The Indian Summer was in full effect in Los Angeles. Each September day reached triple digits on the thermometer making it too hot for any activities under the sun. When I was invited to borrow a bicycle and take part in Friday night’s Critical Mass, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to get some exercise.
Critical Mass is organized anarchy of the highest scale. On the fourth Friday night of every month a mob of cyclists take over the city streets. Cars and pedestrians be damned. Just like a million internet companies, it started in San Francisco in the nineties slowly spreading all over the globe. Even to the mecca of car culture and the place where I lay my head, Los Angeles.
A friend had invited me to previous rallies, but he wanted us to bike all the way from Venice to the intersection of Wilshire and Western, a 13 mile appetizer to the main course. My lazy bones always said no thanks.
This time I was invited to use a bicycle in Hollywood. Her bicycle’s name was Lucas. I dubbed mine, Cheryl, since it was a girl’s bike. We raised my seat and cruised to the meeting point. Down Wilshire Boulevard we met a pack of nine who trekked all the way from UCLA. The leader of this crew was Allen. He had a surfer’s mane under his helmet and a hulking physique. He rode all the way from the Pacific Palisades which was 20 miles away.
“It’s not that far.”
This was apparently a common conversation I’d have with members of the cycling community. A kid who had to be fourteen years old said he was doing a hundred mile bike ride on Sunday.
“It’s no biggie.”
We got to the starting point atop the subway plaza and across from the historic Wiltern Theater. This was a crew. Motley teenagers towing a boom box blasting music, nerds with flashing lights on their seats, and tough looking tattooed chicks were there. Even Jared Leto, star of Panic Room and My So Called Life, showed up.
This wouldn’t be LA if a couple girls didn’t walk by with a camera asking if we’d like to be in a video for the band 30 Seconds to Mars. It was non-paying so I said no. Later I learned this was Jared Leto’s band. Don’t these movie stars have enough money to spread the wealth on their vanity projects? I suppose the Great Recession has hit everyone hard.
I smelled the aroma of marijuana. Allen, who I met a mile earlier, asked me to hold his bike so he could get a hit from the spliff. But the cyclists were starting to hit the streets. I was told the ideal position to be amongst the five hundred other riders was right in the middle. The last several rallies had cops issuing tickets. As I’d just received a letter from Beverly Hills Mountain Recreation department declaring my car was caught on camera running a stop sign, I wanted to avoid any other fines. Fortunately Allan came back for his bike with the remnants of a joint in his hand which timed me to be smack dab in the middle.
It was crazy. Western is a busy, congested road at the best of times. With hundreds of cyclists, cars were at an absolute standstill. It was rush hour in a third world country.
“Left.” You’d hear someone yell. Then you’d hear a collection of people hollering, “Left” and everyone would go left. We were a swarm of bees following the queen, pests to any in our way.
Uh oh, our first red light. “Roll through.” someone yells. A hundred others yell “roll through.” It was unclear whether the honking was from solidarity or disgust.
We made a right through a residential street. There are no street lamps and trees block out the ambient light. The only thing guiding my way are the red lights on the back wheels of many of these experienced night riders. It’s almost magical. The only sight being red dots and the only sound the squeaking of hand brakes.
An Orthodox man walking home from Friday night services with his two young sons can not cross the street with all these bikers passing through. “May we cut in?” He timidly asks. He is a metaphor for religion. Does it take any more faith to expect a hundred people to stop for you, then it does to think a cosmic being hears your thanks for grapes?
On Beverly it became apparent the helicopter rotering overhead was not coincidentally in our area. It was the LAPD telling us from a loudspeaker, “to cease and desist.” We made a right, so did the helicopter. It followed us bringing squad cars. We made it to Pavillion’s, an upscale supermarket on Melrose and Vine, for a pit stop. There were some knuckleheads in the group. We’ll call them rowdy youth. They circled cars in the parking lot and rode into oncoming traffic saying, “Fuck cars. Ride bikes.” I’d have more respect for their confrontational, revolutionary behavior if they didn’t all have iphones and weren’t texting their buddies about what they just did.
After a long half hour wait the group zig zags through Hollywood. We’re on less busy streets for the most part. Pedestrians asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m Batman.” I said. I tried to come up with wittier responses. “I am social security number 592-27-3311.”
“I’m your worst nightmare.”
But next time I heard a question it was, “You’re Critical Mass, aren’t you?” Unlike Jared Leto, when I strike it rich I will pay my straight man serious dinero.
We cut through an empty street I’ve never driven on. The street sign said L Ron Hubbard Way. I knew this was too good to be true. These bikers are all Scientologists. They’re going to make me take personality tests and I’ll have to hang out with Tom Cruise and Beck, but no, we cruised past their compound on to Sunset Boulevard looking like a squadron of brave new recruits out to spread the word of a second rate science fiction writer.
The ride ended at a Rite Aid on Hollywood and Vermont. A two hour sojourn disrupting civilized society. There’s another bike ride heading toward downtown, but my shaky legs had four more miles until I reached my car, so I bid them fond farewells. I’m told to check out the site www.midnightridazz.com where future night rides can be discovered.