Thursday, November 20, 2008

In a Dark Time, the Eye Begins to See...1

Excessive flashpoints, beyond all reach/Solitary demands for all I'd like to keep/Let's take a ride out, see what we can find/A valueless collection of hopes and past desires.
—Joy Division, "Twenty-four Hours"

[In which a relatively uneventful, digitally undocumented2 (but nonetheless fun) ride is amplified and embellished and passed through the filters of La Chouffe's N'Ice Chouffe3—and an increasingly small bit of gray matter—to spill freely onto the screen in all its hyperbolic, overblown, pixellated glory, for your crepuscular titillation, as you sip your morning coffee and wonder why you continue to work where you work. Yeah, that's right, it's all about you. Reader, bruder4, let's get on with it.]

I’m early, so I duck out of the cold and into Pizzeria Paradiso to see what’s on tap. Outside, my bike, the newly reanimated Cross-check, a.k.a. the Kab Killer, dangles from its u-shaped yoke near a wobbly bus sign pole, whose countless scars and nicks suggest its secret real value. Nearby, Jesse’s aging fixie leans against a lone sapling, absently awaiting the barkeep’s emergence sometime after closing.

Inside, the bar area is empty, save for a busser huddling around a salad plate, stabbing impatiently at the green leaves with his fork like a gaucho knife-fighter, his back to the door. The morbid majesty of “Decades” trickles into my ears as I grab a beer menu and take a seat at the bar. In five minutes, the lure of quality half-price drafts and the icy fingers of a merciless wind will begin to pull people in off the street like a vacuum. I'm early, yes, and maybe just early enough to sneak in a quick one before Anna arrives.

I stow the Shuffle and order an Old Rasputin, a perennial favorite whose complex nature seems to intensify even as it flows from the tap, as if the keg were an alchemist’s cauldron. Beyond the warm wood hues of the restaurant, M Street is awash in the stop-and-go, red- and white-light bustle of rush-hour traffic, as a single goblet is set down before me. The temperature outside hovers in the low 30s, with a windchill of approximately who-the-hell-knows. Regardless, I’m overdressed. Through the windows, shoppers, freshly liberated from sterile cubicles and stuffy clothing, stroll by, clogging the sidewalks of the spectacular nonstop paean to rampant empty consumerism (SNPREC, for short) that is Georgetown. Damn. Still, the beer is good.

I sip the rich elixir between walks to the window to check for Anna. She’s unfamiliar with the place, and I’m not sure whether she expects me to be out front. We didn't work out the details, but she knows me well enough: cold air outside, warmth and beer inside: no confusion, really. The stout is disappearing too quickly. Presently, I see her crest the hill amid hulking car bodies, then dart across when the traffic light smiles on her.

In case you don't know her, let me begin by saying that Anna is one tough chick, though her appearance gives you no such clue. As proof of this assertion, and by way of introduction to this long-winded post, I offer Example A: Anna moved recently, from DC, where she still works, to Frederick, MD. Without going into too many details, Anna occasionally commutes by bike.

Yeah. Something like 50 miles one way. And, hey, it's winter time...dark...cold.

Did I mention that Anna is tough? Want more proof? Okay here ya go, Example B, arguably the most damning bit of evidence: her initials are AK. As in Automat Kalashnikov. Russian a little rusty, comrade? I'll pause while you Google it. There, then, it's settled, n'est ce pas? Okay, let's plod on...

On this very night, I plan to accompany Anna for about 15 miles as she heads westward into the advancing night on the C&O Canal Trail. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement: I get a nice ride out of the deal, Anna gets a little more security, and we both get some company that we may or may not care for by ride's end. It's that last element of uncertainty that, for me, makes it all so appealing. I meet her at the door, and she comes in, trailing a gust of cold air.

While she scans the beer menu, Anna relates the whole u-lock ordeal and, after sampling what's left of my beer, decides to have the same one herself. I pay for mine, and we head downstairs to the Birriera, to take advantage of happy-hour pricing.

Beer flows (too little, truth be told), and it's suddenly time to head out. We settle up with Jesse, then make our way up and out into the chill to saddle up. Anna discovers that one of her lights has decided to go on strike. It's a big beast of a thing, a veritable dinosaur as lights go, with a long, cylindrical battery on which is printed the word Nightstick—an apt title, since truncheon is the only role it can hope to muster this blustery evening. Anna posits that if we ride by my light alone on the way out, she should have enough juice in the battery of her second light (another brontosaur) to get her home.

