Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Magazines. It gets worse...

So, I was listening to NPR the other day (just trying to hear Mitt Romney's gaffe-of-the-day, or maybe get the latest Comintern update) when they broadcast a report on human slavery in the U.S. Given the subject, I expect to hear stories of human trafficking related to the sex trade or farm labor, but the 'industry' they seemed to talk about the most was door-to-door magazine sales.
Although the life of the slave's been romanticized in movies...
...the actual history of slavery's less attractive. And in fact, it's possible that a modern slave, working on a magazine sales crew, might pass essentially undetected in suburbia.

Since I used to work for motorcycle magazines here in the U.S. (full disclosure: I still do write a column for the UK magazine Classic Bike) I know that many subscription deals are essentially loss leaders -- the amount of money, if any, that comes back to the magazine is less than the cost of mailing out the magazines, but the nominal increase in 'subscribers' boosts the advertising rate base.

I also used to work in the ad business, so don't get me started on the advertising value of a subscriber who pays "pennies an issue!" for your magazine. What evidence can magazines present to advertisers that such subscribers care about the magazine's contents or can even be bothered to flip through it?

But, I digress... I thought, how fucking desperate is the magazine that does business with these sleazeballs?

I should have guessed that something was up with those 'sales crews'. The only time I ever encountered one, it came in the form of an inner-city teenaged girl who claimed to go to a local school (impossible, given my address) and who became abusive when I politely told her that I was not interested.

I never got to the point in that transaction where I really looked at what magazines she was offering me. So I don't know whether any of the 'big' U.S. motorcycle mags were on her list. Although they should know better, major publishers do actually let real fucking scammers sell subs for them. Typically, publishing execs plead ignorance, when it comes to which 'clearing houses' they use to sell subs and how those clearing houses recruit sales crews. I certainly don't have any contacts high enough in the business hierarchies of Bonnier Corp., which owns Cycle World or Source Interlink (Motorcyclist) to find out whether they are selling subs this way. And my contacts on the Editorial side of those mags certainly wouldn't know.

But maybe some Backmarker reader does know. Has anyone out there answered their door, and been subjected to a high-pressure/BS sales pitch for a magazine subscription, and had the menu of magazines on offer include motorcycle magazines? If so, please contact me, eh?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Wish they all could be Chernobyl girls…

It's been a few weeks now that my posting rate's been below par here on Trust me, I've got a good excuse or two -- I'm distracted by a couple of big projects in development, and hope to have a an interesting announcement or two soon.

In the meantime, I'm going to recycle the odd story that seems worthwhile, including a few that may be old enough to have been genuinely forgotten by long-time readers, or which new readers may never have encountered. Once such story is that of Elena Filatova. I first encountered that name a few years ago. I say “encountered that name” because I haven’t encountered her in the flesh. Nor has anyone I know. But I was suddenly reminded of her the other day when, as I was searching through some old emails for an unrelated reason, I came across one with this photo attached...

Her looks didn't hurt my desire to believe that Filatova's story was authentic. I desperately wanted Motorcyclist, where I worked in 2004, to assign me a feature story about her, that would involve going for a ride with her. Those were the days when a big motorcycle magazine might, conceivably, have actually had the budget to send a writer half-way around the world. Seems like so long ago... .
Filatova was curiously famous–an internet phenomenon before the heyday of YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. In 2004 her website generated millions of hits. It told the story of a thirty-something woman who lived in the Ukraine and who rode her Kawasaki ZX-11 around on the deserted roads of the “dead zone” around Chernobyl.
Very early in the morning of April 26, 1986 the nuclear power station in Chernobyl in the Soviet Socialist Republic of the Ukraine blew up. A massive radioactive cloud drifted over the western part of the USSR and much of Europe. Several hundred thousand people were evacuated from parts of the Ukraine and Belarus. The official Soviet death toll was only 31 people–mostly firefighters and helicopter crews who heroically attempted to limit the release of radiation in the days after the explosion. Later estimates, however, suggest that about ten thousand people have died (or will die) of cancers caused by their exposure to Chernobyl’s fallout.
Officially, the zone where the fallout was worst, about 20 miles in all directions from the reactor, was permanently evacuated and remains largely empty. According to her blog, Elana Filatova first visited the zone in the early ’90s. She was drawn to return by the area’s air of mystery and by the deserted roads, where she could ride her motorcycle as fast as she wanted. She wrote that regardless of the official statements, there are thousands of abandoned towns, as far as 150 miles from the reactor site.
Call me an incurable romantic, but the idea of this dark beauty riding a fast bike through those ghostly, deserted forests and empty towns totally fascinated me. She wrote of wolves and wild boar crossing the roads, paying no attention to her at all as they’d lived their whole lives without humans to fear. And of visiting the abandoned motorcycle shop in Pripyat, the city nearest the reactor. I was not surprised that millions of people visited her website. When I first heard about her, I was working for Motorcyclist Magazine and I tried to reach for an interview her, at the very least. Not so secretly, I hoped that the editor might even approve a trip over there so I could go for a ride on, er make that 'with' her. But I never got a reply to my emails.
Like a lot of people, I started to wonder whether she was real. On her own website she admitted that many people believed she was a figment of someone’s imagination. Why would a Ukrainian write in English–and conspicuously good English at that? The story was almost too good to be true.

