Breaking Containment

Lately I’ve been thinking about the general marginalization and rejection of cycling in Los Angeles and something dawned on me that may be sociological or profound. Or both. Or neither.

I realized — while biking, of course — that here in this city, content isn’t nearly the king that the container is. Instead of our characters being of influence, we are judged — and make judgments — based on what we put ourselves in, from our clothes to our cars to our homes.

We basically can’t help it. Sure, we’re all quick to spout the old adage about books and their covers, but it’s a weak line of defense given how early we were indoctrinated and are propaganized all our lives about how meaningful and fulfilling the superficial and material is. Possessions are power! Style is status!

On that level, it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you wear. No one cares what you think so much as what you drink. It’s not what you’ve done or where you’ve been, but what automobile you drive to get where you’re going.  And where you’re going better be a snazzy place full of snazzy stuff inside a snazzy zip code.

As such, one of our ingrained drives as card-carrying homo angelenii is to make money so that we can afford those things. And if we don’t have that wealth than we put ourselves in debt to acquire those things. And if we don’t have the credit rating, than we covet. Some who covet too much, resort to crime to achieve such things.

None of that should be revalatory. It’s how we function. We are consumers in a consumable world. Relentlessly bombarded with how important it is to surround ourselves with symbols that engender regard and define us as better people, we are powerless not to.

I listened to a Ford commercial the other day on the radio. It featured an excited fellow represented as a “real owner and not an actor” (although that’s always misleading because I don’t care how real and sincere you are there is always manipulation involved when someone sticks a mic or camera in front of you and calls “action!” and “cut!”). Anyway, this guy explained how he at first had feelings of trepidation in trading in his beloved Mercedes for a Taurus SHO. He suspected his new wheels might not be as well received and highly regarded by his clients/coworkers/family/friends/pets/neighbors/carwasher. Well, it turns out he couldn’t have been more wrong, and with sheepish relief he goes on to describe a couple scenarios that reassured him he had not made the Biggest Mistake Ever. One involves a fancy restaurant he went to for dinner wherein he was thrilled afterward to find that the valet had parked his Ford among the high-priced luxury cars. Further in he proudly boasts of the curious and admiring looks the car attracts while driving it.

Agh. Such a blatant perpetuation of a car validating one’s existence was both laughable and painful to hear.

But that’s our material world and on its streets there is not much room afforded the bicycle. While it’s not a literal container a bicycle certainly is a figurative one, but more importantly a bicycle is also about breaking that containment. Certainly when a middle-aged man like myself gets on one and rides 6,500 miles a year, I’m making one hell of a statement. Unfortunately it’s one that draws respect from a very small percentage of my fellow travelers. The vast majority greet what I’m telling them with varying levels of dismissal or disdain.

Because the statement I’m making every time I get on my bike and ride somewhere in this bike-unfriendly city is one of rejection of the status quo as an illusion. A few motorists misinterpret it as an attack and take offense, acting ignorantly or aggressively. But most motorists are too deafened by either their soundproof cocoons or their adherence to the lingering urban cycling stereotypes to hear it — if they’re not considering us Lance Armstong wanna-bes then perhaps they’re falsely empathizing with our having to resort to two wheels to get around, probably brought on by a suspended license conviction.

Maybe, just maybe, one in every 25,000 might actual get the message and consider giving their bikes a spin. Maybe one in every 100,000 actually do. Maybe one in 500,000 do it a second time.

Eight years ago I stood up before my fellow employees at the L.A. Zoo and gave a presentation on the joys and benefits of biking to work. Surprise: my impassioned efforts were entirely fruitless. I started off urging everyone to awaken their inner child and to remember the thrill he or she had immediately after learning to ride, and how that thrill isn’t gone, it’s just been archived — in part because one of the first things we hear upon discovering the new-found freedom afforded by a bicycle is our parents sternly telling us:

“Don’t ride in the streets!”

When I learned how to ride a bike at 6, my mother instilled in me that fear of the streets (bolstered by a even greater fear of the painful consequences that would come from disobeying a direct order). But I further quantified that fear because I’d already experienced the sorrow of what the streets can take from you. It was the streets that killed my first cat, Greyghost. Yet even so forewarned and forefrightened, of course I rode in the streets — and paid my mother’s price when she found out.

But practically from the moment we fall in love with our bikes, the cultural bias is planted and nurtured and passed on from generation to generation that bikes are nothing more than strictly limited childhood toys — and dangerous ones. It’s no wonder we put such childish things away at our earliest opportunities. And it’s no wonder we’re slow to pull them out of the mothballs as adults. It’s also no surprise that despite me being 6’2″ and 220 pounds and about a 6.7 on the Badass Scale of 1-10, I’m often treated like a child out there on the streets. Motorists who arrogantly perceive themselves as dominant will assert their right to the road and passively or aggressively bully me into surrendering mine. Then there are those instances at intersections where I duly accord the right of way to cross traffic; many times the men or women inside those vehicles will condescendingly wave me across like impatient parents sending children to their rooms. Most of the time, I will park myself on the spot and return the favor until they eventually accede to my deathless and petulant stubbornness, gunning it across the intersection visibly affronted by my impertinence as a second-class citizen in failing to accept their gracious if dismissively and demeaningly offered passage.

Like I said earlier, a bike might not be a physical container, but it is virtual one that defines you in the myopic eyes of those same shallow multitudes you’re on the road with every day who judge themselves and others by their healthclub or hairstyle. And their definition isn’t flattering. So the truth is in such a physically and psychologically challenging environment one has to be of pretty strong stock and resilient spirit not just to break that containment but to stick with a mode of transportation that’s so alien to Los Angeles and to the millions clinging to an unsustainable mode that will slowly but ultimately continue towards obsolescence.

And it is alien. It is rebellious. It is revolutionary. It is evolutionary! Every time anyone gets out of their car and onto their bike in Los Angeles that person is not only moving themselves in a positive direction, but also moving the city toward a more promising future.