Saturday, April 30, 2011

Adorabletown, USA

I've been getting some Bulgarian spam on this blog lately, which probably means that it's time for an update, lest my fallow blog serve as a fertile crossroads for Balkan insurrectionists, counter-insurrectionists, counter-counter-insurrectionists, and people selling discount Tramadol at low low prices (protip: it's really Tums).

The week before last, Rob and I went to Virginia for our second anniversary. We started by going to some Civil War sites around Richmond, and then Richmond itself. As previously stated, Richmond is one of my favorite cities, but as I have already spoken of my love for it I don't need to talk about it again. AND THEN we drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway, which I had never been to. And it is fucking gorgeous.

Look at this fucking mountain.
I drove most of the way, and even though I hate driving, it was a good experience to have. Along the way, we passed a group of like thirty people on mountain bikes, which gave me the idea to bike on the Blue Ridge Parkway myself someday, although I probably won't be able to do it on a fifty-pound Raleigh comfort bike. But even through the windshield of a car, the majesty of the Blue Ridge shines through. It was like spending three or four hours in a postcard. And everyone we talked to along the way was really, really fucking nice, the kind of nice where you don't know if they are actually sincere. But they are. They do the same Pittsburgh "make a little bit of eye contact, wave and smile" thing that I've had to train myself out of doing here, because on the coasts eye contact is considered a threat resolvable only by mashing one's forehead into the aggressor, antelope-style. I don't think I realized how much a very slight amount of eye contact with strangers meant to me until I was back in the Appalachian corridor.

AND THEN we visited Roanoke, which is the most adorable city I have ever been to. Among the cute things we saw there:
One of Roanoke's many, many adorable storefronts.
Tons and tons of old-timey advertisements, including an original Muffler Man, these giant coffee and Dr. Pepper ads on the top of buildings, and "gas" lamps lining the main downtown streets. Oh, and their buses look like old trolley cars. Even the chain restaurants and stores in town (and there aren't many, I only saw a defunct Subway) are made to look old-fashioned. And all these old-fashioned buildings are still functional. It's like stepping into a time machine, except the people aren't horrible, like real old-timey people are.

The only thing that would
make this better is a
squirrel in the saddle.
Everything is themed around trains because Roanoke used to be an important railroading hub and even though it's not as important now we still saw at least 37 trains come through while we were there. Okay, more like five. But, still, more than you expect to see on a daily basis. Rob is a big railroad geek and even though I'm not as super into it I still thought all the train stuff was awesome. The trainy highlight was a visit to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which houses over sixty old train engines, a few dozen cars, and three bikes!

Bike riding is a thing there, which is surprising as Roanoke isn't that much bigger than Towson, but it's way less suburbanized and sprawley. There is even a Roanoke pedicab service. I saw over a dozen people on bikes while I was there, and since we were only in the town itself for like three hours... that is a lot. And even the bike-related stuff is cute; see the bike rack at right.

Roanoke is the kind of place I could see feeling comfortable in for a long time, and while I'm not about to up and move there (I can't imagine their employment situation is great), I felt instantly comfortable there, which is a lot more than I can say for Baltimore. It's no secret that I haven't been very happy here. Although, things might be changing for the better now that we're maybe definitely probably likely possibly moving to Hampden in August. I came to this we have to move NOW realization after my relaxing ride on Easter Monday afternoon turned into a near-disaster when a fratboy (who are to Towson as trains are to Roanoke -- huge, loud, and ubiquitous) reached out of his passenger-side window and grabbed my handlebars while his crony slammed on the horn. Even if it weren't for the hostility toward bikes, there would still be the un-walkability, the crush of chains (hey, I like Target as much as any Walmart-hating hypocrite, but not when it's the only place I can shop), the townies who don't like me* because they think I'm a student, the students I don't have anything in common with because I'm not one... the list goes on. I realize that I haven't really given Baltimore a chance because I don't LIVE in Baltimore. It's like living in Monroeville and hating on Pittsburgh; yeah, maybe you have a taste of what the city is like, but you don't really know, man. I doubt Baltimore will be our forever home, but maybe it can be more than our two-year home. And at least we'll have given it a fair shot.

* An example: I was riding in Rodgers Forge and this tiny shriveled-up white lady in a nightgown cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled "you don't live here!" It was actually kind of cute, but not as cute as Roanoke.

