On Bike Kitchens and Manual Knowledge

A big thanks to the fine folks at the Bike Kitchen today: I learned (relearned?) how to true my wheels, how put a new stem on my bike, and got a chance to see what that whole scene is like. For anyone who lives in Los Angeles, they're well worth your time and your support.

One of the things that's been on my mind recently has been a kind of ethics of cycling; the broader project, I guess, has been trying to figure out or otherwise work through a city in which more people take to the bicycle. What would a city of cyclists look like? What kinds of sociability are encouraged by biking? (And for a fantastic idea about making biking a kind of social activity, check out Bike Town Beta and their planned ride.) It's related to issues of visibility and vulnerability, ways of seeing and ways of knowing the city; and to be sure, it's nothing that I have figured out in any final form.

And in no way have I been alone in thinking about some of this: BikinginLA has put together a thoughtful series (part I and part II) turning on the issue of personal responsibility; Will (of [sic]) has also put the pen to the figurative page about his responsibilities as rider and public citizen; Gary of Gary Rides Bikes has written extensively on the failures and successes of Santa Monica's bike infrastructure, and BikeGirl has taught me a thing or two about biking sociability (among other things).

So what more is there to say?

One of the great things about working on your bike at the Bike Kitchen is the blend of manual labor and community. I spent a bit under two hours there today, my bike spindled up on the stand right beside the front door. Walking in for the first time is kind of an overwhelming experience: It's a narrow shop with frames and wheels hanging from the ceiling, well-worn tools organized all along the walls, a stuffy back room with filing cabinets full of old parts, a small bench to true wheels, music overhead, cooks hustling through trying to help in whatever way that they can. It's not the sort of place where you learn by watching: Once you have your bike up on a stand, it's on you to work and make things happen. I came in knowing next to nothing about how my bike works; I left with a new stem, a smoother ride, and a newfound knowledge about my bike.

What's important, though, is the fact that what I learned I did. It's a kind of manual knowledge, a knowledge through a manual experience. And if one of the hallmarks of the current world in which we live is its occasional opacity (the workings of the credit crisis, for one, or political motivations), working over my bike was a welcome break.

I think there's a Borges (other thoughts on Borges here and here) poem - it might be a collection of short stories, I can't quite remember - called El Hacedor. It doesn't translate perfectly into English, in part because The Maker doesn't have quite the same resonance in English as it does in Spanish. Borges, as far as I remember, was trying to gesture back to the original Greek valence of poet: where a poet was also a maker, a creator.

If the tendency is to think about a world as natural, as automatic, as something external to our hands, this notion of manual knowledge might be more properly termed a kind of poetic knowledge. And insofar as it's knowledge that creates something - in this case, my bike - it's valuable. And an argument for the bike (versus, perhaps, the automobile) is its relative simplicity: two wheels, a frame, the road. As a way of knowing the world, a means through which one might know, there's something suggestive about the whole process.


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