Popularity Contests: It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know

The world is full of injustice and misfortune.  Natural disasters decimate cities.  Corrupt totalitarian governments oppress their citizens.  Millions of people are still in thrall simply because of their gender or ethnicity.  For example, did you know that in parts of Canada it's still illegal for people of Scandinavian descent to vote or own property?  Well, it's true, just listen to this recent piece on NPR.

On the other hand, here's something that doesn't even register on the injustice scale: When a bike gets stolen.  However, you wouldn't know this by the way people carry on publicly when it happens to them.  I realize it's politically incorrect in the cycling world to suggest that stealing a bike isn't actually tantamount to abducting a child.  I also know it's frowned upon to be completely unmoved when someone absconds with someone else's special two-wheeled snowflake.  Nevertheless, this is how I usually feel.  

Sure, you can call it schadenfreude, but that's not what this is.  According to the dictionary, schnadenfreude is "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others," and I don't enjoy it when someone's bike gets stolen, I just don't give a shit.  Actually, even that's not true.  Sometimes I do actually give a shit.  Here are the circumstances under which I am emotionally moved by a bike theft:

--The bike belonged to me
--The bike belonged to someone close to me
--The bike belonged to a stranger but was taken from them violently
--The bike belonged to someone who was so dependent on it that without it he or she is going to starve

Other than that, when I hear about someone's bike getting stolen, a shrug of the shoulders and a quick "Huh, that sucks" is pretty much all I need to shake off the story and get back to enjoying my Froot Loops.  It's not that I lack compassion for my fellow cyclists.  Every time I read another story about a rider getting injured or killed I am gutted.  But when I hear yet another tale of woe about someone's fixie getting nabbed from in front of the bar I'm indifferent.  That's just the way I'm calibrated.  That's also why I didn't find this story even remotely inspiring:

It also didn't help that a key player in the bike's recovery was Sasha Frere-Jones, whose writing embodies pretty much all that I find loathsome:

In fact, it was a team effort. I was helped by several dozen strangers; by Slate's political blogger Dave Weigel and film critic Dana Stevens; by New Yorker music critics Sasha Frere-Jones and Alex Ross; by singer-songwriter Neko Case; by three plainclothes New York City policemen; and especially by writer and musician Nick Sylvester. All those people—and Twitter—found my bicycle.

Nor that the owner didn't even lock up the bike in the first place before adjourning to a coffee house where he proceeded to basically just dick around:

Except that I hadn’t locked the bike. Maybe I was delirious from the heat, or maybe I was just careless. I’d leaned the bike against the parking meter but neglected to chain it. I bought an iced coffee and settled down to work. I remember glancing up a few times and seeing my bike sitting there. I wrote a sentence or two. I surfed the Internet a bit; I typed a tweet. The clock ticked. Somewhere, an angel wept. And just after 2:20, I looked up. The bike had vanished. 

Which is not surprising, since bike theft is a "national epidemic:"

Of course it had. Bicycle theft is a national epidemic. Each year, more than 1 million bikes are stolen in the United States. In 2010, the most recent year for which the FBI has figures, stolen bikes accounted for 3.3 percent of U.S. larceny-theft cases. Those numbers only begin to tell the story, as most bike thefts go unreported. New York is widely regarded as the nation’s bicycle-theft capital—Kryptonite’s signature bike lock is called the “New York Lock”—and in New York, as elsewhere, bike stealing spikes during times of economic distress.  

Is it fair to count yourself as a victim of a national epidemic when you didn't even lock your bike in the first place?  Sure, technically it was stolen.  And sure, regardless of whether the bike was locked or not a crime is still a crime and the criminal deserves to be punished.  Nevertheless, the fact that it was a bike is more or less incidental, since if you leave anything even remotely portable on the sidewalk in New York City someone is going to make off with it eventually.  Sure, it had two wheels and a chain drive, but practically speaking there was no difference between it and an old discarded computer monitor.

Anyway, if you're old enough, you may recall the ironic expression "Alert the media!"  Well, thanks to social networking, now you actually can alert the media, and that's exactly what this person did:

Neither Book Court nor Brian Lehrer (nor Jay-Z, nor Mayor Bloomberg) answered the call. But the news was getting around, thanks to friends and colleagues, some of them with large Twitter followings. Slate’s Dana Stevens (9,600 followers) and Dave Weigel (64,000) retweeted it. So did Slate, the mother ship (370,000-plus). The New Yorker music brain trust, Sasha Frere-Jones and Alex Ross, spread the word to their combined 46,000 followers. One of the subscribers to Frere-Jones’s Twitter feed is the indie rock star Neko Case, who retweeted my plea to her 59,000 followers.

And guess who ended up saving the day:

The pivotal player turned out to be Frere-Jones.

Thanks to the fact that he has friends with ample leisure time.

