A Beautiful Day for an Unnecessary Bicycle Protest

I would put money on Brett Favre tying the NFL all-time interception record Sunday (he needs 2 to tie, 3 to break it), but I would not put money on many Critical Mass participants getting arrested today. As always, I’m putting the over/under on Critical Mass arrests at 2, and I’m taking the under.

It’s the smart bet, based on the tune the city’s whistlin’ in Randy Furst’s Strib article today.

And my Mpls.St.Paul Mag bicycle article came out this week too. I spent the summer researching this thing, so check it out. I wrote it before the August Critical Mass freakout.

And yeah, I’ll be going on Critical Mass tonight, just for the first hour (have to review Home Place at the Guthrie at 7), just to see what’s going to happen after all this hype.

Like I said, I’m taking the under.


Ross Brockley, Louis C.K., and the Greatest Nigger Joke Ever Told

I’ve been waiting to post this video for a week. This is my eccentric post-industrial farmer buddy Ross Brockley doing stand-up comedy at the Rococo Theater in Lincoln, NE last week. Ross was opening for Louis C.K., Ross’ old friend from his NYC days turned Greatest Stand Up Comedian on the Planet. I know, I know, stand up comedy is supposedly a science of self-deprecation, where obvious effort, let alone naked ambition, is anathema to the artists and their audiences alike. (I mean, that’s why everybody hates Dane Cook, right?) Nevertheless, Louis C.K. openly strives to be The Greatest.

C.K. has written some of Chris Rock’s best material and directed a couple of his worst movies (although Pootie Tang,; is pretty okay if you’ve smoked enough weed). And his series for HBO, Lucky Louie; was canceled last year after its first season. But as a stand up, he’s the heavyweight champion of the world. When I first met him in 2004 at the Aspen Comedy Festival, he was training–literally training, with a boxing guru in Santa Monica–for what he aspired to make the greatest HBO comedy hour of all time. But he was really focusing on his timing for a (doomed) pilot for network TV, Saint Louie. Then, last time I saw him, at Acme here in Minneapolis, he was preparing for another HBO special–he told me he was watching old tapes of Pryor and Carlin and “Carlin really wasn’t that funny.” But he was clearly preoccupied with Lucky Louie, his (doomed) old-fashioned 4-camera sit com for HBO. But meeting him this time, in Lincoln, he was preparing a bona fide title defense.

This time, he’s following his genius HBO hour special Shameless. He’s taking the Balboa approach again: he spent the summer in some boxing dungeon in Montreal, before the Just For Laughs comedy festival, preparing to put this new hour together. His Mickey this time, a fortysomething retired middleweight, dropped that old pugilist cliche on him: Winning the championship the first time is easy; defending the title is the hard part.

He plans to film the new special early in 2008 (and hopefully again with HBO), and based on his set in Lincoln, I think he’s going to kick Liston’s ass again. At the Rococo, he opened with a virtuoso 20-minute set piece on the words “faggot,” “cunt,” and “nigger.” His angle is brutally straightforward and, yes, ambitious: these are the three most offensive, inflammatory words in the modern American idiom, our most forbidden words, not just by the FCC but by the public itself, and he wants to examine why that is. 30 years ago, George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words bit exposed the ridiculousness of a government protecting its citizens from the bogeyman of indecency. I think C.K.’s material here is even more dangerous in the stifling p.c. environment we all live in. Most importantly, it’s funnier than Carlin’s shitpissfuckcuntcocksuckermotherfuckertits shit. Freud pointed out that, like dreams, jokes are mechanisms to help us deal with painful truths that are difficult to confront. C.K.’s set tears down the ways we protect ourselves from pain itself. He talks about how white people in the media use the term “n-word” instead of the word nigger in order to defer responsibility from the speaker to the audience. It’s like when a comic book writer subs in @#$@ for fuck. “Don’t make me say it,” C.K. said, jabbing at his skull, “you say it.” Eventually, he says, he wants to see talking heads like Nancy Grace on CNN take responsibility for their own language. You don’t need a blogger to tell you that the implications for this demand go beyond dirty words.

