A new book released by Mark Batty Publisher explores the culture of French Quarter bicycles -- although many of these bikes ride home to Marigny, Bywater and Treme at night -- and reveals a glimpse of the character of those who ride bikes as their main form of transportation. In New Orleans Bicycles, pre-storm photographs by Mary Richardson and Nicholas Costarides capture vividly the details of everyday bikes locked up around the Quarter. Many of these bikes are decorated with trinkets, flowers, fabrics and found objects. These items may be good luck charms or forms of Voodoo protection against dangerous motorists. The bicyclists also decorate their rides to reflect their insides on the outside, not unlike a form of impermanent tattoo. But many of the featured bicycles in the colorful book are unsuspecting rusty and beaten-down creatures. Scrapes and dents and Duct-taped seats better disguise the value of these bikes, which to their owners, is priceless. Draw too much attention to your bike and it might not be there when you come back.
I own such a creature. His name is Scissors and we are inseparable. I ride him everywhere, every day. I ride him to work 20 minutes each way, and then all over town after hours. Scissors has a personality all his own -- he thinks he's a racing bike when in reality he's an old Huffy cruiser -- and is also a direct extension of who I am. In October 2004, I paid $30 to a guy named Cornbread for his cobalt frame and mismatched handlebars with green grips. We've been through a lot, Scissors and I: rain storms, late-night traipses, hit-and-run accidents with cars. The most traumatic experience for me, however, was the day I came back to retrieve Scissors and found his entire back wheel had been stolen.
I was angry, and for a while, inconsolable. But then I decided to head over to the Plan B Bike Project (511 Marigny St., 944-0366). There I was greeted with sympathy and quickly told to pick out a new rim, tire, tube and breaks. I opened drawers filled with greasy cogs, searched for a rim with the least rust spots, and a tire that wasn't too worn. I did buy a brand-new tube, though, because I get a lot of flats: a regular hazard on New Orleans streets, especially with all the storm and rebuilding debris. Plan B does have new parts, but the staff doesn't tell you that until you've tried to reconstruct your own bike with found parts. This is a do-it-yourself kind of place, run by capable and knowledgeable volunteers who simply love bikes. The experience was well worth the two hours I spent there, and I left feeling self-sufficient, like an ER doctor saving the life of my own bicycle. We rode away healed.
Besides the gorgeous photographs, New Orleans Bicycles also features a romantic foreword by French Quarter resident and writer Andrei Codrescu. He basks in the glory of young women riding in spring dresses with the sun warming their skin, knowing that after being away for a while, this sight means he is home. He also expresses jubilation upon seeing a bike that belongs to a friend, knowing well that the friend is nearby imbibing at a neighborhood dive.
The French Quarter is a magical place to begin with, but the presence of so many bike riders gracefully gliding and effortlessly weaving through traffic and streets heightens its beauty and mystery, and also quite aptly defines one aspect of the Quarter's eternal laissez faire aura. The number of bikes and bike people has not dwindled since the storm, and has more likely propagated as bike riders are a tough, independent and resilient breed, the very sort who came back to town as soon as the barbed wire came down, appreciative of their freedom and grateful for their legs that power them around our city. Where bikes gather on street signs and balcony posts, so do certain types of people. In these places, a comaraderie forms based often on similar values, lifestyles and philosophies of living.
In the book, Richardson reflects on the compelling and almost obsessive nature of the project that she and Costarides undertook with such passion, to document the bikes themselves, but also the people who are not seen but felt in the photographs, those who are in love with their wheeled companions. Just as motorists name their vehicles and plaster their bumpers with stickers and defining mottos, just as they feel a particular connection to their transportation to the extent of even talking to their cars and trucks, so too do bicyclists. We anthropomorphize our vehicles due to our great love of these tranporting devices. These intimate photographs capture this bond between rider and bike.
The book-release extravaganza features music by Ratty Scurvics & the Invisible Gambling Jews and Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? Guest DJs Quintron, Shampain and Joey Buttons will be spinning tunes. There will also be a bicycle pageant and spectacle, in which participants will parade their bicycles across the stage. The winner will receive a copy of the book. Participants can sign up at the door.
DeVille Books will be on hand to sell copies of New Orleans Bicycles; partial proceeds from book sales and all proceeds from the show benefit Plan B Bike Project. Tickets $5-$10 minimum donation.