No Matter Where You Live, Listen to the Bike Snob Radio Show on WBAI

I lived in New York City back in 2001 and 2002, where for much of the time I was marginally employed. I miss the city and still feel connected to it, and while I didn't ride a bicycle back in those days, I've been back and some of my favorite bicycling experiences have been there.

Anyway, I used to listen to WBAI when I lived in Brooklyn. It's a whacky community radio station, kind of the New York City equivalent of KFAI, if it focused mostly on news instead of music. It's the radio station where Amy Goodman's Democracy Now is based, and as you'd expect, on air you'll find lots of older hippies, a mix of left politics and aromatherapy self-help.

When I was unemployed for a while back then, I listened to WBAI pretty much constantly through the day. I remember one guy ranting about the "shredders at Enron" in the middle of the night, predicting a massive financial crisis back in late 2001. I also remember a show where some "doctor" would talk about the wonders of blueberries for two hours once a week. So, yeah.

Well, to my surprise, I'm listening to WBAI again! Eben Weiss, a.k.a Bike Snob NYC, has a weekly hour-long talk show and you can stream it online. If you care about bicycling, the show is a welcome balm. Check it out (click on "Bike Snob" from the drop-down menu).

It's almost a straight-forward call-in show, except that everything is colored by Weiss' ironic sensibility. He begins each of them with a short, well-written monologues, and that's the best part. As with his BikeSnob blog, which has been one of the funniest things on the internet for well over a decade (shoutout to a fellow blogspot user), the writing is excellent, and the combination of a strident content and arch delivery makes it unique.

At the same time, the callers are great as well, combining a strong dose of WBAI wackiness with a wide cross-section of New York City personality types and accents. These are not your bicycle cliché folk, but "regular" New Yorkers, calling in and responding to Weiss' committed bicycling perspective.

Check it out (click on "Bike Snob" from the drop-down menu).

Here's the monologue from the very first show, a wonderful message that captures how I feel much of the time riding around the Twin Cities:
You know, people hate bicycles. They hate them because the people who ride them are too reckless. They don’t stop at lights. They’re dangerous to others…  
People hate bicycles because the people who ride them are too vulnerable, they get hit by cars and buses and trucks and they don’t wear helmets. You know conservatives hate bicycles because they don’t shout “freedom” like a big stupid truck. And liberals hate bicycles because they’re not $75,000 electric cars that let you play Cuphead on a giant touchscreen while you’re in autopilot mode on the Henry Hudson Parkway.   
You know, rich people hate bicycles because they ruin the neighborhood. And poor people hate bicycles because they cause gentrification. And when you ride a bike, drivers will either deride you as a loser who can’t afford a car…  
Or… as a rich and entitled hobbyist who has the luxury of not driving a car like a real working class person in the first place. 
It’s tempting to say that people who hate bikes are stupid hypocrites because they’re always contradicting themselves. That’s not true. In fact, bike hate is the great equalizer. Like cycling itself, it’s something everyone can take part in. You’re never too rich or too poor or too rural or too urban or too liberal or too conservative to ride a bike…  
Or... to hate those damn cyclists.  
If you’re new to riding bikes, this can be disheartening. Here’s what happens when you first start riding. The first thing you feel is joy, because riding a bike is exhilarating. You’re like, "Wow, I can do this every day? This is so much better than the subway! And it’s free. Free!" 
But there’s always something around the corner to bust your bubble. Maybe it's all the cars and trucks in the bike lane. Maybe its the cop who gives you a ticket for something you didn’t realize is illegal, or that wasn’t even illegal in the first place. Maybe it's the driver who can harass and threaten you with total confidence that nobody will ever hold them accountable.  
Or… maybe it's some stupid newspaper editorial or flier in your grocery store or angry community board meeting about how people like you are selfish entitled whiners who are ruining the city because you’re taking away their parking.  
So, it takes determination to ride a bike in this city and in this country. Much, much more determination than it should. As many bike lanes as we have now compared to 10 our 15 years ago, people on bikes in this city are still mostly the little plants who manage to grow in the cracks in the sidewalk.  
Bike hate can be totally demoralizing. It can keep you off the bike in the first place or it can keep you from keeping on riding. 
But believe it or not, all this bike hate is actually a really good sign. You see, the real reason people hate bicycles is because the bicycle is perfect. The bicycle is the most efficient machine ever devised by human kind. The bicycle is pure motion. They are as close as you’ll probably ever come in your daily life to the sensation of flight. The bicycle is way closer to flight than actual flying. The only time you actually fly is commercial flight, which is a nightmare, whereas if you hop on your bicycle, you’re flying.  
A bicycle is 100% joy…  
And, it's 100% practicality…  
... at the same time.  
Kids, adults, commuters, pleasure seekers, bike racers, people cruising the boardwalk on the beach. You can use the bike to win the Tour de France, or you can use it to deliver a pizza. The bike is so easy for everyone to hate, not because its the symbol of a certain type of person, but because it is so utterly universal.  
If you’re an angry person it’s only natural to want to beat up on this perfect thing. (It’s like that scene in Fight Club where he beats on Jered Leto, and says “I wanted to destroy something beautiful.”) 
Americans have an awkward relationship with practicality, and that includes New Yorkers. Take the SUV as an example: we’d rather cut our dinner with a chainsaw than with a table knife.  
The city needs to stop messing around with this tentative "a little bike lane here, a little bike lane there" approach, and the city needs to go all in. We’ve got a transit crisis. We’ve got an environmental crisis. And we’ve got a death crisis. People are getting run down on the streets every day.  
And the city also needs to stop sending these mixed messages to drivers. The message now is “we have vision zero, but don’t worry, keep doing what you’re doing, we’re not going to take away your parking.” And “We’re getting congestion pricing, but with all the exceptions everyone’s negotiating there’s going to be like one schmuck in a Hyundai who has to pay it by the time we set it up.” And if we keep going this way, the city is going to have them world’s biggest network of double parking lanes.  
We have to go all in on this bike thing. This show is going all in on this bike thing. And it’s starting auspiciously enough on World Bicycle Day.  
So Happy World Bicycle Day.

