Monday, November 12, 2012

Small Business Saturday

After a stretch of unseasonably warm weather, cold weather returned to Shreveport today.  The cold snap sent residents all over the area into their standard cold weather routine of cranking up the heated seats in their cars and digging out their warmest camouflage jackets.  Concurrent with the cold weather is the sudden realization that November’s biggest holiday is just a week and some days from now.  That’s right, Black Friday is only eleven days away!

(What, did you think Thanksgiving was November’s biggest holiday?  Don’t be silly.)

Yes, nothing says America quite like trampling fellow shoppers to get that 42-inch TV that your child’s nursery desperately needs.

(Zombie apocalypse or Best Buy before the doors open)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you not to go shopping on Black Friday.  There are some great deals to be had, and if you find one on something you need, well, then, it would be fiscally irresponsible not to get it.  However, I do ask that you set aside some money for Small Business Saturday:

(Note:  The above video is for the 2011 iteration.  In 2012 the day is November 24th, not the 26th.  Just remember the day after Black Friday.)

If I seem passionate about this, it’s because I am.  At an early age, I had the chance to witness a local institution do battle with a large chain.  The people that lived next door were good friends of the family, and during summer vacations I’d often spend more nights a week at their place than at my own house.  They owned a builder’s supply/home improvement store in Bossier that had a long history in town and a strong reputation.  At the time, the only similar store in town was that orange one; it was completely across town and not worth the trip for most people, especially those on the Bossier side of the River.  The Shreveport-Bossier market was comfortably in balance with these two stores.  Then that blue one opened a location in Bossier, and that was the ball game for my neighbors’ shop.  Even today, I still won’t go to Lowe’s, although I do a fair amount of business at Home Depot and readily admit that there isn’t much difference between the two.

My neighbors landed on their feet and it didn’t cause them too much of a problem, but I learned something from it and have tried to remember that as best I could.

One problem with shopping locally in Shreveport is that it can be difficult to find good local places that have what you need.  Further, since this area is still a largely underdeveloped market for chains, new stores may seem local at first, only to later reveal themselves as faceless corporate behemoths.  So, need some help figuring out where to go?  Not sure if it’s a local place?  Well then, good thing you came to me.  I have a list of Hipster Out of Water approved local businesses in all the categories you’d need:


*Zoe’s Closet:  As of today their website was down (a malfunctioning or nonexistent website is a good sign of a sure-fire local business) but they’ve got two locations, one in South Shreveport on Youree Drive and one in Bossier City on Texas Street.  The one in Bossier has men’s clothing, according to their window displays, but I’ve never been there.
*The Spotted Zebra:  Only women’s clothing, but nonetheless a local store with a couple locations, one in Bossier and another in Shreveport.
*Pope’s Clothiers:  Pope’s has been serving Shreveport-Bossier’s luxury clothing needs for over 50 years, and while they are expensive, they are local and not too much more expensive than Dillard’s.
*Vertigo Clothing:  While not exactly local, this women’s boutique at the Shoppes at Bellemeade is Louisiana based with only a couple locations, so I’m making an executive decision and including it.


*Wright’s Sound Gallery:  A one-stop shop for all home theater and car audio needs.  Probably pricey, but if you’re in the market for this stuff, you know that already.
*The Audio Edge:  They may focus more on installation than on retailing, but worth checking out.


*Lisa’s Flowers:  Getting someone flowers this holiday season?  Go see Lisa on Benton Road.  And not just because she’s the same neighbor from the above anecdote, but because she has great products, prices, and customer service.


This is the one that baffles me.  While Shreveport-Bossier might face a shortage of local clothing and electronics stores, there is no lack for good, local food.  And yet, a new chain restaurant seems to open every day to fanfare and long lines.  Ever heard anything more pointless than an argument of Chili’s vs. Applebee’s, or Joe’s Crab Shack vs. Red Lobster?  When you’re eating bland food from unimaginative menus, surrounded by generic décor, and served by waitresses with way too many pieces of flair, does it really matter where you’re eating?

(I’ll eat at Applebee’s if and only if Ms. Aniston is my waitress)

Shreveport is full of good local food.  Here are some of my favorites:

*Cascio’s Market Bistro:  located on Shed Road just west of Airline.  Good food, cheap, and with decent vegetarian options.
*Athen’s Lebanese Grill:  If you have never experienced the taste nirvana that is Lebanese/Palestinian food, get here, pronto.
*Greek Corner:  See above, just in Bossier City.
*Pho Bowl:  While some spend Friday shopping, others will spend it drinking.  If that’s the case, and you wake up with that familiar splitting headache, light sensitivity, and overall terrible feeling, you have to have some pho.  This Vietnamese noodle soup will send that hangover packing or I’ll give you a full refund of this post.
*Wine Country Bistro & Bottle Shop:  Have guests coming in and want to impress them?  Tired of turkey?  Want to get some great wine to give as a gift?  Wine Country is your place.

Then, in the bakery subcategory but in a class all its own:  Eat Dessert First Bakery.  This holiday season, you and I both know you’ll have need for some baked goods.  Bread for a big dinner party?  Challah for Hanukah?  A cake?  Cookies for Santa?  I could go on, but the fact is that no month calls for baked goods quite like December, and Chef Dan at Eat Dessert First brings you offerings that you won’t find anywhere else in Shreveport-Bossier.  I’ve been eating his food for years and have the waistline fluctuations to prove it.