On the other hand, why go to all that trouble? There were no ads on the site, no requests for money; if it was a piece of anti-nuclear activism, it’s probably too subtle to be effective. The site’s not even copyrighted; the author openly invites anyone to reproduce the content. No one seems to be making any money on it. Somehow the loving, detailed description of her motorcycle and the way she modded it made me think she was for real.

So what was her story? After my emails went unanswered, I wrote to the snail mail address on her site and never had a reply. If you trust Wikipedia, her myth's essentially been busted; the consensus seems to be that she is a real person, but that the lone, high-speed motorcycle rides through the Chernobyl death zone were fictional. According to a Chernobyl tour guide (which is, in itself, quite a thought) she took a bus tour through the zone, and posed for pictures.

What about Fukushima, I wonder? Are there any Japanese versions of Filatova riding those roads?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A la recherche de motos perdus, Part deux...

A couple of days ago, I left you in the rain, as the horde of fans and swap meet treasure hunters abandoned the Circuit Linas-Montlhéry in the face of an advancing rainstorm. 
I retreated to Eric Saul’s huge tent. Saul, who won a couple of Grands Prix back in the day, occasionally promotes classic races based mostly on the rugged Yamaha 250 and 350 twins that filled GP grids in the 1970s. The day before, Eric had highsided his Bimota 250 and broken his collarbone, for the nth time. I learned that the French word for “highside” is pronounced, “eye-side”. 
“I think,” said Saul with a one-sided shrug, “that there might have been oil on the track. Have a glass of champagne.” Hundreds of people were packed in with us, the hard core that didn’t want to leave, even though the Coupes Moto-Légende was over. Eric’s girlfriend, also a racer, was playing the accordion. Some song that was so French it hurt. She was tall enough, pretty enough (and fast enough by the way) that it looked and sounded good on her. I thought about pushing through the crowd to say hello to Giacomo Agostini, but I stayed on the fringes.

