Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

In Defense of Irony

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Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll have taken aim at today’s Millenial counter-culture in what they feel to be “lazy cynicism” and a “recursive irony:” Co-opted by corporate forces and wallowing in their own ennui, today’s disaffected youth, they argue, are directionless and mere driftwood upon their artistic betters in the postmodern world. Irony is fucking up culture. It’s true: We certainly rely a lot on snark and satire, from the interminable pages of the Onion to the comforting glow of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When, they posit, will we snap out of it and start producing something substantively, honestly real instead of just cracking wise?

These men lack perspective. They quote David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon’s prophecies of cultural vapidity and sneer at Tao Lin’s hipster self-critique Shoplifting From American Apparel with “New Tao Lins publish every day, feeding the culture’s desire to watch its own destruction,” but their criticism on the over-abundance of the Millenials’ directionless languor bears strong resemblance to that which the Boomers heaped on Generation X’s punks. Ashby and Carroll laud the inevitable counter-counter culture, in the form of ‘earnest’ postmodern art, but that path has been walked before: Though it came from the UK, Trainspotting is a good example of a stark reaction to presumed punk counter-culture malaise. Likewise, how else could William Wimsatt’s Bomb The Suburbs have been written, if not to highlight suburban ‘wiggers’ and the tragedy of those youth? But these, like Tao Lin, could not exist in any earnest way without acknowledging exactly why the aimless disaffection exists in the first place and why the first impulse is to deflect and mock.

Or, perhaps they could consider the Silent Generation’s criticism of the Boomers’ hippies, with Bob Dylan’s ironic co-option of folk music inflection as an explicit means to be seen as more authentic, much as a lot of today’s indie bands seek ‘amateur’-sounding recording sessions and emphasize acoustic instruments. Or we could go back to the iconic Rebel Without A Cause and discuss the inherent shortsightedness contemporary sociologists called the wave of Angry Young Men at that time. Consider Kerouac’s Beat epic On The Road, to which Truman Capote flippantly panned, “that’s not writing, that’s typing,” and the subsequent backbiting amongst critics on who was the bigger poseur, or the wise-cracking yet futureless delinquents Sondheim lovingly lampooned in West Side Story.

This is to say, it’s a generational thing, and today’s self-consciously ironic Millenials are no different in how they have chosen to deal with the world. Tao Lin’s apathetic pallor may differ stylistically from Chuck Palahniuk’s or Trent Reznor’s simmering rage, but it’s all equally masturbatory, or rather it’s all equally a coming-of-age thrashing about to come to terms with what is, at heart, a fucked-up culture to begin with. That’s why counter-culture exists, and the art simply reflects that. To demand that artists deal with it differently is a foolish request, for what that is asking is to pave snark over with smarm; a culture so obsessed with authenticity ought to know better. Indeed, that is Ashby’s and Carroll’s central premise:

“Dishonesty is the biggest obstacle to making original, great art. Dishonesty undermines a work’s internal integrity — the only standard by which a work can succeed… Irony alone has no principles and no inherent purpose beyond mockery and destruction. The best examples of irony artfully expose lies, yet irony in itself has no aspiration to honesty, or anything else for that matter.”

What, then, does that make Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller? How is Jonathan Lethem ‘worse?’ American culture has a long tradition of sarcastic, sardonic, detached self-reflection. What was Hunter S Thompson pointing out if not the fact that that earnestness was also by nature self-destructive? We have, are, and will continue to muddle on. Today it’s hipster irony, which, as a means for a generation stuck in the Second Gilded Age while about to double-dip back into the Great Recession to vent their spleen, is a far cry better than the bullets and bombs they could very well pick up instead.

Ideological versus Social Liberalism

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It has more or less been assumed that Black and Latino communities generally harbor a fiscal liberalism but social conservatism, owing in large part to a higher preponderance of religious affiliation, and that their reluctance to vote on moral grounds has been due to the overt hostility displayed against them by the Republican Party rather than an ideological contrast. This has manifested itself in New York, an effectively all-Democrat city, in the form of a cultural division between white middle-class ‘libertines’ and minority strivers: The latter are far less likely to self-identify as gay, when simple biology dictates that statistics should be colorblind in that matter, and it can be conjectured that such is due to community hostility to such.

Indeed, it was in Harlem that a transgender woman was recently beaten to death in what is clearly a hate crime, and it was in Harlem that a Christian minister has been blaming Obama – who has a fair amount of ‘nerd’ chic with white liberals buttressed in no small part by his ‘evolved’ stance on gay marriage – for turning Black men gay. The topic has found itself to be far more taboo than just a few dozen blocks further downtown.