Don't worry, ma'am, that meth you ordered is right on schedule.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Suburban Cycling 101

Even though I've only been cycling seriously for a few months now, I've already learned some Important Truths about biking in a semi-suburban area. Background: Towson is a college town, but its proximity to Baltimore means that it's ironically or not less centrally organized than a typical small town. In a way, the history of Towson is sort of emblematic of America: quaint college town drowned by a wave of sprawl during 1950s white flight, so that while there is still the skeleton of a town here, a lot of it has been ruined by car-lovin' suburbanites who work in Baltimore and drive everywhere. There isn't a neighborhood grocery store anymore (it closed soon after we moved here... coincidence?! (yes)), there's only a strip of "downtown," and most of one's shopping and entertainment is done at big-box stores, complexes of which are at regular intervals from one another. And while I no longer feel like I'm going to die navigating the Target parking lot, it is still not an infrastructure built for cyclists or pedestrians. There aren't even any bike racks in the town itself, which means I actually prefer Target, since they actually have one (or a structure that works just as well).

Where was I going with this? I don't know. On to the tips!

1. Sidewalk riding is inevitable. Believe me, I already know all the anti-sidewalk riding platitudes. It's something children do! No wonder people hate cyclists when they're knocking over old folks and the disabled on sidewalks. Ovary up! And I agree, largely, with most of them: the best place for a bike to be is usually on the road. But I notice that people in the cyclosphere most adamantly opposed to cruising the sidewalks come from NYC, Portland, or other similarly bike-friendly places. Well, shit, it's not exactly hard to avoid the sidewalks if you live in Portland, you know? If we move to Baltimore City this summer, I'm not going to ride the sidewalks anymore either: for one, it's illegal; for two, the maximum speed limit in the city is 25 mph, which means actual car speeds of around 35, and I feel comfortable riding in that kind of traffic.

A typical sprawl-land sidewalk in Alexandria, VA.
Yeah, this is MUCH better than riding on the street.

But on a 40 mph road, which actually means 55? Hell no. I've heard all the statistics about how you're very unlikely to get hit from behind, the only real danger is in turning, just stay confident and you'll be fine on any road. But those are city cyclists riding on city roads. I can't buy that riding on a deserted sidewalk is less safe than "sharing the road" with truckers who have daily bowel movements larger than you and your bike put together. And suburban/small-town governments know this, which is why it's not usually illegal to ride on sidewalks here, and shouldn't be.

And here's the thing: I've ridden five-miles-long stretches of suburban sidewalk and seen not a single pedestrian. People in suburbia just don't walk anywhere, so why shouldn't someone use it? Well, there are still some good reasons: sidewalk maintenance lags behind road maintenance (I've seen sidewalk potholes that would swallow a young child), there are often obstacles like telephone poles and mailboxes, you have more chance of getting a puncture from broken glass (although the only puncture I've gotten so far has been from a carelessly tossed beer bottle on the road). Plus, sidewalks are just not as pleasant to ride on as roads, being by their very nature of inconsistent width and composition, and prone to ending at random intervals. (I don't know how obligate pedestrians with physical disabilities deal with it... sometimes you're walking/riding along, and you either run into a section with no curb cuts, or there's just no sidewalk for a block for apparently no reason. And while it's fairly easy for me to cut onto the road or someone's front lawn for that block, it's a lot less easy for someone with a disability. Just one more example of how sprawl oppresses everyone.)

So, you might have to ride on the sidewalk, but there are things you can do to be less of a jerk about it.
• Always yield to pedestrians. If a pedestrian is elderly or disabled, or there are a lot of pedestrians (again, very unlikely in suburbia, but a possibility), hop off and walk around them. This does mean having to keep a fairly slow speed but your speed will be slower on the sidewalks anyway.
• When crossing a street on a sidewalk, act like a pedestrian. Of course, cars are supposed to yield to pedestrians crossing on the sidewalk too. But in actuality, if you're an obligate pedestrian you know that pretty much every car is out to get you. So wait for the walk sign if there is one, and if not, be timid as a mouse.
• "Timid" is how you should ride most of the time when you're on the sidewalk. You're really NOT supposed to be there, so act like a tourist, not a citizen.

2. You are a novelty. I know I'm not the only cyclist in Towson. I have seen them: almost always male, usually African-American, often riding BMXs. And of course, there is a lot of biking at the college, judging from the number of chained-up fixies around campus. But even if they see us every day, to the suburban/small town driver you will always be just slightly less odd than a guy in a clown suit riding an ostrich.

Having recently attended driving school, I know that future drivers of Maryland are given next to no instruction about cyclists. There was a brief mention of the three-foot rule, a comment from the instructor about how "bicycles shouldn't be on roads," and that was it. And of course, bicyclists don't have to attend any instruction at all in order to ride, which is as it should be (requiring a license to ride would mean the death of cycling). But still, one thinks that a comprehensive driving program (it was thirty hours of instruction) would include some information about the most commonly encountered non-motorized vehicle on Maryland roads. But I guess one has to carve out time for rape apologism.

Drivers express their surprise at seeing a cyclist on the road in a number of ways. The most common response is "bike!" said in the same manner as "dog!" or "fire!" Not really that annoying. There are also the people who will tell you to get on the sidewalk if you're on the road, and vice versa. (And no, we don't have bike lanes here, it's one or the other, folks.) And then there's the lady who, when coming up from behind me, slammed on her horn with all her might and kept it on as she passed me, her beady blue eyes glued to my face like I was the Devil's daughter. Please don't be that lady. Just... don't.

3. Get confidence, stupid. Yeah, so even though most of this entry is about how you should ride on the sidewalk if you feel scared, when it's safe for you to be on the road, own that road, motherfucker. This is something that has taken me awhile to learn, since I find traffic terrifying even when I'm in a car. But roads were originally built for cyclists and pedestrians, and even though it's not a good idea anymore to jog down a 30 mph road (although I've seen it done... no sidewalks sometimes, remember?), if you're on a bike you have as much right to be there as a car. You may not be able to go as fast as a car, but it's a speed LIMIT, not a minimum speed. Sorry, Autobots, you'll just have to spend an extra two minutes on the road today, on your journey from your sealed-off air-conditioned office to your sealed-off air-conditioned home.

If I had the option of using bike lanes, I would. But since I don't, the next safest place to ride is square in the center of the lane, or maybe a little bit to the right (cars drive on the right in the US). I don't like riding in the extreme right, due to the fact that the pavement is usually crappier there, there's a chance you might scrape up against the side of the sidewalk, and there are often drainage ditches which can be a hazard. Also, riding in the center forces the driver to recognize that you exist and hopefully give you the mandated three feet of space. If you're in his peripheral vision, it's easy to misjudge and not grant as much space. Yeah, drivers will be pissed. I even had a cop cross the double center line on the residential stretch of Joppa Road to get around me, which was hilarious. But if you've been around the Lancaster, PA area and seen the Amish buggy drivers, you know that they don't take crap from anybody. Be confident. Be Amish.

I'm sure there are more things I could mention about being a semi-suburban cyclist but it's very sunny out so I think I'll go for a ride.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Way I Live

J.G. Ballard's High Rise is a cautionary tale of an opulent apartment complex which goes haywire when the power fails. Before long, this closed system complex (boasting pools, a shopping mall, and a school) descends into madness and decay, until before you know it, the main character is eating roast Pomeranian while watching his co-tenants die miserably. It is a truly horrifying tale of what happens when you rely on technology to take the place of human connection and a real community. When me and my husband Rob moved to Baltimore, we very narrowly missed befalling the same kind of misfortune, and now I will tell our tale of warning to you, dear reader. Be forewarned!

We went into The Promenade totally blind and without an appointment, knowing only that it was an apartment building, and sort of a fancy one, at least based on the exterior and the name. But we were running out of potential places to live in Baltimore, and figured that a building would likely have openings. To set the scene, Rob was wearing a suit that day (he had a job interview later in the day), but I was wearing my usual late spring get-up of a T-shirt, hoodie, and a denim skirt, with all my leg tattoos on display. Also, my hair was a little messed up because I hadn't showered that morning. I was also wearing sneakers. I certainly was not dressed up enough for the front lobby of The Promenade and its two crystal chandeliers, not to mention the Oriental rugs. At that point, I wanted to leave, but a concierge had already spotted us and at that point, it was easier to continue with the tour than to back out. After all, if this was just the lobby, imagine what the rooms must look like!