If you miss New York City as I sometimes do, the live conversations will make you long to return. All of the episodes have been good: one episode was about community boards (the New York City version of neighborhood groups), one episode featured a well-known personal injury lawyer who specializes in bicycle and pedestrian crashes, of which in New York City, there are a lot, one episode is about bikes and kids.

All are about New York City, but as with the War On Cars podcast (and even more so, I think), the conversations apply just as equally to cities in the rest of the United States, like Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Give it a listen.

[A scene from my unforgettable NYC bike ride.]


Notes from the Empire Builder IV

[See also: Notes from the Empire Builder I, II, and III.]

Taking Amtrak is like a bad relationship. Imagine loving someone who ignores you, and yet you love them deeply. The sound of their voice or the way they laugh make you forget the time of day. You cannot stop thinking about them, doing things for them, going to their house if they need anything, cleaning up after them. You're whipped.

Each time you return, it's the same: they treat you like shit. Your lover barely acknowledges you, never shows up when they say they will, rarely fulfills a promise, keeps you waiting for hours without explanation, offers only rudimentary efforts to apologize or win back your good graces. Your lover mails it in, barely a kind word, no reciprocation.

"I was busy," they say, hardly making eye contact.

"I got stuck. I was held up."

They give you the look that says, "I'm having a bad day," only it's like this every day: the flat voice, hanging head. They know they'll do it again tomorrow, they'll commit the same slights, fail you again.

So it goes on for a long time. After each fresh disappointment, you vow never again to repeat the mistakes of the past.

"I'm over this," you say. "I am moving on, for my own good. I respect myself too much to put up with this shit any more."

You vow to yourself, "never again."

Your friends and your family support you. They've seen you two together, the look in your eyes after a long weekend. They've been astonished by the stories. No person in their right mind should suffer constant neglect and abandonment. And you listen to them, leave your love behind. It was a stage in your life, you say, not to regret, but to learn from. Surely, you're a better person now.

But you can't quit. Months pass, maybe years, but once in a while, and more so all the time, your thoughts return to your love. You overhear a conversation, someone mentions their name, and it shoots you into a week of fantasy and remembering. What are they doing now? Where are they? What do they look like? Do they still sound the same, move with the same distinct rhythm? Is the feeling of being together still there?