Finally, bike shops.  I don’t know the exact number of bicycles that will find their way under trees this Christmas, but I know it will be a lot.  And when it comes to where to buy those bikes, you’ve got an equally large number of options.  Pardon the gravity of this statement, but you will regret it if you buy your bike from Target, Wal-mart, Academy, Dick’s, etc.  Would you buy a car from me, knowing that I don’t drive?  Would you take your car to a motorcycle shop for repairs?  Of course you wouldn’t.  No one would.  Yet, to too many people it makes perfect sense to buy their kid’s bike from people who do not ride bikes, who do not work on bikes, and who probably couldn’t even change a flat, much less maintain and assemble a bike.  Bicycles are great fun and very safe when properly ridden and cared for, but can be downright dangerous.  I learned my lesson about improper maintenance the hard way, and was lucky to escape with two broken fingers.  Buy your bike from a real bike shop, where they will assemble it for you, and where you can bring it back for regular maintenance.  We are lucky to have four good, knowledgeable bike shops in town.  I don’t care which one you go to, just go to one of them, please.


Throughout the election season, I heard people all over the area complaining that the government was killing small businesses, but these same people couldn’t tell you the last time they patronized a local shop.  Paying lip service to local shopping is one thing, but when it comes time to actually do it, it gets easy to find an excuse.  Sure, in our 21st century marketplace, it’s next to impossible to live your life without doing a fair amount of business at places like Target, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot, but there are still ample opportunities to shop locally (well, there are right now, but if no one shops there then they won’t last forever).

The fact is, only you have the ultimate decision on where to spend your money, and you have many different considerations to prioritize when making the decision.  However, I’d urge you to reevaluate these considerations, and whenever possible make the decision to buy locally.  You’ll be happy you did.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Welcome Back

Guess who spent last weekend in Chicago?

Yes, it was I.  Chicago and I were reunited for 72 glorious hours and spent the weekend like long lost lovers.  We frolicked in the sand:

We ate delicious food:

(Hot pot, a traditional Chinese dish similar to fondue, usually eaten in winter.  It's amazing.)

And we saw the night lights:

Yeah, it was a great weekend.  But like all good things it had to come to an end.  And much like a lovers’ reunion leaves you with a burning infection from that guy she left you for, when I returned to Shreveport I was hit with the realization that Shreveport, despite its strides in the right direction, still has a ways to go.  Unfortunately, I can’t get rid of this feeling with antibiotics.

Still, though, the trip was a good idea.  As with past lovers, as time passes, the mind tends to gloss over the negatives and only remember the good times.  I’d forgotten the faint smell of urine that permeates the trains, the way cab drivers seem to be trying to give you a heart attack in the backseat, and the way that bars think it’s reasonable to charge four dollars for a can of PBR.  Most of all, though, I’d forgotten that Chicago is still very much a city of cars, even with all the recent bike lane development, as evidenced by this sign at a crosswalk:

This is exactly the kind of victim blaming that gives drivers their sense of entitlement.  It’s no different from posting this sign in women's restrooms:

If I tried to count every vehicle I watched make an illegal turn, run a light, or blast through a crosswalk, I would have run out of fingers and toes to count on in a matter of minutes.  Okay, is it possible that some of those 3000 pedestrians were at fault when they were hit?  Yes, of course.  I’ll even go so far as to say it’s as many as half.  But here’s the thing:  it doesn’t take a license to walk on the sidewalk.  There’s no skill demonstration or written test required to leave your apartment and stroll down the street to the coffee shop.  Drivers, however, have to be licensed; they must prove that they are capable and knowledgeable enough to operate a motor vehicle.  And part of that ability includes the ability to not run over people.

Back in town and batteries recharged from the vacation, I’m ready to get back to the blog.  I’ve been neglecting it a bit.  Thing is, this is really hard work.  I mean, it’s not hard work compared to anything resembling actual work, but still.  Anyway, if I knew that people liked reading my writing it would give me some motivation.  So if you like what you read, or if you have a topic you’d like to read about, comment or shoot me a message.

Finally, I’m going to bring back something I did a while ago, and that’s to review a local place of business based on its hipster appeal, or street cred.  If you remember, hipster cred is rated on a scale of one to five (1-5) PBR cans.

This week, the review goes to Rhino Coffee, a newish indie coffee shop in Shreveport, at 721 Southfield Road.  When I first heard about this place, I wasn’t sure what to think.  I’m on the record against indie coffee shops.  They almost always serve your brew with a tall order of angst, you get lousy service, and the coffee usually takes way too long to serve because they use some sort of cutting-edge, experimental brewing technique.