Of course, even if his examination of taboo is surgical in nature, you could argue that C.K. is simply trading in “shock humor.” But examining why and how things become taboo is the reason why he’s on stage–he’s performing a vital function: he exercising our id so we don’t have to. In that way, sometimes saying the inappropriate is noble. Sometimes, shocking everybody is healthy. Anyway, it’s definitely not the easiest route to the laugh. An offended audience distracts from the objective–the release of pain–C.K. knows that. Standing up there sweating under the hot lights waiting for laughter that never comes sucks. My traveling buddy on the trip, Mr. Chip, is a nerdy PhD student who was reading one of Saint Augustine’s papers on semiotics the entire drive down. C.K.’s “n-word” and “nigger” bit fit into what the Archbishop of Hippo was writing about all those centuries ago. But afterwards, when Chip asked C.K. if he was approaching things like a post-grad, CK admitted that he didn’t even know what the word “semiotic” means. He knew that he was dealing with nitroglycerin though, and he told us that for a couple of months, the audience wasn’t responding in the way that it did initially, right after the Montreal shows in July. It wasn’t until some kid posted a show that he did in Chicago on the internet that he figured it out. “Yeah, I caught some kid bootlegging my show,” he said, “and when my lawyers got him to take it down, he sent me the only existing copy so I could destroy it.” It contained the segment on white people using the “n-word” to avoid using the real deal. He reincorporated that part into the set, and his audiences started laughing again.

The one thing that Ross and C.K. really have in common is that writerly attention to detail. Ross will run a joke by you and ask your opinion on a single word and you’ll realize that many times, your laugh hinges on that one word choice. I’m not a comic, but being around careful writers like Ross and C.K. is just as important as reading writers I love like George Saunders or James Joyce.

Okay, okay. Nothing like an essay on the semiotics of comedy to set the mood of the room. I’m the worst MC ever.

Give it up for Ross Brockley. Enjoy the set.

G-g-g-g-get Down 911’s a Joke in Your Town

Rapper Mos Def’s take on Bin Laden and 9-11 on The Bill Maher Show.

Thom Pham Attacked Outside of Azia

The Strib reports Temple/Azia owner Thom Pham was jumped by a group of dudes outside of Azia on 26th and Nicollet when he was leaving work around four A.M. Tuesday morning. I just got off the phone with his assistant/best friend Liz G., and evidently, he’s pretty fucked up: broken eye socket, concussion, gashes and bruises on his face. Liz said he was getting into his car when he was hit in the head with a brick. He managed to get away down an alley, and then one of the thugs hit him from behind with a 2×4. Somehow, he made it back to Nicollet, at which point, the perps dipped.

I did a story on Thom for MSP last spring, during which Thom told me that as an Ameriasian living in Vietnam after the war he’d been, alternately, covered in honey and tossed on an ant-hill, beaten, and thrown in a well. So he’s survived worse. But what’s especially troubling about this incident is that the gang of men didn’t steal anything from Thom–neither money nor his car (it was left with the keys in its door). My story was one of many that dealt with Thom’s sexuality–he’s an openly gay man. Liz told me that last month, somebody keyed “Fag” into the door of his Mercedes. So did the attackers target him because he was alone on the street at four in the morning? Or did they target him because he was a high profile homosexual alone on the street at four in the morning?

UPDATE: Just got off the phone with Thom. He’s feeling better, up and around after being released from the hospital Tuesday afternoon. But he’s got a big gash in his forehead and his face is swollen from the beating, so he won’t be seen around Azia or Temple for awhile. Thom told me the attack seemed premeditated. There was a Chevy SUV parked in the Azia parking lot on 25th and Nicollet that the first group of attackers may have been driving. Thom described the first three men that jumped him as white, or at least light-skinned, well built, and in their late-twenties or early-thirties. When Thom fled the first three, another group of men, this time five or six of them, jumped out of a minivan on Nicollet and gave chase. “But by this point, I was bleeding and covering my face with my hand, so I didn’t see much,” he said.

It was a creepy scene. “None of them said a word the whole time,” he said. “They didn’t seem angry like you would normally be in a fight. I’d never seen anything like it. I kept asking them what they wanted, but they didn’t say anything. They were there to kill me. I thought I was going to die.”

Blood on their Tracks

I was on the Critical Mass ride last night. Right in the middle of the so-called “riot,” when 19 cyclists were arrested by the MPD. I was in the middle of terrified kids scrambling off their bikes after being maced. Sirens converging from all four directions and stern city cops pulling out aerosol cans and uncollapsing batons. I was standing right next to the MPD prowler weaving its way down LaSalle through the confused rabble of cyclists. I heard one cop’s matter of fact threat: “If you don’t get out of the way, I. Will. Run. You. Over.” I was looking over my shoulder, peddling my ass off while blue and brown-uniforms advanced shoulder-to-shoulder up the street like it was Chicago in 1968 or Manhattan in 2004. I’m choosing those dates for a reason, but first, before I contribute any further to this Labor Day weekend’s blog hysteria, let me tell you what I was doing there.