It’s not an accident that the expression “joie de vivre” is French. Eventually though, all things must end. The party fell quiet and the last of us filtered out, leaving the great track silent once and for all–if by “all” you mean, the public.
What does the future hold for Montlhéry? The land belongs to the government. Decades ago, the track and associated buildings were basically handed over to UTAC, a company which provides testing and consulting services to the car industry. UTAC, in turn, is controlled by Renault and Peugot/Citroen. This tangled ownership always made it easy to duck responsibility. When Montlhéry locals complained about noise and traffic, the administration said, “What can we do? The land belongs to the government; they’re the ones who made it a national monument; we’re sort of obliged to open it to the citizens every now and then.” 
At the same time, when 40,000 Coupes fans got up in arms over the impending closure of their favorite track the administration said, “Well, it’s not us that want to close the circuit.” 
But in fact it was them. UTAC never wanted the public on the site. They do almost all their physical testing in modern buildings built outside the track, and more and more of their business is in computer simulations. The company’s web site doesn’t even mention the legendary oval. 
The road course was occasionally rented out to car clubs, but the owners said the use they got from it, and the revenue it generated, didn’t justify the cost of basic annual upkeep. 
A few years ago, they got the perfect excuse to close it: the French government being, well, French has a committee that exists for the sole purpose of homologating the country’s race tracks. Every track needs a valid certificate to stage events. For Montlhéry’s certificate to be renewed in 2004, someone would have had to spend $15 million repairing cracks in the concrete and repaving the whole thing. 
“15 million!” UTAC’s spokesmen acted suitably taken aback, and sputtered, “Who’s got that kind of money? We’ll have to stop holding public events.” 
Without a showcase event like Coupes Moto Légende, le Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry faces continued neglect, and slow decay. Eventually, it will be unusable, and the owners will be glad to padlock it once and for all. Weeds will push up through the cracked asphalt and vines will slowly overtake the concrete banking.
Motorcycling itself only goes back a hundred years; and Grand Prix racing barely goes back 50. So until now, as motorcyclists, the most interesting parts of our past have been held in our collective living memory. As a historian of our sport, I have always liked the idea that I could talk directly to the people who made our history - that I could see their motorcycles run, and hear them. 
No one would have thought – riding like we did, half the time without helmets – that we’d even last long enough to reach this point. But as time marches on, motorcycling’s history is starting to reach back past living memory. Into history history. That would be what? Dead memory? 
It’s funny. I went to the Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry for the bikes. Because it might’ve been my last chance to see and hear a bike like that Norton kneeler in its original context. I thought that hearing it would somehow make that memory my own; real, not just a historical note beside a static display. 
Then I went back a second time for the empty track. I was prevented from seeing it, not because there was any secret testing going on there that I might photograph, just because a typical, emasculated French petty functionary relished the opportunity to say “no.” 
I never expected to be so interested in the track in the first place. There was a certain, melancholy poetry to being denied a final visit, not that there’s any great philosophical conclusion to draw from it. Except that while it’s worth it to keep our history alive, it’s also important to remember the things we’ve lost.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A la recherche de motos perdus, Part un.

Last week, I noticed that the hipsters over at Hell For Leather posted a video of a pack of scooters circulating on the rooftop test-track of the old Fiat building in Turin, Italy. That building was one of the defining products of the Futurist movement; Fiat cars were assembled on an assembly line that spiraled up through the enormous building. The assembly line ended on the roof of the building, where cars were tested on the parabolically-banked oval. Fiat stopped using the building as a factory in the early '80s, but the building survives as a shopping center.

That reminded me of another famous track that was also an architectural monument -- the fantastic oval outside Paris at Linas-Montlhéry, which was one of the touchstones of the school of architecture that came to be known as 'brutalism'. 

My thoughts on Montlhéry were first posted on the old Road Racer X web site about five years ago, based on a few visits to the track that had taken place a couple of years before that. But since that post's long vanished from the interweb, I thought I'd repost the essay here...