That said, it would appear that such a division is not immutable, and over the last few years a sea change may have occurred. Uptown has seen something of a new Renaissance when it comes to what can be considered an urbane tolerance for all. Six years ago saw the (re-)opening of El Morocco in “Hamilton Heights,” that somewhat awkward distinction of a mixed border area between Washington Heights and Harlem. At first glance it can be interpreted as an extension of the general trend of gentrification on the northern climes of Manhattan, but the clientele says otherwise: More than just a Dominican nightclub, El Morocco has boasted a strong LGBT lineup that has been favored by a majority Black and Latino crowd – and a hangout for Black drag queens, reminiscent of the Elks Lodge and other venues in Harlem in the 60s – though it often offers a fully mixed crowd not only in ethnicity but sexuality.

Six years ago also saw the opening of No Parking, the first fully gay bar in Washington Heights. Along with the Monkey Room nearby and new outposts like the Castro in Inwood, way up on the upper tip of the island, there appears now to be an acceptance of overt displays of alternative sexuality where there simply wasn’t before, in spite of religious doctrine. Indeed, nobody was more surprised than conservatives themselves during the 2012 election, when they expected the socially conservative Black population of Prince George’s County in Maryland to halt progress on gay marriage. Instead, a number of local pastors spoke in favor of tolerance and the youth vote carried the election.

In fact, it may be the youth that is behind such a cultural shift: This generation has been speculated as being, overall, more tolerant than the last, and the root cause appears to be a greater wealth of information at hand as well as physical exposure to difference. While religion still rides the brakes on such progress, across the board all Christian faiths polled in the US have had to give ground on the matter, partly because the next generation is dropping out of religious affiliation in droves. As the population becomes more urban and urbane, and as religion holds less sway on cultural and moral affairs, liberals of all stripes appear to be getting closer together as a unit.

Colorstruck and Conservative

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There are some things I pick up practically by cultural osmosis; things that are assumed – or, rather, not assumed but simply known – that to refute or question them becomes less an exercise in free discourse and more a declaration of one’s origins. It’s not a question of understanding the other point of view: That division has long been impossible to be breached.

There is a weird debate on the second tier of periodicals as to the nature and legacy of Obama’s presidency. I say second tier in that neither source is a Paper of Record, although the importance of such in these tumultuous times is becoming less and less pertinent. On one side is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine; on the other, Jamelle Bouie of Salon.com.

Chait argues in the abstract: With Obama’s terms has come a more overt marriage of “racial conservatism” with “ideological conservatism;” this is to say, the unthinking and kneejerk hatred of all of Obama’s policies has turned into a cultural demarcation wherein, while opposition speaks of his agenda (and legitimacy) in terms of policy, color yet remains the common element in their criticism.

He then muses upon the nature of the conceit of a “post-racial” America, as we the people watch an overt backlash and governmental dysfunction not seen since, well, the Civil War. While I am heartened in a sense by the 2012 elections in that, if there is an Cold War of race, the demographic winner is foregone, Chait makes the salient point that fiscal or social conservatives are barred from voting Republican solely because of the racial barrier: He sees a future, therein, in the Republican party, insofar as the liberal Democratic dog-whistle of racism will fail to work just as soon as the GOP bridges that gap.

Obama’s policies, after all, have a neoliberal, if pre-Reagan, vibe to them: He, like most technocratic Democrats of the Clinton era, is nigh indistinguishable from the Republican ethos, except for one major facet which is color. The implications are clear, in that respect, and while that may not be Chait’s ultimate point, that remains at the heart of his argument: Were we to somehow transcend the racial “obsession,” as he puts it, of which Obama is the eye of the storm, politics would not be terribly dissimilar from where we are now.

Bouie argues in the particular: The unprecedented turnout of the Black electorate during the 2008 and 2012 elections speak to a cultural divide that is more than just an odd and unfortunate juxtaposition of “racial” and “ideological” conservatism. The partisan fights of those inside the beltway are tangential to the real issue, and the real issue is that racial and ideological conservatism are fundamentally inextricable.

