Mixed graffiti

Early morning.

I pedal around a bend in an urban bike trail, paralleling the train tracks on my way to the city. And suddenly: an enormous profile of a woman’s face looking up into the sky. Brilliant color. Strong, heavy, sure lines. Larger than life.

I burst out laughing.

What a joy to come upon this unexpected art! On my last ride, it was just a blank, grey, concrete-and-chain-link wall. Now this!


I love street art. Especially along this stretch of tarry-smelling industrial trail – the Metropolitan Branch Trail. I am always looking to see what new tags will appear. And I check in with old pieces – that mural of nerdy-looking bikers on one wall. Bold, fanciful letters on another. The oddly dark mural of creatures riding bicycles on another. And always Crotch Rot. I wish s/he’d thought of a less evocative tag.

But that is what street art is: a messy mix of the unexpected. I get a happy hit of color and beauty around one corner. And a disturbing inner dialogue about what “crotch rot” might really mean, and how I feel about someone expressing themselves in a way that makes my nose wrinkle. Or worse.

On the day I discover the profile of the woman, I am giddy with delight. New art! It’s like a reward for riding my bike to work today. And then – the artists are still at work. Even better. I stop.


“Thank you for doing this!” I say. The artists are gracious about my enthusiastic interruption of the work. They explain it was part of a project called Pow Wow DC. I look it up later and discover it’s an effort to beautify the city with a week-long blast of street art by international and local artists.

This is great! And then, when you start thinking about it, get into the weeds, it’s complicated.

  • Why international? Isn’t local art good enough?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Did you ask the neighbors if they wanted this?
  • Maybe they want a grocery store instead?
  • What about gentrification?
  • Is this neighborhood down with being artsy?

And what about “real” graffiti, the unsanctioned spray of color applied late at night, with lookouts to avoid arrest? The kind that shouts, “I am here,” that sprouts up like a new and unexpected blossom, to discover in the morning?

One of those early morning gifts was this message, applied right in the middle of the assigned murals, but respectfully drawn out in neat cursive between he finished images:

Must we gentrify everything?


Gentrification is complicated. Beautification is subjective. What I think is laugh-out-loud joy may be a dark herald of $14 cocktails replacing the corner barber shop.

That doesn’t make me unlove the art.

I’d like to think there is room for graffiti and assigned murals. Let’s have art. All of it.

But then, what is art? Who decides what is beautiful? I love a lot of street art – swirly lines of color, fanciful faces and clever phrases included. But the profanity disturbs and disappoints me.

In my neighborhood, the city has just commissioned a piece of art for a wall that faces the highway. Terrific, right? But no. The neighbors hated the conceptual drawings, and did not mince words on the neighborhood listserv. “Hideous.” “Yuck.” I felt badly for the artist. But also: this is public art. It’s supposed to be appealing to that public.

The artist went back to the drawing board. Art by committee. Good luck.


Riding the train: standing for good

The train car is is standing room only at the first stop. All seats filled, and several people standing. I am disappointed that I’ll be hanging on to the straps the whole way in to work. But not nearly as disappointed as a hugely pregnant woman who has no seat either.

I am incredulous. All these people — able-bodied men and women of all ages — are oblivious to the big lady in the middle of the train car. Or if they’re not oblivious, worse, they are not willing to get up and give her a place to sit. She is not giving them stink eye or sighing like a martyr — she is busy with her phone. I imagine she is texting friends, outraged that this well-dressed man is comfortably seated in the handicapped seating, that a put-together woman is snoozing next to him, that a young man is lost in his earbuds — also seated. Every seat taken. Every seated person ignoring not only all the people around them, but in particular someone who would clearly be more comfortable taking a load off.

MetroPrioritySeatsWe stop at the Fort Totten station and the passengers rearrange themselves as a handful of people disembark. A seat comes open, the pregnant lady moves toward it. It is snatched up quickly by a middle-aged woman. Who is not pregnant. Or disabled in any visible way.

I often give the benefit of the doubt to the folks seated in handicapped area; they may seem able, but not all disabilities are visible. This is different. I can guarantee that not every person in those seats — and the rest of the dozens of seats on this train car – was disabled. Not. Every. One.