A couple of months ago, I did something every journalist should do every few years: I (re)read A.J. Liebling. He was a brilliant essayist and war correspondent, a funny guy, and an insightful observer of subjects as diverse as the sport of boxing and French cuisine. He’s best remembered for his long stint at the New Yorker, a magazine so respected by writers that it is called the[ital] New Yorker, not “New Yorker.”
Liebling wrote eloquently about returning to Paris when the city was liberated in ’44, and described spending the last night before liberation in Linas-Montlhéry. He was bemused by the town’s gigantic race-track, but didn’t pay it much attention. Instead, he climbed to the top of hill and looked, through a spotting scope, at Paris. That was on his mind. But reading Liebling’s reminiscence of Montlhéry took me back to my own visits there, about 60 years later... 
The first time I went there, it was to write a story about an event. Afterwards, I realized the real story was about the track itself. So I went back to see the track again a few weeks later. 
That first time, I got a ride with Patrick Bodden; going back alone was more involved. I had to decode French train schedules, walk for hours after miscalculating the distance from the nearest station; a whole day was shot. When I finally got there, I innocently asked permission take some pictures of the empty circuit. I was told, “Fous-moi le camp! No one’s allowed in, and even if you were allowed in, photography is strictly forbidden.” To that, the jobsworth added, “And it’s never going to be open to the public again!” 
* (Asterisk indicates that a brief musical interlude goes here. I suggest Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.”)
For the previous 11 years, “Coupes Moto Légende,” Europe’s biggest vintage motorcycle meet had been held at “Le Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry” on the southern outskirts of Paris. That Spring, I went because I’d heard that the 2003 version of the “Coupes” was to be the final motorcycle event ever held at “Montlhéry”. The event always drew an amazing array of rare bikes. I wanted to see them, and especially hear them, in their natural habitat. 
The Montlhéry circuit had remained virtually unchanged since its construction in 1924, making it a perfect setting for a vintage event. When the circuit was built it was in the countryside, but inevitably Parisian suburbs spread south and population density increased around it. More and more, local residents opposed the roar of open megaphone exhausts and the traffic snarls caused by legions of fans. By the time of the 2003 event they’d gotten their wish – the locals were promised, “No more.” 
But oh, what a track it was. Although the layout allowed for road courses of up to 12 kilometers in length, Montlhéry was famous for its 2-1/2 kilometer parabolic oval. Way up at the top, the banking was a real old “wall of death.” If you had the guts and suspension for it, you could ride any motorcycle ever made all the way ‘round absolutely wide open. You think I’m exaggerating? Raymond Jamin, who engineered the track, calculated the rising slope so that up at the guardrail, a motorcycle could run through the turns at 220 k.p.h. with completely neutral steering. To build the banking up high enough, and make it strong enough to absorb the g-forces generated by the massive speed-record automobiles of the day, Jamin used 8000 cubic meters of concrete, reinforced with 1000 tons of steel.
Fame eluded Jamin, but his race track is a monument to the modernist style that appropriately became known as “brutalism.” In fact, it is listed in the official register of French historic sites and monuments.
The bowl was an ideal place to set speed and endurance records, and they were set here, by the hand-written, leather-bound book-full. Five years after the track was built, Herb Le Vack rode a Brough Superior to the world’s first closed-course lap of over 200 k.p.h. That bike, a 1927 model SS100 Pendine had been tweaked by Freddie Dixon. Before Le Vack rode, it was raced by George Brough himself. It’s currently owned by Peter Lancaster, a collector – like everyone here at the Coupes – who understands that even precious bikes need to run to live.
In 1952, Norton’s race engineer Joe Craig was staggered by the speed of the Gilera four-cylinder Grand Prix bikes. He responded by building the Norton ‘kneeler’, trying to make up with streamlining what the single-cylinder Manx engine gave up in horsepower. English GP ace Ray Amm, aided by Eric Oliver, set a total of 41 records on that Norton when they brought it here in the Fall of 1953. 
The noise they made! 
Norton, blaat. 
Brough, MV, roaring (the twin pitched flat, the four on song.) 
Honda six, Guzzi eight. I winced when they were revved. Partly due to the earsplitting sound, and partly because I couldn’t ignore the potential for mechanical mayhem within those irreplaceable crankcases. 
At a certain moment, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was getting an echo off the banking, but the parabolic shape was in fact directing the bulk of the sound straight up into the heavens. High flying birds, at least, must’ve wondered “What the?..”
By Sunday, we had bounced too many shock waves into the clouds, and it started to rain. Thousands of people; most of the riders, exhibitors, and swap meet traders had been bivouacked under the infield trees. Handwritten signs dissolved into papier maché. “For Sale”, “Wanted”, “I’ll sell you this rolling chassis, or buy a motor if you have one to fit it”. (Either way at least someone could leave with a whole motorcycle.) One sign taped to a frame simply asked, “Does anyone know what this is?” 
In the rain, anything being sold under an awning suddenly got a lot more interesting. I lined up for some ‘frites’, behind a couple in their late fifties or early sixties. She was wearing a tweed suit, white blouse; a brooch, little gloves. As though she’d just come back from mass. He was holding something made of black plastic: the air filter housing for a Suzuki GT750. “You see, here’s where the filter goes,” he said, pointing inside. “And is that something,” she asked, “which will have to be cleaned?”
They had both been faking this conversation since Suzuki introduced the GT. She was pretending that she cared, and he was pretending to believe her. Both were visibly relieved when I leaned in to ask, “Did they call GT750s ‘kettles’ here in France?” That way he could start talking to me instead.
That year as always, the actual “coupes” – the cups – were awarded by a jury. There were classes for absolutely everything, from utilitarian mopeds to bona-fide works GP bikes. Such bikes are often ridden by the men who originally raced them. Kenny Roberts made the pilgrimage in 2002; Agostini came to Montlhéry almost every year. In total, about a thousand machines took their laps during each event. 
Although the promoter sternly warned, “This is not a race!” putting riders like this on vintage race iron could only lead to one thing: racing! Even Sammy Miller – otherwise seemingly immune to the effects of time – lowsided, earning a ride back in the pace car, looking as close to embarrassed as a member of the Pantheon can look. 
Finally, it poured. In the infield, people folded wet tents, stuffed damp sleeping bags into sacks. “That’s the part that I would hate,” my friend said, as we slogged past a vendor loading his inventory of cycle parts – now wet, and even rustier - back onto a trailer. Vehicles inched out on muddy tracks. 
I hope you don’t mind if I leave you here, in the rain, for a couple of days. It’ll do you good. Build character. Me? I’m heading over to a large tent, where I can hear an accordion and tinkling champagne glasses, but I’ll be back here on Thursday to conclude this essay.
Au revoir, Marc

