In 1979 a wonderful satirical movie jam packed with an ensemble cast that included John Ritter, Peter Riegert, Freddy Willard, Zane Buzby, Meat Loaf, and a surprise cameo performance by Elvis Costello opened in theaters – Americathon! Narrated by George Carlin, the biting satire in Americathon was born out of real national crisis: gas shortages, Iranian Revolution, the Cold War, Arab-Israeli tension, the energy crisis, and a horrible recession. Set in the not-too-distant future, the comedy opened with an awesome claymation fight scene between three dinosaurs killing each other over, as George Carlin explained it, a “parking space.” Thanks to the dead dinosaurs we had gasoline and thanks to Jimmy Carter, referred to as “this guy,” the tank was empty! As a consequence of “this guy’s” policies America was broke, defaulted on its loans, and people were forced to sell their homes and move into their cars because no one had a job. Car-park neighborhoods were the new places people now inhabited and these places resembled a kind of domesticated perpetual tailgate. I saw this movie when I was only 5 or 6 but I lodged it deep in my memory. What I remembered most were the opening scenes: dinosaurs duking it out on the plains of Pangea and bikes…bikes everywhere. In Americathon the year was 1998; it was the future and everyone rode bicycles.
This past Sunday, October 5th, I participated in my 8th CicLAvia (there have been 10 so far). Heart of LA started at the East LA Civic Center and moved along Cesar Chavez to Mariachi Plaza to 4th Street to 2nd Street and straight up to Glendale and finally ended at Echo Park. Bikes, skate boards, strollers, runners, kids, dads, moms, and some four legged friends populated the entire street. It was magical to see all those bikes filling the lanes normally taken up by cars. The first time I attended a CicLAvia event, it was a transcendent experience…a moment of involuntary memory, similar to what Proust described in Remembrance of Things Past in the “episode of the madeleine.” After biting into a madeleine cookie dipped in tea, Proust was flooded with memories of his childhood and 7 volumes later, the gargantuan masterpiece he created in the early 1900s is still considered one of the most brilliant works in the pantheon of modern literature.
Seeing all those bikes at CicLAvia triggered a deeply profound nostalgia, experienced initially by my body then after a short while, my head. It was a strange state of joy and pain that I felt especially in my gut and joints. My brain took a few moments to process the sensation, following the tether of emotion to its core…a memory, then another and another… I was 6 again, marveling at the opening scenes in Americathon. I remembered the excitement of wanting to ride a bike and ditching my three wheeler. I remembered the feeling of absolute equilibrium when I finally balanced on a bike for the first time, my feet off the ground and on the pedals, it was almost weightlessness. I winced with absolute dread, remembering that gravity would pull me to one side or the other. It was the same dread I remembered having when I was waiting for a punch in the face by a kid much older than me. I remembered the 15, 16, 17, 18 year-old white kids in my neighborhoods who chased me all the way to within shouting distance of my house and beat my face and body with their fists and shoes for being the only Mexican family in the area. “Dirty Mexican, we don’t want your kind here!” they shouted as they struck. I remembered my next door neighbor, an Irish kid with freckles, pale skin, and curly red hair who taught me to ride a bicycle. His mother and little sister had died in a car crash the year before. I got on his bike, he helped pushed me along and all I had to do was ride straight, which I did until I saw the sidewalk turn left 90 degrees about 50 ft ahead…I panicked…I was in trouble…I felt the weightlessness and the pull on the front of my shirt as the big kid grabbed my grey Evel Knievel t-shirt and lifted me off the sandy playground by my house. I turned my face so the big kid would hit my head and not my eyes. I suddenly heard my father yell behind me, “Hey!” with a booming voice that seemed to explode like those scenes of canon fire in WWII documentaries my dad loved to watch, and I felt that sound travel right through me. I heard the crisp ‘clink’ sound of my dad’s 45 pistol being cocked…the chrome plated one with a black handle that I knew he kept at the top of the closet. He never fired but the young man’s face went pale and he ran… no one ever touched me after that. I fell to the ground…I didn’t know how to stop before reaching the 90 degree turn and I figured that the best way to stop was to fall. I was embarrassed for falling from the bike after doing so well. My friend encouraged me, “Don’t worry about the scratches. My dad told me the scratches give my bike character.” I got back on again, I would not be left behind in a future when everyone would ride bikes.