You search your mind for images, retelling stories from years ago. That one time when a song broke out, when you got drunk, or where you noticed something surprising. You find yourself mentioning your lover in random conversations, bicycling places where you met, telling stories about those days to friends. There's no stopping it. You draw closer, and soon you'll find yourself trying again, despite it all.

Everyone else knows it, too. Your friends see as clearly as a sunset the way your eyes change when you talk about them, the way you cannot help but repeat yourself, bringing up their name.

You book another ticket. This time it will be better.

And sure enough, like broken clockwork, they are late again. They leave you waiting for hours, hopeless, sad, resigned, and familiar. You stand passive, staring out the window because you know what to do.

They finally arrive, mumble something in your direction, look away when you approach. But you're together again, and for a while it feels good to speed through a tunnel of green trees, blur surrounding the train as the sunlight flickers through the overhead leaves. There's an occasional glimpse of the river over your shoulder. Three crows fend off a hawk in midair, while a refinery flares gas from a rusty tower.

I wonder what do the Amish do for health care?  Later I Google it, and of course the answer is complicated.

In the lounge car, a Spanish-speaking couple plays dominoes. The white tiles clack on the vinyl tables mixing with the conversation, the whirr of the fans blowing air from the ceiling, the low, driving beat of the wheels below. In the dark lower level, old pale people sit in a dim room, comfortable and unsmiling, awaiting fates.

When the train departs so late that you leave when you're supposed to arrive, does that mean you've traveled back in time, or what?

Somehow two boxes of checkers appear on the lounge car tables. These are surely the cheapest possible versions of the game, made from the thinnest cardboard and the flimsiest red and black plastic, checkers thin as thumbnails. Compared to the tactile dominoes, the checkers make me sad. A game is not just an abstract concept, but a physical thing. Its appeal is not simply in the rules of engagement, but found in the visceral feelings it creates, the sound the checker makes when it strikes a think board, the feel between your fingers. To play checkers on a piece of paper with tiddly-wink is not to play checkers at all, and nobody does.

During the trip down the river, seven eagles perch on trees, soaring along the bluff line. Three pelicans fly low along the river pools.

Mounted hilariously on the wall in the café: the menu of sandwiches, snacks, and beverages. It's a large menu, but well over half of the things on it are loosely crossed out with a Sharpie. On the train, you're lucky if you get a small doughy microwaved cheese pizza and a can of pop. I'm lucky to get a bottle of decent pale ale and white wine. On Amtrak, be thankful when you get anything at all.

A father in cargo shorts stares out the window for an hour, resting his against the grey plastic side of the train car while his kid learns to read out loud, working his way through his book. Every once in a while, dad corrects his spelling, and despite the unredeemable dysfunction, I am hopeful. Any science will tell you that air travel is a terrible practice, killing species and wiping out the world's poor, and that we need other ways to get around. Somehow this underfunded, impassive, arbitrary, intentionally broken train strikes me as a realistic vision for an American future. Here on the Empire Builder, people resign themselves to a collective struggle, a rudimentary forward movement. Here on the Empire Builder, everyone is equal in adversity, committed to making progress despite the absurd broken promises ringing in the air overhead.

The voice of a resigned conductor blares from the overhead speaker, offering advice to people connecting to trains in Chicago.  Such an announcement on a train that's  six hours late train is a farce.

"More than likely you'll probably miss your train. I will pass information on to you shortly."

People's eyes glaze. A woman begins to agitate.

"I have information from Chicago," he says, as if Chicago is where information is found.

I can't help but daydream of Empire Builder meant to work well. What if the contents of the recycle bins in far the ends of each car were actually recycled? What if people actually threw their cans and bottles in them? Imagine if the train ran on time, and people could simply show up and get on or off when they were supposed to. Imagine if the interior was clean, and the food was good.

My favorite part of the trip is the thirty-mile stretch of the Mississippi from Winona to La Crosse, where the river opens into a wide valley in the driftless. This is the part of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota that was not scraped flat by glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, where the hills still roll like ships in a storm. Here in the driftless valley, Mississippi islands rise into peaks like circus tents. Everything green or grey or blue, water and flying birds. Flocks. Clusters. Murders. Conclaves.

