Or “Why I am riding in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon.”
I like to say that one way to get someone to care about something, is to have them care about someone who cares about it. Even though Bikes Not Bombs is the place everyone I know talks about when it comes to buying a bike, very few of them actually care about it in a way that would draw them to action. Except for IR. She’s the reason I care about Bikes Not Bombs, and in order to talk about it, I need to talk about her.
IR met AL and came over our house a few times during this awkward period of some new friendships where you, or at least your friends, wonder if it’s going to be more than just a friendship and the two parties involved see quite a bit of one another. She didn’t feel quite like a real person those first times I saw her. A short girl hailing from St. Petersburg, IR was nearly impossible to actually talk to and demonstrated one of the strangest senses of humor I’ve ever seen in a person—a literal translation of Russian word play into English with little room for any other window dressing. Every word out of her mouth tied to another in a linguistic trick that left me doubled over.
She told me about when she was younger–like a kid younger–and met the daughter of one of her parents’ friends. That girl, she said, was the most amazing person to little IR. She was beautiful and brilliant and interesting and when she said she was going to go to Boston, little IR realized that it too must be beautiful and brilliant and interesting and vowed to go there one day.
Eleven years later IR seemed to provide herself as my first real proof that a member of our little lost generation can have a home that they were not born into. She’s more a part of the city than other people I know who are vocal about their love of it. She’s involved in the community. She’s involved in biking. The first time IR talked about biking, I was a little surprised.
Russian women, they joke, have two phases of life: when they are tall and thin and gorgeous and when they are short, plump babushkas. She skirted past the first phase. Rather than moving in that begrudging way archetypical babushkas move—resentful of their bodies for shrinking their vertical ways and growing in their horizontal ones—she motors around with the same sense you see in their younger counterparts. All of the bike people I’d met, to that point, had been slick ropey people, all sinew, skin, and dense, wiry muscles. IR didn’t -look- like the other people I knew who went on long, endless bike rides.
When a boy I foolishly liked inspired in me the idea that it would be good to bike out to North Adams to go to an art museum, she countered with a proposal involving staying at the house of a flower farmer and getting a ride with him back to Boston on Tuesday.
“It’s really the best way to go there and back,” she said.
IR, you see, is a bike master, but she’s thoroughly unpretentious about it. One day we watched someone on a robin’s egg blue single speed brush by us. She sighed at them and said “That’s a shame, that bike frame is not a good frame.” She didn’t sound like she was making fun of the rider, more that she felt sorry they didn’t have a better bike. She knocks out sixty mile trips as though they’re nothing. She knows more about bikes than most of the people I know–and the people I know know a lot about bikes.
When she asked if I wanted to go to BNB for a tour, something she nervously broached and then quickly added that they weren’t going to ask me for money, I said of course. In spite of how many people I know swear various forms of allegiance to BNB, I’d never been there.
It was early on a Saturday morning when I first went to BNB. We’d both been up late the night before, so AL and I were suffering to stay awake as we made our way over there with IR and a friend of hers, EM.
We sat around a table with a bunch of other sleepy people, poking at muffins and coffee. We shared stories about what bikes mean to us and about us riding bikes. We all felt a little emotional when the tour actually began.
The tour wasn’t just of their physical work space, a converted industrial space that feels one part science museum with its colored, grated walks, one part work shop, and one part home. We did make our way around the Hub, as they call it, and see the different parts of it, but mostly we were given a tour of their programs and philosophy.
We were told about people in the Earn A Bike program, both in the general sense and specific stories. We learned about the girl whose parents hit her. The boy whose cousin was shot in an act of gang violence, and how he didn’t do anything about it because he was asked not to by the people at Bikes Not Bombs.
The essence of stories about the people in Earn A Bike and Girls in Action–a girl specific Earn A Bike program that also focuses on things like female empowerment–is that if you teach anyone how to do something, they form a better sense of self. Movies like Wasteland, that chronicles the work artist Vik Muniz did with catadores in Jardim Gramacho, and Born Into Brothels, which focuses on photography done by the children of prostitutes in Calcutta, focus on art as the medium of this change. But, in truth, we learn that giving anyone–younger people or older people–an activity and a community of members who respect them and who they can respect in return, will have similar results. In some cases it’s art of music. Mad Hot Ballroom, one of my personal favorite documentaries in this genre, is about a ballroom dance program in the New York City Public school system. During the film, we get to see how one of the students goes from assuming he is going to die before he’s an adult to having plans to become a dance instructor. Sports are a classical example of people forming a strong sense of sense and a sense of belonging—especially with team sports. The 2005 documentary Murder ball mostly proves to us that even U.S. cripples are totally badass. However, there’s a scene in which a depressed young veteran is dealing with his combat driven amputation and he is introduced to the idea of wheel chair rugby. He is sitting in the Mad Max style wheel chair and, gleefully, bumping it into things as he realizes for the first time that his whole life isn’t ruined. There’s still paraplegic rugby.
There are lots of flavors for this kind of empowerment. There’s rowing programs and sailing programs. Science and music and math and art. People dance and play games. there are so many programs, initiatives, and projects—so many good ones.
At university, I spent some time holed up ignoring all organizational pleas for help because there were just too many of them and I didn’t know who to give my attention to. I just felt –bad- that they were asking for money and I had none and I thought they were all good. For some reason, after hearing about the youth work at BNB, I found myself thoroughly emotionally devoted to the cause. I structured a practical reason later—that bikes are longer lasting. This isn’t just about creating a sense of belonging or community or feeling good, it’s not literally about saving lives on a scale beyond the occasional individuals: it’s about sustainability—a word we love to toss around. When you fix a bike up, you know how to fix a bike. You can fix other people’s bikes; you can fix y our own bike. When you have a bike, you have a means of transportation (and joy) that you just need yourself to make go. If you can fix that bike, you don’t need anyone else for it. Completely and totally, it’s yours. Having something that really is yours, especially when you’re younger, is rare. BNB doesn’t just give youth a renewed sense of self, it gives them a thing they can take away from it and share.
But that all came later. I was driven by the tear wrenching stories and my own deep emotional attachment to my bike (the artifact and the concept.) I was unable to remove myself from everything I got out of it and wishing very deeply that everyone else could have that too.
There’s more than just that. There are the International programs where people go places and help other people. It files the same idea of sustainability and creation—not just throwing money at problems, but giving people tools to help themselves. Ability Bikes is a bike shop run by “disabled” bike mechanics in Koforidua, Ghana. The people there share the same stories of finding self-respect—and a way to support themselves—through bikes. Maya Pedal doesn’t try to get gas or electric powered machines to function as water pumps or corn mills in Central America, instead it creates human-powered bicycle based machines to carry out these tasks. They’re not as quick as their otherwise powered brethren, but they will work even if you run out of oil or the power goes down.
Bicycles are beautiful machines. They are, ultimately, simple, even though we dress them up in fancy ways. They work, even though no one seems to quite be sure why. They are powerful and amazing, not just because of what they are physically, but because of what they can be or mean to people.
Bikes are happiness, power, independence, freedom, joy, fun, hobbies, toys, objects of fascination, friendship, ecologically friends, inspiring, transportation, love, and so many other things I can’t think of them all right now.
And that’s why I am riding in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon.