Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, by Travis Hugh Culley

If I love bikes, and I love books, it then follows that I would fall recklessly in love with a book about bikes. Then why was The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power such a disappointment? I'll tell you why, in numbered paragraphs:

1)Sky High Expectations. Just so you know where I'm coming from, this is what I expected from a book titled The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. First of all, if you're going to put the word “immortal” in your title, you should probably talk about bike messengers other than yourself and your peers. What was bike messengering like 20 years ago? 50 years ago? In cities before cars, where the bike messengers had to dodge horse-and-buggies and heaping piles of steaming dung? What will it be like in the future? What is it like in other cities, and other countries?

--But Culley did a great job of expressing how immortal he felt on a bike. I loved these passages, and completely related to how it feels to blast through a six-lane intersection and feel the cars whooshing all around you but miraculously not crash and die… that's a huge rush! That makes me feel immortal, at least until the next time I crash. So Culley didn't give us any historical context (or any context outside of his experience in Chicago), but he sure did make the bike scenes come alive.

2) Title Gripe Continued. When you put a phrase like “The Cult of Human Power” in your title, I expect you to address the politics of car culture in a lot more depth, and describe how choosing to bike is a political, social, and even cultural statement. Where is this “cult” in your book other than the very last chapter? You talk to no one outside of your immediate social circle, much less interview anyone qualified to weigh in on some of the key issues, like Critical Mass participants, the cops who arrest them, Transportation Alternative organizers, bicycle manufacturing companies, automobile companies, lobbyists on both sides, environmental groups, city planners, …etc. In a world where every other television commercial is a car commercial and every third American is overweight you could’t find a “cult of human power” that existed outside of your own head?

--But Culley does address these issues tangentially in the last three chapters of the book, though not in as much depth as I would have liked.

3)Too Memoir-ish. Travis, if I wanted to know about your life as a struggling artist and your Christmas break with the fam and your vacations with assorted relatives I would have bought, “Travis’ Random Thoughts and Musings with just a tad of Bike Messengering on the Side.” Wait, I think I did buy that book…

--Whoa, that was harsh. But what was that whole sit-by-the-lake-and-ponder-while-visiting-relatives bit all about?

4)Too much Purple Prose. There is a lot of writing in here that says, “I am trying too hard to be literary and/or lyrical and/or philosophical.” This stuff made me wince, and then skim. Why is there so much filler in these pages about the soul of the city, and the ghost who won’t show his eyes? Can we get back to the gritty biking scenes? That was really cool when you got doored and flew through the air and skidded on the asphalt and scraped off most of your shoulder, and how you said how it was kind of fun to fly through the air, and I've felt that way too, but that's about as much philosophical musing as I can take. Let’s skip the part where you ponder what it means that your skin is now one with the street.

I very strictly follow the philosophy that life is too short to read bad books, so it should count for something that I finished this one. There are some great parts - even some inspiring parts - you just have to be willing to slog through some heavy handed descriptions and self-indulgent writing to find them. But when you do, these paragraphs are truly like diamonds in the rough.

Here are some diamonds: Chapter 10: Ambush. This chapter is amazing. It has everything I look for in this kind of book: Legal and social issues highlighted by a compelling personal story, and a Critical Mass ride that provokes various confrontations - massers vs. police, messengers vs. commuters - and discusses different strategies of resistance. It has inflammatory stuff like this:

"The Illinois Supreme Court phrased it this way: "We do not believe that bicycle riders are, like drivers of vehicles, intended and permitted users of Illinois streets and highways."

And this:

"Today in the heartland of America, if a cyclist, a motorist, and a runner fall into the same five-foot ditch in any average intersection, the bicyclist alone will not have the right to sue."

Other than chapter 10, the other great parts of this book are interspersed throughout. The Alley Cat Race is pretty awesome (Chapter 9), and there's a cool scene where the author races this other messenger with a stripped down track bike (Chapter 6) and then says:

"In time, I too would learn that an experienced messenger can see anywhere from five to thirty seconds into the future. The traffic can be read so closely that he is rarely caught off guard. Most people think this comes from having good reflexes, but who needs reflexes when you can actually see the future?"

I also enjoyed the small details that Culley drops about messenger life, like how messengers use their U-Locks to threaten cabbies and other cars, and how during his first winter he used gardening gloves with the first two fingers cut off, and how your hands go numb after riding over torn up city streets all day, and how he can "skitch" a car's hub (grab the back of a car and get towed at high speeds). I've never tried that.

Overall, if you don't know anything about being a bike messenger I imagine this book would be illuminating. Even considering all the boring parts and the author's blatant self-absorption, I'm glad to have read it. But as a rabid biker and ex-messenger myself, I expected a broader scope, and a much more detailed look at the issues of biking in today's American cities.