With my light set on stun (a stroke-triggering strobe)5, we head down an alley off M, dismount, hike down some stairs, then roll on to the arguable start of the C&O Canal Trail6.

We pedal along the still, dark water, awash in ambient city-light for the moment. There are joggers and cyclists on the trail, not unusual given the proximity to the district. We talk, Anna and I, about everything. The structure and safety and brightness of the city soon give way to the inky stillness of more rural surroundings, and I switch the light from strobe to low. With the conversation, meters turn quickly into miles. I like Anna, she's got a good sense of humor and—let's just get it out here—she can pretty much kick my ass on a mountain bike. It's okay, I'm comfortable with it, since the alternative would mean a helluva lot of work this old man ain't willing to put in, with no guarantee of anything. I'm pretty sure I could take her ass in a dojo, though, just for the record. I'm good with my fists.

Time and miles pass, and the moon hangs high in an ebony sky. We encounter a few odd folks out in the middle of nowhere, including a spooky old guy wearing a black hoodie and riding a cruiser bike, sans light (and scythe), who either waves uncertainly at us or tries unsuccessfully to shield his eyes from my light. Random dog walker and drifter emerge now and again from the blackness ahead as we move along the crushed limestone and packed earth of the trail.

Mile marker 15 comes and goes, and I feel good, so I continue to ride with Anna. We talk and ride, ride and talk, and somewhere just shy of mile marker 18, I stop to say goodbye. I apologize for my actions—I feel like shit cutting out—but Anna is having nothing of it. She's got what she needs to get home, and there's nothing else to it. I promise to go farther next time, but it's meaningless tonight, as the cold and darkness impose. But she's a tough chick.

So I turn around, pedaling a little before pausing to look back, thinking again that I should have pushed on a bit more. In the distance, a feeble cone of orange light rapidly recedes, is swallowed up by the darkness. In seconds. I set off again.

Some ten miles out of Georgetown, I stop and eat an apple, a Pink Lady, something I offered to split with Anna during the ride (bring on the Garden of Eden jokes), but a Pop Tart she'd eaten earlier was enough (I told you she was tough). The apple is delicious and satisfying and all that I need to stoke the fire. I pedal on, and it isn't long before I'm close to Georgetown. To my left, beyond the silent canal, looms the eponymous Canal Road, lit up like a Las Vegas landing strip. In a matter of minutes, I hit the little dirt uphill that leads to the bridge over the canal, then dismount to take the stairs up to the cobblestone alley. From there, I pedal a block or two westward and circle around to M Street and the entrance to Paradiso. I've got some unfinished business inside: a pizza to kill and two pints that beckon. It's a good night, and when the moon finally puts me to bed, I've racked up 55 miles for the day. Not bad.

[Here, now, the present: the bottle is empty, the glass is dry. Good night. And good morning. Thanks for reading.]

1. From Theordore Roethke's poem, "In a Dark Eye". Goddamn, I love poetry—life, love, distilled.
2. The lone shot above, taken with a cellphone camera, fuzzily depicts the inimitable Brasserie Dupont's brewed beatitude, Avec Les Bons Voeux ("With Good Wishes"), with a bit of the Birrieria behind it. Taken after the ride, when I decided to return to Paradiso to fuel up.
3. Thyme and curaçao peel? Who the fuck knew? When it comes to making beer, the Belgians can't be touched.
4. Baudelaire, by way of Nabokov (Lolita)—see the former's prefatory poem Au Lecteur, from the most excellent collection Les Fleurs du Mal.
5. I love this light, a NiteRider Minewt X2. Lightweight, powerful, long-lasting, reliable, useful, and not too pricey. Not much else to ask for.
6. Key Bridge, where we started, is actually Mile 1 of the C&O Canal Trail. The true (and truly elusive) starting point, Mile 0, is a little east of Key Bridge, near the Thomson Boat Center.


Anonymous said...


You're the only person I know who footnotes their blog entries. Can I take your class pass/fail? I'm in mostly for the fieldtrips for libations....


Anna said...

That Kelso girl is ok, but she can be a bit of a narcissist.

Thanks again for riding with me. It was good times!

Todd said...

Amazing post as always. Your attention to detail is so lush and vibrant.

I may have to hit the Paradiso with you some time. Old Raspi on tab....nice.

That Anna girl is one tough cookie, commuting from Frederick, ouch!

Rob said...

It's that Frederick mentality or something. Plus it's probably faster than the MARC train at this point.

Great post man, always an entertaining read.

Now I'm gonna be itching to hit their and the big hunt soon.