Confirmed: some Amish people do use Ziploc bags.

A 67-year-old lady starts telling a woman she just met, who is half her age and wearing a yellow scarf over her head, about something called "functional medicine". She's been watching an video seminar on her laptop for a few hours, and seems glad to share her new knowledge. Functional medicine is the belief that everything in the body is connected, but especially the gut. She begins describing "energy work" to the young woman with the scarf and the Harry Potter tattoo on the other. She herself is headed to a family reunion on an island off Massachusetts, and is worried for some reason about attending the marshmallow roasting event on the first night. They hit it off immediately and talk past La Crosse.

"Zinc can actually turn your hair back to a normal color," the older woman states.

"Oh, I've heard some great things about zinc over the past decade," the young woman replies.

I imagine the Amish could share some of these tips about medicine.

Another question. Which is more intelligible: the German-Dutch spoken by the Amish, or the ostensible English-language announcements that come out of the  Amtrak loudspeaker? The dialects have much in common.

The train is crowded, and the cafe car is full. One guy with a beer approaches  another guy with a beer.

"Is someone sitting here?" asks the guy with the IPA.

"Nope, it's all yours," replies the other with the Corona.

"Cheers," and they clink, and the next thing you know the guy from West Virginia who works for the Marine Corps is explaining the intricacies of facial recognition software algorithms to the other guy as Wisconsin suburbs speed past the window, as if he could understand them.

Cut to a discussion about the definition of collusion vs. the definition of conspiracy.

"I think Trump is just a fucking dumbass who took whatever information he could get," says the one guy, to the irritation of the other.

There are three kinds of Amtrak conductor announcements: the mumble, the exasperated shout, and the dramatic performance. The conductor today is a maestro of the latter. He turns the word "Columbus" into a five-syllabus song as complex as a bird call. He's a carnival barker for Wisconsin cities. He repeats it seven times during one announcement -- Coooollummmmbuuuusssss! -- making out with the intercom somewhere on the train. He's the kind of Amtrak conductor that loves wearing the special hat. I imagine how many more stops there are along the way, whether each announcement will reach the same highs and lows, whether he builds to a crescendo somewhere in Montana as the train scales the Rockies. A true believer, he has a ticket-punching-tool holster on his belt, embossed with his initials.

There might have been a Pokemon Go festival somewhere in Minneapolis, as there is a lot of discussion of Pokemon Go and the evolution of species.

When the train is full, as it is today, it contains an unstoppable energy. There's the constant shifting of voices, the back and forth movement of people up and down the aisles. They all do the "Amtrak shuffle", the reciprocal leaning and shifting required for two bodies to pass each other in the 2' wide walkway. This energy comes out of from the diverse mix, hundreds of strangers sharing a space for a time, the selfish seat hogs, the bedraggled parents, the old folks in stupors, the Mennonite families, the hipsters.

One of the biggest men I've ever seen barely fits on two adjacent seats in the lounge car. He has a black shirt, black shorts, black hair in a ponytail, and a backwards Pittsburgh Steelers hat. He too is into Pokemon go, and chats with the man next to him about video games all the way from Milwaukee to Tomah.

The porter working with the sleeper car passengers, an African-American man, seems the most determined of the Empire Builder's crew. He moves with more  purpose than the others, as he reminds a pair of travelers that if they need anything, they can press the call button. I wonder if he knows about the time-honored, epic history of black porters in America, how they used this demeaning, tiring job as a lever of influence all through the 20th century, how they used a variety of subtle means to achieve middle-class status, somehow, despite all odds, social barriers, and obstacles. I assume he knows all this. I assume he carries with him a sense of ownership over the profession, a history of how "red caps" changed the country using service as a tool for progress.

A guy is really desperate to smoke his blunt, and asks the conductor for the next stop where he can smoke. "

"Winona" replies the crewman.  "you're not the only one, I've got people chewing my butt on here," and they both laugh.

Just when you think you've seen every possible iteration of an American Flag garment, along comes a new one.

It's dark when the train rolls into Saint Paul. This time, it's only a half hour late. Hope springs eternal.


Signs of the Times #155

[No idea.]
[Now hiring noodle-making worker.]