I just finished a story on bicycling in Minneapolis for the October issue of Mpls.St.Paul Mag. Just went to press yesterday. In fact, I lead with an account of the July Critical Mass, an uneventful jaunt through the city–the cyclists even had a bemused police escort for the duration of the ride. I only decided to go on last night’s ride at the last minute, because my neighbor Juka was heading down. So we left around five p.m. and met everybody else by the Loring Park Fountain.

There were actually fewer people in the park than there were for the July ride. I was sitting on the grass, drinking Gatorade with Juka and listening to this loquacious black dude Darryl hold court about the Bonneventure Cemetery in Georgia when a kid in a baseball cap and a bandana around his neck passed the three of us these little yellow cards. The card were printed with “YOUR RIGHTS AS A CYCLIST” on one side and “YOUR RIGHTS WHEN DEALING WITH THE POLICE” on the other. At the bottom of the card there was a number for Joe Vacek, a cyclist/attorney at simplelaw.org. Then a scrawny kid with a scraggly beard called for our attention from fifteen feet up in a tree. “HEY,” he shouted down to us in his reedy voice, “WE HAVE SOME GUESTS FROM OUT OF TOWN THAT WILL BE JOINING US ON TONIGHT’S RIDE. WE’RE FROM pReNC AND WE’RE GOING TO BE HOLDING WORKSHOPS ON STRATEGIES TO PROTEST THE REBUPLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION THAT BEGINS ONE YEAR FROM TODAY.” He announced that pReNC would be meeting at a restaurant on Lake and 29th at the end of the ride. “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS THAT NOBODY GETS ARRESTED AND WE ALL GET THERE SAFE.”

At the time, I thought this dude seemed to be freaking out. I mean, I heard the St. Paul Critical Mass ran into some problems a couple of months back, but the Minneapolis rides are almost officially sponsored by the city at this point. Check out the Star Tribune’s story. MPD Lt. Marie Przynski sounds like she’s carefully reading from a pro-bike press release: “We’ve never had a problem with Critical Mass, the rally. We agree with them that we need to lessen our dependence on the automobile.” It’s the last part of Lt. Przynski’s statement that speaks to what really was going on: “Apparently, they had some infiltrators or outsiders who joined the rally tonight. And these outsiders were trying to provoke the officers.”

The battle lines are being drawn a full year in advance of the RNC, an event known as The Protest Super Bowl. With all the bridge coverage, you might have missed some of the stories in the Strib about the preparations on both sides. Earlier this week, the Minneapolis City Council voted not to contribute a penny. (I’m sure the cops loved that.) On Wednesday, Kathy Kersten wrote a story about the “pinstripe brigade,” all the ACLU lawyers who’ll be in town to defend what Kersten calls the “anarchists rabble-rousers eager to flout the law.” No surprises on either side.

Long before all the trouble on LaSalle, there was a police helicopter in the air following the pack. As the cyclists rolled south on Washington some dude was blasting “Thriller” on his boombox. There were riders on BMXs with Jesse James bandannas over their faces Al Qaeda-style. There was a menacing undercover dude in a Boston Red Sox jersey strapped with a glock that kept appearing at each intersection and eyeballing everybody behind dark aviators. He leaned out the door of his unmarked car and murmured into his walkie-talkie each time. When somebody got pulled over for a joint or for riding into traffic or whatever the hell happened on the Broadway Bridge (400 kids on bicycles makes for a ridiculous game of “telephone”), everybody went right into their roles. ACTION, baby! Twenty-somethings that had been handed yellow cards stamped with their RIGHTS AS A CYCLIST chanted “Let Him Go!” Cops set their jaws. They eventually let him go, but cruising down First Ave., the kids at the back of the pack started talking shit and the sirens whooped. By the time the group bottlenecked in front of the SuperAmerica on LaSalle the tinder caught. The call for officer assistance went out, boots hit the street, bicycles crashed, pepper spray singed the air, kids cried.

To quote Strother Martin: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Yeah, there is some cultural dovetailing going on—many of these unwashed bicyclists are sympathetic to the anti-WTO, Bush-hating types. But Critical Mass is known for a Merry Prankster spirit, not for throwing rocks at Starbucks. Last night was a full-on dress rehearsal for the RNC. Both by the cowboys and the indians. The cops and the robbers. With a lot of bewildered young women on $25 Schwinns caught in the middle. I would bet that everything settles down by next month’s Critical Mass.

But next August is going to be ugly.