If that is the rule, then Rhino is the exception.  This is truly a great coffee shop.  The coffee is good.  There’s plenty of seating, including a great patio.  The free water is great after a long bike ride.  There’s even a breakfast and lunch menu; I haven’t eaten here yet, but the menu seems good and has several vegetarian options.  Finally, and best of all, there are good bike racks out front—no more locking to signposts or stair railings.  In fact, I'm writing this blog post from this very place.  Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a Hipster out of Water first, a 5 PBR review!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cycling--A True American Pastime

This has been a great month or two for fans of professional cycling.  Le Tour provided three weeks of excitement (and, in contrast with last year’s Tour, no competitors got hit by a car).  Now, the Olympics are in full swing, with a week’s worth of track cycling to come.  For those who have never watched track cycling, it’s truly an incredibly entertaining event, one that probably even NASCAR fans could appreciate.  Finally, perhaps most importantly for cycling fans—particularly French fans—no Americans placed in the Tour and it’s likely that none will medal at the Olympics, either.

Yes, while American athletes are dominating sports ranging from basketball to volleyball to even soccer football, our cycling program lags far behind international standards (aside from Tour breakout TeJay van Garderen).  To most, this comes as no surprise, since competitive cycling is considered by most Americans to be a “European” sport.  Hell, even the most promising American prospect, the aforementioned van Garderen, has a Dutch lineage.  Which I suppose is fitting, since Americans think of bicycle commuting as a Dutch thing, right along with windmills, wooden shoes, and legalized marijuana.

(The Netherlands, according to Americans)

This reminds me of something that I’ve often thought about while riding my bike—why is cycling considered so European?  It’s time to claim cycling for what it is:  a truly American activity.

Whoa, did I lose you?  Stay with me.  Also, be warned, this might be a little jingoistic.

First, cycling has a rich American history.  For instance, one discipline of track cycling is called the Madison Race, named for Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the first indoor bicycle races took place.  Also, American industry is responsible for making bicycles available to the masses; an immigrant in Chicago named Adolf Schoeninger began manufacturing bicycles in the late 19th century, and pioneered many mass production processes.  Schoeninger would later be referred to as “The Henry Ford of Bicycles,” even though he manufactured his bikes long before Ford started making cars.

But the main reasons I call cycling an American activity are much more interesting than mere history.  The bicycle enables Americans to actually be Americans.  When I think of America, there are a lot of things that come to mind, but here are a few:

·      Freedom of mobility (geographically)
·      Freedom of mobility (socially)
·      Freedom of mobility (economically)

The bicycle makes each one of these freedoms a reality for people in a way that nothing else can.  Stay with me…

The United States is a lot of things, but small is not one of them, and we didn’t get to be that way by staying put; 19th Century Americans got on their horses, loaded their wagons, and headed west.  They didn’t need gas stations to fill up their tanks, no fences kept them out, and no tollbooths impeded their progress.  Today, the bicycle enables this same freedom of geographic mobility.  You can get on your bike in Miami and, provided your legs can make the trip, ride all the way to Seattle without buying a single tank of gas.  Sure, that’s an extreme example, but it’s an accurate one.  On the less extreme end of the spectrum, think about the first time you, as a child, got on your bike and rode to your friend’s house down the street.  That moment, right then, your first time getting somewhere without a parent taking you there, was the first time you got to experience what it means to be an American.  On a bike, you can ride as far as your heart desires and your legs can take you.  The only thing to make it more American would be fighting Native Americans along your way.


Social mobility is another great American development.  Think back to the childhood example presented earlier.  How did you make your first friends?  It’s likely that they were just kids that lived close by, that you could get to easily.  If someone moved away, it probably ended the friendship.  It didn’t even have to be far away; a move of five or six miles was probably enough to do irreparable damage to a friendship.  But with a bicycle, that loss of friendship could be avoided.  Five miles can be covered in thirty minutes pretty easily on a bicycle.  With a bicycle, friends in other neighborhoods or at other schools are suddenly accessible.  That park across town where the cool kids hung out is within easy reach.  Bicycles removed/mitigated one barrier to a wider social circle.

The bicycle also broke down social barriers.  It was particularly popular among suffragists in the United States.  Susan B. Anthony said of cycling:

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

Riding bicycles gave women their first true taste of personal freedom.  In fact, I’d imagine that many women would not have been able to attend suffrage rallies if they were dependent upon their husbands for transportation to the rally.

Finally, though, the bicycle enables that most American ideal:  upward economic mobility, the American Dream.  In 2009, I moved to Chicago, selling my car in the process.  Having not yet been enlightened by the bicycle, I was dependent upon public transportation for a while.  Because of this, I had to pass on several employment opportunities because they were inaccessible by public transportation.  And this was in a city with a good public transportation.  I can only imagine how limited job prospects are for someone without a car in a city with poor public transportation.

Consider the minimum wage worker.  The average annual cost of car ownership is $8,000, and the average take-home pay for a minimum wage job is about $13,000 for someone who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.   That leaves $5,000 for EVERYTHING ELSE:  childcare, rent, food, EVERYTHING.  But consider that same person with a bicycle instead of a car.  I do not know the annual cost of bike ownership, but let’s say it’s:  $100 for a used bicycle, $100 for lights, helmet, and safety equipment, and $100 to fix various flats and breakdowns.  That leaves $12,700 for everything else.  Still not a lot of money, but a lot more than $5,000.

Bicycles Against Poverty, a charity that gives bikes to poor people in Uganda (so, I guess, most Ugandans), reports that of the recipients of their bikes, 67% experience an increase in income, and 24% went on to start their own business.  Imagine the impact on poverty in the United States if 67% of poor Americans experienced an income increase combined with a simultaneous cut to expenses of $7,700 (the benefit of not owning a car).

