Thursday, June 24, 2010

I Like To Ride My Bicycle

Tomorrow is my birthday, and this week I bought myself a present- a new bicycle. Well, a new/used bicycle. This is the sixth bicycle I have owned, although it would have been bike number seven if my brother Ben had let me buy his old one. More about him in a minute. Today is also the big mid-winter holiday here in the northeast known as São João, but I won't be writing about that today.

But first an apology. Judging from a comment left by my brother Ben (more about him later) it appears that I suddenly have the attention of the better part of my family on these pages. I had a feeling this might happen when my nephew Brian wrote a comment in response to my bitter and whiny post about no one in the family reading my blog. Now I'm feeling sheepish. I suppose I got what I wanted, which is for them to revel in the pure genius that is this glorious blog, but I didn't want it to happen this way. I didn't want them to be guilted into reading it. I also regret being such a passive aggressive fool that would write a stupid post like that. My apologies family!!

Another item to add to the sheepishness was discovering that a different brother of mine has a blog that I wasn't reading! In my own meager defense, I did know about this blog, but as it was getting almost no updates I had figured it was not an active concern and eventually forgot about it. Then the brother in question mentioned it on the phone and I, guilted like the aforementioned family, hurried over to catch up and subscribe to the RSS feed. That's the great thing about RSS feeds and news readers - you never miss another update, even if you can't remember all the things you want to be updated on. Sign up all ye uninitiated!

Anyhow, the bicycle. In spite of my somewhat desperate financial situation (which is actually showing some glimmers of improvement) I decided to get myself a present this year for my birthday. I buy almost nothing for myself, although I have a rather lengthy wish list. Having the Mil Muros site has been good as it has allowed me to get my retail therapy fix vicariously. In fact, tomorrow I'm scheduled to receive almost the entire line of Worx paint, which is the best that Brazil has to offer in terms of domestic spray paint for graffiteiros. On my birthday no less! Very exciting. Hundreds of cans of paint, and I won't be able to use any of them. At least I can fondle and gaze at them, and arrange them on shelves and take pictures of them.

Having decided to get myself something nice, I was wavering between a new bicycle and a new cell phone. Either of these items would have cost me about 300 reis, or $170 US. I really wanted the cell phone because mine doesn't have a camera, and I want to be able to take pictures of graffiti and such that I spot on the street. A built in MP3 player wouldn't hurt either. I count on my cell phone to keep me entertained when I have to stand in line anywhere, and my current one doesn't perform this function adequately. The bike I had my eye on was nothing terribly fancy, but it was new and shiny and had twist-shifters in the grips, something I'd tried just once and really enjoyed. As it turned out, I didn't buy either of these things- I 'settled' for a second-hand bike I spotted in the same shop. I don't regret my decision.

I've been reading Moby Dick lately... and have been for some time. My Kindle tells me I've only read 52% of the book so far. My theory is that if you have better things to do than read, which I do, then read a slow book- an un-page-turner as it were. Not reading anything is not an option for me, I always like to have a book going, but reading something that I can only get through three or four pages at a time before my eyelids droop is at times a good thing. Moby Dick has surprised me- I thought it was about a white whale. If you haven't yet noticed Melville's effect on my writing style, you will now, as I diverge from my primary narrative to present a lengthy aside, and as he would have done, it will rate its own chapter.

My Other Bikes

As I mentioned previously, this is bike number five for me, almost bike six. Let's take a look back the others.

Bike Number One was a kiddie bike complete with training wheels. In fact, it was only used by me as a training wheel bike because I never learned to ride it without them, although I came close. My best friend Jesse lost one of the training wheels when he went on an unexpectedly fast ride down a steep hill in front of our house- it had no brakes, you see.

Bike Number Two was the one I learned to ride on when I was about seven or eight. It was second-hand, having belonged to a classmate who moved away. It had that seventies chopper-type styling, with a banana seat and crazy curved handlebars. The spokes were tricked out with bits of drinking straw. My father and the aforementioned brother Ben taught me to ride this bike in my dad's driveway. The bike lived under a piece of plastic along with my brother's, which was also second hand, and had belonged to the sister of my former classmate. Having belonged to a girl, his was a girl's bike (eeeewwww!)

