The CSI Annex is a hub of activity tonight. Organizers are checking on the playlists, carrying in late supplies, and goofing off with the hula hoops. It’s November 11, 9 PM, and the Bike Union event Derailled is ready.
I’m sitting on a bench off to one side. Alberto de Ciccio sidles over and comments on my new haircut. People pour in, in groups of two and three. Names are checked off with some triumph, given how successful the membership drive has been this fall. The union started the season with 1,000 members but will shortly announce that the numbers have risen to 1,800. They’re jubilant that the community is strengthened.
Nick Cluley arrives at this moment, ecstatic at the crowded room. He walks straight across to where I sit and hugs me like I’m family. I describe how an interviewee responded to my email to join the Ghost Bike Ride with an intuitive recommendation: ARC might include a child’s seat on the ghost bike. The suggestion was passed through the community chain and given serious consideration. Nick beams, considering the effectiveness of the cycling community’s chain of communication.
“I think we should get a tattoo that reads, ‘I’m a small cog’,” I tell Nick. He nods agreement.
Getting up, I wander around the room. I’ve agreed to hear some bike stories from The Bicycle Commons tonight. When I google the Commons, their mission statement leaps off the page.
“We use bicycles as an engagement tool, for no other is as effective in transcending age, gender, cultural, and economic differences.”
Many interviewees have recommended Ray–the founder of the Bicycle Commons–to me, but he hasn’t responded to my email requests, so I’ve resorted to contacting the Info email address instead. Tamara Wise kindly emailed back right away, describing Ray as “media shy”. So, another John Anglin: an important but modest part of the machine. Tamara expected to arrive at 10PM. I begin to look around for someone fitting her description: my height with short, dark hair.
Peter Rogers appears and we hug, laughing. The music is overwhelming, so we just turn and watch the crowd. Shortly, I ask Peter to help me spot anyone fitting Tamara’s description and he looks askance. That fits so many people in the room!
Just then, I notice Yvonne Bambrick: she’ll know Tamara. Yvonne doesn’t see Tamara, so she draws me over to the Silent Auction area and introduces me to Ray. He will know whether she is here, Yvonne assures me. The lunacy of this is not lost on me, but I remain casual in my thanks. Ray—a familiar face that I realize I have seen at other events—is deep in conversation with a couple of people over the items displayed. The Bicycle Commons has donated them all, and many of them are highly prized. I see several have already received excellent bids. Peter has his name down on two items, one being a nifty bike trailer. He hovers over the sheet, worried. Nick appears at our side and I introduce them. They immediately become fast friends, commiserating over the chance of someone outbidding Peter for the trailer.
Ray and his companion magically disappear into the crowd, so I excuse myself from Peter and Nick and go off in search of him, circulating the entire room in vain. The hula hoops are in demand. There are several small groups, chatting animatedly. People are out on the floor, dancing. Members are actually doing what the organizers have prepared for them to do. It’s astonishing.
I spot Ray, who apologizes profusely. He introduces me to several people he thinks I might like to interview, and then presents Tamara. We give each other the once over, and then laugh in unison.
“I thought your hair would be longer!” I say.
“I thought yours would be shorter!” she tells me.
Our generic descriptions muddled the recognition process. Regardless, we’re hugging already. We head to a couch at the front of the Annex where it’s slightly quieter. When I look across at Tamara, I see a confident young woman whose bright eyes, lean build and cropped but interesting hair betray her as a cyclist.
“How old are you?” I ask at once, breaking into interviewee mode.
“I’m twenty-six in two weeks,” she responds. Tamara actually looks her age. I wonder momentarily what makes the difference in her case.
“I’m the odds and ends person at the Bicycle Commons,” she begins. “The volunteer co-ordinator who develops and manages events, and the educational programming. Our team sees a bicycle as a tool that breaks down traditional barriers between communities. And we apply this philosophy to foster growth and happiness among communities, and to young people.”
“A lofty goal!” I say enthusiastically, “but I know after all these interviews that it’s possible.”
“The team,” Tamara explains, “are working to make cycling more mainstream and accessible. It’s a sustainable, liberating and empowering form of transportation.”
The program began two years ago, when Ray and a group of friends saw a need for a pilot project. They wanted to offer an education program for youth at risk. It’s since morphed, with a wider scope.
“There’s so much room for experimenting and supporting non-location based programming, and for supporting other cycling organizations, too,” Tamara tells me. Today, the Bicycle Commons lends out tools (they have an extensive collection) and helps organize events like this one. Tonight’s event was sponsored by the Bike Union and by Hoopdriver, another of my percolating interviews.
The program is run entirely on volunteers, Tamara being the only paid staff.
On the phone this afternoon, she felt she wouldn’t have any bike stories, but at this moment one pops out, to her amazement.
She describes one of their members, who was eager to get involved. He was in and out of the city for a bit, but on his return he felt he wanted to do something meaningful, through the Commons. His focus was the bike messengers, who Tamara describes as “never lukewarm about what they do for a living.”
The member got permission to organize an event on a downtown street corner. The Bike Union came to lend presence. At the event, they offered free coffee and a free tube to every messenger. There were draws for messenger bags. They offered a bike wash station and a free lube (the last of which no one seemed to need).
“The event lasted an afternoon,” Tamara concludes, “and I thought it pretty cool to see our space become a place for messengers to mill around for a day.”
“I like that he built community for a group whose valuable contribution is under-recognized,” I agree.
She sits back for a moment and laughs. She’s thought of another Commons story.
A ten-year-old attends all their clinics. At first, he was shy and didn’t talk to anyone. In early April he said he wanted to learn to wrench, so they set him a goal to get qualified for an event on June 25. Determined, he hung out in a tent with a mechanic all day, and then went home to work with his dad.
On June 25th, the Bicycle Commons advertised the services of a proud ten-year-old bike mechanic.
Tamara’s eyes gleam. “The bike is bridging age and culture gaps,” she says. “It fills the shyness gap with a wrench and some training. A bicycle changes your way of looking at the world.”
“I’m figuring out my own story while I’m talking to you,” she says, realization dawning on her.
We’re all figuring out our place in this patchwork quilt of a community, as we talk. All the people I know here, and those I don’t, make up a quilt of exquisite beauty and strength. Each of us, once we gain experience and knowledge, become more confident to speak out positively and kindly. We need the powerful yet modest underpinnings like Ray, but we are all invaluable cogs in the machine.