So why do Americans insist on referring to cycling as a European activity?   Why does it seem like such liberal thing to do?  Why don’t conservatives embrace the bicycle as the truly American thing that it is? Actually, the last couple paragraphs might have answered those questions.  Say what you want about my tinfoil hat, but it doesn’t seem farfetched to believe that there is an intentional effort by the rich and powerful of this country to paint cycling as European.  After all, it isn’t uncommon for conservative politicians to use European as a negative adjective to describe something they are against (European healthcare, European socialism, European education).  I think this country’s elite recognize just how much the status quo could be upset if Americans started riding bikes en masse.

(This scares the shit out of "The Man")

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Holy Cow, A New Post!

I realize it’s been a while since my last post.  I also realize that since my last post there have been two cyclists hit by vehicles in the Shreveport area (stories here and here).  Thankfully, I was not one of those hit.  My thoughts go out to the family of Kevin Mouser, who did not survive his injuries.  The driver was not charged in the collision; police claim it was “unavoidable.”  While I’ll admit I don’t know all the details, I will say that when I was taught to drive I was taught that hitting anyone from behind is completely avoidable.

On to a cheerier subject—myself:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the blog; mainly, I’ve been trying to figure out why I don’t post more and what I can do to fix that.  When I started the [Hipster] Out of Water project, the idea was to document my efforts to continue my Wicker Park way of life in a very different kind of place, and, maybe, open up a few eyes to the amazing experiences that urban life offers.  Since then, though, most posts have been impassioned, opinionated diatribes that read more like op-ed pieces in some sort of indie newsletter.  And the truth is that while it is very fun and therapeutic to write those pieces, they also take a lot of work.

In my recent period of reflection, I realized that not every post need be an essay.  While I will still be writing longer posts, I’m going to make much more of an effort to make more frequent shorter posts.  These may be as short as a single picture and a one-sentence caption.

Now for new business:

A highly anticipated day is almost, finally, upon us:  Saturday, June 2nd, marks the first day of the Shreveport Farmers Market.  I went to the fall edition and was very impressed with the event.  Very well organized, well attended, and the vendors were well stocked.  If the summer incarnation is anywhere near as good, it definitely merits a visit.  If you’ve never been to a Farmer’s Market, you owe it to yourself to go.  It’s not all hippies and vegans, I promise.  Even if you’ve never tasted kale, if you’ve never heard of broccolini, if you don’t know the difference between the 15 different breeds of heirloom tomatoes (I don’t either), even if you’ve never seen a vegetable in your life, you will find something you like there.  There will be butchers and bakers and cheesemongers.  Just go.  At least once.  You’ll almost certainly go back.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What About When the Cops Don't Know the Laws?

*Before reading, if you’d like to read up on the laws for bicycles in the state of Louisiana, here are a couple links:


Riding a bike is one of the most important things in my life.  It keeps me healthy; aside from the obvious benefits to physical health, cycling has done wonders for mental and emotional well-being.  Also, it saves me a ton of money that would otherwise go to gas, insurance, and car payments, so it allows me to live a better lifestyle than would otherwise be possible for someone with my salary.  But perhaps the best thing about cycling is that it is fun.  Pure, unfiltered fun.

Yet, as fun as it is, there is one thing I don’t like about it:  every now and then, there are some assholes in cars that make it unenjoyable.  It doesn’t happen every time I ride, but I’ve been subjected to more than my fair share of verbal abuse, harassment, threats and honked horns.  When I do have a run-in with an ignorant motorist, I comfort myself by knowing that the law is on my side, and that my right to the road is protected by numerous pieces of legislation.  Once, during an argument with a driver, I even said, “If you’ve got a problem with my bike, I’d be happy to call the cops and have them explain the law to you.”  Well, as it turns out, the police can also be ignorant of the laws in place to protect cyclists.  I found that out today, the hard way.  As of today, I’m the proud owner of traffic citation, my first since 2007.

It’s been so long since I’ve had the displeasure of hearing a police siren behind me that at first I couldn’t believe I was the intended target.  Surely, I thought, he must be intending to pull over the vehicle that had just flown past me at well over the speed limit.  Nope.  It was for me.

After pulling to the side of the road, I was told that I was being cited for “not riding on the sidewalk.”  As politely as I could muster, I replied that there was no law requiring me to ride on a sidewalk, but the officer didn’t believe me.  At some point, I guess he called his boss, because another car pulled up, and the two officers started talking.  They then pulled out the biggest book I have ever seen and went about flipping through the pages.  About ten minutes later, the boss-cop approached me and said that I was right, there was no law, so he was instead ticketing me for obstructing traffic because of my slow speed.  At this point, I had nothing left to say but “see you in court.”

For those who don’t know, Louisiana state law grants full use of all roads—except interstate highways—to cyclists.  In return, cyclists are required to follow all rules of the road, including signaling turns, stopping at lights and signs, and using lights at night.  I do all of this every time I ride.  At this point, I think it’s important that I say that I am not saying cyclists shouldn’t be ticketed, ever.  If I run a red light, I fully acknowledge that I can and should be ticketed.  If I am caught speeding, unlikely as that is, I will not for one minute argue the ticket.  But the fact is that I was ticketed for something that is absolutely not against the law.  According to the law, bicycles fall under the category of “slow-moving vehicles” and are not subject to minimum speed regulations.  This is the same category that tractors, combines, and other farm vehicles fall into.  In fact, on several occasions I have seen tractors on this particular road not a half-mile away from where I was pulled over.  These tractors are barely capable of 20 M.P.H., yet I doubt any of them have ever been ticketed for “obstructing traffic/slow speed.”

