Tag Archives: critical mass

critical mass: the measure of our joy

Riding Critical Mass for the second time (the first is here) is a bit like doing most anything for the second time: The initial strangeness of it, those tentative first moments, they’re not there in the same way; but taking their place for me was a kind of self-conscious wonder, to see ourselves riding through the city as if from a distance, or from the position of one not always in the midst of things. So a couple of scenes:

  • There was grumbling about the pace of last night’s ride. Too fast, a lot of people said, and there were moments where cyclists were strung out along Venice Blvd. like Christmas lights; other moments, though, where our fragile mass narrowed into a clot of blinkies and unseated riders on the steep hill on the backside of Los Angeles High School. The ride seemed to have a lot of that push and pull to it, the riders at the front pushing the pace along near-empty roads, the riders at the back pulled along as best they could, with the occasional extended pause at red lights.
  • Last night’s watering hole was a liquor store at Broadway and Ord, the sidewalks thick with bikes and people. I was riding with my friends Matt and Daniel, and Daniel came out with a small bottle of whiskey wrapped in a paper bag. Between pulls, we watched fixies pivot and pitch in the street, caught up with each other after long separation. There was a light on in a window on the 2nd floor of the building across the way. A thin curtain had been hung up slightly askew, and through that, the faint outline of someone’s red underwear hanging up to dry. A dark shape came to the window at one point, pulled the curtain back, but slipped away just as quickly. What, if one were to make some critique of what we do, it might be this: We don’t know the measure of our joy. Music and laughter in places that don’t always seem prepared for it.
  • Pulling out from that stop, that thought came back to me, but stronger. Coming out of Chinatown, the surprising bulk of City Hall hazed by mist and floodlights, roll down Broadway to 2nd, where we turned right and rode through that tunnel. And I’ve been through that tunnel before, but this felt different: Jim Morrison’s voice was coming from the speakers on someone’s bike, and the tunnel all glistening white tile and lights. Like riding into a tunnel of light, listening to our voices come back to us louder than before, and we raised our voices louder still, until the tunnel was all light and laughter and the gravelly voice of the Doors. And at the same moment, as we passed through that light, the sight of men on the sidewalk, sleeping in the relative warmth of the tunnel, dark bundles of blanket and cardboard roused by our voices that came through and were then gone. UPDATE: Looking about the interwebs, Shapeofthings put up a video of that same tunnel – interesting that watching the video, everything looks so much darker than I remember. Memory burnishes itself in funny ways, I suppose.
  • We finished at the RiteAid at Hollywood and Vermont earlier than we might have, but lingered in the parking lot drinking Tecate tallboys. Coming out of the drug store, there was a man asking for change at the door. I turned past him quickly.
  • We didn’t end up riding the whole of the People’s Ride, but Hollywood was thick with Friday traffic. By some accounts, it wasn’t the most succesful ride, on account of the police taking exception to several riders turning loops in traffic. It didn’t help that the ride was going fast, and I turned south onto Highland to find black and whites – first two, then three, then seven – parked at the curb, making some example or another. A bit of laughter between us at the cops’ questions: Who’s in charge? Nobody, really. Where are you going? Don’t know yet. Why are you doing this? Because it’s fun.
  • Matt, Daniel and I didn’t finish the whole ride. We rode down L. Ron Hubbard Way, then back north, but when the mass turned north onto Vermont, we turned south back down to Beverly. Tim, Dave, Neal, thanks for helping us keep an eye on Daniel when his evening thickened a little. To everyone else we met, look forward to seeing you soon.

And, if you’re interested, the map of last night’s ride is here. And for anyone interested in comparing the two rides, I have October and November’s rides mapped onto each other here. Until next time, ride safe.


accidents en masse

I took the 720 into campus today – all well and good until just west of Beverly Glen, when traffic slowed to a crawl. There was a scrum of fire engines on the south side of Wilshire, and a line of traffic stretching west along Wilshire. The driver eventually let us off a couple blocks shy of Westwood, and I slipped onto my bike and rode the gutter until I could turn right on Glendon. As I did, though, I happened to turn and look through the engines.

One beige SUV had its front fender smashed in. Another smaller car might have been on its side or flipped over, its front almost sheared off. It was on the curb or against the curb or even as far as the sidewalk. There may have been another car still obscured by the trucks. No bodies, and my memory may even now be playing tricks on me, but there a line of police cars shunting traffic off of Wilshire, and an almost bizzarre quiet. I didn’t linger and quickly put the scene behind me.

I mention it because a conversation about the relationship between driving and sight came up today. In a lot of ways, it’s probably a tangential topic, this relationship between ways of seeing and the positions from which we see. This is, in some ways, not a new question for me, but still a pressing one. How does being on a bike impact the way in which we see the city, and is it necessarily for the better? One of the key issues that has to be addressed in talking about bikes, I think, is the numbers in which we ride. As a solitary individual, my rights, my privilege, are fairly abridged, simply by virtue of being solitary. But in taking to the streets in numbers, be it in Critical Mass or in the ongoing protests against Prop 8, you regain a certain prerogative of action. You can do in a way once not possible.

As to how all of that links to the scene of the accident at Glendon and Wilshire this morning, perhaps this: One of the luxuries, the fleeting joys, of being among others in common cause is the sense of safety it imparts. Driving among others might impart something of that, a certainty of safety in spite of an uncertain world (one need only think of the appeal of SUVs); what accidents like today remind one is that in spite of that solidarity, catastrophe is sudden. A brief line from the radio this morning (I think a Kenneth Turan review on NPR): Plan for life of a hundred years, but live as though today might be your last.

scientology, meet critical mass.

One other brief aside from the Critical Mass ride on Halloween: The route took us up L. Ron Hubbard Way. From the looks of things, there had been some sort of banquet on the street before we got there, and there were a couple of people cleaning up. The first few tried gamely to tell us that we couldn’t be there, but the rest quickly realized that there’s very little you can say to a mass of people rolling on bikes chanting F-U-N and P-A-R-T-Y-T-I-M-E.

I’d kind of let the incident drop out of my head until stumbling across this report at LAist. Whole new ways of thinking about public space and the control of it, I suppose.

riding because you can: critical mass

There was some point during last night’s Critical Mass ride when Brian – recently moved from Jackson Hole, now living in Culver City – turned to me and said, I don’t have any idea where we are.

Last night’s ride – my first – had a lot of those moments, even for someone who lives in the area. For people who came in from other parts of Los Angeles, their heads must have been spinning by the time we finally ended up in the parking lot of the Rite Aid at Hollywood and Vermont. That was about the time that I peeled off, but the two hours’ ride we took last night curled through Koreatown and up into the eastern verges of Hollywood, down empty streets and streets thick with families leading their kids out trick-or-treating, along back roads (as much as any exist in Los Angeles) and through the thick of traffic heading west on Sunset or on Melrose.

I mapped out the ride this morning, and what struck me was the way in which the map confirmed a feeling I had when I was riding: We didn’t really go anywhere.

Check that: We didn’t really go anywhere in the way that I usually think of going places in this city. When I get in my car, get on the bus, or even (usually) when I get on my bike to commute home from campus, I have a very destination-oriented approach to what I’m doing. Sure, there are different modes of moving, but they are all teleological, in that they’re inflected by my desire to arrive at a specific place as efficiently as possible. That’s not Critical Mass. While there’s an ultimate destination, the ride is everything. While there’s a route, it’s not so much about getting there efficiently as it is about having FUN while doing it.

And that’s kind of daunting at first. Coming from an experience of riding in the city where I’ve always been going somewhere specific, it was a little confusing to figure out how to fit in with the group. I don’t think I quite managed it, but you can reach a point where you just settle in and ride for the sheer pleasure of the experience.

You ride because you can, and though I don’t know much of anything about the ethos behind Critical Mass, that way in which it lets you ride for no other reason than that you can strikes me as something rare and something worth fighting for. See you next time.