This morning you could feel her for the first time, the air thick, wet, gray and heavy. Gone was the surreal, disconnected feeling attending yesterday's balmy blue skies and glorious regiments of perfect white clouds. Hurricane? Yesterday calamity seemed impossible, although there was not a single parking spot to be had at Lowe's, and the checkout lines at the Pathmark supermarket snaked back into aisles denuded of pasta. The sheets of plywood screwed down tight over the doors and windows intensify the silence of the streets. It rains from time to time with quick, fierce downbursts that quickly fade into a drippy calm, as if we are already feeling a kind of cyclonic, circular churning of the oblong Irene, still 400 miles away. Down the block, I hear the whine of circular saws.
The homestead is in Zone "A", which describes the lowcountry areas of the city most vulnerable to flooding. I would estimate that the floor of my basement is within inches of mean high tide. Another way of putting this would be to describe Irene as payback for the dozens of times over the last 9 years that I have gleefully described my house as being within a couple of blocks walk of New York harbor. One does not have to go downhill more than a few inches to take that stroll. Currently buying guns, bottled water and canoes. Don't forget us out here in the swamps, FEMA.
There is nothing about Paul Fournel's meditative little volume on his lifelong addiction to bicycles that smacks of avant-garde literature. Reading it, I was reminded of an episode from my college days in which a bunch of us, fanatical devotees of experimental cinema, attended the premiere screening of an eminent vanguardist's new work. The film proved to be a remarkably normal documentary about the filmmaker's other passion. I think it was on the restoration of wooden toy train sets or dancing nutcrackers, or something along those lines (but I've forgotten, just as I've forgotten his name). It was a perfectly beautiful and simple documentary, but I was so desperate to locate deep metaphorical and formal subversions of the genre between its frames that I scarcely appreciated it.
But I've aged, and mellowed. I read Need for the Bike with pleasure, neither looking for nor noticing even one example of Oulippian technique. For Fournel is, according to Wikipedia, the president and also the "Provisionally Definitive Secretary" of Oulipo, a French group of mathematically interested writers who set up rigid constraints and then attempt to write literature within them. For instance, from the Wiki:
- "S+7, sometimes called N+7
- Replace every noun in a text with the noun seven entries after it in a dictionary. For example, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago..." (from Moby-Dick) becomes "Call me islander. Some yeggs ago...". Results will vary depending upon the dictionary used. This technique can also be performed on other lexical classes, such as verbs."
Only the French could turn Mad Libs, the mildly amusing children's word replacement game booklets we used to fill out on long pre-teen car rides, into an avant-garde literary movement. But the sense one gets from Fournel's book about cycling is that in describing the many roads he's taken on his bicycle, he's also meditating on the road not taken. Deep into this short book of short chapters he writes "for a long time I wondered why I wasn't a racer." He then answers his own musing: "the objective reasons are many: I had 'better things' to do, and at the age when one tries to become a racer, I had set off on other adventures."
Wherever he has been, whatever he has been doing, Fournel has always had a bicycle to turn to, for exercise, escape, meandering, socializing. "I've only owned beautiful bikes," he writes. "I prefer rigid but supple steel, which isn't really so heavy...." Fournel writes about crashing, about the absurd tan that results from thousands of miles cycled in shorts, jersey and ankle socks. He writes of scaling the most notorious mountain roads made famous by the savageries of the Tour de France, and the sense of ownership of the landscape that comes from pedaling urgently through it. Before they even get on their bikes he knows from the look of his companion's legs what sort of a ride they will have together, how much competitive potential is there. He fondly describes the state of permanent, dull ache the rider feels in his calves and quads for the duration of the cycling season. The bike is his barometer of all things: "I know that if I succomb to depression, it will start with a breakdown in my thighs. It will start with cycling sluggishness, and the rest will follow."
This, you may have gathered, is not a book for everyone. If hearing the word "Campagnolo" doesn't trigger a flutter of acquisitive adrenaline at your temples, if you're uninterested in having a peek at the cutouts in my bottom bracket, if you find nothing romantic about a velodrome, or don't even know what one is, if you object to spandex shorts, if your legs aren't sore and you're scarless, if you've never heard of the Paris-Roubaix, you may not find this book as charming as I do.
Obersturmführernkadet Ricardo Perry in full-on patriotic purple turtleneck Texas A 'n' M swashbuckler mode, photo via nedslist. This image alone is enough to get me charged up about the Obama reelection campaign.