Furthermore, even if I did want to ride on the sidewalk, on this route it would not be an option.  The stretch of Airline Drive between Shed Road and Viking Drive in Bossier has a very incomplete sidewalk.  It starts and stops at random, disappearing for blocks at a time, only to reappear on the other side of the road.  At every driveway that it crosses, the sidewalk is at least two inches above the road grade, creating a large curb that would be hell on my tires.  The sidewalk is also pockmarked with potholes, uneven segments and drainage grates that would swallow a bike tire and send the rider straight to the ground.  When I pointed this out to the officer, he suggested I “find another route.”  Well, anyone who knows Bossier City knows that the ONLY North-South routes in town are Airline Drive and Benton Road, and no one could argue that Benton Road is more suitable for bicycle traffic.

The thing that upsets me most about this experience, though, is that I’ve been expecting it ever since I moved to this land of Philistines.  Truth be told, I’m actually surprised I haven’t gotten this ticket already.  I’ve read a post from another Shreveport cyclist—an attorney—who advises cyclists to carry a printout of the cycling laws.  I always thought that might be a bit unnecessary, but I can see now that it’s not the case.  I’ll be printing the laws today and putting them in my bike bag.

In the years since I’ve stopped driving, I’ve found that my attitude towards police officers had changed from negative (when I was a driver and had to follow speed limits) to positive (as a cyclist, counting on the laws to keep me safe).  I’ve argued with my driving friends several times when they complained about getting a ticket they felt was unwarranted.  As a vulnerable road user, I rely every day on the police officers enforcing the traffic laws that help to keep me safe.  On June 25th, I’ll have my day in court.  I’m going to avail myself of the justice system that I’ve been defending for years (and, as a pre-law student, hope to one day be employed by).  I’m confident that I’ll win my case, but I have to wonder what good it will do.  Because when even the cops don’t know the laws—or, even worse, when they look up the law and disregard it—what hope do cyclists possibly have?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review: Sportran Route 15, North Bossier

Sportran’s Route 15, North Bossier, runs from downtown Shreveport to Willis-Knighton Bossier and back, via Texas Street, Benton Road, and Airline Drive:

SCHEDULE ACCURACY:  The bus got to my stop at 5:51, just two minutes after the scheduled stop time.  Considering the traffic on Airline Drive, I’m impressed with that level of accuracy.

SPACING OF STOPS:  When riding a bus, one of the more aggravating things is poorly spaced stops—they seem to be every 100 feet when you don’t need them, slowing down the ride, then the only stop close to your destination is a mile away.  This wasn’t the case.  It seemed that there wasn’t an inordinate number of stops and the location of stops made sense.

TRANSFER OPTIONS:  There are multiple options to transfer to the other Bossier routes, #14 Barksdale and #16 East Bossier.

POINTS OF INTEREST:  From north to south, along the route are: Willis-Knighton Bossier Hospital, Target/Best Buy/North Bossier Shopping Centers, Airline High School, Wal-Mart, Pierre-Bossier Mall, First Baptist Bossier, City Court, Bossier Police Station, the Louisiana Boardwalk, and of course downtown Shreveport.

TRIP TIME:  15 minutes from Airline/Melrose to the downtown terminal.  Faster than expected.  Only marginally slower than a personal vehicle.

RECOMMENDED USAGE:  This route covers a lot of ground and a lot of important places.  However, the schedule starts late and ends early, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, so that does affect the usage somewhat.  In my mind, this route is great for residents of north Bossier that are headed downtown for a night out.  Rather than drive downtown, park your car, take a cab home, then hitch a ride back downtown to pick up your car the next day, why not take the bus downtown?  The last trip to downtown is a little early in the evening, though, so plan to do more downtown than just go to the club.  Maybe see a movie at The Robinson?  Or get a great dinner at  Monsour’s?  Whatever you decide to do, you can do it without worrying about how to get home or how to pick up your car in the morning (yes, I’m assuming that we’ve all realized that drinking and driving is officially passé).

Get on the Bus, Part II: How to Ride

It’s been well over a month since my post on riding the bus, and I realize that I’ve yet to write even one of the promised reviews of each bus route.  The truth is, I still hadn’t ridden the bus yet; the only way to keep me from riding my bike is to pry it from my cold, dead hands—or break a spoke and the rear hub.

Yes, with my trusty steed in the shop, I figured yesterday was as good a day as any to ride the bus for the first time.  I’ll get to the actual route review momentarily, but first a primer.  Riding an unfamiliar public transportation system can be a little hard to figure out, even for someone with a few years of experience on public transportation.  So, I’d imagine it is downright intimidating for someone whose last bus experience was in the eighth grade.  Here are some things you should know before you ride:

1)  Route design.  Public transportation routes can be designed two ways.  One way is a grid system, with routes forming a crisscrossing grid over the city.  The other is a spoke system, with all routes originating from a common central station and going out and back, like spokes on a wheel.  The latter is the type that Sportan uses, so the routes are very convenient if your destination is Downtown.  Otherwise, things get a little more complicated; look at your route ahead of time, know where you need to get off to make your transfers, and be sure you pay attention.

