Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cyclists: Our own worst enemy

Today I came upon a bike accident that had just happened. I was traveling south on Broadway downtown and found this scene at Couch street. I asked other cyclists standing there and they said it was a crash of two bikes. Here's how I reconstruct the event from what people said. One was zooming along Broadway, as one does, Broadway being a main arterial. The other apparently tried to dart across Broadway at a gap in the cars, but neglected to wait for a gap in the bikes.

I have had this same problem. You're waiting and waiting, you're focusing on the cars, you finally get your chance, and your gap is filled with bikes. By the time the slow-mo bikes go by, you've got another wave of cars to wait for. This happens to me all the time when I'm headed home from my hidey-hole across the river and I'm on Thompson trying to cross Vancouver and Williams. Both of those streets have heavily used bike lanes and a ton of cars.

The other factor besides the weird timing is that you sort of use one kind of eyes to watch for cars and then you have to shift your eyes into a different gear to watch for bikes -- ever notice that? which is precisely why car drivers have trouble seeing bikes at all.

The number of cyclists in Portland is increasing so exponentially that soon there'll be enough of us to kill each other, independently of the car drivers.

Back to the accident on Broadway -- one cyclist, who was out of view behind the ambulance, was said to be in better shape than the other one, who was sitting on the pavement looking totally smackered talking to medics before finally being taken away in the ambulance. These are the only photos I had the gall to take. No mangled people, no bodies, no blood -- sorry. No can do.
If anyone reading this saw it happen, feel free to post a comment with a more eye-witness account of the accident.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Obama's first words to the cheering crowd:

"Bicycle lanes."

According to the Oregonian, those were the man's first words when he opened his mouth yesterday at the waterfront. I wasn't there, but judging from the pictures on Bikeportland about the event, he would've been foolish to open with anything else. The photos are definitely worth a peek. Bicycles were locked to anything that could remotely be called a railing, and from where he was standing, a lot of these railings, including the hawthorne bridge, would've been in his line of vision. Apart from the parked bikes, he'd have seen the most bike traffic ever on the surrounding streets.

We're becoming so famous! In case you hadn't heard, we've just been named #1 in the country for Best Overall bicycling city. Word is majorly getting around.


Friday, May 16, 2008

A beautiful place.... for the Fiat and its many uses

In Italy, panorama viewing counted as a bonafide activity, as much as going to the theater or out to dinner. In fact, the question, "Vuoi andare a un bel posto?" -- Do you want to go to a beautiful place? -- was the Italian equivalent of the American boy's invitation to a drive-in movie.

No viewpoint was left unmobbed by groups of friends and pairs of lovers, especially on summer nights. Whereas the average American viewpoint might be surrounded by safety railings and interrupted with signs warning you not to get too close to the edge, and etched display boards narrating the view, the Italian scene featured clumps of viewers perched on a low parapet gesturing wildly while talking amongst themselves, and passionate couples on the verge of writhing themselves right over the wall.

On any night of the summer, the road up to a viewpoint was lined with cars. You had to park way down at the bottom of the hill and walk up. The first time I was walking up to one of these viewpoints with a group of friends past all the lined up Fiats, I noticed that many of the Fiats were wiggling. I mean visibly, unmistakably, hilariously wiggling. "Ragazzi. Ma queste macchine si muovono." (Hey look you guys. These cars are wiggling.)

Then I noticed that many of them had newspers taped over the windows. It turned out that even up here the scugnizzi had found a way to reel in a few lire. The scugnizzi (the gn is pronounced as in lasagne) were the street urchins of Naples, unschooled and uncorralled, running around everywhere fulfilling invented needs and holding out a dirty hand for coins. You could barely turn your head around Naples without seeing one. A tram would go by and there'd be one attached to the back of it like a tree frog, for a free ride. Out here on the hilltops they approached occupied parked cars with newspapers and tape in hand, selling the scarce commodity of privacy. In a culture where an apartment of one's own was hard to come by, people had to make do.

So those were the entrepreneurial scugnizzi. But then there were the bad scugnizzi -- doesn't every population have its rotten apples? A favorite stunt of the evil ones was to slink by in the darkness and light a match to the newspapers covering one of the wiggling Fiats -- causing the occupants, no doubt at the zenith of their wiggling, to come bursting out of their car in a semi-clothed panic to attack the flames with their cast off apparel or whatever was at hand.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Coming soon: Favorite Italian pastimes within the Fiat milieu

OK, the votes are in: We'll be staying in Italy and moving ahead with a combination of the first three choices.

