I was looking for something light to read this summer. After getting bogged down in a book about a bear that played tenor sax in New York City, I came across an excellent bicycling book entitled "The Immortal Class" by Travis Hugh Culley. The Seattle Times said that the book is "An ever-kinetic prose straddling narrative and polemic, with an ear all the while for the small pebble slipping beneath its feet." Yeah, whatever.
The book mixes philosophy, biography, and history with real life tales of being a bike messenger in Chicago. It's a whole other world that you probably won't ever know anything about unless you live the life.
Reading the book, I really got the feeling of tearing down one way streets the wrong way, into rush hour traffic, jumping curbs, swooping between pedestrians, feeling the pulse of the city, and developing a sixth sense about what danger will be waiting for you on the other side of the next blind corner.
WHOO-HOOOO!!! It's a very scary ride. And unbelievably exciting!
Travis first describes getting run down on Lakeshore by a cab. No, this was before he became a messenger, while he was just a commuter. Getting laid out on Lakeshore, with the cabbie and his fare getting, um, upset because he got in the way and were now delaying them left a lasting impression. This incident directly leads Travis to becoming involved with the Critical Mass movement. Critical Mass is movement that tries to raise public awareness about the plight of bicyclists, bicycle rights to the road and other bicycle issues. There's plenty of information about it on the Internet if you're interested in learning more.
Travis came to Chicago to work in the theatre, but when work became scarce he was forced to take work as a messenger. Well, he could have found other work, the couldn't find anything else he was interested in. Most of the book describes the plight and life of a bike messenger and the bonds that develop between them. You hear the office barking out delivery instructions: "Let's sit on the Mad for a moment, pull a set of AT&Ts out of the Litter Box on five, Sanchez and Daniels. They have a West Jackson getting dusty. I am hooking you up with a heavy West Side run. Are you into that? Do you find that hip?" "10-4. 310 South Mich just dumped a Britannica on the tower, and there is an old 55 East Jack daily run around Amex for 200 West Adams." The jargon is nicely mixed in to give a good feel to the book, but not so much to be distracting.
And you get to join in the nighttime track-stand competition. Probably something Bartels would enjoy. A track-stand is where you keep both feet on the pedals and balance. You can't put your feet down, you can't go forward or backward. After three minutes they go one handed. After six, no hands. Yup, and that's not the end of it either.
We visit Yojimbo's (YO' JIM-bo} Garage, where messengers can get their bike fixed immediately (more or less) and the company pays the bill. Yeah, the riders do pay the company back, but they can work it off in installments. A very cool arrangement.
The polemic in the book revolves around how cars have usurped an incredible amount of power; power to shape cities, to enable people to live in suburbs and commute to their city jobs. This power leads to changes in the city's infrastructure that become self-perpetuating, reinforcing the need for more bicycle un-friendly highways, cars and attitudes.
This is a great book, and I've only scratched the surface. It's not like any other bicycle book I've read, and I've read quite a few. I very much recommend it! The Washington Times said, "A real pleasure to read … [The Immortal Class] is as daring as a bike messenger. I agree.