2)  Scheduling.  In some cities, bus schedules will read something like “every 10-12 minutes between 6:00 and 10:00.”  However, the Sportran system is not like this.  Presumably due to low ridership, each bus route has a timetable that shows when the bus leaves the downtown terminal and when (approximately) it will arrive at key stops along the route.  Further, the service is a little more infrequent than “every 10-12 minutes.”  It seems to me that it’s about once an hour.  So get to your stop a little early—you don’t want to miss this bus.

3)  Cost and payment.  The simplest answer is $1.25, paid in cash on the bus.  If you choose this option, exact change is required, as the bus does not give change.  When you get off the bus, you can transfer to another bus for $0.25.  Daily and monthly passes are $3.00 and $40.00, respectively, and are purchased at the downtown station, not on the bus.

4)  Etiquette.  Remember, get to your stop a little early.  When you see the bus approaching, you should wave or signal the driver that you’d like to board, especially if you are the only one at the stop.  The bus doesn’t stop at a stop if there’s no one there; make sure the driver knows you want to get on.  Once you’ve boarded and paid your fare, find a seat—proper etiquette would be to take the furthest rearward seat that’s available.  This way, as the bus fills up, it is easier for others to find seats quickly, helping to speed the trip.  Also, the most forward seats are designed to accommodate wheelchairs if necessary.  Once in your seat, make sure you’re only taking up one seat.  Keep your belongings in your lap or at your feet.  You don’t want to be that guy:

5)  Disembarking.  When your stop is approaching, pull the cord to signal the driver to stop.  Remember, the bus does not necessarily stop at each stop.  Unless it causes more problems than it solves, you should always use the rear doors to exit the bus.  The front doors are for boarding, the rear doors for exiting.

That’s it.  That’s all you really need to know about riding the bus.  It's really pretty simple.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's Wrong With Independent Film?

Netflix is great.  Web streaming is the single best technological innovation of the past several years.  Before Netflix, I have no idea how someone used to watch independent film.  Maybe you went to Blockbuster and walked up and down the rows until you saw something interesting.  Maybe you were lucky enough to have an idea of a title to look for.  Otherwise, you might need to pack a lunch into the store, because you could wander around for hours before finding something you might like.  It’s a big decision, picking a movie, a big commitment, and without a solid recommendation, I can understand how one would just end up grabbing the first big budget studio release they came across.   Netflix, though, makes it easy to access indies.  And with the instant streaming, there’s no commitment—don’t like it, just click to something else.

But there’s something I’ve realized, thanks to Netflix—it’s a damn good thing it’s easy to change from film to film, because indies are pretty terrible.  For every Requiem for a Dream, there are dozens of:

Sure, not every independent feature is that bad (seriously, have you seen Eagle vs Shark?  No?  Count yourself very, very lucky.  Imagine Napoleon Dynamite, but written by, and starring, New Zealanders).  Most are usually at least watchable, and a good many are well produced and decently acted.  No, the problem isn’t their quality, not really.  The problem is that these independent pictures are bad for the same reason studio pictures are bad:  they’re formulaic and familiar.  While the plot itself may be strange (again, eagles and sharks what?), the story moves along with the same predictability and tired set pieces that you find in most studio pictures.  They’re basically cheaper versions of studio films, but with less attractive actors.

The most recent flick to find its way into my queue, Ted Mosby Josh Radnor’s directorial debut happythankyoumoreplease, doesn’t exactly shake things up:

Haven’t heard of it?  Don’t worry, have you seen Garden State?  You have?  Cool, then you’ve seen happythankyoumoreplease.  The film, in which Ted Mosby Josh Radnor portrays writer Ted Mosby Sam Wexler, checks every box on the must-have list for the indie romantic semi-comedy/semi-drama.

Sam Wexler is an aspiring novelist (creative type job—check) living in Williamsburg (hipster setting—check).  In the opening scene, we see an attractive pair of legs sneak out of his bed to escape silently.  This is important, because it shows that while Sam is obviously single and has no problem sleeping around, it’s not his fault, because the girls are the ones sneaking out in the morning.  That’s all I’ve got.  Over the next ninety minutes, I’m actually not sure what happens.  I mean, I know what happened on screen, but I’m not sure why it happened or what it meant.

The plot centers around Sam, his love interest Mississippi (girl with a unique name who works as a waitress but wants to be a singer—check), Sam’s cousin (an artist—check) who is arguing with her boyfriend about moving from New York to L.A., and his best friend Annie, a girl with who has no hair due to alopecia (obscure but non threatening disease—check).  Essentially, these three separate groups of characters go through the movie complaining about their love lives in, as best as I could tell, three different stories that were not connected in any way other than that the characters know each other.  It may as well have been three different thirty-minute movies.  Oh yeah, and Ted Mosby Sam meets and kidnaps a child on the subway.  That’s presumably the driving force of the story, but, again, I don’t know what it had to do with anything.