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Notes from the edge

Last Saturday, during a very busy period at the grocery store, I had a line of about four carts waiting at my cash register when this harried black woman appeared in front of my register with her two kids. Each kid had a bag of frozen corn, and each one bought it as its own individual transaction.

I think this was because, since the didn't want their purchase bagged, they were eligible to enter in the weekly draw for a $20 gift certificate; each customer who doesn't require us to use a new bag gets to enter.

Then, she opened up a small backpack and pulled out four navel oranges that, she said, her husband had purchased and that she wanted to return, in exchange for a bag of lemons.

"I'm buying these because they have seeds in them," she said of the lemons. She leaned in as she spoke with me, wide-eyed and intense. "I'm returning these because they don't have seeds in them, and I won't eat citrus without seeds."

Finally, by way of further explanation, she added, "Because, that's science."

I gathered that what she meant by science was 'genetically modified.'

The return was no skin off my nose, and the store was far too busy for me to take the time to explain that navel oranges were seedless as the result of simple plant breeding, propagated by grafting, and had been so long before GMOs. There'd'a been no point at all in trying to explain that no matter where you are on the GMO-skepticism scale, 'science', per se, is neither good nor bad.

The store's about equidistant from some of Kansas City's most privileged and most desperate neighborhoods. I've had customers come in and ask in a drawl, "Can you buy red wine on EBT?"

The other day, someone bought about ten cans of tuna and, as I was ringing it up she said, "EBT won't pay for cat food, so I buy them tuna." I once had a woman at the other end of the wealth spectrum tell me that the can of crab she was buying ($11.80) was a treat for her cat, too.

Most of the customers fall much closer to the middle of that spectrum. I note the prevalence with which white, apparently middle-class customers buy food with credit cards. Some of them are probably just running debit cards as credit transactions for reasons of security, and others probably pay their balance off every month and are running up travel points, or whatever. But many of them are splitting transactions between cards, and declines are frequent enough. I think, It's food; you don't want to be paying interest charges on it long after it's been pooped out.

Yesterday, a dad came through the line with two girls about seven or eight years old. One of them was in a full halo rig (an external fixator holding her head in fixed position over her shoulders.) As an ex-motorcycle racer, I'm acutely aware of what that piece of medical equipment means.

When she walked away, I could see a surgical scar high up on the back of her neck. She'd had a high cervical fracture. Except that she had no neck mobility at all, she was walking normally and the scar was well healed; it had to be about time to remove the halo. She was going to be OK.

But just seeing it made me shudder; a kid that young who'd obviously been that close to spending the rest of her life as a quadriplegic.

Within an hour of seeing that, a young woman came through my line. She was bald, and her face was swollen with chemo drugs. There was a band-aid holding down some kind of IV shunt in her arm.

She was pushing a little tiny baby in a stroller. A kid that couldn't have been more than a few months old. The woman seemed cheerful enough. I didn't ask any of the obvious questions.

What was she being treated for? Was it some cancer that she knew she had while pregnant? Had she waited to have her baby before getting chemo? Surely you can't have chemo when you're pregnant. Or had her cancer been discovered after she gave birth? What was her prognosis? I tried to imagine having a tiny baby and knowing there was a good chance you'd never see it grow up.

When I applied for a twelve-buck-an-hour job at a grocery store, a big part of my motivation was the knowledge that, at my age, no one would hire me back into the ad industry and that the writing was on the wall for, well, writing about motorcycles for money. Half the reasoning behind taking such a menial job was simply that $12/hour was better than nothing. But another big part of it was that the work I'd done for the last decade was, mostly, pretty lonely. Although there were occasional days that were really fun and stimulating, the reality of life as a freelance writer is long consecutive days spent whacking away at a computer keyboard with no social interaction at all. I was lonely.

I was also along way from the edges of the lives of strangers.