This Bike is not a Bike
There is only one human activity that many of us willfully subject ourselves to that causes even the most conscientious, law-biding and mild mannered American to feel like a crazed jihadist terrorist – flying. All eyes are on you. You are not imagining it, you are not being paranoid, you are under a sort of intense judgmental scrutiny that in any other social situation would be considered rude at best. Of course, it could be worse. You could try flying with an adult inline wheelchair.
I’m standing in the airport. Sweating. Nervous. Everything has to be executed flawlessly for the plan to work. I’m focused on reaching the automated ticket machine to print out my boarding pass and avoid any undue human contact. I’m visibly struggling a little as I wheel my personal mobility device. The first sentence of Naked Lunch runs through my head: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons.” As if on cue, I hear a voice right before I get to the automated machine.
“Excuse me, sir. Can you come over here?”
I’ve been spotted. But its ok, just play it cool, I tell myself. I change the direction of my rolling luggage, which seems even more unwieldy now as I approach the airline check-in counter. There are three people there. All eyes on me, or rather what I’m pulling behind me.
“Are you flying with us today?”, the stern looking blond woman with the skeptical eyes ask. “Yes.” I give her my information. Name. Final destination. Then she gets right down to the meat of it, what she really wants to know. “Are you checking any luggage?”
“No?” she says incredulously.
“What is that?,” she says with sharp precise pointed annunciation. All eyes jump between me and my unusual baggage. They are looking for weakness, they want me to crack, I know the word they want me to say but I won’t say it…
“Is that a b…”
“It’s a cargo carrier for my photo equipment,” I say with a tone of practiced exasperation and nonchalance cutting her off before she can finish her sentence. I show them how the top bag (Brompton Touring Bag), which was indeed carrying photo equipment (lens, camera, hard drive), slips over the mysteriously covered lower bag. “I’m going to gate-check it,” I announce. They look skeptical and unconvinced, but shrug their shoulders and let me pass. I thank them and wait until I am far away before I breathe a sigh of relief. It is a strange post-modern fairytale set in an airport where I have passed the first of three gate keepers.
For all my worry, you would think I was carrying little baggies of cocaine dangling precipitously over my esophagus, tied to my teeth like a group of rappelling mountaineers. Or that my rolling luggage was actually a smallish steam punk nuclear reactor. No, it’s nothing so sinister. It’s just a Brompton, an English made folding (is anybody listening?)…bicycle. You know, only the most energy efficient form of transportation man has ever invented.
In our day and age there is something about the word “bicycle” that causes many airline employees to transform suddenly from rational smiling customer-service representatives to fang-toothed, myopic, money-grubbing mobsters. Should you lapse in your diligence and call your bicycle a bicycle, extra fees and attitude are heaped relentlessly with great zeal upon you.
Now, none of this would be so irksome if that person’s tuba over there, or that woman’s hope chest-sized luggage or that family’s triple-wide stroller with hydraulic suspension were also charged something a little extra given they are magnitudes bigger than a small folding bicycle.
Nope, once the word “bicycle” is uttered they will demand that you pay extra for the privilege of having your prized possession thrown about the tarmac. Thank you sir, may I have another?
Thus you are reduced to playing silly semantic word games full of euphemisms, half-truths and verbal sleight of hand. It can actually get quite philosophical really. The simple question of “is that a bicycle?” becomes a query into the essence of bicycleness. In folded form, a Brompton or any folding bicycle really isn’t a bicycle. At best, it is a loose conglomeration of bicycle related paraphernalia. You certainly couldn’t hop on and pedal away in that state, could you? And isn’t it not lying to call it an inline wheelchair, adult stroller, personal mobility device or simply the neutral and bland exercise equipment? All of which contain some shades of truth; which is to say that you’re not lying.
I leave the vestiges of civil society and enter the more militarized zone of the airport – the TSA screening. Where the woman at check-in was a sort of passively aggressive nagging schoolmarm, the TSA has a very simple and direct take no shit attitude. My half truths are laid bare, figuratively and literally. My shoes are taken off, my belt removed, camera gear disbursed in plastic bins, all my personal belongings subject to scrutiny and ridicule. The Brompton, in folded exercise equipment form fits quite snugly into the TSA scanner. I watch them, watch me, watch them. I get waved through and await for my personal effects to be slowly birthed from the scanner. There is a little bit of a commotion as three TSA personnel scrutinize the x-ray of my poor defenseless and denuded Brompton.
One of the TSA employees knows exactly what it is and is going to blow my cover. She turns to me, smiles and says, “nice bike!” I stifle my urge to correct her, when I see the other two TSA employees nod in approval and the Brompton emerges from behind the rubbery curtain.
It appears, that while the TSA is more gruff in appearance and attitude, their job is not to fine you for having a bicycle – that is the job of the airline.
I’m at the gate and I’m early – about three hours early. That is the amount of time I had buffered in the event that I encountered any problems at check-in or TSA which necessitated a mad scramble to find a box or phone a lawyer. So now I wait.
It is so early I am the only one at the gate. I sit there with my Brompton folded up in a neat little package of steel and rubber. I can’t help but think how utterly absurd this all is. I brought a bicycle with me on the plane so when I land I can just hop on and ride. Transportational freedom. I wouldn’t be at the mercy of a city bus or spend money on a rental car or try to bribe a friend to pick me up. I am just trying to do something simple and efficient. And in order to do that, I had to subject myself to half a morning of accusations and prodding.
The woman stationed at the gate’s counter arrives. She’s shuffling papers and preparing for the onslaught of passengers. She is young and is dressed very neatly. She seems like she could be reasonable but I don’t get my hopes up. I ready myself for another round of word games and diversionary tactics. I am very tired at this point and am nearing my wits end. I just want to be on the other end of the flight, pedaling around in the sunshine.
As she approaches all my defenses are up. My arguments and counter argument that range from the plausible to the absurd are ready to be deployed. I look at her and I know she knows that it is a bicycle. The question is, do we do the silly dance again?
“I assume you are going to gate-check this?” she asks. I tell her yes. She hands me the gate-check tag and finally I feel relief. I slump into my chair, my ordeal for now is over. I still have two hours left to wait so I close my eyes and I slowly start to drift into shallow and exhausted sleep.