Movies are predictable because producers want to copy other movies that audiences liked.  This copycatting has been going on for so long that audiences find comfort in the familiarity and predictability, so they go see movies that look familiar, continuing the cycle.  That’s fine, I understand that.  But the thing is, independent films have an advantage over their more expensive, better looking step-siblings from the big studios:  indies don’t have to make money.  No one funding an indie really expects to make a profit.  The independent film is mainly an exhibition, a tryout of sorts for the actors and crew involved to move up to the big leagues.  As a result, indies don’t need to be predictable; they can afford to push the envelope.  So why don’t they?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Shreveport, Public Transportation, and You

I have a confession to make.  I don’t always practice what I preach.

“Gasp!  Get the pitchforks!  Rabble rabble rabble!”

 Wait a minute; let me explain.  I’m not a closet car owner pretending to be a cyclist for the cool points.  (Remember, bikes are not cool).  No, I’m talking about public transportation.  I am a huge supporter of public transportation—I think that extensive rail and bus systems are a quintessential part of bringing American cities into the 21st century, and would like to see every metro in the country with a population over 100,000 have a good transit system.  In support of this goal, I’ll discuss the many positive features of public transportation with anyone who will listen and defend it at length against its detractors.  However, I have a dirty little secret:  I hate riding the bus.

It’s true.  Riding a bus subjects you to all the negative aspects of driving (traffic, motion sickness) with the addition of smelly strangers, gropers, pickpockets, and, usually, the inconvenience of not being able to get off right where you need to get off.  Subway trains have the same downsides, just switch traffic for subterranean claustrophobia.  The only individual advantage that public transit has over the personal automobile is the cost savings—riding the bus is definitely cheaper than driving.  Of course, there’s also the larger societal benefit of reduced pollution and better air quality, but it’s hard to think green while you’re crammed next to fifty total strangers and standing in a puddle of what is at best spilled Mountain Dew and, at worst…  No, at that time all you can think is “at least I know for sure it’s not vomit.”

You may be wondering why I feel the need to come clean.  I could easily continue to hide the truth.  But I was almost busted last weekend, and I think it’s best to get the story out on my own terms (which is also why I’m going to preemptively release my own sex tape once I become a celebrity).  My brush with near revelation went down like this:

Some friends and I were having a couple beers Saturday night and talking.  Somehow the conversation came to public transportation.  I paid my usual lip service to public transportation, expecting nothing of it.  However, someone went on to ask me, “so what do you think of Shreveport’s bus system?”  Uh-oh.  Deer:  meet headlights.  I was busted.  Luckily, my quick-witted brother saved the day with an amazing joke and I was never forced to admit I hadn’t ridden a Sportran bus.

Additionally, since I have always defended public transportation against its detractors, and by virtue of paragraph four, I’ve now become a detractor.  That means I now need to defend public transportation against my own criticism.  If only I’d kept my mouth shut, then I wouldn’t have to do all this work…

The picture of a bus ride that I painted above is an example of the worst possible public transportation experience.  Rarely is it this bad.  Alternatively, it can just as easily be this good:

You’re leaving work.  As usual, you worked about 2 hours late and are the last to leave the office because you’re a great employee and everyone else sucks.  You’re tired.  You hate the thought of having to drive home.  But then you remember:  you don’t have to drive home, because you took the bus today.  After a brisk walk to the stop, you get to sit on the bench and have a quiet moment to yourself and get some fresh air for the first time today.  Then the bus arrives, right on time, and—the plus side of working until well past rush hour—it is largely empty.  After finding your seat, you use your iPhone to order takeout from that great Chinese place near home, then pull out that great newspaper article from yesterday’s paper that you still haven’t gotten to read.  The next twenty minutes are spent relaxing, reading, and generally zoning out.  Then it’s your stop.  The walk home takes you right past the aforementioned Chinese place, where you pick up your waiting order and walk the remaining two blocks home accompanied by the spicy aroma of your chicken chow mein.

Okay, so that might be a bit too idyllic, but no more so than the first scenario was too pessimistic.  The truth is that most public transportation trips fall somewhere in between, with only a small percentage coming close to either end of the continuum.

It’s been my experience that one’s attitude towards public transportation is largely influenced by upbringing.  For example, my earliest experience with public transportation came at the age of fifteen, when, seeking a little more independence and hoping to save my mom some gas, I asked her if I could ride the bus somewhere instead of her having to drive me.  She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never, under any circumstances, to ride the bus in Shreveport.  For a long time after that, even on my first few train trips in Chicago, I was a little scared of riding public transportation.  In another example, while living in Chicago, some friends and I were planning on going to a party.  One member of the group was a young woman from the far-out suburbs who had spent very little time in the city.  When I suggested taking a bus to get to the party, she responded, “tahahaha, the bus?  I haven’t ridden a bus since third grade.”  At the time, I thought she was just being an elitist snob.  However, looking back on it now, I believe that really she was just scared to ride the bus, and was covering for this by acting like a bitch.  (Or she was just a bitch).  Anyway, we took a cab.

By contrast, when I met people from Chicago (the city itself, not suburbs), they all had been riding the trains for as long as they could remember and consequently had very positive associations with it.  Sure, they could all tell you about a bad or scary experience, but for them the buses and trains meant trips to the beach, visits to Grandma’s house, and afternoons in the park.