My! For a bike blog, there sure is a lot of interest in what goes on inside of a car.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Seat Belt Usage in Italy, Part 2

In the early eighties some nebulous Italian entity got it into its head to impose seat belt laws.

Some of you may be familiar with the rules-are-made-to-be-broken mentality that permeates the Italian culture. You sophisticated ones will recognize that I am not just spreading slander about a whole population of people. I am merely addressing a well established phenomenon. I can't explain where it comes from. If you look at one Italian at a time, you find the whole range of people types, just like any other population. But for some reason, when you put them all together on a long skinny peninsula, you get mayhem. The Italians discuss this endlessly amongst themselves, and they can't explain it either.

At first, the seat belt laws were taken no more seriously than other laws. Another opporunity to break a rule sent the whole population into squeals of hilarity. But then something happened -- something so freakish it was almost creepy. The authorities had the audacity to actually enforce the seat belt laws.

Rumors spread wildly about people being pulled over and fined horrendous amounts of money for lack of a visible black band stretching diagonally across their bodies. More and more people had a story of their own to tell. It wasn't long before it had happened to someone you knew.

The people were outraged. The further south you went, the more outraged you found them. All over you could overhear animated conversations about how ridiculous it was. On people who drove an older car, namely everyone, it placed the enormous burden of having seatbelts newly installed. In Naples, they wouldn't hear of it.

Leave it to the Neapolitans to come up with a solution. A cottage industry sprang up there that produced knitted sweaters with a black diagonal band across the front. You could buy a sweater for each side of the car, the driver sweater with the band going one way, the passenger sweater with the band going the other.

You and I might wonder: "Wouldn't it be more hassle to put on a certain sweater every time you got in the car than to just put on the seat belt?" But you and I would be missing the point -- the micromanagement, keep-your-laws-off-my-body, don't-tell-me-what-to-do, POINT. So there.

I'm not sure how Italians today, almost thirty years later, feel about wearing seat belts. Perhaps they've come around; maybe they put them on automatically, without even thinking about it. Maybe an Italian will write in and let us know...

Meanwhile, think about whether you want to keep hearing about Italy in the seventies. I could cover:
Other uses of the Fiat 500.
The search for privacy in an overcrowded nation.
Lines used by Italian boys to lure girls to secluded areas.

On the other hand, if you're bored with all that, you could ridemyhandlebars back onto the MAX train for a peek at my longitudinal study on:
Heterosexual Mating Rituals on Public Transportation

You decide.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

The History of Seat Belt Usage in Italy, Part 1

I know that among those of you who are American, the thought at the forefront of your minds as you've been reading these last few posts has been: "Are they wearing their seat belts?"

The answer, as you might guess, is: Not.
Or, more accurately: What seat belts?

Did those cars even come with seat belts? I'm not sure what Fiat was doing in those days. But if cars did in fact emerge from the factory with seat belts, the belts were so unused that they withdrew into the recesses of the seat's crack within a few weeks of purchase, never to be seen again. Until.

(more later...)

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

The downside of Italian Cliff Driving

The trip down from the ski resort a couple of days later unfolded at a remarkably accelerated pace from that on the way up. The Italians didn't worry about the possibility of rear ending anyone on these roads, since in a typical example of Italian style team work, they all drove at exactly the same speed.

Every few kilometers there was a pullout carved into the wall side of the road where the carabinieri would pull people over for speeding. (Don't ask me how the logistics of this would work on a skinny two-lane cliffside road -- I have mercifully forgotten.)
Since they couldn't pull everyone over, they would randomly nab whoever was speeding by them when they finished issuing the ticket to the previous person. Luckily, on that particular afternoon, that was us. Though Elvio was visibly bummed, I on the other hand felt deeply grateful for a fifteen minute interval in which death was not a serious possibility.

The cop takes Elvio's license and walks back to his patrol Fiat. Elvio turns to me and asks if I have any cash (something he never, ever did, he always paid for everything). I check my pockets and turn up 5,000 lire (about $5.00, which would've been 15 or so in today's money). He adds it to some cash of his own and finally the cop comes back and hands Elvio a ticket through the window and tells him the name of the nearest obscure mountain village where he can pick up his license when he shows up with the absurd amount of money written on the ticket. Elvio asks the cop if it would be cheaper if he just paid it now. The cop executes a shoulder shrugging, eye rolling, hand gesture combo, accompanied by the Italian version of the word Duh, which I can't possibly reproduce in writing. Elvio hands him the cash and the cop walks back up to his car and retrieves the license.

In Italy the road cops take your license away when you commit an infraction and you only get it back when you show up with the money for the fine. This means that after issuing a ticket the cop watches as you drive off without your license, thereby committing another infraction. Such is the logic of the Italian mind you've heard so much about. (Things may be different today, but why would they be?)

Elvio revved up the washing machine and we resumed puttering down the hill at a much reduced speed, along with other drivers slowed down by the increasing frequency of the carabinieri along the road. Elvio said that besides saving a scandalous amount of money, we'd also spared ourselves a long road trip back to find the indicated village where we'd have to disturb some lone employee of a carefully hidden motorized vehicles office who would rummage around a while looking for the confiscated license and would eventually tell us to try again another day.

Next: are any of these people wearing seat belts?

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Cliff Driving, continued...

While the Italians are famous for slowing way down at the table, that doesn't happen on the open road. Is it a backlash from having to drive bumpety-whippety-jerky style the entire time they're in the city? Maybe. The reason hardly matters -- the effect is an insane level of risk.

Are the Italians afraid on the little mountain cliff roads? No they are not. Why not? because on each curve there's a convex mirror mounted on a pole, making it possible to see what's coming around the corner. Why worry? What more could you need?

Since the way to Roccaraso was uphill and we were riding in a Fiat 500 washing machine, we didn't go horribly fast on the way there. That gave me plenty of time to gaze out the windows and take in the stupendous views of the terrain we might land in if we or the opposing drivers failed to make one of the curves. Against a foreground of crosses and memorial shrines marking the departure points of previous travellers, the expansive panorama was made fleetingly more expansive at periodic breaks in the masonry guard rails.

Next: the down side of the trip

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Cliff Driving

Italians are skilled at building roads on the sides of steep cliffs, having developed infallible methods over the centuries. (Did you know that a bunch of Italians were brought over here to Oregon to build the Old Columbia River Highway?)

The mountains of Italy are snaked with these roads, barely wide enough for two cars to pass. On one side you have a cliff going up, and to the other you have the cliff going down. If you depart from the road, those are your options -- into, or off of. You might think that with that kind of margin for error, the Italian would become, at least temporarily, a different kind of driver, but you would be wrong.

It's too late at night for me to go on, but at least there's your introducion. To be continued....

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Trains Roll On, Peepless

Still not a peep of authority visible or audible on the MAX. Not one. Is the flurry to assuage public fear over already? Come ON, people! It's only been a few months since the baseball bat beating that started all this, and we had a fresh shooting the other night.

No time to blog today, but here's a quote I jotted down today while on the train:

"Some people shoots themselves in the head and lives. Some people shoots themselves in the head and dies. You don't get to choose."

(Who knows? I came in on the middle of it and the guy saying it got off at the next stop.)

Tomorrow: back to Italy.


Friday, May 02, 2008

Don't worry.... woman shot through the leg was not I

I haven't forgotten about Italian Cliff Driving. I just haven't had a spare minute. Maybe I can squeeze it into my lunch break tomorrow.

Meanwhile, back in SafetyLand (here), an update on the public transportation:

All of a sudden the blanketing of the MAX trains with cops, security guards, fare collectors, and manners police seems to have come to a screeching halt. I haven't seen any of them for days. This is weird in light of last night's shooting at the 162nd Avenue MAX station. Does anybody know how that played out? I haven't been able to find any follow-up coverage in today's news, and last night all they knew was that a woman in her twenties got shot through the leg while crossing the road there.

What I'm wondering is: Did she know the shooter? Because if she did, this isn't going to scare me, since I'm 95% sure no one I know wants to shoot me. However if this was totally random, then I will be.... somewhat concerned that this can happen to anyone.

One consoling thought remains:
It happened late at night, and you won't find me roaming the seedy parts of town, or the public transportation, late at night.

So that means I'm safe, right?


Thursday, May 01, 2008

In case you missed it......

....the link to La Donna é Mobile? The one that I provided in the post about Elvio? In case you think you're not familiar with that opera -- I'd bet my left earlobe you'll recognize it when you hear it. (Elvio had a way better moustache, and needless to say, I'd never go out with anyone in those pants....)
Here, I'm giving you
another chance, before we move on to cliff driving. Turn up the sound so you can hear it -- unless you're at work, in which case turn it up so everyone can hear it.