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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bicycle Diaries


During my last trip to London, August 2010, I visited Foyles to find some bargains. I happened upon Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne. I read the Introduction and felt as if I were reading about me. Like Byrne, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I lived on my old ten speed in NYC. I wasn’t new to riding in NYC. I did ride this bike here in the 60’s, too. I used it to visit girl friends, to go down to Roxy to roller skate, and to get to work. I had a lock and locked it up wherever I went. I explored NYC’s boros, exercised in Central Park, and avoided using cabs and the subway. The bike was how I kept sane in NYC. Eventually I traded it in for a mountain bike, a Rock Hopper, in 1985 when my daughter was born. The streets just tore up that poor old ten speed. Soon I put her on the back and transported her around NYC and then her brother who was born in 1993. In 2005, I eventually gave it to my twelve-year-old son when I bought a Cannondale road bike to Escape NYC into Jersey and now to Maryland. I ride constantly for exercise and to tour while doing an average 65 miles per ride in all four seasons.
I didn’t realize that the author of this book was the David Bryne of Talking Heads fame until I investigated on the Internet and it was confirmed as I read more. Bryne traded his three speed in for a folding bike so when he traveled he could take it along to get closer to the real cities he visited. The evolution of the bike since the 1980’s in America and beyond has been astronomical. With the advent of bike sharing in America and Europe and with the addition of bike lanes in many cities around the world, we are seeing more and more bikes on the road. But in 1980, there were few of us and cars and especially taxies weren’t kind as Byrne points out. As I begin this book, I find so much in common with him. He, too, grew up in a suburb of a big city. We spent our youth, in the 50’s and 60’s on bikes. As he continues his treatise, he explains how cities are built for cars, not bikes or pedestrians. It is difficult to ride in most American cities because of the number of connecting freeways. These cities were built by car companies and oil companies and by men like Robert Moses. Biking in America is not easy as Byrne tells us. Most of our roads have cars that drive too quickly with inadequate shoulders that are littered with garbage and obstacles making biking no fun at all. His trip to the amazing Niagara Falls first takes him through miles of a wasteland of chain restaurants, tacky honeymoon motels and derelict neighborhoods. This is America. On other rides such as in Rochester, NY he discovers many wonders just by accident. Riding the bike slows him down, allows him the appreciate the neighborhoods, see the shops, smell the towns and cities he is touring as a musician or as a photographer. The bike is a break for him in his otherwise busy day and life that brings him to these cities for business. These rides are cathartic for Byrne, they provide a life force to nurture his artistic side. He rides from the center of Detroit to its suburbs he is able to see the devastation of the city and its surroundings. This is similar for me as I cross bridges from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens.
Byrne takes on the German philosophical persona as he glides the clean and smooth streets of Berlin, circumnavigating an Evil Empire visitor to find the Stasi. On his way he enters the surreal world of art and neighborhoods hidden away by a maze of buildings. The bike allows for this adventure. The wide boulevards remind him of other cities and when he gets to the Stasi museum he gets lost in the ramblings of a political prisoner speaking of reparations, Mugabe, Nixon, Hitler, Bush and on and on until he escapes. This is what bike riding is like for me, too. For miles I am waxing poetic, philosophizing, ruminating about things, working it all out, so when I arrive home I am cleansed and refreshed. Remade anew.
In Istanbul, Byrne reminds us that bikes mean different thin gs to people in different countries. For some it is a sign of poverty, for others a mean main of transportation. In America, bikes are for many reasons: exercise, deliveries, and main mode of transport. Those using for main mode as I’m discovering here in Maryland it is either a loss of license or loss of car. Not everyone has a bike for recreation of only for recreation. The bike was always one of those things I wanted to use in an interdisciplinary course. If a class were to study the bike, one would need a math teacher, a physics teacher, a social studies teacher, a business teacher, a physical ed teacher, an English teacher, an art teacher, and a music teacher. Think about how that thematic concept could change education from what we have to what we should have. But that’s me dreaming. People certainly love their cars as witnessed in too many over populated cities around the world. As Byrne points out, he gets from point A to point B faster on his bike than in a car. Whenever he is in a car in Istanbul, he is stuck in traffic that is not moving. As he confirms, folks think riding a bike in a city like NYC is dangerous. It can be, but keep in mind the bike is probably going faster than the car and is more maneuverable. Now we are seeing a trend in “cycles for Hire” which are bikes one picks up here and rides and drops off there for a very small fee. They are cheaper than cabs and quicker and more convenient than subways or buses on their fixed routes. Istanbul is an architectural marvel of old and new, east and west and Byrne is enjoying it all as well as out of the way locations made more accessible on the bike.
Byrne’s stop in Buenos Aires is reminiscent of other cities, bikeless. But this trip brings him to even more remote places, more interesting cemeteries, and unique historical venues. Here he is encountering more language, more music, and is in a true city that never sleeps. BA is a party town and reminds me of Reykjavik. Again he meanders into the realm of politics and how America influenced the dictatorships of South America and he is there in a post 911 times with the recent election of Obama. America is an enigma to them with the reelection of W as much as it is to Byrne. He witnesses the power of the World Cup while in BA. Being in a country, whose country is currently playing in the World Cup, the experience is unlike anything any American can ever know, not even on Super Bowl Sunday.  Like many of us, the departing experience is strange as we are captured o a plane filled with Americans returning home. It is sad.
After reading the chapter on Manila, I definitely don’t find anything compelling about this place. The little biking he did do was uninspiring.
Byrne begins his Sydney chapter with terrifying accounts of the deadly insects. Then he slowly turns it into a very romantic and lovely trip. Some biking but the part that most intrigues me is when he rents a 4 wheel drive and ventures into the middle of Australia and to Ayers Rock. This I must do. I also wish to get to Tasmania, sorry he neglected it. His adventure to the Rock reminded me of Iceland, a place Byrne would relish, I’m sure.
I’m not sure I’d like to ride in London. The other riders are very competitive as I noticed and the number of lights and mishmash of roads makes it impossible for good sightseeing. The bus system there is superb and one can disembark often to do a proper our. Also London is so expansive that biking might be unreasonable. If I lived there as I did in NYC, yes, I’d live on my bike, but as a short term visitor trying to get as much packed in a short time, the bus is my preferred mode of transport, then the tube for large expanses of distance. London is also a good walking city as is NYC and Paris. Bikes for visitors, maybe on a lark, for residences, definitely.  Yes, London is an interesting view of class as Byrne points out. He of course is on a different level than I am. In all his travels, I’m sorry he isn’t a football fan. He would have loved it in Istanbul, Buenos Aires, and London. He missed a true look at the people through these eyes. Again, I couldn’t be in more agreement with him about the horror of reentry into the USA. It is the effect of having so much water separating us from Europe and Asia. America is a classic example for Burroughs’ idea “that the oppressed become the oppressors.” It’s not just Israelis, but also Americans. America is made up of oppressed people fleeing their oppressors to become the oppressors. The melting pot.
David Byrne the artist is visiting San Francisco for the art. This is a terrifying city in which to ride a bike let alone walk. The hills are killer, Psycho Killer, haha. I was lucky to have been able to spend a couple of summers in Palo Alto in 1999 and 2000. I had a bike then. I took it into SF once to enjoy the city and some of the hills. It wasn’t that bad. I have an artist friend who lives in SF and has a studio in Sausalito. He takes his bike up into the hills of Marin County and finds remote beaches. He sends me pics of his rides. I send him pics of my rides on the eastern shore of Maryland.
Byrne concludes with a chapter on NYC a city in which I lived for fifty years and lived on a bike. Riding a bike in the 60’s in NYC was a trip. In the 70’s without brakes and clubbing was numbing. Then I became a parent and more responsible just as the city became more responsible to bike riding. Now it is so civilized, bikes are ubiquitous in NYC. I once got a ticket for going through a red light on Riverside. Yikes, time to lite out for the territory, which I did.
I would have loved to see a chapter on his bike and how he maintains it on the road. I would have liked a geeky chapter on the bike, his tools, what he took as spares, and about how many flats he got. Also has he been to some real bike cities in the lowlands?
I had fun with the Bicycle Diaries and enjoyed the ramblings that go on inside our heads when we ride for miles and miles.

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