His retweet made its way to Nick Sylvester, a journalist, musician, and co-founder of the record label and production company, God Mode. (Thus his Twitter handle, @GODMODEINTERNET.) Sylvester was working at his office, just east of Union Square in Manhattan. He sent me an email describing his afternoon:

I was dead set on exercising but didn't have any clean gym shorts. This was around 4pm...[I] walked over to Paragon Sports on Broadway to pick up something basic. On the way I passed a bike with enormous white wheels. It was an absurd looking bicycle. I don't ride bikes, but I remember liking that the wheels had the words “Thick Brick” on them. I picked up shorts and went to the gym and did my whole routine and so on. Around 5:30 I got back to my computer. (I don't keep Twitter on my phone anymore, it makes me too anxious.) That's when I saw Sasha's retweet about your bike being stolen. Something about you tweeting "only 1 bike like mine in Brooklyn" made me click the link to the photo. There were those wheels again, the Thick Bricks.

It was at this point that I paused to reevaluate my life--not because I was humbled by how helpful these people were, but rather because I was stunned that they actually had so much time to be helpful.  I'm a semi-professional bike blogger, and you'd be hard-pressed to dream up an easier "job" than the one I have.  So why is it that, despite having the world's least demanding and most fatuous vocation, I still never find myself sitting around at 4pm on a weekday thinking, "Huh, I'd sure like to work out today, I think I'll meander on over to Paragon and go shorts shopping because I have a fuckton of time on my hands."?  I mean, you have to have serious amounts of leisure time to wander around the city helping to solve mysteries.  Frankly, I don't see how it's possible without being a member of the British aristocracy.  Clearly I'm doing something very, very wrong.  Actually, every person in this story seems to have a stupendous amount of free time, from the victim on down.

Anyway, ultimately it's clear to me that you can get your stolen bike back in New York City, provided you follow these three (3) simple steps:

1) Be popular
2) Be annoying
3) Have an absurd amount of leisure time

The rest of us, unfortunately, are fucked.

(And yes, when my bike gets stolen and I send out the inevitable "Help me" Tweet, please feel free to mock me.)

Of course, while it's pretty easy to steal a bike in New York, politicians seem intent on making actual voluntary bike share as difficult as possible, and now we have another official saying that everybody should have to wear helments:

Here's why:

Liu called for making helmets mandatory for bike share users, citing DOT statistics that in 97 percent of fatal accidents, the rider was not wearing a helmet. 

To which Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives has the logical reply:

A plan that forces New Yorkers to wear helmets won't prevent the crashes that put them at risk in the first place," she said. "To protect people from gun violence, we don't force them to wear bulletproof vests -- we correctly focus on stopping gun violence in the first place. "

Having already affronted the "bike culture" by revealing that I don't give a crap about bike theft, I'll also go ahead and add that I also don't give a crap about helments--especially when we're talking about bike share, since riding bike for ten blocks at 8mph without some foam on your head is just not that big a deal.  If the city's worried about lawsuits, maybe they should take a look at the police department, which seems to draw plenty of them--though they'll probably just force us to wear helmets all the time instead so nobody gets injured during all those stop-and-frisks.  Then, before you know it, we'll all be wearing these (forwarded by a reader):

Evidently, the idea is that the lights will remind motorists that you're special:

Furthermore, LumaHelm can also visualize heart rate to make other (road) users aware that the helmet wearer is a fragile human being and makes visible  to others that the wearer invests physical effort. Increased physical effort can lead to decreased attention, hence the LumaHelm makes visible that cyclists might not be in the same bodily state as their fellow road users such as car drivers, hopefully contributing to a better understanding of each other’s different needs, furthering the appreciation of each other.

I agree it's important to remind other road users of your different needs, though generally speaking I find a middle finger is sufficient.

Lastly, in more news that's perhaps only of interest to New Yorkers, another reader has forwarded me this article, which reveals that Robert Moses actually liked bikes:

Consider this:

Such as bike paths. Few people think of Moses as a cycling advocate, what with his infamous—and unpardonable—refusal to include bike lanes on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (ostensibly for fear of suicides). But earlier in his career, Moses was a keen advocate of bicycling and built New York City's first true bicycle infrastructure. The Depression had set off a bicycle sales boom in the city, as people could no longer afford cars. In 1938, to accommodate all the new bicyclists, Moses announced a vast system of bike paths—"fifty miles of paved parkland roads exclusively for bicycle riders," gushed the New York Times, that would enable bike enthusiasts to "pedal from one end of the city to the other."

If you've ever visited New York and taken a taxicab from the airport, you've probably traveled along Robert Moses's handiwork in the form of the parkways.  Actually, if you took a cab you probably also traveled in a bike lane at some point too, since cabbies love to drive in bike lanes--though heavy-footed cabbies plying the bike lanes really isn't a big deal, just as long as all the cyclists are wearing helments.
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