Thursday, March 17, 2011

Respite from New York City: Austin, TX

The heart in my metaphorical I NY-shirted life is breaking. This is neither sad nor terribly surprising, but lately I find myself seething on the subway whenever I'm positioned behind slow walkers, fat people or lost people. Why is that? Do NYC subway platforms omit some kind of quick-footed methamphetamine? I feel like I'm speedskating/fighting with about 5,000 people a day. And when I finally return home from the soul sucking B train inching all the way from midtown to Brooklyn, I feel ravenous, like I just completed an Iron Man triathlon. Luckily, the weather is improving, which promises to lighten my NY-induced psychosis, but as I put on the same ill fitting work pants every morning and brave the midtown commute, I think: what is it all for?

Enter a much needed vacation. K and I recently took a trip to Austin for my friend Mandi (amanda, bird, kain)'s wedding--she is one who donated her drawing skills to this blog's header. Little did we know we had been subconsciously planning this trip for months by watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix (I love Adrianne Palicki). What we found was refreshing: a poor man's Texan Brooklyn, and I mean that in the best possible way. Basically, Texas hipsters are nicer and they pay a lot less money in rent. Austin is a college town, full of vintage shops, cowboy boots, food carts, Long Horns clothing and live music. We had planned on renting bicycles, which was good, because I haven't driven a car in almost two years. I was dismayed to find out that Mellow Johnny's (the Austin bike shop that I follow on Twitter) only advertised a Trek commuter for rent. I then found Austin Bike Rentals and Tours and I corresponded with a guy named Travis who offered us 3 days of bike rentals for $40! The bikes on their site seemed like Torkers with orange baskets, which I thought would be fine. Travis offered to deliver the bikes to our motel on the day we arrived in Austin. I already had the best impression of Austin--super cheap and great customer service. Travis arrived perfectly on time and lent us two Amsterdam bicycles. I was reluctant to pipe up and say we wanted mannish road bikes, and I didn't realize how heavy these bikes would actually be. Who rides these things? We diligently rode them around for one whole day, before I caved in and pleaded with Travis for some road bikes. Here are the heavy monsters beside Lady Bird Lake:

The things I noticed most about riding our bicycles around Austin is (1) we're the only d-bags wearing helmets and (2) no one locks up their bikes! I shouldn't say that, and I've heard that bike theft is a big problem in Austin, but in comparison to the dismantling and multiple-locking methods that people use in NYC, Austin seems very relaxed. We were given two wire combination locks for both the Amsterdam and fancy road bicycles. Our jaws dropped when a crazy girl wearing booty shorts leaned her bike up against a wall and left it there while she ordered coffee. Wha?!? I see people in NYC carting 25 lb Kryptonite locks around without giving it a second thought. In Austin it seems like they would laugh at you for going to such extremes.

My impressions of riding in Austin were good. There is definitely a "bike culture" there--a lot of people ride bikes and there are many bike racks. Downtown isn't the best area to ride around, but they have the shared bicycle lanes and cars are extremely courteous and they make every effort to give you the right of way. This was unnerving, coming from NYC, where I feel like I need to wear a reflective vest in the daytime. If a car was inching up into the crosswalk and K and I were passing through, the driver would actually reverse to let us pass through--with plenty of room. As far as chivalry goes, those Texas mamas raised their children right! After our bff Travis saw that K and I were sharing a bed and asked, "Y'all are datin' right?" he dropped off our new bikes and they were 100% better. My advice to anyone going to Austin and thinking about renting a bike would be: definitely call Travis (512-277-0609), but pay the extra money for a road bike. Here is evidence of the bike culture, an awesome self-serve bike repair station outside of the mammoth Whole Foods where Mandi works:

And here is K stashing our sexy road bikes in our motel room:

A few other things I would advise to anyone that is headed to Austin: (1) Mighty Cone food cart is delicious (2) Ruby's BBQ has cute hipster boys working there that are really polite (3) you can get lost in the Whole Foods while trying to find your buddies and (4) if you're super cool you can coordinate your trip with SXSW. Hook 'em horns!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne's book Bicycle Diaries isn't so much a book about cycling as it is a bleeding love letter to urban planning. Byrne guides us through an array of American, European and South American cities, including, but not limited to: Detroit, New York, Berlin, London and Buenos Aires - but his stream of consciousness writing uses cycling not as a focal point, but as an unconvincing common denominator.

Like a true artist, Bryne's book is nonlinear and erratic. My favorite and most memorable contemplation deals with young people's obsession with the teenybopper (according to Byrne) outfitter, Abercrombie & Fitch. Byrne writes:

"This former bastion of WASP outdoor wear-which intentionally used to be about as sexy as the boxy Brooks Brothers look-has remade itself as a kind of homoerotic Fascist-chic outpost. Talk about a makeover! Is there a Tom of Finland lurking behind or within every button-downed square? Two male models stand at the entrance of the shop in hot pants, and the walls inside are plastered with photos and paintings (paintings!) of shirtless male models. The ploy has paid off handsomely; youths of all types fill the place daily...but what does it mean that gay kitsch sells clothes to straight youth?"

Bicycle Diaries is filled with many similar tangents, although not all address gay kitsch (unfortunately). He writes mostly about his perceptions of different cultures: their art, personalities, architecture and city centers. He spends time describing faceless characters he meets in his travels who seem to escort him to and from sexy, artsy events but then quickly disappear from the reader's view. At one point he defends the decision to perform one of his art installations in a shopping mall in Istanbul. While he is obviously a well-read intellectual, Byrne's book is more about everything than it is about cycling.

That is not to say that his book is without charm. Byrne often, if not always, takes his folding bicycle along with him when he travels. This leads to some funny mental images of David Byrne cycling around car-centric cities like Detroit or Istanbul. I believe that David Byrne rides where others don't and I respect his devotion to casual cycling as a means of transportation, which is how urban cycling was born.

What we do learn from Byrne's extensive traveling is that while, cycling remains a socio-economic identifier in many countries that have the resources to be great bike cities (Buenos Aires), it simply hasn't caught on in many non-American cities (except Berlin). The most interesting and informative part of Byrne's book is his epilogue, in which he addresses practical problems that all cyclists face, like finding a cool helmet or commuting to work and not getting too sweaty. This is the David Byrne I like and appreciate - the all around cyclist, who literally unfolds his bicycle in an Istanbul hotel and who contemplates the efficacy of New York City bike lanes. Moreover, Byrne has stepped up the plate as a cyclist/artist/designer with his specialized bike racks, which can be found in different locations around NYC:

To all of us cyclists, the idea of David Byrne being a jetsetter for riding his bicycle is irrelevant - this is something we all do, although I presume many of us haven't ridden around Istanbul. And while Byrne's book treats bicycling as a secondary sport to city-hopping, it is to his credit that Bicycle Diaries has prompted him to become more involved in New York City cycling and urban planning.