Archive for the ‘You Just Never Know’ Category

What A Way To Go

What A Way To Go

When riding a bike around D.C., I’ve found out that you just never know what you’re going to see.  And that applies particularly to vehicles.  Some are large while others are small, and some are normal while others are just plain unusual.  I recently happened upon this hearse while riding in northeast D.C., and I think the atypical funerary vehicle falls squarely within the unusual category.

The word “hearse” comes from the Middle English word “herse,” which was a type of candelabra frequently placed on top of a coffin.  Sometime in the 17th century, people starting using the word to also refer to the horse-drawn carriages upon which caskets were often transported in a funeral procession.  Hearses continued to be horse-drawn until the first decade of the 20th century.

Nobody’s quite sure exactly what year motorized hearses were first put into use, but it was most likely sometime between 1901 and 1907.  Interestingly, it is believed that one of the first non-horse hearses had an electric motor, having been built by General Vehicle Company of New York.  The first hearse built with an internal combustion engine didn’t appear until 1909, at the funeral of Chicago cab driver Wilfrid A. Pruyn.  It was that same year that the Crane and Breed Company out of Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first mass producer of hearses.

Today, no major American automobile manufacturer builds hearses at the factory. General Motors has no hearse division. Neither does Ford or Chrysler, or other company for that matter.  Instead, most hearses are hand-crafted by companies that take the bodies of existing cars and customize them, making them longer and adding special purpose parts.

In addition to traditional vehicles, hearses these days sometimes have taken on various extravagant forms.  Motorcycle hearses have started to be used in several cities.  Funeral homes in a few cities have also experimented with trolley or subway car hearses, but the practice has not really caught on.  Also appearing on the funeral scene are bicycle hearses.  With companies and funeral homes that cater to these niche funeral crowds, these options are becoming increasingly popular as of late.

It was not uncommon in the early and middle parts of the 20th century for hearses to serve as both funeral coach and ambulance, depending on the immediate need that the community had for them. Such vehicles, once common in small towns, were known as combination coaches. Regulations for ambulances became stricter after the 1970s, however, and now it’s rare for one vehicle to serve in both roles.

The design and utility of hearses have also caused them to be adapted and used for other purposes as well.  Because of their length, they have been popular with surfers for transporting their boards.  And because of their size and storage capability, musicians have routinely used them for transporting their bands’ equipment.  Celebrity hearse enthusiasts include rock singer Neil Young, who at one time used a 1948 Buick hearse to transport his equipment to concerts. Similarly, Domingo “Sam” Samudio of the 1960s rock group, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, best known for the song “Woolly Bully”, used a 1952 Packard hearse as an all-purpose equipment vehicle.

Eventually, the collecting of hearses caught on among automobile enthusiasts.  People collect them, modify and decorate them, drive around town in them, take them to classic car shows and enjoy telling scary stories about them, too.  In addition to the Professional Car Society, organizations like the National Hearse and Ambulance Association and the Last Ride Hearse Society have sprung up.  Even if they have not been decorated or modified in some unusual way, hearses have become objects of fascination for many people.

Hearses are often referred to as funeral coaches within the funeral industry because the term seems more dignified and less frightening.  But whether you call them funeral coaches, coffin carriages, body buggies, corpse caddies, one-way taxis, bone wagons, dead sleds, body Buicks, the Grim Reaper’s paddy wagons, weird woodies, deathmobiles, or just plain hearses, always be careful when one drives past you.  And remember the admonition in the first lines of “The Hearse Song,” which are, “Don’t you ever laugh when a hearse goes by ’cause you might be the next to die.”

No Photography

No Photography

When it comes to photography, attempting to balance security concerns with the public interest can sometimes be a very difficult proposition, particularly here in our nation’s capital. I am keenly aware of this fact inasmuch as the very building in which I work strictly prohibits any form of photography within the building. Even having a personally-owned camera or any other type of recording device within the building is a security violation for which an employee could be subject to disciplinary action. And anyone who is passing by the outside of the building and pauses to take a photograph is likely to be stopped and questioned by security or law enforcement personnel. This is a scenario that routinely occurs at many buildings, locations, and on public transportation throughout the D.C. area.