[Door. University Avenue, Saint Paul.]


[Pole. Milwaukee, WI.]


[Door. Milwaukee, WI.]


[Pole. Milwaukee, WI.]

 Plase Close
Outside Door tight
When Comin Leaving

[Door. Milwaukee, WI.]


[Pole. Milwaukee, WI.]


[Fence. South Minneapolis.]

Pedestrian Bridge,
We will miss your
twisty turns and
rugged good looks.
Thanks for your
The Neighbors

[Concrete pier. Southeast, Minneapolis.]


Reading the Highland Villager #237

[A Villager in a sunbeam.]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free. See also: Three Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager.]

Headline: Neighbors appeal approval of Grand apartment project; fear building near UST would add to student parking issues
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A developer wants to build a four-unit building on Grand Avenue. Neighbors are concerned about traffic, parking, and the presence of students. The BZA approved the variances it needed. Quote from neighbor: "There's just no room left on this block."

Headline: Mayor digs in, vows to appeal court order for referendum 
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: People who don't like city-organized trash collection sued and a judge found in their favor but the city will still pay garbage trucks to pick up garbage and are appealing. [Sounds expensive! Thanks garbage people. Here's a blogpost I wrote about this from two years ago! This is embarrassing for Saint Paul.]

Headline: Design standards create a palette for Ford redevelopment; Guidelines for buildings, landscaping get public hearing on June 28
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city is going to create guidelines [not rules] for things like building materials and landscaping for the new buildings that will be built. There are lots of little details about things like streetscapes. People want to avoid the "canyon effect." People can send in comments.

Headline: Study revives interest in Greenway extension; railroad bridge redesign would link Mpls./St. Paul bike and pedestrian trails
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A trail nonprofit commissioned a study to look at whether its possible to put bike access on the bridge over the river where the Greenway ends. It might cost between $8M and $28M. If that happens, a bike trail could also connect on Ayd Mill Road. [instead, we're spending $3.5M to repave it for cars.] The railroad seems uncooperative. [This would be a gamechanger for bicycling in Saint Paul and immediately vault the city into the top rank of US cities for bicycling infrastructure. Picture Saint Paul on the cover of national magazines... You'd think we'd find the money for this.]

Headline: Highland District's 10-year plan gets public hearing June 28
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A neighborhood is coming up with a plan for itself. Some things include things like pedestrian safety and encouraging walking,, bicycling, and transit. Also things like building design and mixed-use.

Headline: Pedestrian plan strides toward healthier, more resilient St. Paul
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city has a plan now for improving walking, filling in sidewalk gaps and creating safer streets, etc. Neighbors would like to see better snow and ice removal in the winter.

Headline: Last-minute scramble pays off with a Grand Old Day worthy of its name
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Grand Old Day, when people walk around on Grand Avenue and there are no cars, almost was not going to happen but then it did. [You'd think this long-standing event would help business people on Grand realize that designing the street for walking shoudl be the #1 priority, instead of all the complaints about parking.] A lot of people came. There was even a parade. The weather was nice. The business association will be "looking at its future." [I hope it includes more density and emphasis on walking.]

Headline: Spring flooding shortens summer season in city parks
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Mississippi River was high and some parts of parks were closed because they were underwater. [Cleaning this up costs the city millions.]

Headline: Time may have run out on proposed Cleveland bike lanes
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Some people want bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue south of Ford Parkway but the city says they cannot do it. Instead, sharrows. [Pretty much useless, those are.]

Headline: Postponing street repaving is no longer an option in St. Paul
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: You cannot tell the city to screw off any more when they come to fix up your street.

Headline: City eyes $15M in capital projects
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city will spend money on stuff, including a fire station, fixing a downtown bridge, new sidewalks on Randolph Avenue, and some downtown parks.

Headline: Opus adjusts proposal for five-story senior complex along Lilydale bluffs
Author: Kevin Driscoll

Short short version: This is in Mendota, but someone wants to build housing for old people and others do not like it because of erosion or views. They are setting it back a bit more and changing he shape of the building from an E to an S. [Can I buy a vowel?]

