Wednesday 17 January 2007

The Bikes of New York, Part Eight

The Bikes of New York is a science-fiction novella of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your museological host, Cheeseburger Brown.

On Wednesday, January 24th, the Textile Museum of Canada will be opening a new exhibition entitled
Colour & Light. The exhibit features a looping video installation by yours truly, a twelve minute documentary exploring the connections of six South Asian Canadian artists to far eastern fabrics.

I'm mentioning this so that any of you who live in, near, or plan the visit the Greater Toronto Avalanche next week might consider dropping by on Wednesday night to share cheese and crackers with me. The gallery opens to the public at 6:30 PM, and is located at 55 Centre Avenue, tucked away just south of Dundas, one block east of University. There is a parking lot to the immediate south of the museum.

I'll be there. Hopefully someone will drop by to entertain me, because these snooty openings get stale fast.

In the mean time, let's plow on with our story:


It's Friday.

For you and me that means pay day. For Luc Drapeau it means a looming crisis: the rent at the boarding house is due and the cupboard is bare. "Will you be paid directly to the bank?" asks Celise.

Luc shakes his head. "It's not sorted out yet," he says, gaze locked on the dingy mirror as he ties his tie. "Philip will probably give me cash," he claims.

"You're bothered," she says, touching his shoulder and searching for his eyes in the reflection.

"It's nothing," he says, looking down to pull on his shoes. "A lot on my mind."

"You're working so hard," she says softly.

He grunts. "I'm going to be late."

On the streets the crowd jostles him. Luc is angry. He has a headache, his nerves feel electric and jittery. When he's pushed he strikes back with a hard shoulder, gets stern looks from his fellow cattle. A white woman with an armload of black wool nearly knocks him down and Luc shoves against her aggressively. "Hey!" she barks, "I'm walking here!"

"Try walking where I'm not," he shoots back.

Dade is waiting for him by the fountain on the Park Avenue median at East Sixty-Third. The water is filthy and green but Dade is washing his shirt in it anyway, sawing it against the rough concrete edge. He looks up to see Luc. "Morning, Look," he says. "Did you hear about that murder in the Bronx? Some maniac took a guy's head right off, mounted it on a street sign."

Luc nods. "Good, we'll claim it."

"But that's just it," gushes Dade; "this walla was telling me about it last night and you know what he says? He says, 'I bet it was Los Bicyclettos,' and I'm like, 'who are they?' and he's like, 'I think they're Spanish or something, they're taking over the bikes.'"

A smile flickers over Luc's lips. "That's very good," he concedes.

"So," says Dade, wringing out his shirt, "where does the whisper campaign take us today?"

Luc shakes his head. "Not today," he says, eyes on the bronze haze over the island, illuminated and cut with shadows as the sun crests the skyline. "Today we ride."

Dade frowns. "How do you figure?"

"My wife needs to buy food."

"You got a wife?"

"And a son. And I'm bringing them money for supper, no matter what happen. I don't even care what -- God himself could not stop me from riding today."

"I live with my sister," says Dade. "She gets coupons on account of her disability situation."

"Enough to feed you both?"

Dade scratches his chest awkwardly. "We can stretch it, at this point."

"So why are you here?" Luc challenges, his eyes damning.

Dade quails at the sudden show of aggression. "What do you mean?"

"Why don't you go home and eat your coupons? There's no danger, there's no fight. You're hungry but you live."

Dade looks as if he might cry, his square face twitching and his strong chin dimpling. "I'm tired of being hungry," he says fiercely. "I'm tired of mooching off my sister, and I'm tired of a situation where I haven't got any damn dignity in my own city." His lips tighten, his small eyes mere slits. "Besides," he says, "I don't turn my back on my friends."

"I'm sorry," Luc says quickly, the edge in his voice dissolving.

"Is that good enough for you?" Dade demands, breathing hard.

"I'm sorry," Luc says again, touching the taller man's arm. "You are not here to be judged by me. I don't mean to strike out at you. I am feeling the pressure, very much the pressure today."

They spend a moment in silence. Traffic is building on Park Avenue: bidirectional parades of the rich, coasting along in their tiny cars, the overlapping humming of their progress singing a unique, Park Avenue song as it echoes off the buildings. A fat Chinese girl rolls down her window and chucks out an apple core. It bounces across the pavement, kicking off chunks of wet flesh, comes to a skittering halt by Luc's foot.

He bends down, picks it up, breaks it apart. "Here," he says, handing half of the rapidly yellowing apple core to Dade.

"Fucking A," says Dade, devouring it in two bites. All is forgiven.

They walk to one of the smaller bike courts on Madison. It's still early, and some of the mounts are open. The men stroll along the periphery, scanning for representatives of Kala Kala: they spot a lone Burmese kid sitting on a bench, winding up a radio, a crimson sweatband canted across his brow. As they look on one of the bikers finishes his tour, and once he's collected his coins from the box he walks right over to the kid. The kid counts it and hands him back some change. Head hung low, the man puts up a parasol made of old shopping bags and sits down to catch his breath.

