of thinly disguising their disdain for our bikes and handed us a couple of claim tickets. A nearby Bridgestone with colored rims confirmed the direction of their proclivities. (As an earnest aside, though, I will say that I'm sure there were many places they would rather have been, and they did a great job. The peace of mind the bike valet provided was the highlight of the evening.)

(The bike valet--classy.)

The show opened with helmet cam footage of David Byrne riding to Town Hall and narrating as he went. David Byrne has been cycling in New York for 30 years, but he has apparently not yet learned that you do not pass car services and taxis on the right-hand side unless you want to get doored faster than a Williamsburg condo development rushing to get its C of O. The film was cleverly put together to give the impression that Mr. Byrne was cycling right off the street and onto the stage, but the illusion was blown by the fact that he had been cycling in broad daylight and it had been dark out for the past hour and a half.

I suppose it had been unrealistic for me to hope that Byrne would be wearing the giant suit from the "Stop Making Sense" era, but nonetheless I was disappointed that he wasn't. Also, I was never a huge Talking Heads fan, so I'm not sure how he normally speaks. On this night, though, as he promised us a "really big sheeew" (yes, he did an Ed Sullivan impression more than once) he spoke in a halting, distracted, and slightly addled manner that gave me the disconcerting feeling that something was wrong. We were in the orchestra underneath the balcony so I don't know what was going on up there, but the only thing that would explain his demeanor would be that the entire upper level was filled with topless women. Hugh Grant sounds like a cattle auctioneer in comparison.

The first act in this purported bicycle variety show was Hal Ruzal of Bicycle Habitat demonstrating how easy it is to steal a bike. There were a few bikes locked to a rack on the stage, including Mr. Byrne's, which he had duly secured upon entering. Employing a pair of bolt cutters and an angle grinder he liberated everything in about eight minutes. It was basically a reprise of the famous "How To Steal A Bike In NYC" video with a little bit of Angle Grinder Man thrown in. Hal's advice was to get a crappy bike and an expensive lock. I imagine at Bicycle Habitat that the margin on locks must be a lot bigger than it is on bikes.

Next up was Calvin Trillin. If you're looking for the consummate New York City cyclist, look no further than Calvin Trillin. This is the man who wrote "Tepper Isn't Going Out," an entire novel about cars and parking. In fact, during the promotion for that book in 2002, the New York Times review describes how "on a recent Sunday, life imitated art imitating life, as Mr. Trillin was accompanied on a typical weekend jaunt, beginning with a drive to Houston Street to buy smoked salmon, a nice whitefish and other delicacies for brunch back at his home in the West Village." In Manhattan, this is the equivalent of driving to your next-door neighbor's house. At any rate, Mr. Trillin read an amusing essay about his crappy bike. I can't believe he actually rides it though. If traveling from the Village to Houston Street (which is in the Village, mind you) warrants a car, then he must only ride his bike from the bedroom to the kitchen.

Trillin was followed by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect, who described how over the past 30 years Copenhagen has been transformed into a pedestrian paradise thanks largely to bicycle-friendly city planning. Gehl was charming, despite an inordinate number of lascivious asides about how much easier it is to gawk at women while riding a bicycle. (Then again, he does live in Copenhagen). The crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed every time Gehl displayed another slide of a happy person biking in a pristine bike lane, or every time he cited a statistic showing how many people in Copenhagen ride to work. In fact, the only time they stopped sighing longingly was when Gehl off-handedly mentioned that because Copenhagen has no helmet laws people don't need to bother wearing them. Suddenly the audience was silent and you could hear people shifting in their seats uncomfortably. Apparently even the most progressive Americans are not ready to accept the concepts of freedom of choice or personal responsibility.

After that, Byrne brought on the Classic Riders Bicycle Club, who took the stage with their vintage Schwinns. After what was perhaps the most akward 45 second interview I've ever seen, they mercifully left the stage. And if I were planning an evening dedicated to cycling, I would have picked the exact same person that David Byrne picked to follow them--that's right, Buck Henry. Buck Henry is as inextricably linked to cycling as Pauly Shore is to urban planning, and he literally drove at least fifteen people from the theater by reading a lengthy passage from Beckett that somehow involved a bicycle. It was absolutely excruciating, and we were writhing in our seats like there was an electrical current running through them. It did have the unexpected benefit of making anything that I will ever experience from that moment on seem painless by comparison.

(The Classic Riders Bicycle Club)

When a veteran comedian is outstaged by the deputy chairman of the Warrington Cycle Campaign in England, you know the evening is doomed, and that's exactly what happened. Jonathan Wood shared with the audience some examples from his series called "Facility of the Month," which features highlights in stupid bike lane designs. While these ordinarily would have been amusing, after Buck Henry they were gut-bustingly hysterical. One can only hope Henry was taunted by the laughter as he waited for his car service backstage.

My attention waned considerably after this, and I will spare you the details of the rest of the evening. As I've done in so many bike races, I put an end to my suffering by retiring before reaching the finish. There was only one more flickering moment of entertainment between Jonathan Wood and our departure, and that was Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives, who was the only person that evening with enough wit and irreverence to make a Talking Heads reference to David Byrne.

After claiming our bikes, we took our leave and barely made it out of Times Square alive. For those that were there, if the evening didn't kill you, the traffic probably did.