Thomas Beller

Thomas Beller

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 3 2000 6:00 PM

Thomas Beller

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In the last couple of years there's been a new addition to the many kinds of vehicles to be found on Manhattan's streets, a kind of urban gondola: the Bicycle-Taxi. Though they are fairly few in number they are a nice addition to the city, a kind of counterpart to the horse-drawn carriages that line up near Central Park West, the sort of detail that makes the city seem less sleek somehow, except unlike the horse-drawn carriages, whose operators exist under a cloud of accusation from animal-rights groups about the treatment of the horses, the only animal whose labor is being exploited is the taxi driver/peddler who, unlike the horse, gets paid.

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The whole enterprise, I assumed, was the concoction of some slightly mad entrepreneur. I have a thing for slightly mad entrepreneurs, and I made a note to find out who it was.

The obvious thing to do was to hail down one of these pedicabs and ask the man (or, in some instances, woman), as he was peddling me to my destination, who his boss was, but I could never bring myself to do this because, in part, to sit in that carriage and be peddled around town seemed too laughably royal, and in part because the contraptions reminded me a great deal of cyclos, which are the predominant form of public transportation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I spent some time in the mid-'90s helping out a slightly mad entrepreneur named Bernard Krisher, and his editor in chief, Barton Biggs, start Cambodia's first English-language daily newspaper called, fittingly, the Cambodia Daily. Unlike the ones in New York, Phnom Penh cyclos had the passenger in front, a kind of human grocery cart. The streets were full of them back then, as they were full of bicycles, motos, horse-drawn carts, and, in the minority, cars and buses, and to ride in a cyclo was one of the defining experiences of the place; my first cyclo ride was the moment I understood with every sense in my body that I was in a place very unlike where I'm from, a place full of exotic smells and sights and physical sensations: It was very late at night, and the city was completely empty and quiet, as Phnom Penh was back then, at night; there had been a heavy rain and the streets were covered with huge but very shallow puddles that were utterly still and reflecting the moon and stars and the occasional street lamp. I took a long cyclo ride back to the house Krisher kept his newspaper employees, still disoriented from having arrived the night before, and the wheels of the cyclo made the most wonderful, gentle, shushing sound as they cut through these vast mirror puddles. All this made a very strong impression on me, as did the rhythm of our progress, which had a kind of metronomic cadence to it, to correspond with the pumping legs of the cyclo driver. In this one moment the central paradox of all my time in Cambodia crystallized for me, namely how amazing and exciting it was to be in such a land, and how so much of that excitement was related to events or circumstances that one way or another had to do with the enormous pain and suffering and poverty of that country which in turn had to do with my own country, which, banal epiphany though that may be, still counts for something when you experience it firsthand, and is almost enough to get me going about the time I found myself at a party with Henry Kissinger and was seriously considering giving him a piece of my mind about his behavior regarding the secret bombing of Cambodia, and in fact was building myself up for nearly an hour for a civilized but firm rebuke to be delivered in the form of an innocent question, and was in fact at the very height of my enthusiasm for the project when I found myself in the bathroom standing shoulder to shoulder with the man while we urinated together. Henry Kissinger and I stood there in that way men do, in that awful silence, and of course I thought of that amazing passage in Nicholson Baker's novel The Mezzanine, in which he discusses his own (his narrator's, excuse me) personal strategy for getting off the blocks in such awkward situations which, to put it bluntly (which Baker did) is to imagine peeing directly onto the forehead of the man standing in silence next to you. Eventually nature took its course, and without having to resort to this particular fantasy (though I can only speak for myself), and at that point, once things were underway, it seemed just too boorish and awful to assault this man in such a situation with the question about the secret bombing of Cambodia (Operation Menu, if I recall, which seemed especially ironic given that we were at a giant dinner) and so I did the honorable thing and peed in silence and never harassed Henry Kissinger. The cyclo drivers were among the poorest residents of Phnom Penh—at night many of them could be seen parked in clusters, sleeping in the seat that by day supported their passengers, covered in mosquito nets, like colonies of cocoons. I suppose they were their own kind of slightly mad entrepreneurs, and I much enjoyed them, even as I rued their poverty and wondered if my enjoyment was diminishing my ruing or vice versa and what the appropriate mix of such feeling should be.

All of which I report as a way of accounting for the fact that I never hailed one of these bicycle-taxis to find out who was behind the scheme—it simply evoked too much other stuff.

Then one day last summer I came upon an odd sight on Broome Street near Sixth Avenue: Traffic was backed up leading toward the Holland Tunnel, a terrible standstill comprised largely of huge shiny new SUV's idling in place (itself not at all unusual), and what these people stuck in traffic were staring at were several people trying out these motorized two-wheel scooters, which whizzed and whirred in circles as their users got the hang of them. At first glance it was as though a bunch of bees were mockingly buzzing around a huge animal stuck in the mud. In addition to the scooters, there was an array of those bicycle-taxis all lined up on a small unused triangle of space which, besides being well suited to a small thriving operation of this sort, seemed a perfectly placed stage from which to perform agitprop demonstrations on the merits of alternative transportation: right in the presence of lots of fuming vehicles containing exasperated people marinating miserably in their own comfort.