Evocative of Malcolm X’s quote that “you can’t have capitalism without racism,” Bouie argues that the debate cannot be rendered into the abstract, for it is at heart one of survival. Obama’s focus as eye of the storm then becomes an illustration of just how far we as a multicultural society yet need to progress before people can lower their defenses. He embodies the reason for which that gap simply cannot be bridged, not only because he is the wrong arbiter in the eyes of the opposition, but that he, and vicariously his policies, are categorically the wrong arbiter.

It goes without saying that Chait is white and Bouie is Black.

I am inclined to side with Bouie, for in my own way I have internalized just how impossible it is at this time and age to convince the likes of the opposition as to the means by which they are continuing to oppress people: The popularity of Ron Paul and folks who use the political moniker “independent” as “free-thinker” when they actually mean “libertarian” speaks to the ingrained complacency in maintaining the current inequity. You really don’t need to explain this to people of color. If they know anything in this world it is that.

I have argued before that class and race overlap more often than not, and this is not by chance but by design. Obama’s legacy will, no matter what happens next, be a milestone in American progressivism but, please, let us not oversell our progress.

Democracy

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Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on media presence and advertising expenditure.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle, as well as a victory in a preliminary election chosen by a subset of registered voters affiliated with said political party.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle, as well as a victory in a preliminary election chosen by a subset of registered voters affiliated with said political party rooted on whether they believe said candidate would be competitive in the general contest.

Shit, I think I figured out why DC’s mayoral election sucks so much.

Deals with the Devil

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I get a fair stream of animal rights propaganda in my inbox and on social media – that platform for hashtag warriors and armchair activists – as I’m sure everybody does. It blends into the general background noise of liberal life, a form of the choir endlessly preaching to itself. Liberals are never quite so unified as all that, though, and each has their own tolerance for the wrongness around them and the steps provided to correct it.

Two news stories of late have sparked a bit of controversy in that regard, both related to New York City. The first is, of course, the ongoing fight as to whether the city should forbid any proprietors of horse-drawn carriages from plying their trade in upper Midtown and Central Park. The second is the city’s refusal to admit UniverSoul Circus in town due to the way it cages its animals. In each case, the ideal is pitted against the practical.

Animal rights activists complained that putting workhorses on New York City streets amounts to unwarranted cruelty that they should not have to abide. The owners of those horses and the men who worked with them argued back that the horses were fed well, given regular checkups with veterinarians and granted lots of attention; all of which was paid for by their service as workhorses.

Of course, horses are domesticated animals, which is why we put them to work in the first place: Even should the carriages disappear, riot horses that the NYPD use will still be a common sight around Times Square and during parades. The question to ask, however, is what happens to the horses if the trade is banned? The care of hundreds of workhorses would require a great amount of space and millions of dollars annually in feed and medical care, which, divorced from an income, would be untenable.

This is, in a way, the great conundrum of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activist group that strongly advocates against negligent and cruel animal shelters and pet shops yet has been criticized for having one of the highest rates of euthanization of the animals under its care, for not only is the group’s stated mantra that “they are better off dead than abused” but, well, it’s cheaper that way. The money matter makes a difference.

It’s this money matter that makes each organization question the other’s motives. In the case of UniverSoul Circus, PETA was one of the loudest critics of their animal handling, and I personally am inclined to agree that circuses with names that don’t end in “du Soleil” are relics of a bygone era – though some organizations tend to overstate the case, as with the controversy over the ASPCA having to pay damages for falsifying evidence about animal cruelty against Ringling Bros’ Circus - but I’m also a great proponent of the work that the Wildlife Conservation Society does when it runs, among other institutions, the Bronx Zoo.

There are, however, critics of the WCS and similar institutions like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which runs out of the National Zoo in Washington, DC – foremost among them Born Free USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare – who believe that no wild animal should be enclosed, no matter the size of the enclosure, and that the zoos themselves are also cruel anachronisms in our modern age. The work of the biologists and zoologists in these institutions, they argue, are hypocrites for their work, which I found rather difficult to believe as nobody becomes a zoologist unless they deeply believe in their work.

The divide, however, boils down to money. Organizations like Born Free USA and the IFAW are outperformed by an order of magnitude when it comes to fundraising by those like the WCS, and spend close to half their budgets on overhead rather than the programs themselves. Without the draw of real exhibits, it is difficult to garner attention and solicit donations to promote habitat preservation and wildlife conservation at home and abroad, and in promoting awareness, zoos have the inside track.