Headline: Demand continues to exceed supply for new senior housing; despite new apartment projects that are under construction locally
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Some new apartments are being built, but not enough. Older people want somewhere nice to live in Saint Paul.


Twin City Shop Windows #21

 [South Minneapolis.]

 [Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis.]

 [West 7th Street, Saint Paul.]

 [Troy, NY.]

 [Riverside Avenue, Minneapolis.]

 [Snelling Avenue, Saint Paul.]


[Milwaukee, WI.]


A Rare Southeast Dive Slated for So-Called Improvement

[Image from MN Daily.]
It is with a leaden heart that I report that another Minneapolis dive is slated to be improved.

Sporty's (formerly the Sportsmen's Inn) is one of the only dives in Southeast Minneapolis, an otherwise relatively quiet working-class and student-oriented slice of the city. Along with Manning's across the street, Sporty's displays a lived in patina and a idiosyncratic veneer that made it seem like someone's 1980s basement. I first came across it during a Stupor Bowl ride, and have returned there often.

The article in the Minnesota Daily reads:
The bar's last day of operation will be June 30, said owner Chris Chistopherson. A new restaurant, Como Tap, is expected to open at the location of 22nd Avenue Southeast and Como Avenue Southeast in late August. 
Christopherson’s lease for the bar, nicknamed Sporty’s for decades, will end in July after unsuccessful renewal negotiations. Renewing the lease would have included a substantial rent increase that Christopherson found unsustainable, he said.
During negotiations, Christopherson said he received a letter informing him the lease would not be renewed. 
“This is not my intent, it breaks my heart. Because I feel like we're allowing an institution to die,” Christopherson said. “But I understand it, I understand business. I understand maximizing profits and I don't know that I'd have done anything different if I was in Joe's spot, because he owns the building. He operated Sporty’s for 14 years.”
It seems like the place will remain a bar, so that's good. Less good is the certitude that it'll be a fancier and "cleaned up". I assume  all the cool kitschy idiosyncratic "your uncle's basement" stuff will be gone.

Here are some fun facts about Sporty's, from last year's Noteworthy Dive Bars of the Southeast Borderlands tour:

  • It's an old mixed-use building with apartments over the bar. Lots of people have lived here over the century, families and kids growing up above the place. Back in 1936, for example, a woman named Margaret Reimers lived upstairs and, in a classic "eyes on the street" moment, witnessed a group of men commit a burglary of company across the street. The place was called United Chemical Co., and the burglars spent two hours breaking into a "strongbox" to steal a grand total of $42. (The safe had had over $1,600 inside earlier in the day, so they were working with bad information. That's $30,000 in today's dollars.) Margaret did not call the police because she did not have a phone.  
  • In 1937, the city granted a license for a restaurant in this location. At that time it was not a bar, and only served soft drinks and sold cigarettes.
  • In 1962, the place was called the Como Inn. Being outside the Minneapolis' 1880s "liquor patrol limits", there's always been a struggle to allow alcohol here. For decades, concerned neighbors have pushed back against having bars on this part of Como. In 1963, organizations in Southeast sent 17 letters to the city to protest the (re)opening of a bar here. The Alderman at the time, a man named Robert McGregor, led the charge to stop the opening of the bar. (He failed, obviously.)
  • By 1969, the bar got a new owner and the name changed to the Sportsmen's Inn.
  • It became Sporty's more recently, and was remodeled about five years ago to add large windows. Maybe that was the beginning of the end? Fenestrating a dive bar is never a good sign. 

Go check out Sporty's before it changes. Be sure to make a pilgrimage to the Kramer painting.

[One of my favorite movie posters, because she is destroying a freeway.]

[The patron saint of Sporty's.]

[An excellent dive bar bathroom, one of the diveyist in Minneapolis.]


The Worst Thing about Cars is that Nobody is Even Happy

[Image from this.]
Driving in a car offers a wild privilege. Take, for example, the experience of your body. Sitting in the seat of a car is super comfortable, basically a Lay-Z-Boy slash couch with adjustable and often heated seats that have a complex system of electric motors in them to allow them to move in five different directions until you achieve perfect lumbar support, whatever that is. These seats are often made of thick upholstery, sometimes even from cowhide, and teams of engineers have spent lifetimes calculating how to make these seats slightly more comfortable. For the vast majority of people, it's the nicest chair they’ll ever sit in.