I think about this on the way to the next stop and consider saying something to my fellow passengers. The authority of (my) middle age should be good for something, I think. The poor woman is probably too embarrassed to speak up for herself, I think. So I plunge in at the next stop: “Do you want to sit?” I ask the still-standing pregnant lady. “Yes,” she says gratefully, as if I can magically conjure up a seat for her despite my also-not-seated status. “Can someone give up their seat for the pregnant lady?” I ask, looking around. at the dozens of seated passengers. And finally the magic happens. There is a shuffling and squirming, and a frail-looking woman sitting in the nearest seat gets up and offers her spot. She apologizes for not having done it sooner. Meanwhile the men, every one of them, and all those able-bodied women too, remain seated.

“We all get in ‘the zone’ on Metro,” says the woman who moves, looking at me in a way that implies that the other people in the car were simply not paying attention, that they should be forgiven.

It’s a poor excuse. Come on folks. Be present. Engage a little. And give up your seat for someone who needs it.


Good traffic

Traffic on my commute to work this week was amazing.

On the lower spur of Woodland Avenue, Jonah had a great story to tell from the front stoop. Something about a girl with a dress and, well, I didn’t quite hear the whole thing — there was an interruption for tears when Jonah’s mom got into the car to go to work, but it was short-lived, and soon the rest of the story came out and I was on my way again, waving goodbye to Peter, Ben and Jonah (from left).

PeteJonahBenOn the Old Town speedway, just where morning coffee traffic lets out of Capital City Cheesecake, an incident involving gasoline-powered leaf blowers created some rubber-necking and chatter: nothing but a local activist observing a city contractor using the pollution-spewing machines despite a ban on use by the city’s own crews.  The incident meant pulling over to the sidewalk for a chat. “Hey, those are illegal!” the activist called to the contractor moving the blowers out of the back of his truck. The contractor just looked confused.  More neighborhood list serve traffic can be expected in this area later in the day.

At the intersection of Carroll and Laurel avenues, there was a slowed bicycle and subsequent review of last night’s conversation between friends –spurred by the movie Suffragette — on the link between the the right to vote and contemporary women’s freedom to own property and have custody of our children. Could we even link my ability to ride my bike to work to the vote for women? Anyway, I am so grateful for those risk-taking women who came before me. So grateful, and so adamant about expressing that feeling, that the delay on the street stretched long.


Finally there was a back-up at the bike racks, trying to find a spot where I didn’t have to wiggle in between one bicycle’s kid seat and another’s extra-wide front basket. I don’t mind though. All those people biking to metro. It’s great.

It’s the best kind of traffic.



Because we can

DerailleurThe grace period between when you notice your bike tire is a little softer than usual, when you begin to pump it every morning before the ride to work, and when you have to admit it needs patching or replacing ran out today. So I email the boss–“flat tire” — to buy some time to fix it.

I am no longer a college student, or a 20-something scraping to get by. I am a pretty well established person with a steady income. I could pay someone to fix this flat.  Like the friendly mechanics at Takoma Bicycle shop. But I believe everyone should be able to change her own flat, perhaps especially those of us tempted to outsource our chores. It’s my attempt to stay grounded: Walk the dog. Mow the lawn. Rake the leaves. And since I haven’t done it in quite a while — relying instead on my more bike-saavy son — I know it is time to fix the tire myself.

Bike Hero

Be your own bike hero.

Patch kit: found. Tube: removed. Hole: pinpointed, sanded, patched. Tube and tire replaced.

My fingers are black with bike grease, though somehow I have kept it from smearing on my work clothes. I am nearly finished (an embarrassingly long 20 minutes later) when I get snagged on how to route the chain around the rear deraileur. The chain hangs loose — so clearly I’ve missed something. The clock ticks on, and finally I abandon the project and walk to Metro.

A friend, riding his bike, stops to chat and I scrutinize his chain — running in front of that funny lower sprocket, then back.

Two days later I recall that configuration, reroute my chain, replace my wheel, finish pumping the tires and ride to Metro, triumphant.

Why would I go to a bike shop to change a flat tire? Because I can?

Why would I fix my own flat?

Because I can.