Even the Safari Club, a hunting organization, has jumped on the bandwagon to show that it outperforms such charities when it comes to wildlife habitat preservation. Their argument is simple: Nothing beats an entity with a vested economic interest in a species’ preservation when it comes to ensuring that species’ preservation. Call it the Teddy Roosevelt School of Nature Conservancy: If we hunt these animals to extinction, we have nothing left to hunt.

The scary matter is, they may have a point. Ironically enough, it was the Endangered Species Act that may have endangered the Scimitar-horned Oryx, as the Act put restrictions on hunting it, and its numbers were kept up largely because it was being bred for hunting. Without the economic incentive to keep them alive, their numbers dropped like a rock as ranchers dumped their livestock liabilities.

In a sense, then, the zoos are effectively a necessary evil.

This reminded me of the overarching controversy of our most popular museums. The most visited museum in the country is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the most visited museums in New York City are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Each is a monument and a testament to imperial hegemony and colonial theft. Each is also an indispensable resource to history education and cultural awareness. The AMNH, in particular, with its statue of Teddy Roosevelt prominently displayed out front (whose opinion of Native Americans seemed to match his opinion of other large game), has more or less continually been at the head of a controversy when it comes to Native American artifacts yet is also host to a wealth of educational programs that I personally remember partaking in on a weekly basis in junior high school.

The National Museum of the American Indian, which took an act of Congress to come to fruition, also has a checkered history: It works closely with native nations across America to present a diverse, educational display that spans both ancient and modern history, but the vast majority of its original collection comes from the archives of one man, George Gustav Heye, who can generously be labeled an asshole and a grave robber, and much of that collection had to be repatriated. Yet, these displays of stolen property are by far the most popular and therefore the most influential museums in the country. Where, then, is the line drawn?

It’s a moving line, to be sure, but I remember going to the Bronx Zoo and seeing a display about the evils of poaching in a mock-up construction of a poacher’s camp, covered in blurbs about where they operated, how destructive their practices were, and what steps were being done and could be done to curtail them. I would not have seen it, however, were I not already in line to go see the Amur tigers.

Trials and Tribulations

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I did not expect to be stopped – nobody stops bicyclists, at least in this city – but I was. Officer Ramos pulled me over on my block, told me to lock up my bicycle to something, and asked me why I thought he pulled me over. Well, that all depends: How long had he been watching me? I passed by the precinct twenty blocks ago, and I first saw his squad car going the opposite way two blocks prior, where he saw me, made a U-turn and put his lights on. I hedged:

“Probably reckless riding.”

“What makes you think you’re above the law?”

Oh, so he was going to pull out some righteous anger on me. I wasn’t going to rise to the bait.

“I don’t.”

He then went on to explain to me when he first saw me: Running a red light a mile back. And then another red light. Then failure to keep to the right of traffic and straddling the double yellow line. Failure to signal. Weaving through traffic. I don’t think I’d stopped at a red light the whole time. He’d been following me for a while. He simply couldn’t catch up to me until the traffic eased somewhat. Finally, he asked:

“Where’s the bell?”

“What bell?”

“Do you have a bell on your bicycle?”

“No.”

“Why don’t you have a bell?”

“I shout louder than a bell.”

“You’re supposed to have a bell. Wait there.”

By this time, the six hoods who usually hang out by my local bodega had taken interest in this spectacle and were catcalling the cop, who never exited his squad car. It certainly didn’t help his demeanor, but in the ten minutes he spent writing out a ticket, ripping it from his ledger, writing out another ticket, ripping it from his ledger and so forth, he had calmed down somewhat.

“I could get you for every light, but I’m only going to give you one ticket for that.”

Well, that was nice of him, I thought, until I saw that he made up for it with three additional tickets, bringing me to a grand total of four – including one for not having a bell.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“Just how much are all these tickets worth?”

“Eh, the judge will probably charge you 50 bucks or so.” And he drove off in a huff.

Six months later, my hearing in traffic court came up. I pulled up all the requisite information about the tickets, about bicycle law, about my decisions and the divide between the law and reality; I wasn’t going to take this sitting down. I noted names and dates from bicyclist deaths in similar situations to the one I was in, where the bicyclist obeyed the law and lost, pulled evidence that would explain my choice in possible routes and my own (up until this point) clean record despite an unorthodox methodology. The combined fines for all the tickets at full freight would be about $760, which would exceed the cost of the bike I was on, to say nothing of how much more I would have to pay than people who actually struck and killed pedestrians.

I was to go to DMV’s Manhattan North, which like most government offices uptown, was within a remarkably blank building on 125th Street. This would be the first time I’d ever had to defend myself in New York: I didn’t know what to expect. There was no information desk or set of instructions; just a wall of names and the courtroom they would be tried in. My name was listed multiple times, but all for the same courtroom. I couldn’t help but to have felt a tinge of morbid pride that, in my first foray into this world, I took up quite a bit of ink.

I looked at the other names and the people sitting around the holding room. This being uptown, it was mostly upwardly mobile Black and Latino men (no women), one portly Sikh in a suit and red turban, and an old Greek man peppering the middle-aged security guard with questions of protocol. The security rebuffed him with a smirk and a string of sardonic put-downs delivered in pure old-school Noo Yawk accent, before looking upon us hapless loiterers with eyes that said “you see this clown over here?” We grunted in assent.

The cops started streaming in and, soon enough, about a dozen of us defendants/petitioners were herded into a courtroom. The clerk, a Latina woman draped in a shawl with Plains Indian motifs, took our information and put them in a stack for the judge, who must have come out of Central Casting for the role, for life imitates art which in turn imitates life: A pot belly under a grey suit and skinny tie, sporting a flat-top haircut and hard eyes, the man was the perfect illustration for ‘wearied bureaucrat.’

He even spoke in Hollywood tones, further solidifying his role, as he explained how things were to play out: The cop would give his deposition, then the defendant would be allowed to address the issue, and then he’d make a decision. I was to be second. The first person never showed: His lawyer, instead, asked for a reschedule, which was granted for mid-September. Apparently everything is done in six month intervals around here. Six minutes after I was ushered in, I was up.

“Are there any witnesses?”

“Not that I know of.”

The judge gave me a look. Not ten seconds out of the gate I slipped up.

“Uh, I didn’t bring any.”

Back on track. “Are you ready to proceed?”

“Yes.”

Most of the courtrooms had three or four cops enter them, but in mine there was only one: Officer Ramos. It looked as if every person in this courtroom would be arguing their case against the word of Officer Ramos. Now that I got to see him outside of his squad car, I learned with a little amusement that I was a foot taller than the guy. He never looked in my direction, but instead spent his time either looking at his stack of papers or directly at the judge. In a low tone he rambled through the formalities while the judge waited for the meat of his argument.

“On such and such an intersection, where the signals are on the northeast and southwest corners, I witnessed this man proceed against a solid red light and continue northbound through… [...] I decided to follow him, and witnessed him swerve into the left lane at such and such a street heading northbound… [...] I continued following him and on such and such a street, where the signals are on these corners, I saw him enter the intersection westbound and turn north without signalling… [...] I stopped him at this street and asked for his license. He complied and gave me a Class D license with this name, whereupon I saw that he did not have a bell on his bicycle.”

The judge, who had been drawing layouts of intersections with arrows and street names looked up. “Wait. This was all on a bicycle?”

“Yes.”

“This red light ticket is for a car.” The judge summarily stamped the ticket Not Guilty and flung it into a outbox for such tickets. A Black man waiting behind me chuckled, which launched an instant rebuke and an imperious gaze from the judge.

“I was only coughing!”

“That was no cough.” There shall be no tomfoolery in this courtroom! The judge turned back to the cop.

“Also, you describe four incidents. I only see three tickets before me. What happened to the ticket for Failure To Signal? Did you take care of it prior to this hearing?”

“No,” I replied.

“Where is it?”

The cop shrugged. “I don’t know.”

As it turns out, tickets that are mis-written are not entered into the system. On to the next ticket, for Failure to Keep Right. “You say he was on the left lane?” asked the judge.

“Yes,” answered the cop.

“Give me a moment.” The judge pulled out a thick green tome, and the cop and I waited as the judge looked up this bicycle-only law. Once satisfied, the judge turned to me. “You are now able to question the cop and/or give a statement.” I was on.

“I’d like to make a statement about Failure to Keep Right. I was in the right lane when a bus was pulling out of a stop. I moved to the left lane as I expected the bus to occupy the right lane. The bus, to my side, however, instead chose the left lane, so I moved to the double yellow line so as to avoid a collision.”

“And the bell?”

“Well, I didn’t have a bell on my bicycle.”

Stamp Not Guilty for Failure to Keep Right, Guilty for No Bell On Bicycle. “You have two weeks to pay a $40 fine. If you don’t pay in two weeks, a $70 fine is added and your license is suspended. As this is a bicycle violation, no points are taken off your license. Next!”

40 dollars. Hey, the cop was right!

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