We got to see them shortly, choosing on the "Plan B" model, a one-bedroom/one-bath apartment that also includes a study. Rental price: $1600. Cost of living is higher in Baltimore than in Pittsburgh, but not that high! I might have had my first clue that I was out of my depth when I tried to argue the price with the concierge. Protip: If your apartment building even HAS a concierge, consider all rental prices non-negotiable.

The apartment seemed nice, if a little smallish, but there was something about it that was... off. I couldn't put my finger on it, until we got to the bathroom and I realized: this apartment has no doors! Not to the bedroom, not to the bathroom, not anywhere! I think I did say something about this design feature to the concierge, but I forget her response. Through all of this, Rob played the straight man, nodding and keeping absolutely silent. He said later that he only did that because otherwise he would have spent the entire time laughing, and they definitely would have thrown him out then, suit or no suit.

Some other things the apartment had instead of doors:
• Wine cabinet, for your Mountain Dew and Coke Zero
• Exposed brickwork and plumbing for that "bohemian" feel
• A balcony you couldn't actually sit on
• Your choice of wall paint: muted green, muted blue, or muted gray. What a selection!

I don't think it's really a good trade-off for complete lack of protection from zombie hordes, but to each their own.

Then she showed us the amenities. First off was the gym. I have already made my feelings about gyms clear, but in case you don't remember: I think they're kinda dumb. Except in the winter, why would you ever go to a gym to get exercise? Granted, sometimes I wish I had a gym membership in the winter because I tend to get pretty depressed then due to the lack of exercise, but the rest of the time? Unless your exercise drug of choice is swimming and you don't live near a clean lake, everything you do in a gym can be replicated outside, and it's free. And also, Vitamin D. Just my opinion, folks. But anyway, it was your typical gym for high-powered executives, right down to the kidney-shaped pools. It looked like it hadn't been touched in months.

We moved on to the TV room, and at that point she asked if we had any questions. I had two, namely: Do any children live here?, and, Do any students live here? Because even though I am neither a parent nor a student, I would much, MUCH rather live with young kids and college kids than in some sterile execu-suite. But I think she misunderstood the way in which I asked my question, because she reassured me that the building was inhabited almost solely by young professionals. No fear, future inhabitants of the Promenade at Towson! You won't have to suffer a whiff of anyone that isn't exactly like you. (I should have asked about the paper bag test.) She concluded the grand tour by taking us back into the lush lobby and saying that when people come to see you at the Promenade, you can greet them in the lobby, so that they can quote-unquote "see the way you live."

We thank her, both of us sort of shaky: Rob from holding in his laughter, me from wondering why Rob was being so quiet, and hoping that he wasn't infected with some kind of ultra-contagious yuppie flu that would delude him into thinking this place was a good idea. We stumble to the car and as soon as we're in we both burst out laughing, and shortly after found our current place, which isn't perfect (it's way too big, and I'd rather live closer to the city), but is at least not evil. Seriously, every time I pass the Promenade at Towson I get chills. Although that could be because it's April.

I know that some people would really enjoy living at a place like the Promenade, where you don't ever have to leave your lush suite except to go to your high-powered investment banking job, but I was reminded not only of High-Rise but also of the character Jack Bohlen in Martian Time-Slip, whose schizophrenia only starts manifesting itself after he starts living in a self-contained co-op. I think there was an episode of the new Outer Limits about this, too. Clearly, I watch/read far too much science fiction. If you need me, I'll be behind a locked door in my nice safe robot-proof house, reloading the rifle, when the metal ones rise to destroy us all.

(Addendum: as online reviews of the Promenade reveal, it is not really this swanky and Stepfordish. Residents complain about dog poop in the hall, "low life people"--gee, wonder what they mean by THAT--coming in and using their amenities, the hot water turning off, appliances breaking, etc. So it really isn't any different from a "normal" apartment complex except that it's about $500 more than average. I think we'll stick to living in houses; it's not like there's a lack of free-standing rental houses in Baltimore.

Also, I wish I would have kept the brochure they gave us when we took the tour; it featured a guy in a tux dipping a woman in a ball gown, and she had a red rose between her teeth. That is a great, on-target advertisement for an apartment building.)