UPDATE: In response to the above, jumping on the Obama bandwagon, an anonymous friend sends the following photo of Michele Bachmann corndogging her way around the Iowa State fair. Not surprisingly it seems already to have gone viral.
The Manhattan subways have been all but graffiti-clean for close on two decades, at least the rolling stock. (Cars that are painted in the dead-of-night are immediately removed from service until cleaned). In my rugged youth, I quite liked the chaos of riding in a subway car whose contours, doors, maps, seats, warning signs and windows were buried under a miasma of tags, inch-wide marker strokes and spray-painted curiosities. The dense lattice of indecipherable texts were their own advertisement; the ensemble announced that you were living on the edge, in an overwhelmed city, a place at once vibrant and out-of-control. This was New York in the 1980s, a place far scarier than today's city, but more alive, more thrilling and unpredictable. (I'm aware that this is the classic lament of any middle-aged person throughout history, that their formative decade of entrance into adulthood was the most vibrant, and raw, but who would disagree that today's clean and shiny subway cars are but the tiniest indicator of the ongoing sanitizing of our city?)
In the 1980s the most adept graffitists came out of the ghettos and into the galleries. Guys who in the middle of the night risked german shepherds, barbed wire and prison time in their quest for the fleeting glory of seeing their name ride by on a train found themselves suddenly invited to fly to Amsterdam and sip white wine with museum curators. Op-editorialists argued about whether graffiti was art or plague, as if it couldn't be both. Meanwhile the MTA spent more and more dollars trying to keep the trains clean. They tried space-age coatings, attack dogs, advanced stainless-steel treatments and multiple rings of perimeter fencing around the train yards, until the resting subway fleet was as well-protected as Riker's Island. (If you were caught after getting through all the defenses of the former you then became eligible to try and escape from the latter).
The graffiti-eradication budgets ballooned. Slowly the vast resources of the transit system prevailed. The immediate and rigorous quarantine of "infected" subway cars and the MTA's gigantic buffing machines destroyed countless masterpieces before they ever rolled down the line and into the public eye. But simultaneous with the cleansing of the trains, graffiti was going international; youth inspired by the 1970s New York legends were painting on walls, bridges, overpasses, storefronts and derelict vehicles from Romania to Australia.
"Above-ground" graffiti was never as interesting to me as the full-car canvases that once rolled through the tunnels of New York, and I rather lost interest in the phenomenon. As an art-form, graffiti has the most in common with Chinese calligraphy. Marking a clean line with a spray can demands the same combination of precision, speed, and commitment that underpin the zen master's slash of camel hair brush on paper. In both, tentativeness is the greatest weakness the artist can show. In both, the form and shape of the letters eclipse their meaning. The motion of the artist's hand is implicit, and supreme, in the finished work. Graffiti is all about this motion, and it is about the fame of the letter. To use a train as a canvas was first to put the motion into the letter, and then to put the letter in motion, to send word of one's existence and talent from the margins to the heart of the city. Without the train, without the awe and surprise of standing on a midtown platform as the subway pulled in, bringing the revelation that every square-inch of its surface had been carefully, masterfully, coherently, freshly and lovingly painted, graffiti literally lost its dynamism.
But sometimes I'm still awed. Around the country and the world, well-known to "writers," are walls comparatively free of the buffer and the white-washer. These graffiti walls of fame can have long lives. Sometimes they develop in collusion with the authorities. If given a remote corner of industrial wasteland to paint as they wish, the thinking goes, the graffitists will be less likely to vandalize the bank downtown. In other places, authority is simply overwhelmed, as New York was in the 1970s. There is more to worry about than paint, and less to worry with. Camden, NJ, is a place like that.
Graffiti removal cannot be high on the list of priorities for the government of that small city. I spent a couple of days in Camden last week with my friend Camilo José Vergara. He has been regularly visiting for some thirty years, photographing the fortunes and misfortunes of this little-known but staggeringly blighted place. Once a thriving blue-collar appendix of Philadelphia, the city has lost the vast majority of its once-diverse industrial base, half its population, most of its tax revenue, its reputation and its pride. The landscape will be familiar to anyone who has seen "The Wire," or watched Baltimore go past the windows of the Amtrak. Weedy vacant lots are punctuated by countless empty, doorless buildings with jagged holes and blown-out double-pane windows; boarded up storefronts, the plywood that was long ago nailed there to prevent egress now itself ancient and weathered and warped and curling away from the facades; enormous factories, burned to the ground, with melted and rusted i-beams curling skyward from perilous mountains of brick rubble. Prostitution and drug-dealing seem to be the most thriving and visible of the few remaining commercial ventures.