Think also for a moment about the air inside the car. It's basically a soundproof, climate-controlled wonder chamber. You can be in one of these machines in a downpour or in a blizzard, on a Wyoming plateau at twenty below zero or at 100 humid degrees in a Mississippi swamp, and you will barely notice a difference. Frankly, that’s amazing.

And most every car has a fancy stereo system with speakers that surround your head perfectly, and you can turn up the tunes as loud as you want. Here, too, teams of engineers have spent decades applying their sharp minds to the critical problem of slightly improving the audio quality of the inside of this steel box. These days much of the time, you can even talk to the machine, simply telling it to do things like “change the radio station to 96.5” and it will do that without you even having to lift a finger.

And, by the way, the entire machine moves at quite a high rate of speed! The dials on the dashboards often go up to 150 miles per hour or higher. The national treasury and many of the public functions of our government (like police) are dominated by budgets devoted to making it easier for you to move these machines around with ease. Tens of thousands of people labor for lifetimes working out how to remove obstacles, smooth bumps, and make your journey -- cushioned of course by a sophisticated suspension system -- slightly more comfortable. They use detailed equations to calculate the exact right kind of cement that might remove small vibrations during your trip. Diagrams with carefully calculated angles are created with the goal of distributing more easily the excess water that might fall before you on the road. Teams of people wake in the middle of the night to clear paths for you each time it snows. All told, over the generations, trillions of public dollars have been spent to literally move mountains to create wide smooth paths for your luxurious machine. Thousands of buildings in cities everywhere have been torn down. Entire forests full of trees have been cut down because they were in the way. All of this was done to make sure that, when you drive one of these miracle boxes, your path will be slightly straighter, your journey slightly faster, and your driving surface so forgiving that your attention can slightly diminish as you travel around the city in your luxury stereo climate couch.

And also, millions of signs, lights, poles, written messages, and reflective warnings have been erected all through the city and countryside just to decrease the chances that you might kill yourself in one these speedy fancyboxes. Generations of engineers have devoted their lives, formed entire institutions at major universities, trained tens of thousands of young people, all to make it slightly easier for you to distract yourself as you travel, perhaps to eat a burrito with one hand, perhaps to answer your hand-held phone, perhaps to drive after a few beers without killing yourself or anyone else. (Though this still happens every day, of course.) Governments have spent millions to mount billboards and hire creative people to create radio advertisements that remind you to do basic tasks, including things so simple as for example strapping a small belt around your waist because, for some reason, some people still refuse to perform this life-saving act.

Pause and think about how entire cities have been rearranged and rebuilt to make moving around in these machines slightly more convenient. These new cities are even sprinkled liberally with buildings designed so that you don't even have to get out of your comfortable climate-controlled mobile couch machine to go to a restaurant or a pharmacy. Instead, architects have worked out ways to make it easy for you to you simply pull up along a wall of concrete bricks, mumble a few words into a microphone, and, within minutes, someone will lean slightly out of a window in the side of the building and hand you a hot coffee or a hamburger or a bucket of fried chicken or the world’s finest pharmaceutical drugs in child-proof caps, all of this without having to remove yourself from your luxurious machine and walk a single step.

And it's cheap, too, if you think about it even for a second. A gallon of gasoline costs less than a cup of coffee, and only one of those liquids will transport your 3,000 pound miracle couch for thirty miles - a distance of 156,000 feet -- with only the slight movement of your right foot.

In fact, many of the costs of this amazing machine have been taken care of in advance. You need not pay the full expense of all the roads, steel beams, bridges, metal guard rails, aluminum poles, and hard surfaces made from petroleum asphalt and concrete. Nor need you concern yourself about the effects of the nitrogen monoxide or carbon monoxide that pour ceaselessly out from your machine's combustion engine, polluting the air for the people who might be near to your travels, and probably giving breathing children asthma. Nor do you have to think even for a moment about the carbon dioxide that transforms the atmosphere above, changing the climate of the entire planet in ways that are surely irreversible and devastating.

If somehow gasoline gets too expensive, you shouldn’t worry about that either. Chances are that the government will spend trillions to invade a oil-producing nation, killing countless people in the process, in order to ensure that the price goes down.