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Presiding over this two- and three-wheeled menagerie, whose official name is "The Hub Station," was a man named George Bliss. He is a well-tanned, lean, and muscular man in shorts and a white T-shirt, with sandy straight hair cut short across his forehead, and a look of bemused concern etched, permanently it seems, on his face. I went and talked to him for a while, and it turns out that he's been playing around with bicycles for most of his adult life. He used to make elaborate functional artworks out of them, and pointed to a contraption that looked like—and in fact was—a combination of a giant wicker chaise longue and a bicycle. He's been making such contraptions since the early '80s but recently has turned his energies to this more utilitarian side of things, running his bicycle-taxi business—he has a fleet of between 10 and 15 of them out every day and evening—and selling scooters. The agitprop value of the fact that his whole operation took place in full view of a miserable traffic jam—"We  have a captive audience," is how he put it—was not lost on him. He looked a lithe and youthful late 30s, and I felt that in panning from the wicker chaise longue bicycle to the fleet of well-kept bicycle-taxis and shiny new scooters I was witnessing a progression of consciousness from artist/activist/bohemian to small-businessman, and in his wary, bemused, worried, and optimistic face I thought I could see the effort required to maintain and reconcile both postures toward life.

But then maybe I was just projecting. At any rate, I liked George Bliss and his operation a lot, and over the next few weeks I returned several times to see how things were going. Usually I found George going about the rather strenuous business of maintaining his fleet. One hot day I watched as he held the metal gear/axle thing the chain goes around in one hand while he drilled holes into it with a handheld drill, an act that made the tendons in his neck stand out from the effort and that made my hair stand on end watching the spinning drill whirring half an inch from his thumb. When he was finished he explained with a gruff pride that this invention allowed his drivers to shift down to a lower gear while standing still, a much needed improvement to the bike-taxis because as it now was, it was extremely hard to get going once you had come to a stop at a light going uphill with a fare, and the drivers usually had to get out and push. I thought how here in New York, this predicament would be witnessed by the passenger, but in Phnom Penh, with the passenger seated in front and driver behind, you never really saw the cyclo driver, just felt the effort required to propel the thing forward, which in some odd way made it even more vivid.

After my second or third visit I explained to George that I was a journalist and wrote for a new Web site, "Mrbellersneighborhood.com." I had a whole box of white matchbooks made with the name of the site on them, elegant black on white, that for a time were the only physical evidence that this project actually existed. I handed one to him on every visit, and once, when he passed it on to one of his employees working on the bikes, the guy peered at it for a while and then said, "Who's Mr. Beller?"

After my fifth or sixth visit I stopped going by; George was busy and I was starting to feel like a pest. I'd hung around long enough to see how hard he worked, what late hours he kept (his drivers were often out until after midnight, rounding up fares); he told me the city was supportive of the venture, and there was a barren and empty triangle of space just across the street from his shop—itself a mostly outdoor affair, with just a wooden shed to house the equipment overnight—which he said the city would let him expand into; I could imagine, though, the anxiety and wariness that dealing with a mercurial city government could bring on, the general anxiety and wariness of taking something abstract, an idea, an ideal, and making it work, selling scooters out of your storefront and having a fleet of bicycle-taxis and their drivers going out every day. I left him alone but whenever I saw one of those bicycle-taxis I would go by, usually on my own bike, and say, "Say hello to George!" to the driver.

Then last night I saw him again. My girlfriend and I were walking home from late dinner in Tribeca, enjoying an unusually summery night. I was right at Prince and Thompson, right below, as it happens, the apartment where Barton Biggs, founding editor of the Cambodia Daily, used to live, and I was looking up to find the window, for no particular reason, just to see it and remember those times, when I heard the urgent ring-ring of a bicycle bell. My girlfriend jerked my hand, and we stopped short as one of those pedicabs sped downhill on Thompson. To my surprise, George Bliss was sitting in the back, his legs crossed, he head turned the other way, as if something he had just passed had caught his eye and he was craning his neck to look at it. I could only imagine that the bike had broken down, and he had gone out to do some in-the-field repairs. With his neck craned like that, his hair blowing in the breeze, face obscured, the pedicab rumbling by at high speed, he seemed culled from another century, there was something faintly noble about him, and, I suppose, in that 19th-century hero way, tragic, too. The strain of working within the system while having values and ideals and hopes and, less poetically, a little punk spit-in-the-eye belligerence, that exist outside of it, all was registered on his face, which is why, I suppose, I kept going back to his operation; I wanted to see if it worked, this inside/outside game, if it was worth it. Watching George Bliss fly past in the seat of one of his contraptions last night, I couldn't help but feel, for no rational reason, that it most certainly was.