Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Confusing the Cyborg by Changing the Bike

In thinking about bicyclists as body-city-machines (cyborgs of a sort), I did a lot of writing this spring about the varying impacts of combining particular bodies, particular cities, and particular machines. This summer I've had the chance to play with this concept in the physical world rather than in the realm of theory because I left my own Panasonic 10 speed road bike at home in Los Angeles while traveling around the country.

Detroit found me on a cruiser with coaster brakes, an arrangement I'd not tried since 2003 or so. I rapidly came to enjoy the feeling of upright cycling, especially since Detroit's such a flat city that no hill seemed to big to conquer on my rusty steed.

Then I headed to Portland, where I borrowed a Nishiki one speed road bike. At first I felt pretty awkward on that guy, cause he seemed to be a wannabe fixed gear. Only the front wheel had a brake, and it was positioned on the inside of the right handlebar. I quickly realized, as I narrowly missed crashing the bike as soon as I tried it out, that I'm accustomed to stopping by bracing myself against my handlebars or pedals. In this case, since the bike had a freewheel and was not an actual fixie, there was no resistance from the pedals, and the position of the one brake on the inside of the handlebar made it impossible for me to stop gracefully at first. I thought I wouldn't be able to get over this problem, but then after riding the Nishiki for a while my body learned the right moment to put my foot on ground, and I started to feel pretty nimble.

In moments of stress, though, I would forget where the brake was. This made me pretty scared about using the bike to zoobomb, which I had decided I needed to try out for ethnographic purposes. Fortunately the hill people bomb down is not that intense if you're not on a kiddie bike (aka I'm a wuss), and even though the rain had just begun when I swooped down from the zoo a few Sundays ago, the Nishiki held fast and I braked up a storm.

I'm back in LA for the moment, with the use of my own dear Panasonic. Next week, though, I'm heading to New York to see about DIY bike infrastructure there. Who knows what kind of bike I shall borrow?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Flat as Art Object

Two Sundays ago I biked to Pico Union to attend an art event hosted by g727, the downtown art gallery co-owned by one of my favorite LA artists, James Rojas. It was to be a conversation between James, who is also an urban planner, an artist, Carmen Argote, and historic preservationist Edgar Garcia. To be discussed were issues of space and domestic life.

I hadn't read the event details closely, so I was charmed to discover that the event was taking place inside the artwork itself, 720 sq. ft.: Household Mutations. Argote had transformed her childhood home, a flat in a typical LA fourplex from the very early 20th century, using white paint on the carpeting to highlight the shape of the place. The floorplan became the focal point.

James led us on a tour of the flat, pointing out details that indicated when it had been built, and how there probably hadn't been a large New York style brick apartment building next door when the flat's large windows were planned.

We followed him back into the bedroom, whose odd windows must have once looked out on a panorama of the San Gabriel Mountains. Now you can see a carport.

Then we headed into the flat upstairs for a more conventional discussion of the piece by the three experts. Apparently Argote's family has owned the fourplex since the early 70s, and has housed various family members over the years. Interestingly, some of these family members were present at the event and chimed in with details about the house and the neighborhood. Argote spoke about how the shape of that home had been burned into her memory through repeated actions, and Rojas and Garcia spoke about the impact of east coast-style floorplans on immigrant families' domestic rhythms, so to speak.

As someone interested in the interplay of infrastructure and behavior, I found the whole thing terribly fascinating. If I weren't such an itinerant grad student (read: broke traveler) I'd buy a print of the Craigslist ad they made for the exhibit.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Social Life of Long Distance Trains

When I first started riding trains in summer 2008 I knew a lot about the Greyhound and a lot about flying. The train contains a different kind of social life than those other modes.

I'm again traveling from Chicago to Portland on the Empire Builder like I did that first summer, only this time I'm a connoisseur. I know how to avoid long conversations when I'd rather stare out the window. I know to bring along a bottle of lavender Dr. Bronner's so I can feel somewhat refreshed.

Part of this knowledge is spatial, like knowing what types of interactions happen where. If you're traveling coach, you may have only a sliver of space to yourself. The "sightseer lounge" has lots of seating, but tends to get crowded and loud. I like to sit there if I'm working on a project, or if I want to have casual conversations.

I try to avoid talking to my seatmate if I have one because I like talking to strangers so much that I will keep talking as long as they're on the train. This can lead to things like watching Jennifer Aniston rom coms with someone who works for a coroner's office in suburban Chicago. While this is fun, I prefer to maintain a sense of solitude when I'm riding for days, especially because I always put together an ambitious list of writing, reading, or sewing tasks to accomplish while en route.

Besides figuring out a system for how to not feel crowded even in a very public space, the other thing that makes the train work for me is the ladies' dressing room. Each coach car has one. It's just a little room with two sinks and a couch with its own enclosed bathroom on one end, but brushing my teeth is made much more appealing when there's not an Amtrak toilet in the room.

It's tricky, though, cause there's no lock on the dressing room's outer door. I used to feel huffy about people coming in when I was using the room, but today a lady came in while I was performing my morning toilette and we had a lovely conversation about bikes.

People react differently to the social space of the train. I witness plenty of interactions between conductors and travelers clearly miffed about the fact that they'll have to share a seat.
I mean, it is a lot nicer when you don't have to share a seat, can't deny it.

But there's a lot of camaraderie, too. When I ride in a sleeper I always enjoy getting to know the people I'm seated with at meals, and I always overhear lots of getting-to-know-you conversations. I think there's one going on behind me right now.