Over the course of the last several years of riding a bike around the D.C. area and taking photographs along the way, there have only been a handful of occasions in which I have been questioned or challenged about what I was doing. In these circumstances, I found it best to simply explain what I was doing to the security guard or police officer. If he or she still asked me to move along, then I just left. Being calm and polite can go a long way when faced with these kinds of situations. I am unaware of any confrontation which was improved by the person with the camera resisting, or declaring something like, “My tax dollars paid for this and I have a right to be here and take photographs of it.” Even if you think you are in the right, it is unlikely you will be able to convince the security or law enforcement personnel of their wrongness.

When in the D.C. area, my best advice is to diffuse this type of situation. If there is urgency involved, you could ask to speak with a security supervisor or manager. Otherwise, you have the option of following up with whoever is in charge of where you were attempting to take photos. Then, after getting clarification about what the authorities and rules are pertaining to photography at that location, you can make a return visit at another time.

It would also be wise for anyone taking photographs in this area to take into consideration your location and what it is that you are photographing. Be aware that some places are more susceptible to confrontations and problems than others, such as The White House, the U.S. Capitol Building, FBI Headquarters, and the Pentagon, to name just a few. And as a general rule, you should avoid taking photographs of security checkpoints, employee-only entrances, bag screening locations, individual security guards or police officers, and any other safety or security procedures. This type of activity is what security personnel are training to look for, and will most likely raise the type of red flags that can lead to conflicts.

With all that being said, despite normally being the type of person who follows the rules, I could not resist the opportunity to defiantly act like a rebel and take a photograph when I saw this sign on a recent ride.

Church Signs

Church Signs

In the photograph above is the Christian Tabernacle Church of God, located at 2033 11th Street (MAP), at the corner of V Street and 11th Street in Northwest D.C.  I went by there and took this photograph on a recent bike ride.  As a result of the layout of the intersection, the position of the church building, the fact that V Street is a one way street with traffic flowing West, and what could be described as an unfortunate choice in the placement of signage, it appears in the photograph as though the message could be misinterpreted as, “Stop. Do Not Enter this church.”  It all reminded me of a short story about recognizing and understanding the signs in your life.

There was once a giant storm that caused a small village to be flooded.  As the waters began to rise and everyone was evacuating, one man said to them, “I am going to stay! I know that God will save me!”   As the flood waters got higher, a boat came.  The man in the boat called to him, “Get in. Come with me!” “No,” replied the man.  “God will save me!”  The water got even higher.  It got so high, in fact, that the man had to climb up and get on the roof of his house.  A helicopter soon came by,  and the pilot offered to help him.  He again said, “No, God will save me!” Eventually, the flood waters got so high that they washed over the roof of the house.  The man was swept away and drowned.  When he arrived at the gates of heaven, the man asked God, “Why didn’t you save me?”  God replied, “For goodness sake! I sent a boat and a helicopter. What more do you want?”



Scabby the Rat

Ask the average resident who the biggest rat in D.C. is, and you’ll probably get a variety of responses.  The replies will range from a number of politicians from both poltical parties, to Daniel Snyder, the owner of The Washington Redskins.  And while those may be valid answers in their own right, the rat to which I’m referring is one that I saw on a recent bike ride.  His name is Scabby.

Scabby the Rat is a giant inflatable rat with sharp, menacing buckteeth and claws, beady red eyes and a belly scattered with festering scabs and swollen nipples.  He is used by protesting or striking labor unions as part of protests against companies which are utilizing nonunion employees or contractors, serving as a sign of opposition and to call public attention to those companies’ practices.

The original Scabby was born in 1990, when the Chicago bricklayers union was looking for something big and nasty to get their point across at a protest.  They ended up having the Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights Company fabricate a custom-designed  inflatable rat, which the union used as the centerpiece of their protest.   They opted for using the inflatable character because of the use of the word “rat” to refer to nonunion contractors.

After participating in that first protest, Scabby the Rat quickly caught on with other unions.  Business began booming for the Big Sky Company, which found itself taking orders from all over the country.  Today Scabby’s decendants come in a variety of sizes and appearances, and can be found thriving throughout the United States.  Scabby has even been spotted  on front page of the Wall Street Journal, as well as the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times.  Scabby can also be spotted in an episode of The Sopranos.  In fact, Scabby the Rat has his own Facebook page.

Ever since unions began using Scabby, many of the companies being picketed have filed lawsuits trying to exterminate Scabby, charging that the use of the giant inflatable rats constituted unlawful picketing.  Although some courts initially agreed and barred Scabby from appearing, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2011 that the use of the inflatable rat is not considered an unlawful activity in that it constituted symbolic speech.

And with that ruling, I think we can expect to see the rat population grow even bigger.