Speaking of killing, most of the time, even if you run someone over, even if you end another person's life accidentally with your large powerful expensive machine, as long as you weren't drunk, it’s fine. You might feel bad about it, but that's about the extent of what will likely happen to you.

And remember that, pretty much everywhere you go, businesses, homeowners, and governments have paved the earth with asphalt to make it easier to put your machine somewhere when you're not even using it. That's the case nearly everywhere, and most of the time it's completely free for you. Right now in this very country there are millions upon millions of 6’ x 8’ spaces waiting for your  privately owned movement machine to sit whenever you’re not using it. All these things have been done to make it slightly easier and simpler for you to sit in your comfortable personal climate-controlled stereo sound motion-couch and speed physically effortlessly around the city.

But here’s the thing that confuses me. If you stop and ask anyone what they think or how they are doing or how they feel about driving, what do people usually say?

Almost every time, they complain.

Almost every time, after an entire nation has been pretty much devoted to a single-minded purpose of improving the experience of driving a car, nobody's even happy about it.

Every day, almost unceasingly, people operating these miraculous devices bitch and moan. People complain that they cannot travel even faster. They complain that the gasoline -- a liquid whose pollution by the way is causing the extinction of a million species of unique and fascinating plants and animals as you read this --  is not even cheaper. They complain that they cannot place their large expensive device directly next to their destinations, causing them to walk two hundred or three hundred feet using their own two legs. They complain if they have to slow down slightly due to other people driving their luxurious machines, or if they have to stop for an old lady to cross the street. By far the number one reaction people have when you stop and ask them about these amazing technological marvels, the convenience of which more public money and attention has been spent than any another collective social activity with the exception of warfare, is to express displeasure.

When it comes to incredible luxury of driving in an automobile, nobody is even happy about it.

What if people driving down the street were content simply to exist in an insanely comfortable couch device with the best stereo they'll ever own where they can adjust the temperature to specific degrees and aim the flow of the air at their faces in a dozen different ways? What if people were pleased to be able to travel effortlessly around the city, moving barely a muscle, just by flipping their wrists and twitching their toes? What if people were happy about being in these miracle comfort coffins around which the world has been remade, and did not insist on getting incessantly angry, honking the horn at the slightest inconvenience, or speeding around each other in ways that have killed tens of thousands of Americans each year like clockwork for the past half century?

What if driving made people happy and not miserable?


Twin City Neon #29

 [Downtown, Minneapolis.]



 [Location forgotten. Highland, Saint Paul.]

 [Highland, Saint Paul.]

  [Location forgotten. Midway, Saint Paul.]

 [Milwaukee, WI.]

 [Milwaukee, WI.]


Flag Day Special - Enjoy 15% off all Northeast Minneapolis and Saint Paul Flags

In celebration of Flag Day, an annual day where we celebrate flags, I'm having a sale on Northeast Minneapolis and Saint Paul flags. Both of these flags are fine local flags with fascinating historical origin stories.

Fun fact: the Northeast Minneapolis flag was originally flown to celebrate arm-wrestling!

Also true: the original Saint Paul flag was lost to history by Chamber of Secrets Commerce.

Read all about each of them -- The Saint Paul flag and the Northeast Minneapolis flag -- in the archives.

And now through Sunday, take an extra 15% off the cost of each of these flags. They come in two sizes and different iterations and they can be yours. Buy one for a friend or a neighbor or a friend's or neighbor's dog! What the heck, buy two!

And happy Flag Day folks. Support your local flappable civic symbol.


Twin City Street Musicians #22

 [Grand Avenue, Saint Paul.]

 [Downtown, Minneapolis.]

 [Cambridge, MA.]

 [Downtown, Saint Paul.]

 [State Fairgrounds.]

 [New York City, NY.]

[West 7th, Saint Paul.]


Twin City Bike Parking #38

 [West 7th, Saint Paul.]

 [University Avenue, Saint Paul.]

 [University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.]

 [West Side, Saint Paul.]

 [University Avenue, Saint Paul.]

 [Hamline-Midway, Saint Paul.]


[Downtown, Saint Paul.]