If you have narrow notions about how people should get about in cities, World Streets is probably not the place for you. We take a big house approach. It's the only way to go. Which means that every day brings its fair share of surprises, rattling in more often than not without advance notice from many different places, different kinds of people, with a huge span of ideas, values and concerns. Look what slipped through the door late last night. New Mobility without frills.
At midnight, near the rail yards of northwest Portland, a drum chorus began a thunderous steam engine beat. Riders drifted out of the night like schools of fish. Their eyes and their bicycles reflected the incandescent glint of streetlamps. The skin of five thousand naked bodies glowed pale. A few people wore shoes. Some even wore helmets. But for the most part, it was bare bottoms jiggling in the murky light, and breasts too, and penises, humbled by the chill breeze.
My companions and I thought it would be amusing to witness the World Naked Bike Ride. We had no intention of joining. But how can you witness thousands of remarkably beautiful people hooting and howling and chanting, seemingly overjoyed, not just by their own nakedness, but by the sudden shock of freedom and camaraderie it offered--how can you move among such a spectacle and not be compelled to rip off your own clothes, to hide them under the roadside clover, and join the ride?
Reason fell away. I sheepishly peeled off my jeans, and then my shirt, and my sweater, and my socks, and I would have stopped there, but Omar ripped all off but his boots, and Christine, a young woman I had hired as a research assistant only a month before, stripped down too, and although I was appalled at the unprofessional intimacy that bottom-baring implied, underwear was peeling from bodies all around me, so I peeled too. I left my belt around my waist, and hung a few long stocks of clover from it, faintly approximating a skirt.
We joined a flow of thousands, squeezing out of the industrial district, past the beating drums, over the tracks, under the freeway. After a few slow-motion collisions, we found our legs, narrowly avoiding each other as we wobbled through bottlenecks and around corners.
There were three, four, now five thousand of us, and the tail lights flowed like a river of red sparks, pouring ahead into the canyons of the city, while a tail of white headlights followed behind.
I found myself bouncing on my front shocks like a kid. I wiggled my bum. I didn't think I was that kind of person. But damn it, I wiggled, and I hooted and yelped—we all did—as we cruised down between rows of restaurants and bars.
Portland's Saturday night bar crowd had poured out onto the street to watch us. They lined the road as though we were a parade. That seemed natural. After all, it's not every day that you see a few thousand naked people cruising down Burnside. But the people did more than watch us. They cheered us on. They rose their fists in the air and howled along with us. They reached out to us as we rolled past, hands open, imploring us to slap their palms. Why? I couldn't say at the time. They were clearly surprised, and for the most part they seemed delighted by the spectacle and the rupture in normalcy, but there was something more to their enthusiasm. They seemed to want to join with us.
There is of course a political element to the World Naked Bike Ride. It began in 2004 as a protest against the domination of urban roads by cars. The riders' nakedness was a poetic reference to society's "indecent exposure" to the ills of car culture. It was a metaphor for their vulnerability on the street, and of course a way to make headlines for an anti-fossil fuel message.
In Portland, the naked riders spoke earnestly of a different kind of city, one where streets might be reclaimed from cars and made safer for everyone. These were people who volunteered to help strangers move between homes with their bicycle trailers, just to prove it could be done. They painted plazas and murals on neighbourhood intersections, in an effort to reclaim just a little bit of the asphalt. They welded bicycle frames together to fashion hulking, giraffe-like contraptions, so they could see above the roofs of SUVs as they rolled through the streets. They were certain that their bicycles could save the world from war and climate change and the ravages of consumer capitalism. They yelled, "less gas, more ass," as they rolled along, and we joined in as though it were the chorus of a church hymn or a marching cry.
And now here we were, rolling together through downtown, and the bar crowd lined the streets, and people held their pint-glasses out to us so we could gulp their micro-brewed beer, and some of those people were so overcome with the spectacle that they actually unbuckled their belts and let their pants and underwear fall to the pavement.
There they were, standing, grinning, beer in hand and pants around ankles, shouting a strange kind of solidarity. One fellow was so convinced that he dropped all his clothes and just sprinted alongside the bicycles, down the street, until he collapsed with exhaustion. Women ripped their tops off in the same gesture, hands in the air, blue cell phone screens waving back and forth over their heads.
I felt like a strange kind of hero, and I reached out to those crowds as though with every touch of my hand I was passing on some incalculable benediction, some gift, an affirmation: Yes, this is happening. Yes you are a part of it. Yes, the city is so much wilder and more full of wonder than you assumed it was when you left your home.
When the police caught up with us, their cruiser lights flashed red and blue, but they had no interest in arresting the naked. They anticipated the procession's route, and they parked their cruisers in the cross streets in order to save us from the dangers of crossing cars. And they laughed: great, generous belly laughs.
The Naked Bike Ride was all so outrageous and outwardly frivolous, it was tempting to accept that the ride was nothing more than an act of circus-like fun. But that would be wrong.
I understood this when a pack of us squeezed through the crowds of onlookers in Portland's Old Town and broke away, up onto the Burnside bridge. It occurred to me that at most times, most of that vast and elegant piece of infrastructure, five of its six lanes, was off-limits to all but those who inhabited vehicles powered by internal combustion engine. It was a fantastically dangerous place a place, just like most roads in the city. We rarely question such tragedies, because we simply can't imagine our cities working any differently than they have since we were children.
But when you and your friends are weaving and bobbing—flying, really—up its vast, smooth surface, the bridge feels like a launching pad to the stars. And because you are not the person you were even an hour ago, your mind takes flight as well, and you imagine that the bridge, the off-ramp, the boulevard, the avenue, the grid, all the asphalt-covered places that the city has lost could be regained and transformed. They could shed the old way, just as easily as you shed your clothes. And something that for so long has been unthinkable, now seems possible. The city could change.
It was a wonderful feeling, not foolish at all. We promised ourselves we would hold onto it as we dispersed back into the night.
Charles Montgomery is an award-winning writer and photographer who tells stories about people, cities, science and myth. His next book, Happy City, will look at how this science is being used to fix broken cities in America and around the world. You can check out Charles at www.charlesmontgomery.ca
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