Bikelab Notes #17
June 5, 1992

by Steven K. Roberts


  • Phil Donahue Show
  • Road Stories 
  • Sensory Input Capacitors
  • Hints of Aquatic Nomadness

“If it needs to be stronger, we make it bigger. If that makes it ugly, we chrome it.”
— Harley-Davidson engineer, speaking anonymously
discussion of structural engineering and materials science.

Well, well. The miles, they DO fly by — since my Kentucky posting, I’ve crossed the Appalachians (an easy task with the mothership), filmed the Donahue show in midtown Manhattan, spent a week in DC at Interop, dropped in on a few companies and friends, ridden an unloaded upright bicycle through Pennsylvania hills, enjoyed posh hotels, languished in a seedy old dorm room, spoken at CMU and Xerox, wandered city streets, glimpsed lifestyle alternatives, discussed a film deal, experienced intense moments of love and terror, begun real planning of the next technomadic platform, and bounced email off of a satellite while nursing a beer.

The usual.

I’m in Rochester at the moment, fresh from a speaking gig at Xerox and preparing to disappear to a dear friend’s cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks for three days of swatting the dreaded black flies and kayaking with a beautiful jazz singer. After that… it’ll be off to Boston or Austin — hey, they rhyme, so the choice is confusing. How’s this: if I get some interesting invitations from Boston (like speaking gigs and other fun stuff), then I’ll go there sometime around the week of June 15 and then head up to Peterborough and Maine before turning around and aiming myself at Colorado (by way of Austin). If no interesting opportunities materialize, I’ll just head for Austin, then west. (I love winging it: ye Bostonian denizens of the alias, consider this a ping! Much easier than actually digging through my poorly maintained database and making cold calls….)

Anyway, this adventure in the east has been intense, even if I have been lumbering around in the mothership (Doug Brightwell, writing a caption for one of the pictures in issue #11 of the revitalized print journal Nomadness, put it thus: “Not a mere gas guzzler, the Mothership is actually a sophisticated energy transducer that takes solar power generated millions of years ago and liberates it from the dense matrix in which it has been stored over eons…”). Consider the New York City experience, for example…

The plan was simple enough: show up in midtown Manhattan, drop the bike at NBC, park the mothership, hang around for a couple of days and tape a show with Phil Donahue, then pick up the bike and rumble down to DC.

Well… New York is a challenge. I met the show’s associate producer, Molly, at the Vince Lombardi rest area in New Jersey, took a deep breath, and plunged into afternoon traffic: slowly creeping down Westside Highway with some guy in a Caddie yelling at me to get the trailer off the road or I’ll get a ticket. Into midtown, nervous, creeping through intersections in my 40-footer as cabbies honk in chorus, the whole frenetic pace of Manhattan suddenly in my face, familiar, alien, enchanting, terrifying. Me bewildered, unflappable Molly directing, me questioning my sanity, Molly telling tales of big-city media. At last we turned into the tunnel under Rockefeller Center for a moment’s respite — unloading the bike and taking it upstairs to spend the night on the Donahue stage. That was the easy part.

But the mothership could not remain in the basement — plenty of room down there, but we have RULES, y’know. Someone on the staff had done phone research in anticipation of this problem, so we headed off to find a distant parking garage guaranteed to be suitable for my machine.

The mothership… before plunging into New York City

South we went into nighttime Manhattan, lost briefly in Chinatown, over the Manhattan Bridge, and into Brooklyn… then a few miles on Flatbush Avenue and east on Park. She had laughed at me earlier for locking my door, but now locked hers. It was getting scary, and we drew more and more stares as we went on, cruising neighborhoods in a growling 1-ton 7.3-liter International diesel dual-wheeled cowboy cadillac of the sort rarely seen in New York, both it and the blazing white 20-foot trailer crammed with high-tech toys and bristling with antennas. At last, a tight turn onto a tiny street (Molly and I both nervous — nah, this CAN’T be it!) and sure enough, the garage — a tiny overhead door atop a short steep ramp. On one side of the road, drivers idled, waiting for something… we paused while a couple of cop cars zoomed past, sirens shrieking and lights ablaze, before approaching the dusty old building, somehow the same color as the street. Sullen eyes watched carefully from the shadows — the dramatic, tall redhead and the bearded white guy in shorts and sandals, carrying a pack with rubber-duckie antenna.

The proprietor emerged. “Hey, you made it! Everything’s cool, come on in, it’ll fit — no, no, don’t worry about a thing, no problem with security, just leave me your keys. Oh, those people? It’s cool, they’s just buyin’ drugs, don’t worry…. What you doing in town, anyway?”

“I’m going to be on the Donahue Show with my–“

“Donahue! That’s what I call ‘junk TV’.” I saw Molly bristle, and she asked him why he felt that way.

With surprising clarity, given the hint of alcohol breath and our general setting, he elaborated — and Molly, a real pro, swiftly formulated a plan. “Want to be on the show next week?” she asked.

“Me? On Donahue??? Sure!”

And so the Mothership’s security was assured… the garage owner would participate in a panel called What I Don’t Like About Talk Shows — as long as the equipment remained safe and secure for the next two days. Fifteen minutes of fame as an instrument of commerce…

Getting it into the building was non-trivial, though, and I was glad I had Wells Cargo weld on a couple of sacrificial skid bars last month… they left deep grooves in the Brooklyn street. A few false starts, fractions of an inch to spare, some rough clutch abuse, and we were in. Moments later, a stretch limo pulled up to whisk us off the Drake Swisshotel and immersion in another whole asymptote of New York culture.

I emerged from my suite in the bustle of morning and limo’d to the studio to be swept up in the whole dizzy gestalt of national TV production. I’ve filmed many a feature out on the road, but studio work is all different: makeup, lighting, a crew of dozens, sound checks, cataloging Kentucky B-Roll clips for Phil to cue, mics on my body and the bike, endless details. Energy built as the audience queued in the waiting area; people scurried about giving me advice and making adjustments. The people were ushered in, someone went to work warming them up and telling them how to be a good audience, and Phil briefly dropped into my ready room to say hi and give me a couple of last-minute tips.

And we were on! He was amazing — quick and efficient, never letting a lull develop, moving briskly through his notes and handling the audience with total control (after 25 years of this, I guess he knows how they work). Questions came rapidly, mostly level-1, but enough to provide the conversational openings required to hit most of the high points. Now and then, Phil would change the subject — perhaps mentioning ham radio and then saying “show ’em Brian” to launch the clip of me sitting behind the trailer, dredging some guy in Florida out of 20-meter static. At one point, the bike’s cellular phone rang and the answering machine responded: “Sorry, I’m doing the Donahue Show at the moment and can’t take your call… please leave a message and I’ll get back to you in an hour or so.”

Every break, the cute makeup lady would dash on stage to powder away the sheen of my advancing pate; producers would hustle over to remind me about certain key points or hand Phil a note. The crowd was eager, asking questions even during commercial breaks, the whole scene one of fast action and high energy. Phil, I discovered, is a yachtsman and loves GPS, computers, and communications… so this was hitting home. The show flew by — too quickly — and after a wind-down chat I was back on the street, leaving the bike backstage overnight to be ready for a meeting with a book editor the next day.

Playing in New York. Feeling high and successful, handing dollar bills to homeless people slumped dejected against filthy walls. Watching a sexy couple in Central Park, pausing to enjoy a jazz band, browsing 47th Street Photo, hitting MOMA to marvel at Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek, walking, walking, endlessly amazed by the rush of it all, loving it but longing for the mountains. Retreating to the luxury of the Drake for room-service and conversation, then suddenly we were back in Brooklyn to recover the mothership, do it all in reverse, and escape to New Jersey. (An odd concept, indeed, but after Manhattan, northern NJ is relaxed and mellow.)

Zoom! Down the Jersey Turnpike through a gauntlet of cops and rush of traffic, and into DC in a killer thunderstorm, streets flooded, beltway jammed, skies black at 4 PM. A visit to GEnie, a filming with the French TF-1 network. A night with a GEnie friend and her husband — chief scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope — and houseguest Joanna, wandering the US alone by Honda Gold Wing and living on GEnie. Out to Columbia for pix with London Daily Mail and a day off, then plunging into DC itself for a week at Interop — unmistakably the best-managed trade show I’ve ever seen. The whole event was surprisingly easy, with a daily commute from the L’Enfant Plaza via Metro (DC’s swift, safe, and comprehensible subway system) to the Convention Center.

I took a tutorial from Doug Comer on TCP/IP (hey, way-cool stuff, this… I won that button above for quipping that I pedaled a Turing bicycle through Boca Raton), and spent the rest of the week in a nonstop schedule that occupied every waking moment… running the bike booth with the aid of lovely Eva, hired by the show to keep me sane… doing evening events, including a party at the Air & Space Museum… and getting to know Christina, a kayaking jazz-singer and network administrator. (I’ve driven a van to Vancouver and a car to Carson City; I once even walked in Waukegan and got THIS close to pedaling to Petal. Now I want to kayak to Nyack.) Nights in Adams-Morgan and Dupont Circle, workouts in the hotel weight room, more activity in a single week than I used to see in a pre-nomadic month. THIS is what it’s all about.

Richmond: installing the new Icom dual-bander in the mothership while catching up on growing kids and the magical new NeXT cube (wow) with Jim DeArras. Back to DC for a gig at the National Science Foundation and meeting with the delightful Noah Adams of NPR’s All Things Considered (aired last week — 5.5 minutes!). And then the road… off to York, PA to drop in on Soft Systems Engineering (a Sun VAR) and share a few days with netfriend Patti and her water-company engineer boyfriend, including the very strange experience of a 16-mile bike ride with him on unloaded upright diamond-frame machines. What an odd sensation: a bicycle light enough to lift, cranking up hills in a middle gear, whisking along Lake Williams (I think) and pausing to watch huge catfish flirt with spillway disaster… I’d forgotten the sense of speed and freedom. Might hafta try losing a few hundred pounds sometime! (Stay tuned)

Announcement on GEnie about resumption of road stories in the BEHEMOTH epoch

More road. CMU, killer Grand Concourse breakfast buffet (go there and do it!) plus a detailed tour of the surprisingly interesting city of Pittsburgh courtesy of Jon Danzak, a DEC friend from my old CompuServe days. Hanging out in a tired old dorm awaiting the speaking gig, cruising town with a friend, and then, zoom again, here to Rochester and Xerox for a talk, a party, a visit, and the warm startling experience of seeing my lovely 12-year-old daughter for the first time in 7 years. Fast action. Change. Intensity. Emotional extremes. Longings. Delights.

And I subject you to this shallow, rapidfire expose’ of road life to make a point…

That’s exactly what it’s like. I’m not kidding. There are moments, sometimes even hours, when the discovery of a person or place is accompanied by a longing to stay — along with the painful realization that by wanting it all, I’m accepting a stiff trade-off. It’s gain-bandwidth again… like a bento at a Japanese restaurant. Some of this, some of that — plenty of food and all quite interesting, but not enough of any one thing for a real relationship to develop. This is perfect for one who loves discovery, but there are some very real <pangs> triggered by people, towns, companies, lifestyles, restaurants, schools, and even bicycles… knowing that I damn well better enjoy it now because I may never pass this way again. In general, this is a healthy attitude, but there’s this constant tension between the extremes of going and staying.

Whenever I start complaining about that phenomenon, however, I soon find myself in one place for a while and it drives me crazy with wanderlust. The time involved is anywhere from 2 days to a few months, depending on the bandwidth of the experience. Discovery is an addiction. If I may be permitted one more electrical-engineering metaphor, I am living an AC-coupled existence. There’s a big series capacitor between my senses and reality, and if the input doesn’t change at some minimum rate, perception decays to zero.

The only solution, at least logically, is an illegal combination of gain and bandwidth… breaking the rules once again by advancing the technology or trying something outrageous… like…

LEVIATHAN: Amphibian Nomadness

It’s really bad luck to publish information about a project before it becomes a reality, so I won’t. Hell, the acronym isn’t even entirely nailed yet. <giggle>

according to the OmniTRACS satellite terminal, I am currently at:

X-Position: 43 8 3 N 77 32 25 W
X-Nearest-City: 4 miles ESE of Rochester, NY
X-Nearest-Town: 3 miles NW of East Rochester, NY