"Is that not the saddest thing you ever see?" says Luc. "Twenty adult people, cowering before a teenager."

"Shit," agrees Dade.

"Let's chase him off. I think we buy ourselves then maybe ten, fifteen minute before he get back here with the back-up."

Dade fumbles with his hands nervously. "Then what happens? We run?"

Luc's mouth tightens. "We show them we are not afraid."

"Shit," says Dade again.

They walk up to the kid abreast. He's scrawny, half-starved. His eyes look big in his face. "I don't know you," the kid says, trying to sound tough. "You got a deal with us?"

Luc shakes his head. "There's no deal, boy."

"Boy?" echoes the kid. "You don't know who you're fucking with, guy."

Luc chuckles. "I don't know?" He looks over at Dade and slaps his arm genially. "Did you get that? Can you believe it?"

Dade laughs uncertainly. "Huh huh, no," he says.

Luc suddenly rockets forward and grabs the front of the kid's shirt. He hauls him to his feet, breathing into his face. "These bike belong to Les Bicyclettes Libres, boy. You tell your friends. You tell them not to come around here anymore, otherwise bad things do happen."

The drone of the bikes has stopped. Every rider has turned on their mounts to watch what's going on. Luc raises his voice. "I tell you again, these bike belong to Les Bicyclettes Libres!"

The kid is sweating. "You're a dead man," he swears, his voice breaking.

Luc lets him go. The kid drops back on the bench, eyes wide. "Now," says Luc slowly, "fuck off."

The kid runs.

Luc and Dade wade into the bikefield, all eyes upon them. "We don't have much time," says Luc as they approach an open mount; "we alternate, okay? I ride, you keep watch. We split the moneys, we trade turns."

Dade nods dumbly, his flickering gaze nervous.

Luc reties his tie around his forehead and unbuttons his stained dress shirt, peeling it off and drooping it over the back of the bike's seat. He takes his place with relish, flexing his hands on the moist grips. His lips move in silent prayer, then he lifts his feet to the pedals.

Luc rides.

His mind submerges as the momentum builds. Cycle by cycle he falls into a pressing, insistent rhythm, each round building on the next until his legs lose feeling and act of their own volition, a flying blur. His heart and his breathing slide in and out, interleaving, marking time and power.

"Ho-ly shit," says Dade, watching the meter. "Do you know what you're putting out, Look?"

Luc doesn't hear him. He's a million miles away. He's rolled New York into the horizon behind him, peddling across oceans and through space, bending the air.

Fellow riders are staring. Some have let their pedals grind to stop. Others stand, find themselves wandering closer, leaning past each other's shoulders to watch the joules move. "Hey," they mutter, "get a load of this guy, will ya?"

"He's doing six hundred watts -- it's impossible!"

Luc pushes harder, faster, further.

"Dude is a goddamn horse, man!"

"Go Frenchy, go!"

The spell is broken when Dade grabs his shoulder urgently. "Here they come!" he says, and on the third repetition Luc hears him. He takes his feet off the pedals and lets them coast, drag, stop. He wipes the perspiration from his face with his shirt, looks up to see a crowd around him. They cheer.

A instant later the crowd ripples and is pushed apart in one quarter: through the gap come three Burmese toughs trailed by the kid. "That's him!" shouts the kid.

The foremost man is another lieutenant like the toothpick chewer who ordered Anthony's legs off. He swaggers up beside Luc's mount and spits on the ground. "What the fuck is this?" he growls. "Who the fuck are you?"

Luc is not interested in dialogue. Propelled by the manic energy still coursing through his body he launches himself off the bike and meets the lieutenant's head with his fist. All his power goes into the punch. The lieutenant spins twice and hits the pavement, knocked cold.

The onlookers gasp. As Luc stands over the lieutenant the other gang members agitate to get closer, but Dade steps in to block. The Burmese cast about nervously as the crowd knits itself into a tight ring around them, sealing off escape. "Leave Frenchy alone!" shouts someone, and the cry is picked up and echoed by others.

"These bike," Luc enunciates carefully, "they belong to Les Bicyclettes Libres. It is a case closed."

The crowd cheers again.

"Kala Kala is going to make you pay!" yells one of the Burmese.

"No," corrects Luc, face stony. "You will do the paying, and you are starting by paying back to these people their moneys."

The gang members look at one another, uncertain. Before they can decide how to respond the crowd liquifies around them, and they find themselves pinned by a dozen hands at once: tan, brown, white, tattooed, or scarred -- all of them blistered, weathered and raw. Dade takes a hold of the kid and roughly pats him down until he finds the stash of tribute, then hands it to Luc.

Luc weighs it in his hand, licking his lips. He raises his head and announces loudly, "Les Bicyclettes Libres don't need your moneys. Each of you take what you earn today."

The crowd hesitates as a mass. Nobody moves.

"You hear me?" cries Luc. "Come, and take your moneys. You give it to your families. You give it to your childrens, okay?"

