Monday, June 06, 2005

Whatever you do, don't lock up your bike near the White House

I went to a briefing at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building this morning for my think tank research assistant job. Cindy Courville, the director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, was holding a briefing for policy-makers in the community to discuss a recent trip to South Africa she'd made.

Now, my boss, stretched in forty seven directions and the mother of two young children, never goes to events anymore - even at conferences where she gives speeches, she tends to show up five minutes before her speech and leave shortly thereafter. The only events she attends are the ones she organizes. It seems that in Washington, once you're "important", events are irrelevant. Your network of people lets you know what the important facts are anyway.

As a result of this, I get sent to an awful lot of different events: Capitol Hill, other think tanks in the area, hotel conferences: you name it and I surf the buffet table and scoop up all the available literature for our files.

I'd never been to the Eisenhower building before, so I biked over early, enjoying the sunny morning and the wide, car-free expanse of Pennsylvania Avenue near 17th St. After searching vainly for a bike lock station, I locked my bike to an inconspicuous fence around a garden. All the briefing attendees were huddling in a security tent outside and we chatted amiably as we waited for our escort, who turned out to be a pleasant young summer intern with a thick, tan, bulgy neck that protuded over the collar of his polyester blend suit. He'd been on the job two weeks and was still distracted by the click of his business shoes against the polished marble floor.

In the wood-panelled meeting room, Cindy Courville launched into a teeth-grittingly optimistic report of a conversation she'd had with the President of South Africa about his "initiatives" in various genocide and atrocity-ridden regions and the continuing progress of the horrific plague of AIDS. Her talking points were smooth; she stressed the points of cooperation with South Africa and smoothed over disagreements by labelling them "the inevitable disagreements that two mature sovereign nations can have with each other while agreeing to disagree."

She gave an update on the status of bilateral free-trade negotiations with South Africa: basically, nothing had happened but this was not surprising because "there are tough negotiators on each side who are committed to upholding their countries’ interests. Nonetheless President Mbeki is committed to pushing this process forward."

Further, President Mbeki was committed to pursuing South Africa’s leadership role in Sudan and the US was committed to supporting that effort whole-heartedly. The US was also committed to supporting South African initiatives in the troubled regions of Zimbabwe, Burundi, and the Cote d’Ivoire.

In fact, according to Cindy, there was enough commitment involved on both sides to make a young 20-something Washingtonian in a fuck-buddy relationship jump 20 feet in the air and run for the hills. Commitment was in the air, in peoples’ hearts and minds. It just wasn’t reflected in any legal documents or concrete agreements.

I’m sure Cindy would have loved for Africa to have been more of a strategic priority for her bosses, for W. to pay attention to her memos in the free time between his morning jogs, his speeches on terrorism, and his pancake breakfasts. But she didn’t have much to work with and her facade of optimism, though I mock it, was a brave show. Because that was her job and she was doing the best she could to help the world.

There are people in the Bush administration who do genuinely care about Africa. After all, the Millennium Challenge Account - a rather ground-breaking organization aimed at delivering aid in a new way, encouraging recipient countries to design their own projects based on their assessment of their needs - was the brainchild of the Bush administration. Granted, it’s received funding at levels approximately half what Bush originally promised it’d get by now, but part of that shortfall is caused by delays on the part of the recipient countries designing their projects.

Such were my musings as I left the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, about forty five minutes later, and headed towards the fence where I’d locked my bike.

It wasn’t there.

I looked left. I looked right.

Near the security tent where I’d first registered for the Africa briefing, there was a bike resting upside down with its tires spinning sadly in the air. It looked a bit like an antelope after every single lion in the pride including the cubs has had its turn chewing the entrails out. Lying on the ground near the bike was something that used to be a Kryptonite lock.

I demanded of the security guard in the tent, "What happened to my bike?"

He snickered. "That’s your bike? You’d better talk to that policeman over there."

A fat man in a police uniform was leaning against his patrol car on the empty Pennsylvania Avenue, watching us. He walked over and after a bit of back and forth we established my name, my Social Security number, my date of birth, my employer, and my purpose for standing there near the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

"How do I even know that’s your bike?" he asked.

"Well, my key fits the lock for it, want to try?" I offered.

So he picked up the mangled half of the lock that had the keyhole in it and I turned my key. It sprang creakily open, wagging little flaps of plastic.

Although he’d been truculent at first, after he’d chatted on his walkie talkie for a while and established that my data checked out and that I wasn’t on any no-fly lists, he warmed up and became quite apologetic.

"Once your bike is locked to government property, it becomes abandoned goods," he explained. They’d instated this rule to help deal with all the protesters who did things like chain themselves or their possessions to gates.

I said, "There wasn’t any sign on the fence not to lock things to it. And I couldn’t see any other good places to lock my bike on the whole block. I thought for less than an hour, it’d be fine."

He shrugged. "You know, in this heightened terror alert 9/11 world... security... preventive response..." I can’t remember if he put in any filler words or if he just recited the buzzwords like a mantra, but it’s not relevant.

I noticed that he was holding a bandage against one of his hands, which was dripping blood. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, I injured myself with my boxcutters trying to saw your bike in half," he said. "You know, that Kryptonite lock is great. I tried blasting it, I tried drilling on it, it wouldn’t budge. So I had to saw the bike in half. You should really feel great about that lock."

I said, "For future reference, if you ever need to break a Kryptonite lock, try a Bic pen. Apparently you can pick them by just sticking a pen in there. They issued a recall and I always meant to send in my lock for a replacement but I never got around to it." I thought but did not comment that if the cop had known the Bic pen trick, my bike (and his hand) might still be in one piece.

The cop glanced at my driver’s license. "Zoe - that’s a beautiful name! My little girl is called Zoe," he beamed.

"It means ‘life’ in Greek," I said.

"Yes it does," he replied. He was warming up. "You know, you might see your bike on the
evening news tonight."


"Yeah, you don’t understand, I was really going at that bike with the drill, the box-cutters... and there are always media people hanging around near here." he said, idly kicking a few charred scraps of rubber lying near the bike carnage. "Hey," he said, brightening, "maybe you could keep the lock and send it in to Kryptonite. Tell them that someone stole your bike. I bet you anything they’d refund it."

"No way," I said. "That’s bad karma."

In the end we filled out an accident report which I am to turn into the Secret Service. It will also include my name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, and sundry other details. It is a multi-purpose form, for government negligence that causes damage to property, injury, or wrongful death. In the case of injury or death the person who fills out the form is asked to itemize their hospital and medication bills and provide documentation from a doctor (or, I presume, a coroner in the case of wrongful death, although I remain curious as to how you can fill out such a form in the grave, considering how dark it is down there). But in my case since there are no bicycle doctors per se I will simply take some photographs to document the damages. I can expect an answer within 4-6 weeks although, stressed my friendly policeman (who provided his name and badge number) the government is not actually obligated to reimburse me. Abandonment of property and all that.

I leave any thoughts on creeping police state, regime of terror, endemic paranoia, etc as an exercise to the reader.

But I do ask you two pieces of advice. Should I fill out this accident reimbursement form? Or will it land me on some sort of trouble-maker list with the Secret Service? This seems paranoid but then again I never anticipated that locking my bike to a shrubbery fence would present me with bicycle Kibble n’ Bits within the course of half an hour.

Also, anyone know of any good used hybrid bikes that would fit a 5'7'’ woman (who prefers frames to run large)? Please let me know!


Blogger Michael Tyas said...

As a fellow bike lover, you have be deepest sympathies in this hard time.

1:16 PM  
Blogger everyseven said...

This incident reminds me somewhat of incidents some of my friends have had. One friend, who is a hiker, was hiking near the CIA headquarters and was not on their grounds, but when he went back to his car which was parked I think in a high school or a park parking lot next to CIA land, he was suddenly confronted by CIA officers, who told him not to look behind him, and they asked for his driver's license, and interrogated him as to what he was doing there, and didn't let him look behind him until someone whom they apparently did not want him to see, had been escorted from the CIA building to a waiting helicopter. Are we living in America...

8:11 AM  
Blogger zzzzzoe said...

Yes...I've heard other stories as well. I'm Australian, and have been on the fence about trying to stay in the States...this incident might have tipped the balance. I'd like to live in a country where I actually agree with and respect most of the laws, and where I assume the police are out to help me rather than out to get me.

1:02 PM  
Blogger everyseven said...

Yes, I agree. Don't go back to Australia because I like your blog too much, and tips for fun things to do in Australia would be useless to me?!... Instead of promoting security through international cooperation, we're keeping everybody out and everybody spied on. As a country, are we diagnosable as paranoid schizophrenic yet? Our approach to security is out of too much fear and not enough logic. And we're hurting ourselves in the long run ironically, economically and morally with security measures based on blocking and closing down rather than cooperating and communicating.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Richard Layman said...

Same goes for the Ronald Reagan Center. however, I was able to retrieve the bike from the security office.

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