Kids in Chicago learn the public transit system early.  There are very few school buses; and, for the kids that attend private schools or out of district charter/magnet schools, there are none at all—it’s city buses and trains.  They are infinitely tougher and more mature than myself or any other kids I grew up around.   At eleven years old I was afraid to even walk down the street without a parent; the idea of getting on a city bus or train and taking it ten miles to school would have made me catatonic.  But every morning on my commute there were school children everywhere, mixed in with the business suits, the homeless, the gangsters and the hipsters.  It was normal.  Remember, this is in Chicago, a city of three million people, where one child could disappear so easily; yet, when I was a full fifteen years old I wasn’t allowed to ride the bus in little old Shreveport, Louisiana for fear of my safety.

This is another symptom of something I’ve written about before:  the prevailing attitude in this area.  The attitude that the city is a dangerous wasteland where nothing good happens.  Somewhere it’s best to stay away from, and if you have to venture into it in order to go from one gated community to another you’d better do so safe inside an automobile.  That’s the attitude that needs to change in order for Shreveport to realize its potential.  But what’s the best way to change it?  Should we treat it like a common cold, and treat the symptoms, hoping that over time the root cause just goes away?  Or do we treat it like an infection, delivering an antibiotic shot that directly targets the problem at its source?

That’s a complex question that I don’t know the answer to.  Until I do know the answer, I’m going to keep playing whack-a-mole with the symptoms.  Every time one pops up, I’ll do my best to smack it down.  It won’t always be easy to do, but in this case it will be; I just need to ride the damn bus and write about it.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to ride every bus route in the city and summarize the trip here.  It shouldn’t take long, there aren’t very many.  I’m looking forward to the experience.  I’m looking forward to seeing parts of Shreveport that I’ve never seen before, from a perspective that I’ve never had.  I’m looking forward to giving my legs a break from the bike.  But more than anything, I’m looking forward to possibly changing some minds and getting some people onto our city’s buses.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Urban Excursion

There are certain times when Chicago is a great place to be.
Cubs Opening Day:

Blackhawk Victory Parade Day:

And of course, No Pants Day on the CTA:

However, the best time to be a Chicagoan is in the dead of winter:

There’s no good explanation for why this is; my belief is that Chicagoans feel a strong sense of togetherness in this time, that they unite to battle the common enemy of Winter.  The people band together, the bars get even more full and the pigeons go wherever it is they go during cold weather.  Yes, I’ve been missing Chicago.

In hopes of feeling a little reconnected with city life, I took off for an afternoon cruise through downtown Shreveport.  Also, in true hipster fashion, I made sure to take lots of Flikr pictures of the experience, even though just that morning I’d made the following joke on Facebook:  “Oh, you put an angsty black and white picture on Flikr, you’re such a talented photographer.”  But it's okay though, I was taking the pictures ironically.

First, anytime one is taking pictures of Shreveport, there is the obligatory shot looking down Texas Avenue:

Last week (who am I kidding, at the rate I post, this had to be like three weeks ago), in my State of the Hipster Union post, I talked about the redevelopment of downtown, and for the most part I’m optimistic about it.  After all, there are some nice loft apartments, a great movie theater, a farmer’s market and a cool art space.  There’s also a decent nightlife scene that expands beyond the casinos and into a few really cool bars (see also:  The Noble Savage, which earned 4 out of 5 PBR cans on the hipster index).  However, this downtown is larger than it appears, and in spite of the development near the riverfront and along Texas Street, there is much to be done:

The symbolism of the last picture really struck me.  Walking around this area, it really does seem like the city has just…expired.  Vacant buildings are everywhere.  This particular building on Louisiana Avenue once housed the Jefferson Hotel, which was, in its heyday, a thriving hotel serving the many railroad passengers going through Shreveport (that’s actually even more symbolism, if you look at the current state of the passenger rail industry in this country).

While it’s easy to read about the new bars and housing downtown and get excited, it’s hard to ignore these vacant blocks.  I’m not suggesting that there aren’t vacant buildings in every city, but it’s hard to say an area is on the upswing with all these dilapidated places.  After all, if the area were really on an upswing, well-to-do members of the gay community would have already bought all this up and it would be the hottest new neighborhood in Louisiana.

Finally, any new development will have to fight the prevailing attitude of the general populace:  that downtown, particularly the western edge, is a rough neighborhood unfit for civilized individuals.  Usually, I’d say this belief is false and that people only need to get out and walk around the area to be dissuaded of the notion.  However, as I walked around photographing, I experienced an uncomfortable feeling that I haven’t felt in an urban environment in quite some time.  Before you suggest this is  typical for a white kid from the suburbs, I’ll remind you that I once volunteered at a middle school in a neighborhood where the post office once stopped delivering mail because of danger to their carriers.  I’m no stranger to urban environments and rough neighborhoods, and, yet, I felt a bit uneasy.

To be fair, there are current plans for this area.  Mayor Glover, the Shreveport Regional Arts Council, and others have released a plan for the area, to be called Shreveport Common:

As of now, though, the project seems to be in the planning and funding stages.  I plan to keep an eye on any new developments and will write about them here promptly when I feel like it.  Despite several recent blows, I remain optimistic about the future of Downtown Shreveport.  After all, the city itself is telling me to smile: