Saturday, September 25, 2010

interbike is just. too. much.

There was so much involved in my trip to Interbike this year that I can't really explain all of it, but I will hit some of the highlights and try to let you in on the Secret Inner Workings Of My Big-Picture Mind.

In no particular order:

1. Vegas remains a wasteland of utter absurdity, plopped down in the middle of -- and thereby spoiling -- an otherwise breathtakingly beautiful desert.
Moonrise, from my hotel room window (blown up and cropped, this was way off in the distance):

2. The trade show itself was a riot of color and sound. Because this was not my first Interbike, I was prepared with a massive bottle of water by my side at all times, and a map showing exit routes from each quadrant of the exhibition hall to the nearest outside door and fresh air. I was also there to do some very specific looking and information-gathering on behalf of the cooperative, so having a clear agenda helped as well.

I saw some cool things, including a line of bikes I hope our shop can pick up; but most of the show was basically a giant mountain of rubber and plastic. I brought home far fewer bits of schwag for my co-workers this time, and my bag was stuffed mostly with next year's dealer catalogs and a few samples of actual product to pass around at the shop. At the start of the show, I was mostly inured to the hundreds upon hundreds of trade show booths made of plastic and glass and steel, inured to the mountains of schwag that had all been made in a factory somewhere in China by workers making pennies for every dollar I earned at my job, and I managed to hold it together pretty darned well for most of the two days I was there. My co-worker was a very mellow and easy-going traveling companion who was quite self-directed and able to follow her own plan of action at the show, which I appreciated greatly. But in the end, Interbike still got to me. (More on that to follow.)

3. Then there was The Strip itself, that unavoidable snake I had to traverse when going back and forth between the hotel and the convention center. Along the five-block walk I was confronted by several groups of older, mostly Latino men and women clad in brightly colored T-shirts that read, in bold lettering, "HOT GIRLS at your door in 20 minutes! Call [phone number] NOW". Each person held a stack of tiny fliers with scantily-clad women on them, and to get the attention of passers-by they would slap the stacks of fliers against their fingers, or sometimes they'd flick them together directly in my path -- as if I was going to stop and ask them to get me an escort!!? (The second morning of the show, I noticed one of the Interbike attendees, waiting with the rest of us for the exhibition hall to open, wearing one of those same T-shirts. I don't want to know what he had to do to get one.) I wondered how much these people were earning to stand there and find clients. My soul ached a little at how empty it all felt.

En route to the show I made my way past rickety sidewalk booths filled with junky souvenirs, walked passed tourists who were there to gamble and maybe see a floor show or two, and occasionally I could see the distant sandstone cliffs in the distance that reminded me there was a world beyond this movie set that was far more real, and more beautiful. The thought made my soul ache more, but I held it together by finding bike shop friends to have lunch or coffee with and schmoozing with some really nice industry people between appointments.

4. On the first day of the show I saw a bike fashion show, consisting of hip younger people clad in the latest bike-friendly fashions while astride the newest fixie and city bikes. The music was booming, uncomfortably loud with more drum track than actual melody. I felt like an old geezer wanting to yell at someone to turn the damned stereo down; and most of the fashions didn't do much for me either. (I certainly couldn't see myself wearing most of it, anyway). I felt old and out of style.

Walking the show floor and seeing the anodized this and the titanium that, the new and the shiny, the reps passively and quietly beseeching the retailers to buy this and that and order this new thing, it was hard to ignore the lump in my throat and pretend that nothing was the matter. Still, I managed to keep my appointments, see new product that I knew my co-workers might be interested in, and gather information I had come prepared to seek out. My desire for efficiency, and a full dance card of appointments, helped me maintain my sense of internal order and professionalism. I even managed to find and meet blog-pal Judi and her sweetie Dom in person for a brief conversation and to wish them well on their pending nuptials (they were, at the time of our meeting, mere hours away from their wedding!). But by the end of the first day at the show my head was beginning to throb.

5. Cross Vegas was pretty cool in some ways: I got to meet Josh Liberles from Cyclocross Magazine -- a great guy who was happy to meet me in person, and happier still to receive my positive opinion of the newly improved mag (they went totally color, with glossy paper and four-color passes and everything. It looks seriously professional now). I got to schmooze briefly with some other Portland folks between races, and was happy to cheer for Portland heroine Molly Cameron, who rocked it with the elites and finished strong. The course itself was typical kowtowing-to-UCI material, mostly flat and roadie-like, with only a few run-ups, a significant section that was paved, and NO mud to speak of. In short, it was more like a crit than a real cross race.

One odd little bummer was that pretty much everyone else I knew who attended the race (including my co-worker) had managed to get a VIP pass into the beer garden where free beer flowed. They all hung out there while I paid my working-class eight bucks for general admission and watched the racing alone almost the entire evening. I didn't need the beer; I didn't drink at all the entire trip, in fact. But it felt strange, like a reminder of the uncool kid I'd been in school; on the one hand it was sad, but on the other hand it gave me a perspective that by turns humbled me and opened me up inside. By the next morning I was strangely grateful for the experience, though I could not say exactly why.

6. I went back to the hotel with a serious, four-aspirin headache after the race, while my co-worker went out to a couple of industry-hosted "after" parties. I fell asleep around midnight. She arrived sometime after 2 am. She told me the next morning that she was one of only a few industry women at these parties, while nearly all the other women present were "escorts". (This may explain how that fellow got the shirt. Gross.)

7. The second day of the show I managed to get through my remaining appointments and to finally hook up with Judi and Dom (of Drunk Cyclist fame, which is how I found these two in the first place) and managed to get a picture of the happy couple with their titanium wedding bands. I LOVE seeing people get married, I love it when two people make that commitment to each other and do the work to make it last. It gives me hope for a better world. Thanks so much, you two; and I hope you will be happy in each other for many beautiful years to come. (Please consider a trip to Portland during some cross season!)

8. At a dinner meeting with a rep, I was asked why we had ordered less from that company in the past year; our purchases hadn't taken a dive but they had definitely flatlined. I told him truthfully that the economy had forced us and lots of retailers to look much harder at every dollar we spent. At the same time he was nodding his head in understanding, I imagined his growing nervousness at trying to make ends meet on a gig that paid straight commission and no regular wage. I imagined the utter ridiculousness of a line of work that desperately depended on getting people to buy stuff all the time so that you could make your cut and earn your living. I imagined my part in this stupid and cruel cycle, and I winced, for him and for me and for the millions of people whose lives depend on the buying and selling of so many, many things -- too many of which we don't really need.

9. To get to the show, and to get to my hotel room I had to walk through a casino. Depending on the time of day this was by turns annoying, scary or downright depressing. The annoying part was that the casinos are laid out so that it is hard to leave them. The scary part is that this is by design. The depressing part came on my last morning of the trip. I had gone downstairs to eat an early breakfast and take care of, um, business (people with Crohn's often need more time at some point in the day; my time is early morning). In the cafe I was surrounded by older folks, mostly retirees if I had to guess, who were all there on vacation and were waiting for the bus that would take them to the next grand casino for a day's gambling and shopping. They were talking about gambling, and shopping, and little else. I know that they were there to gamble and shop, and that we all make choices, but I could not understand their choice. The hole in my soul felt a tiny bit bigger.

Then I walked through the casino to the front desk to meet my co-worker and turn in my key before hailing a cab to the airport. It was around 8 am, and the casino was not terribly busy; the daquiri bar wouldn't open for another two hours and although the slot machines were ringing and humming it felt quieter than the previous evening when the place was packed with gamblers. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman as I passed. She looked utterly exhausted, and beneath her glassy-eyed, vacant stare I saw what looked like two bruises, or the biggest sleep-deprivation circles ever. She barely held onto a cigarette with one hand, and with the other she took a sip from something amber-colored in a rocks glass. Clad in shorts and a rumpled tank top that was a size too small for her, she looked lost and totally out of it. My soul ripped open another inch.

10. On the flight home, as we prepared to land in Portland, two flight attendants moved through the cabin circulating airline credit card and mileage card applications, while a third prattled on about how getting approved for their card could get you so many more mileage points, perhaps enough for a trip to Hawaii! As this scene unfolded before me the plane jostled through some turbulence, and I felt terrified and sad, my soul ripped wide open and overwhelmed by the whole of the last two days. I turned away from my co-worker and stared at the floor of the aisle as I thought of how sad the world had become.

The Big-Picture part of my mind, the sensitive part that has trouble sometimes dealing with the world-as-it-is, put all the experiences and thoughts of the last two days together and I was overwhelmed with a sadness deeper than anything I'd felt in a long time, even deeper than on my last trip to Interbike. I cried and thought of getting off the damned plane, getting home and burying myself in my sweetie's loving embrace. I prayed that we'd land safely and that I would be home soon. I felt sad and scared and completely engulfed by the world. It was the saddest moment in all my years working in the bike industry, and one of the saddest moments of my life. I was so sorry that I'd gone to Interbike, and to Las Vegas; sorry that I'd gone to do my part in keeping the wheel of commerce turning around one more day, one more month, one more year; sorry that this was the way of the world that, in order to keep a roof over our heads so many of us depended on millions of others of us going to stores and buying things, mountains of things, useless things that none of us really need, while others of us go without the necessities of food, clothing, shelter. Our entire global economy -- our very way of life -- is based on rampant consumerism, a consumerism so blatant and bald that some MUST prosper at the expense of others who MUST remain less fortunate. True equality -- of access to resources, to opportunities, to safety and security -- would be impossible, and if it were ever achieved it could not last for long. Recognizing my involvement in all that consumerism, the time it took from my lifespan, the resources it chewed up and wasted, it made me so sad that all I could do was cry.

I know that I will probably not want to go to another Interbike anytime soon, anywhere; and I will never want to set foot in Las Vegas again for as long as I live.
Tonight I am feeling calmer. I went for a lovely bike ride with my sweetie this afternoon and had my Shabbes nap; and tonight I am definitely calmer. But I'm not sure I feel better. I don't yet feel really okay. That may take longer.

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