30 December 2007

Ready For The 90s

As I've said before, I'm quite fond of bicycles and bicycle riding; bicyclists, not so much. I think of them as the vegans of the transportation world: shrill, sanctimonious, arrogant and often insufferable.

Not all bicyclists, of course, and certainly not all vegans. But both groups tend to be dominated and/or misrepresented by their loudest and most obnoxious members. In recent years I've softened my stance on vegans, if only because two of my very favorite people, Kendra K. and Robojoe, fall into that camp. However, my disdain for bicyclists, even though I'm frequently one myself, continues apace.

Let's clarify: I think it would be perfectly wonderful if whole sections of the city were cleared of automobile traffic to make room for bicycles and pedestrians. Dedicated bicycle lanes of the sort seen in many European cities not only make great sense but are practically the moral prerogative of taxpaying bicyclists (well, some of them have jobs) who shouldn't have to risk their lives by sharing the street with two-ton internal combustion behemoths piloted by oblivious sociopaths.

So you'd think I'd be a card-carrying member of Critical Mass, the protest group that uses a massive assemblage of bicycles to tie up commuter traffic once a month in many cities of the world. And I wanted to be, too, but the very first Critical Mass ride I attended, sometime in the early to mid-90s, put me right off that idea.

The concept itself is sheer brilliance: by congregating en masse, bicyclists demonstrate that the entirely legal actions of individuals can, when multiplied by hundreds or thousands, wreak havoc on the right and freedom of others to go about their business. In other words, exactly what automobile drivers do to society on a daily basis.

But from that very first Critical Mass ride, I quickly discovered that a significant number of the participants were little more than low-grade thugs whose main goal was not to change society's attitude toward bicycles, but rather to pick fights with police and motorists. So many years - going on 15, I'd guess - passed between my first Critical Mass ride and my second, which was in fact last night.

It was not my idea of how to spend a fiercely cold San Franciscan night, especially one that promised medium to heavy rain before it was over, but my riding companion, a Mr. A. Cometbus, is a persuasive cuss. "Just because we don't agree with everything they stand for," he reasoned, "doesn't mean we should write the whole thing off."

I refrained from pointing out that the same argument could be made in favor of attending a George Bush campaign rally, and followed Mr. C. down Valencia and Market Streets, two of the only routes in SF which are basically flat if not entirely bicycle-friendly (you try weaving in and out among buses, trucks, and irate cabbies at rush hour; I clipped - entirely accidentally - three side mirrors trying to thread my way between vehicles and the curb), down to the assembly point at the Embarcadero.

Aaron thought there might be "about 10,000" riders; there were more like a couple hundred. San Franciscans are not a tough lot; as committed as they may be to the revolution, it had better be scheduled for a warmer time of the year if you want them to turn out in any numbers.

We waited there in hopes more stragglers would turn up. One extremely loud and extremely drunk man punctuated his guzzles from a large green bottle with ear-piercing bellows that echoed across the plaza and off the walls of the Hyatt Regency. After nearly an hour of this, I was almost ready to point him out to the cops who were standing guard over us and ask them to arrest the joker for public intoxication. Alas, I didn't, and as punishment, was forced to ride through the streets of San Francisco hearing his inane cries of "Go back where you came from" and "This is my country," both apparently meant to imply that anyone who didn't support our cause was an interloper from Walnut Creek or Kansas. I mused rather darkly to the effect that out of the entire body of Critical Mass riders, no more than 5 or 10% were likely to be San Francisco or even Bay Area natives, and that many of them were no doubt the kind of 80s and 90s arrivistes that those of us who made it onto the scene in the 60s or 70s used to always bitch about.

But apart from him and a handful of other noisy lunkheads, most of the Critical Massers seemed like perfectly decent people, and after a while I relaxed and began to enjoy the ride. Having the Broadway Tunnel to ourselves was pleasant, and when the rain arrived, it did so at a time when we were riding uphill and needed to cool off. The police followed us everywhere on both bikes and motorcycles, and stopped us from turning up or down certain streets, but at the same time blocked off traffic for us on others. It was an ideal way and speed to see San Francisco, Aaron remarked; just fast enough so you don't notice a lot of the crap.

And he was right; as we cruised down Upper Fillmore, I found myself thinking that San Francisco hadn't looked this good in years. Maybe it was the low-hanging clouds and the misty rain blurring the harsher contours of the city, but it began to look and feel more like the romantic little toytown I'd fallen in love with so many years ago. Even the bone-numbing cold that's been afflicting us for the past few days seemed to have lifted, and by the time we spun off from the group, I was feeling downright benign toward what I used to routinely refer to as Critical Massholes. Well, most of them, anyway.

We finished up the night at the Apple Store in downtown San Francisco, where Aaron - who has a mostly but not entirely undeserved reputation as a Luddite - was trying to get a computer he'd been given repaired. This struck me as just incongruous enough - we are talking, of course, about the man who until recently hand lettered his entire and not inconsiderable output of books and magazines - to give him a gentle ribbing. But Aaron took it in good stead, and joined in by pointing out that with the level of technology he'd now accumulated, he was "ready for the 90s." Which is about as far into the future as I've ever heard Aaron profess himself ready to explore and embrace, and which of course was also the decade in which Critical Mass was at its apex.

Anyway, upshot of it is that I rode Critical Mass without getting arrested, beat up, or into any blazing political rows with my commie/anarchist riding buddies, though I might have come close when I told one young fellow who was arguing fervently that "the 60s weren't a failure" that the 60s were in fact an extended clown show. Come to think of it, the Critical Mass gang were downright sedate and civil compared with the yahoos and troglodytes unleashed on the world by the New Left and hippie revolutions. Will I join them on future rides? That remains to be seen, but in the meantime, let me declare in solidarity with Mr. C: roll on the 90s!

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