One by one the riders approach and, heads bowed, count out their handful of coins. They slip the coins into pockets, purses, pouches, brassieres, shoes. Each has their ritual. The gang members watch them through narrowed eyes, panting.

"You never give these moneys away again, you understand?" shouts Luc, turning slowly to address each set of eyes. "These are your moneys. You work hard for these. Never give them away, your moneys. When you give them away, you make us all weak. You understand me? Never!"

Some nod. Some stare. "Right on, Frenchy!" cries a woman in the back.

One of the Burmese wrestles against the restraining crowd, tugging them to and fro. "Kala Kala is going to fuck you up so bad you'll die twice," he promises darkly.

"What?" says Luc with a dark chuckle. "You beat me up? You take my legs? Haven't you heard? Les Bicyclettes Libres, we're French. We don't take the legs...we take your fucking head."

The Burmese pales. He's heard the rumours.

The other one unleashes a stream of profanity, struggling against the hands holding him at bay -- threats, taunts, promises, bravado. There is an instant effect on the gathered onlookers: a wavering of resolve, a flinch of doubt, a guttering worry to submit. Luc is desperate to find a way to interrupt the volley of belligerence, to somehow shut down the raving intimidation.

And so Luc begins to sing. He sings defiantly -- open mouthed, red-faced, spittle flying, mad. He sings the first thing that comes into his head: the anthem of revolutionary France, La Marsellaise.

Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrive! Contre nous de la tyrannie, l'etendard sanglant est leve!
The Burmese is shocked and confused, so he yells louder. "You'll all die!" he screeches. The more he howls the louder Luc sings, drowning him out. The crowd doesn't know the words but they recognize the melody, and a few of them begin to hum along. The heady zeal of unified voices is contagious, and it spreads quickly.
Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! Marchons, marchons! Qu'un sang impur abreuve nos sillons!
More join in until the two standing Burmese are faced with a wall of song. They are released and they stumble backward, falling silent, eyes wide. "You people are crazy!" one yells, but he cannot even hear his own voice over the synchronized din and it unnerves him. They spill out of the bikefield as they scoop up their fallen lieutenant between them, struggling to catch up with the fleeing kid who's already half a block away up Madison Avenue.

The crowd roars. They push in, clapping Luc on the shoulders and back. One of them presses a coin into Luc's palm, and then another. "No, no," says Luc hoarsely, his last drop of energy spent. He wilts against Dade, holding the bike's handlebars for support. "Keep your moneys, you people," says Luc, shaking his head and trying to hand the coins back. "Les Bicyclettes Libres ask nothing from you."

A one-eyed man with a shaved head thrusts a quarter at him. "Maybe you're not asking, Frenchy, but we're giving."

Luc shakes his head again.

Dade squeezes Luc's arm. "Look," he says, "think of your boy. Take the damn money."

The woman from the back of the crowd forces a handful of nickels at him. "That was a real pretty song," she says. "What's it all on about?"

"Reclaiming life from the tyranny," whispers Luc. "Standing up for the freedom."

"Fucking A," says Dade.

They spend the rest of the day riding, trading off mounts for tours on watch, eyes peeled for signs of Kala Kala. Those on the bikes split their spoils with their guards and then switch places, passing off parasols. A couple of false sightings are called, but even as the sun begins to dip Kala Kala has yet to actually return. A buzz of optimism suffuses the court. People even tell jokes, laugh a bit. Many of them hum or whistle mangled variations of La Marseillaise as they pedal.

At twilight they hurry home ahead of the night's predators. Luc and Dade linger, drinking bottles of water like princes, their shadows long and purple on the sidewalk. "That was some day, huh?" says Dade.

Luc nods. "Some day, my friend," he agrees, "but tomorrow might not be so good. Kala Kala, she is not giving up without the fight."

"They're scared of us," Dade points out.

"They won't be for long," says Luc. "We've bought just one day."

"Yeah," says Dade, "but it was one helluva day."

Luc can't help but smile. "Yes indeed," he says airily, watching birds circle home to their nests in the skyscrapers. "Yes indeed, my friend. It was."

Luc Drapeau walks home with heavy pockets and a light heart.


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

La Marseillaise (.WAV file)

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

ride up, Les Bicyclettes Libres! Quite the exciting episode. At first it was slightly abrupt how the crowd turned from fearing the Kala Kala to against them but then I got caught up with the story.

Enjoy your function. Fun thing to do at a opening - convince people you own the place, convince you are a celebrity on a made up TV show, pretend you walk in by accident, pretend you know everyone, steal as much swag as possible.

Mark said...

Reminiscent of the whistling scene in SoS? Well, not exactly. Liked it, though.

Great chapter, CBB.

Simon, I'm betting on the swap.

Anonymous said...

mark -- interesting idea. I'll bet this song would have worked for Simon too.

CBB, I wish I could be there; Dallas is a bit far though, and we're iced down again today.

Man, what a rush. This one just keeps pulling me in. I just hope we have enough chapters left for the nadir (if we haven't hit it already) AND the triumph.