Thursday, January 26, 2017

Summer Jams

Here in Michigan, and I'm assuming in other places as well, we're having a very peculiar winter. Usually, by this time of the year, I would have to wear a balaclava under my helmet just to ride my bike. However, this year, our winter has been both too cold to ride at one time, and so warm that I hardly needed a jacket this past weekend. We seem to have settled between the 30-40 F range for the most part, which is still unseasonably warm. For the first time in my life, I felt a type of winter melancholy creep in the moment the trees became bare despite the mildness and my usual ability to enjoy Michigan's wide range of weather.


I can't put my finger on what exactly it was that finally made me dread the winter, like nearly every other Michigan inhabitant I know. Maybe it is because the overall lethargy of my piers is rubbing off on me, or maybe it's just a change that happens as people get older. When I was young, I was able to fully appreciate both summer and winter for what they were and enjoy the activities associated with the seasons. I started cycling for transportation when I entered college and even then, I took a special pleasure in flying down pathways covered in fresh snow or hauling up a hill somewhat sideways, with the rear wheel spinning. The frigid wind stinging my face did not stop me.  

I am afraid that I no longer appreciate what cold weather brings. I initially thought it was because even though snow is good when you're trying to have fun, it is an obstacle when you are trying to get things done. But even now, when there is no snow on the ground to compromise the safety of the road surface, I still long for the return of the warmth and the sun. After some reflection, I realized that perhaps the biggest reason is because my past couple summers were so enjoyable and many of my best memories were made when the sky was not gray. I have begun to unconsciously associate the summer with happier times. 


In reflection, my past two summers were entirely spent working with little to no vacation. For almost the entire two years, I was the only technician at ArborBike, the local bike share, taking care of 97 bikes and 13 stations. I spent all day outdoors, hopping in and out of the delivery van, making the best of the heat despite going home every day with a salt stain across my shirt where the seat belt caused sweat to gather. Even the occasional rain storm was alright, as it allowed me to take a break from the heat and the grind. 


Undoubtedly, my favorite part of the job was driving the van, a Utilimaster-bodied 2001 Ford E-350 step van with a 14-foot box. It lacked air conditioning, but the doors could be slid and locked open. AC would have been useless regardless, seeing how often I had to get out. On the sunniest days, every metal surface of the un-insulated cab would be almost hot enough to burn. Somehow unfazed, I drove around town all day with an air of bliss and fulfillment. 


Even when I was stuck in traffic, which was every weekday, there were still reasons to be happy. Car spotting was always fun, and even if there weren't any noteworthy ones around, my bluetooth speaker would keep me company, taking the place of the broken radio in the van. 


I was fairly proud of this small hack: I used a bottle cage and a coaster brake strap, both meant for bikes, and fashioned a cup holder in the van. I believe this is what kept me alive through the 90-100 degree days. 


One notable moment was when I ran into the new UM truck #1464. ArborBike bought its van at the University of Michigan's Property Disposition for cheap, and I guess sooner or later the university would have replaced it with a newer version of the same exact thing. I'm not sure how long they ran old #1464 seeing that it was working mostly okay in our hands, but they do have enough money to replace their vehicles long before they get too tired. 


Since I was never taught and never bothered to learn how to cook a real meal (which I should get around to right about now), and since I made a decent wage, I ate out every night and some of the restaurant staff got to know me very well. Mr. Spot's and the Fleetwood Diner were my favorites, though still I made an effort to try new places very often. These high-energy foods replenished the calories I used throughout the day and also unexpectedly made me gain mass in the good way. These days my visits to Spot's and Fleetwood are limited, as the friends who like to eat with me don't love the places enough to walk that far. 


These summers I spent working were the first time I was ever able to enjoy evenings to myself. With no homework to do and no guardians overseeing and criticizing my every move, I frittered away the hours working on bikes, circling around parks, listening to music, or doing any combination of those things, well into the night. 


I frequented the piers and pathways of Gallup Park and would also spend time circling around the empty campus, where I once helped a kid fix his bike after he ran into the back of a moving ambulance (he was fine). 


My good friend Alex was in and out of town regularly so we would go on cruises around the park and the campus during nights and off days. He probably also learned a thing or two about bikes along the way.  


My friends Ian and Karen also joined in once or twice when they were around, usually borrowing my other bikes. The photo to the left was taken on a test-ride after Karen bought a modified Linus mixte from me. On the right is the day they came over to hang out in the pool at my apartment. 