The Big and The Small of It

I recently went for a leisurely ride with no destination in mind, and ended up in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.  I was riding my recumbent bike named Julius, so named because of his bright orange appearance – Orange Julius.

Julius is a Recycled Recumbent, which are built by a home builder who chops up and then welds together steel frames from old ten speed bikes.  He then adds used components and other old parts, thus earning the recycled portion of its moniker.

I bought Julius while I was out for a ride on one of my other bikes.  I had ridden out to Alexandria to stop by the grand opening of a local community bike shop named VéloCity Bike Cooperative.  Located on Mount Vernon Avenue in the Del Ray neighborhood (MAP), VéloCity is a non-profit shop which describes itself as “a volunteer-run, educational do-it-yourself workshop offering training, rides, and events to empower all levels of cyclists in building, maintaining, and embracing the fun of bicycles.”  I spotted Julius for sale in a rack out front, and bought him on the spot.  Since I had ridden another bike to the co-op and could not ride both bikes back, I had to leave Julius until the next day.  I went back on the subway and then rode him back to his new home at my office.

Anyway, as Julius and I were riding through Georgetown today, I came across one of the smallest cars I’ve ever seen.  I don’t even know what kind of car it was.  I’ve seen toy cars like the Shriners drive in parades, but this was someone’s  actual car.  Julius was almost as long as the car, and when sitting on the bike I would be able to look down on the driver of the car.

Even when I have no destination in mind, one of the things I like about riding around the local area is that there’s always something interesting to see.   I just never know what it’s going to be.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

On one of my bike rides not too long ago I came across a 15-foot flatbed truck carrying what appeared to be the world’s largest roll of duct tape.  My first thought was one that many men would have, “Wow. I could fix just about anything with that.”  Unfortunately, however, what appeared to be an enormous roll of duct tape was just a prop.

The prop and truck were labeled “Emergency Bridge Repair Team” and it is a rolling protest by the Laborers International Union of North America.  The protest pertains to the House of Representatives delay and then subsequent failure to pass the highway bill that had been previously approved in the U.S. Senate.

The union is of the opinion that 2014 is a critical year for the U.S.’s infrastructure. As President Barack Obama alluded to in his State of the Union address, they believe there is an issue in D.C. that, if unaddressed, could bring the American economy to a halt: the expiration of the federal transportation bill and the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.

Last spring, the American Society of Civil Engineers released the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which awarded our nation’s infrastructure a GPA of D+. A grade of D+ is not a something any of us would be proud of our children for bringing home on their report cards.

Like with most issues in D.C., there is agreement that there is a problem.  The disagreement is in what to do about the problem, and how to pay for it.

There are protests of one type or another occurring in D.C. every single day.  From groups with signs marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, to crowds gathered in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, to more quiet and solemn protests like the White House Peace Vigil in Lafayette Park.  However, this is the first time I recall seeing a “rolling protest.”  And that’s one of the reasons it’s always so interesting to ride a bike around D.C. – you just never know what you’re going to see.

Earth Day in D.C.

Earth Day in D.C.

Over the course of exploring D.C. via bicycle over the past few years, I have seen that there are a lot of ways that people and organizations attempt to get publicity and recognition for their causes.  And a whale in the middle of Freedom Plaza in downtown D.C. (MAP) was a pretty big attempt.   The whale, a lifesize inflatable one, was dispayed in Freedom Plaza by The Great Whale Conservancy.  Understanding the size of the blue whale helps provide perspective on the size of the display.  The Blue Whale is the largest creature ever to have lived on earth.  Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant.  And their hearts, as much as a car.

The Great Whale Conservancy is a group dedicated to generating awareness, motivating the public, and steering the public’s involvement towards saving whales.   Specifically, they were calling  for ships to use alternate shipping and to reduce ship speed in the northeast Pacific, where the world’s largest subpopulation of blue whales comes to the California coast during the mid to late summer in order to feed on krill.

The Great Whale Conservancy’s publicity display was one of a number of events put on as part of a recent Earth Day celebration.   Earth Day is an annual event, celebrated on April 22, on which events are held worldwide to demonstrate support for environmental protection.  The holiday was first celebrated in 1970, and is now coordinated globally by The Earth Day Network, and celebrated in more than 192 countries each year.   Numerous communities now celebrate Earth Week, with an entire week of activities focused on environmental issues.

Today is the 44th annual Earth Day, and there are a number of events and celebrations planned throughout the city.   From eco-friendly exhibits and activities to raise awareness of environmental issues located at Union Station (MAP), to annual cleanups planned at various locations along the Potomac and Anacostia River, there are enough opportunities for anyone who wants to participate in one of the organized efforts.  Fortunately, it’s also possible for individuals to do their part to protect the environment every day of the year.


An Impromptu Parade for World War II Veterans

An Impromptu Parade for World War II Veterans

You just never know what you’re going to run across when you’re riding a bike around D.C.  Because it is such a unique city, there are opportunities to see so much.  In addition to the monuments and museums and other fixtures, our national’s capitol also offers events that are unique to the city as well.

One such unique event occurred recently as I was riding past the National World War II Memorial.  As I was riding near the memoriaI I noticed the arrival of a busload of World War II veterans, who were brought to see their memorial by the Honor Flight Network.  Founded as a non-profit organization and created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices, the Honor Flight Network transports our military heroes to D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials.  Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

As the veterans departed the bus this morning and entered the World War II Memorial, many in wheelchairs, the other visitors to the Memorial, myself included, cleared a path.  We then stood on the side of the walkway and applauded in an impromptu ceremony as the veterans made their way into the Memorial.  It was an inspiring and moving moment.

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Claes Oldenburg's "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X"

Claes Oldenburg’s “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X”

Located in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, at 6th Street and Constitution Avenue in Downtown D.C. (MAP), is a sculpture formally entitled “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X.”  Despite being something that people under the age of 50 may not even recognize, the sculpture is considered one of the more iconic pieces of late century U.S. sculpture.

In the mid-1960s Claes Oldenburg decided that he wanted to challenge the notion that public monuments must commemorate historical figures or events.  Considered within the context of our nation’s Capitol, which is replete with historic and commemorative monuments and memorials, this was a somewhat radical idea.  Using this idea as his only guidance, Oldenburf began creating drawings of monuments based on common objects, such as a clothespin or a pair of scissors.

He later went on to include discredited or obsolete objects, some of which were things he remembered from childhood.  He recalled that as a youngster he enjoyed playing in his father’s office with a typewriter eraser and the late 1960s and 1970s he focused on the typewriter eraser.  He used it as a source for drawings, prints, sculpture, and even a never-realized monument for New York City.

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, was constructed in 1999, and is made of steel and fiberglass.  It measures over 19 feet tall, and weighs over 22 tons.  The sculpture presents a giant falling eraser that has just alighted, the bristles of the brush turned upward in a graceful, dynamic gesture.  There are two other versions of the Typewriter Eraser. One is the centerpiece of the MGM sculpture garden in front of the Mandarin Oriental in City Center in Las Vegas.  The other is located at the Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park. All three sculptures are the same size and identical in appearance.

Although it may not be your reason for taking a vacation in D.C., or even for visiting the National Gallery of Art, seeing Typewriter Eraser, Scale X is something you should consider. Its central location makes it easy to find, and it is always available for viewing 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Take a photo of yourself in front of it and show your friends that you stood in front of one of the weirdest sculptures you’ve ever seen.

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The first photo (above, left) is of row houses in the 100 block of D Street (MAP) in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in southeast D.C.  The other photo shows a mural of the same block of row houses.  It is located in the alley behind the houses, and is painted on the garage door of one of the houses depicted in the mural.  It goes to show that almost anything can be a canvas for an artist with enough imagination, so you just never know where you might find a work of art in D.C.

After discovering this mural, I also discovered a new iTunes app called ArtAround. ArtAround started out as a budding social project to map art in D.C., San Francisco, New York, Oakland, and a few other cities. It has since expanded to include the entire United States.

ArtAround helps users find, map and share the “art around” them, creating a community-generated map, tagged with the locations of publically accessible art, including murals, sculptures, and even graffiti. Anyone can photograph the artwork, then upload its location and information to the ArtAround app. Fellow followers are able to explore the map, comment on particular artwork and update information on the piece to include its name, creator and description.  I uploaded this mural to the ArtAround web site, and am hoping to find out more about it through the app.

The app’s Executive Director Anna Bloom was inspired by walking throughout and exploring the city of San Francisco where she lives. Much like I do on a bike in D.C. In describing the app, she stated, “I think the idea behind the app was to make those experiences, those deeper connections with art — and by extension, place, history and culture — more ordinary. To make them a part of everyday life.”   It is kind of like bringing museums out onto the street, and I’m all for that since most museums won’t let me ride my bike in them.