Jul 30, 2009

Underdogging: A Tale of Bittersweet Bicycle Revenge

This is the second in a series of bicycle-related postings I plan to do.

I’m not really sure that I believe in revenge. It’s such a vast and tangled mess of wrongdoing we are up in the middle of. I figure we are better off honoring what’s been lost and arriving at more radical visions of justice out of that grief than we are spending our time calculating and meting out precise portions of punishment. I do care a lot, though, about whatever keeps the fight in people, and what that fight looks like, and I think for that reason I have a lot of respect for at least the desire for revenge.

For the most part, when we strike out in singular, uncoordinated acts against someone or something that actually has enough power over our lives to deserve it, it often lands us in more trouble. Revenge isn’t reparations. It isn’t justice. It doesn’t honor what’s been lost, and it doesn’t systematically hold oppressors accountable or particularly change the conditions in which they do wrong.

I do sometimes wonder if there’s a value to symbolic acts of revenge. And if that value is for the person who gets away with it, or for all the people who don’t. Then again, maybe it just makes for a decent story now and again. For your consideration…

When I lived in Portland, I had days where I’d find myself feeling inexcusably bored, uninspired, old, or just like I was forgetting what it meant to live somewhere where the mood-swinging adolescent landscape of the west coast was ready to throw some sort of seismic tantrum and reinvent itself any minute. I always felt this was a good occasion to ride my bicycle up one of the teen acne patches that dot the area in the form of extinct volcanoes in order to see the world below.

Mount Tabor is one of those spots. It is the namesake of a mountain in lower Galilee that is the alleged site of the transfiguration of Christ, the event by which the senses of Christ’s apostles were transformed so they might be able to fully perceive God’s glory. The volcanic cinder cone in Oregon does have giant and artistic uncovered reservoirs carved into its side which house a large part of the city’s water supply. Mostly, though, it functions as a poop-covered off-leash area for southeast Portland dog-walkers and sports a too-grand statue of a dead Oregon newspaper editor.

It is a good spot to ride a bike to. And so it was, that one day in 2002 my housemate Tuesday and I decided to take a picnic there. As we crested the top, we were surprised that instead of the usual yuppies flirting over purebreds, the park was filled with hoards of drunken bike messengers having some sort of drunken race.

As we rounded the corner on our bicycles, surveying for a picnic space that wouldn’t set us on top of littered cans of PBR and fixed gear bicycles, we were spotted by one particularly obnoxious, drunken messenger. Not recognizing us as being of the six female bike messengers in the city at that time, he began screaming a series of sexist epithets at us to get us off the pathway because we were apparently blocking his race by being too slow and female.

After the resulting confrontation, we decided to climb down the hill a ways and picnic away from the brodeo that was happening atop the park. Tuesday and I settled into the tall grass and wondered at how bicycling could be both so totally and fundamentally good for our lives and also regularly force us to contend with such bullshit.

This incident happened at a time in my life when I was particularly fed up by bike dudes. I would have liked to be earning a living as a messenger, but of less than a tenth of the messengers in town at the time were ladies, and every girl I’d known who had gone into the biz had quickly quit. Worse, I was on a racing team with an extremely chauvinistic coach who would intentionally withhold information and resources unless I and other members of the young women’s team performed all kinds of domestic labor like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundering bike jerseys for the young men’s team in exchange for our coaching.

As Tuesday and I sat discussing our woes, a chocolate lab bounded down the hill and took a shit inappropriately close to our picnic. We looked around and realized how thoroughly surrounded by dog shit we were, and also at once noticed a hearty-looking stick lying next to where we were seated.

I don’t even think we really talked about it. We both just knew what had to happen. When we ascended the hill again, I had the two foot branch in my right hand. The chocolate lab’s poop had turned out to be the perfect consistency for our purposes: firm enough to stay attached to the stick, but easily spreadable.

After an hour of shot-gunning a can of beer with every lap, the messengers were still amidst their ‘last man standing’ race. Dudes were weaving around the track recklessly, and our man stood in the middle, near the very spot he had cursed us off of. Tuesday rode ahead to check him out and make sure we weren’t mixing him up with some other guy in a khaki jacket and black beanie with a PBR in each palm.

With her nod as queue, I took off riding. As I neared, I braked with my free hand and slowed enough to roll and drag the stick across his back before dropping it in front of the dude's feet. Tuesday and I heard him scream and saw a bunch of guys mounting their bikes as we started off down the mountain.

The next time we looked back, we were full force into our descent. We braked hard to take a sharp switchback that would lead us into deep southeast. Pulling bikes and bodies up against the side of the switchback, we held our breath and went unnoticed by our pursuers, who caught up and continued barreling forward down the straight drop back towards central city.

We spent a lot of the rest of the afternoon watching our backs and cutting a wide path around town to get back home from the far side of the mountain. We weren’t sure how to feel, but agreed we felt like we’d scored for a team we didn’t know we were on until then.

Two weeks later, the local weekly printed an anonymous explanation of our actions with a graphic of a devil-horned girl on a cruiser wielding poop on a stick. People would bring up the article for months afterward and Tuesday and I would grin at each other in private agreement, feeling I think, that it wasn’t exactly our victory to claim.

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