I was able to see my old buddy Nikolai a few times as well. Whenever visited my parents' house, I would hop on my mom's clapped-out Raleigh Sprite and we would go bombing through Hines Park. Later on, we installed a Shimano 105 drivetrain on his previously Sora-geared Nashbar AL-1 at my apartment and went riding with Alex. Overall, I have to say that spending the most part of most days alone with some evenings and some days spent with a small number of friends was just about the perfect amount of social interaction for me. 


After a summer of this comfortable routine, school started and naturally, nobody knew what to do with themselves. The unusually large group of admitted freshmen made finding bike parking difficult. Ironically, the trash bikes that were ridden least had the best spots because they never moved, while the daily commuters constantly had to fight for so much as a place that a lock would fit around. Here, my friend Ben and I take desperate measures before going into a bookstore on the first day of school. 


The start of the school year ushered in a new set of architectural projects for my class, the largest of which involved designing a theater on a site in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 


We headed to Pittsburgh for three days in early October when the weather was still warm and looked at our site, which was a parking lot on Ft. Duquesne St. between 7th and 8th where something had clearly been years before. 


Upon arrival, my friends and I immediately found a station belong to the local bike share, Healthy Ride, It took a little while to figure out how to use the kiosk; it was much less straightforward than the ones I was used to at home. A small group of my friends discovered an entrance to the riverfront walk near our site and we went down while everybody else was trying to figure out what else to do. 

Photo credit, right: Benjamin Wichman

Site investigation, of course, included climbing as high as we could to get a good aerial shot, whether or not we were supposed to. Somebody realized that a security guard had surreptitiously pushed the "call for assistance" button and we got the heck out of there. 


Because of the way I am, I immediately noticed that Pittsburgh was a much more bicycle-friendly city than anywhere in southeast Michigan. There were dedicated and clearly-marked bike lanes and the automobile traffic was slow enough for me to keep up without even trying. Furthermore, bicycles seemed to be not only a good way, but the best way for getting around town. I caught myself wishing I had brought my Raleigh folding bike along so I wouldn't have to keep paying for the bike share or walking around. 


Once or twice, my friends and I rode around after dinner when the schedule was open and everybody was free to do what they wanted. The streets in the downtown area were pretty safe and there was much to see. 


The relaxed nighttime pace and the cool air allowed us to go further than we did during the daytime. The train station was a sight to see, as was pretty much everything else in the eyes of us naive, suburban children. At night, we wandered to Pizza Milano which to some of us resembled Sal's Pizzeria from Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing. 


Despite the great infrastructure, I did not see as many cyclists as I would have expected. Of the ones who were out and about, very few rode vintage steel. with a notable exception being this 1970s Raleigh with 24" wheels. The rider was definitely serious, but probably had a hard time finding another bike that fit him/her. The city planners also did not let many small details slip by either, as indicated by this bike rack doubling as a salute to Salvadore DalĂ­. 


Site analysis was completed after three days and we finished off the trip with a visit to an amazing night club (with our instructors) which, as everybody agreed, made the clubs back at home pale in comparison. That was definitely the highlight of the semester. 


After the trip, schoolwork ramped up to the point where I had to leave the job that I had held for exactly two years. I snapped the last bittersweet photo with the van and watched a train go by (as I would sometimes do from the office) as I left. 


Alex and I still went for occasional cruises as the weather cooled down, but he would usually ride my Schwinn Varsity since his bike would be left at his place downtown for errands. We were treated to some beautiful fall scenery, but not for long. A strange thing I noticed is that at least in Michigan, we usually have very long periods of more or less uniform hot and cold seasons strung together by very short transition seasons. Why it isn't more of a smooth gradient, I'm not sure. 


And now, here were are. Sometimes it snows, sometimes it's warm, but most of the time, it's pretty disgusting out. My friends and I sometimes reminisce about the good times we had over the summer, but most of the time I just listen to people complain. In keeping with my old spirit, I don't usually cringe at the thought of going outside, but there is a sense of overall gloom that accompanies the grayness of Michigan's winter. I still ride daily, as there's no reason not to. Those times when I'm alone with the bike, flying down the road, I sometimes sense a hint of that free feeling I had when I traveled the same streets in the summer, although nowadays it is mostly stifled by a thick winter coat and helmet ear pads. I will often times listen to the music that I did over the summer just to jog old memories. The vibes are different now, but I still wait patiently for hot weather and the longer, brighter days to return, no matter how long that wait will be.