When all my friends got to the fifth or sixth grade, they all got 'ten-speeds' with racing handle bars and derailleurs and such. This was some years before the advent of mountain bikes, which would have been the natural choice of transport for a bunch of hippie kids growing up in the woods. Naturally, I too wanted a similar ride but for some reason my parents bought me a three-speed, which was Bike Number Three.

I don't know why they bought me the three-speed. I figure it must have been cheaper. I don't remember being terribly upset at the time- it at least looked like a ten-speed, even if it wasn't. I don't want to beat up on my parents too much, they were very good parents, but they did develop a strange (but not oft-repeated) habit of getting me these 'transitional' gifts instead of the real thing, and then subsequently buying the genuine article for my younger brother a year or two later. Jason didn't get a three-speed (actually, nobody I knew had a three speed except me), he went straight to the twelve-speed which at the time was the latest thing.

I remember protesting Jason's acquisition of the 'real' bicycle, so in relatively short order I received Bike Number Four, which had the prerequisite derailleur and ten gears. Both of our bikes were made by Fuji, and I distinctly remember that mine wasn't as nice as his was (we never forget these things, do we?) My mom bought his with this rather extravagant friend of hers who chipped in on the purchase price. I had no such luck. At least, at age sixteen or so, I had my proper ten-speed at last. I sold this bike many years later, lightly used, to a friend of mine in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Bike Number Five was also a hand-me-down and my first mountain bike. This bike had belonged to my dad, who loved mountain bikes because they reminded him of the old steel clunkers he grew up with. Indeed, mountain bikes are descended from those solid bicycles of his youth, and he determinedly un-mountain-biked it as much as he could, putting on a nice wide saddle, handle bars that allowed him to ride upright, and (shudder) a kick-stand. He handed this bike off to me when he decided he wanted to go riding with his wife and then bought a pair of matching red bikes for them to ride, better for him to keep up with those 'long legs of hers' (us Pfohls are a stumpy-legged bunch). When I got my hands on the bike, I promptly re-mountain-biked it, putting on some low, wide handlebars, knobby tires, and a teeny tiny granny gear so I could actually ride uphill in the woods on it. I took off the kick-stand and all those enormously weighty and un-cool reflectors. I did take this bike off-road from time to time, but never as much as I had intended to. This bike accompanied me all the way to Alaska and back on the back of my Honda Civic. I still own it, I think, although it has been moldering in the basement of my sister's barn for many years. I hope somebody rides it now and again.

Then there was The Bike that Might Have Been. This one belonged to the oft-mentioned brother Ben, a Specialized Rockhopper that he was selling to help pay for a much nicer full-suspension bike he had just purchased. In spite of my offer to pay his full asking price for this bike, which would have become the crown jewel of my series, he refused to sell it to me. His reasoning was that, as my brother, he wanted to give me a good deal on the thing, but since he needed to sell it to help pay for the new bike, he couldn't give me a deal on it and therefore wouldn't sell it to me. I insisted I was willing to pay his asking price but he likewise insisted he would not not not sell it to me. And that was that. In retrospect this was probably just as well, as I pretty much stopped riding at that point and this would now be the bike that is moldering in my sister's basement today.

I figured my next bike would be something more like the Rockhopper, with a front suspension at the very least, but it was not to be. I was actually leaning more toward the new cell phone, figuring it would get a lot more use than any bicycle when I went back into the shop with Lucas to see if they still had the bike I was interested in. They did, but it didn't look quite so glamorous to me anymore. I looked at some of the other bikes they had, and tried not to look at the really nice ones.

And then I saw it. A kind of maroon color, used, but lightly. Like one of my own old bikes. I'll call it the Batman Bike. Why? Because of the numerous faded stickers it is festooned with that read Batman Forever. Lucas took one look at this bike and insisted I had to buy it. I draw pictures of Batman and have to role-play him cast in plastic miniature on a daily basis. Of course I had to buy the Batman Bike! When the owner of the bike shop told me the price was half that of the other bike, it was as good as sold. I took Lucas for a walk, thought about it, and returned and bought the Batman Bike just before the shop closed.

It's a cheesy beast, this Batman Bike. Clearly targeted for the teenage market, it is a frill-less mountain style bicycle, with lots of plastic parts. No aluminum or alloys anywhere on the frame. It does have 21 speeds, which is more than twice what Bike Number Four had, and seven times that of Bike Number Three. There's no kick-stand on it, and it has brand new knobby tires. The beauty of it is that it is adequate, and, truth be told, adequate is ten times better than exciting.

Why, says you, is adequate better than exciting? Well, I'll tell you. It's not a fancy new toy, which means it doesn't have any fancy new toy baggage. This means that I can ride it and chain it up in public places without worrying about it getting stolen, or worse, scratched. It means I can lend it to my oversized stepson without worrying about it getting stolen, or worse, scratched. Even more importantly and realistically it means I can not ride it and not suffer the guilt and shame of having my expensive toy sitting unused and gathering dust. Clearly this poor bicycle has already suffered that fate- the movie it is themed after came out five years ago and it shows about two months of wear. If I ride it a lot, and wear it out, then I'll be fully justified in buying a fancier model. I'm also really into this urban-camouflage idea that owning something kind of ugly and unappealing is a good idea- it is much less likely that someone else will want to take it away from me. Another bonus? I can start upgrading it immediately. The saddle on the thing is horrid, and it has no luggage rack. I could put a new stem and handlebars on it which would drop me into a lower, more aggressive riding position. Add some bar ends, toe clips, a front suspension, water bottle...

Hold on a second. Slow down there, tough guy. You bought the cheap bike because you are friggin' broke, so don't go souping the thing up and spending a fortune on it. No sense spoiling the satisfaction of getting a good deal by blowing two hundred reis in accessories. I'll settle for the toe clips and the new saddle. And the luggage rack. And I really should get a helmet. And maybe some gloves. And... never mind.

The truth is I find it hard to believe I'll ride it very much. The thought of riding a bicycle on the streets of Salvador is enough to give me heart palpitations, which is why I've gone eight years without one. I mostly bought it so I could ride around with Lucas, who is still on his first bicycle, complete with training wheels. We did just that yesterday, by performing the humiliating ritual of climbing into the car and strapping the bike on top in order to go for a ride on the pretty bike path in Barra. The irony of this is not lost on me, but the reality is that if I'm going out to ride with my son, we are definitely not riding the streets of hell on flimsy two-wheeled contraptions to get to a nice safe place to ride. At least not for a long time. And despite the absurdity of burning fossil fuels to go for a bike ride, we had a great time. Lucas rode his bike longer and farther than I've ever seen him ride previously, and he wanted more when we were done. And wanted to go out again today. This could turn out to be a great thing- there are a number of bike paths in the city. I just hope my car doesn't die or need to be sold so we can get to them. And if it does? Well, at least I'll have a bike to ride around on.

It is impossible for me to imagine a Salvador that is bike-friendly. Curitiba, in the south of Brazil, is supposed to be a great city to ride a bike in, but I don't see it happening here in Salvador. You could never set up bike lanes on the main streets- they would be dominated by motorcycles. The motorcycles are like flies here- they get into everything. Don't stick your arm out your car window or a motorcycle might take it off. I remember growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts and being bewildered by all the asian folks who would ride their bikes on the sidewalks. Why didn't they ride in the street like everyone else? Now I think I know. I think I'll be riding on sidewalks just as much as I possibly can- and I'll keep my eyes peeled for motorcycles.

Addendum

Mom requested a photo of the bike, here's a couple:


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What I'm Up Against

Sigh... I wonder where all the time goes, and then I remember that I live in Bahia.

Well, that, and then I remember who I am. If I had to pick an animal to describe me, and I had only two choices, and those choices were 'Tortoise' and 'Hare,' I'd have to pick... the... tortoise.

Anyhow. I've noted in the past that my grumble posts, and my Mr. Dad posts, seem to be a lot more popular than my art related posts, and whoa did I get a lot of response about my new website! (Insert dose of lighthearted sarcasm here) . So here you go, a grumble post for the masses.

My stepson Ruan changed schools this year, and today I went to pick up the transfer at his old school. When I requested it, they told me it would be ready in ninety days. That was over four months ago, so last week I called the school and asked if it was ready and I could go pick it up. Well, I was told they couldn't give me that information over the phone, so I had to go down there and find out. Don't ask why they couldn't just mail me the document, I sure didn't. The mail does not seem to garner a lot of confidence here in Brazil.

So I go to the school, and on the way I spot a big new store that sells tools. I'm not calling it a hardware store per se, it looks more like a specialty machinery store. I like stores like that, so I make a mental note of it. I get to the school, and ask about the transfer. My stepson's name is not entered into the computer, because there are no computers in the central office, if indeed anywhere at the school. This same school couldn't even inform me last year that they'd found a teacher so Ruan could start his classes- he missed a week of school that way. Par for the course. A secretary goes through a stack of folders and finds one with Ruan's name on it. Bingo!

Of course, it's not ready. I'm told by the secretary to call and check in a week to see if it's done. I tell her that I'd tried calling the previous week and was informed they couldn't give that kind of information over the phone. She told me no, just call, and they'll let me know.

Ya right. You know I'm going back there next week regardless. It may be the second of many trips to get this thing taken care of.

In an attempt to salvage some value from my fruitless trip, I stop at the store I had spotted on the way there. Now, like a lot of guys, including all the guys in my family, I really like tools and I get kind of silly when I'm in a store full of brand-new shiny ones, especially here in Brazil where it's much harder to get a tool-showroom-fix. The biggest hardware stores here, the vague analogs to the Home Depots and Lowses in the states, sell very little in the way of actual tools, and particularly power tools. Generally they have drills, 'Makitas' (which is what they call tile cutting saws here), sometimes circular saws, sometimes sanders, and that's about it. I've been idly looking around for a router, not because I actually plan to buy one, but just because I want to see if I can find one. I have never seen a drill press or table saw for sale here.

This new store was great. Lots and lots of power tools. Mostly related to masonry, but that makes sense. They had hand tools I hadn't seen anywhere else in Brazil, including squeeze clamps, something I had my mom bring down for me because I couldn't find them here. A whole wall of Makitas- Makita the brand that is, not just the tile cutters, although they had those too- a whole big stack of them. I actually gasped when I spotted a lovely little jigsaw, and I even looked for a price tag- my enthusiasm dimmed when I saw it was for 220 volt current.

No table saws.

No drill presses.

And, of course, no routers. Now, I didn't spend a lot of time in the place so I may have overlooked one, but I doubt it.

But all that was gravy. I was actually looking for something when I went into the store, and it was a product without a plug- I wanted to buy a respirator to resell on my site. Ideally something like this:

I have one almost exactly like this one, I bought it in the mom and pop hardware store in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont. You'd think the demand for these things would be relatively high here, particularly considering the amount of asbestos laced roof tiles that get cut up with the aforementioned tile saws, and the bold warnings printed on those tiles to use respiratory protection when cutting them.

Apparently not. I had given up hope of finding one of these, or a less expensive domestic version, anywhere in Bahia. Those big box 'hardware' stores? They either don't have them or never did. I'd resigned myself to buying them online.

I'm looking around the store... looking, looking... I find the section of safety equipment... hard-hats, boots, gloves... disposable dust masks... Paydirt!!! I find some respirators!! Not just one, but two kinds! In quantity! I could buy two dozen if I want!!

This is great. I'm very excited. Only one hitch: all these respirators use disposable filter cartridges, and the ones in the store are sold without them. I look around for the boxes of cartridges, there are none to be found. I finally consult an employee, and he says he's pretty sure there aren't any, but sends me over to a guy sitting at a computer to confirm this. He confirms that no, there are no filters anywhere in the store, and in fact, no request has been made for any, so they can't tell me when they might arrive, seeing as how nobody has actually ordered them. So why stock the things if you can't even use them I am tempted to ask, but of course I don't.

I leave the store, resigned but not upset, and certainly not surprised. I know there are respirators here in Brazil, I see pictures of graffiteiros with them on; many of the graffiteiros I know own one. I haven't found them because of my lack of initiative in tracking them down!! There's a district here that sells material to contractors, with dozens of stores- if I was to take an afternoon and go into all of them I would probably find a respirator in one of them.

But that's my whole point, see? I bought my respirator in a mom and pop hardware store in Brattleboro, and I live in a city of three million people where I can't find a single freakin' respirator without a concerted effort. Everything... takes... forever... and is like pulling teeth to get it done. But it's not just me. The fire department can't put out fires because they don't have the proper respirators either.

This is why the Brazilian World Cup team had to charter an entire airplane to bring back all the stuff they bought, last time the World Cup was in the States. This is why if you, who lives in the States, ever comes to Brazil, everyone you know here will ask you to bring something down for them. This is why every time I go home, I spend at least two days shopping for stuff I can't buy here. The USA may have its problems, but it is truly a shopper's paradise.