FIRE IN THE HOLE!

Does it matter if you get deported if you’re going home anyway? So, when everyone’s scattered in all directions away from the cop cars and the fire trucks, and you’ve ended up riding the backstreets at 3am with this guy you’ve never actually met before because that’s who you happened to follow when chaos happened, and the backstreets you’re riding belong to some suburban section of LA  you don’t know at all – to the extent that if the guy were to suddenly vanish there’s no way in hell you’d actually be able to find your way back to your friends or the place you’re staying – should deportation be the first practical concern to spring into your head? Or is the look he gives you when you say, “Fuck, if I get caught, I might get deported,” entirely warranted?

Just a few days prior, you’re driving up from Yuma; getting used to driving again and to everyone around you speaking English. The road along the border and all those signs pointing back to Mexico, you are thinking about home and trying not to turn back. Then those weird roadblocks, with the United States Border Patrol Protecting the Homeland Since 1924 Terrorist Threat Level signs. Your car in a line-up of cars, culminating in some deadpan border guard with a buzzcut and a black uniform peering through the window, seeing blonde and white and female, waving you through.


Next, the hills. Huge hills and green after desert. Then the civilisation of Santiago, billboards and exits to Wallmart, and then the sudden expanse of a military base, dark falling, the wide empty landscape loaded with authority. No stopping, authorised vehicles only. LA appears on the horizon like a pillow of lights and you tense up and pay attention.

You stay where you stayed before, with that weird, sprawling bicycle collective, in their warehouse in the dodgy suburb of Inglewood. They’re building their tall bikes like before and you’re eating free from the dumpster dive fridge and they’re teaching you how to weld. On an afternoon, you play bike polo with them in the park, talk about going on a ride in a few days, sit on the concrete drinking and blending in. They’re talking about the South by Southwest Festival in a month too, and they want you to come. They call it South-by and you hear it as South Pie. They want you to come but you know you’ll be home by then, even if you could – and should – go if you wanted to.

And how about that time you go to church? When you go with Dario because you’re curious; because, you tell him, we don’t have God in Australia really. Not like here. And you get there and everyone is on their feet with their hands floating up and down like they don’t weigh anything. You’re the only white person in that whole dim, badly carpeted community centre room, buried so deep in outskirts suburbia it’s almost industrial, but nobody notices and the man at the front has a microphone and his preaching is almost in song. Then the band strikes up and the man with the microphone is singing, and everyone else is too. God is just an excuse for celebration. Church is just an excuse to get excited about being alive. And even if you don’t really believe in the excuse, you believe in the celebration, and, especially right now, you believe in what is being celebrated.

So you’re kind of glad that Dario’s not there the night of the ride – considering what the mob does later. At the start you’re looking for him, but he’s got confused and hasn’t followed the group. You’re all on bikes, maybe ten of you leaving the warehouse, maybe five on tall-bikes – those strange contraptions constructed from frames welded together and up, like stilts on wheels. You watch their riders grabbing hold of street signs and traffic poles at the lights so they don’t have to come down from their great height.

There is a guy in the carpark – the whole carpark filled up with bikes like that – who has an entire roll of Buy Me I’m Cheap stickers, and he’s wandering around sticking them on everything. He’s sticking them on the bikes and on the people standing in circles around the bikes talking. He sticks them on the tall-bike riders as they return to the ground to greet the people in the carpark, who are still strangers to you. He sticks one on you, too.

And then you’re riding, all of you. Riding out of the carpark all together into the LA streets, and you are only one bike-person combination in a great stream of chains and spokes and tires and frames and the legs and bodies that power them, one in the long blur of red lights flashing ahead, and white lights flashing behind. It is dark and late already, the streets are lit by street lamps, your friends on tall bikes are floating above the mass of it, and there’s that little bottle of liquor keeping you warm for now.

You haven’t been riding long, though it would be hard to tell caught up as you are in the novelty of it, when the head of the great snake of bikes turns down a hidden sort of gravel road, turns a few corners, and splashes into another group of bikes and riders at a cluster of construction site demountables behind some empty lots. There is a DJ playing, his decks and sound system mounted onto a cargo bike so that later he and his music can also join this strange parade. Before him and around him people dance or stand and talk. Their bikes are propped up in piles. The construction site is not a construction site anymore. You immediately bum a cigarette and tell stories with people you have only just met. It is chaos and it is intoxicating. There are people everywhere.

And now one of the guys you’re staying with, one of the figures so high up who has come down to earth from his tall-bike, is wheeling a wheelbarrow full of combustibles over to the skips near the fence. And you’re climbing up and into one of the skips, tottering over the top of its contents arms out like a scarecrow, throwing down more combustibles, and the fire is growing taller than the people, taller than the tall bikes, bigger than the wheelbarrow. “Fire in the hole!” they yell whenever they throw aerosol cans in. “Fire in the hole!” and everyone jumps back.

At some stage in the evening (either before the construction site, or after you all pack up and leave that fire to its own devices before it starts to draw attention), everyone, the whole wheeled mob of you, stop at a 7Eleven for more booze. Another carpark fills with the likes of all of you. A guy from the warehouse sells grilled cheese sandwiches for $3.50 each from the portable griller he has been towing around behind his bike. At some point you lose your wallet and someone finds it and you and gives it back. You buy a hot chocolate with the money in it. At some point you pee behind a building in an empty lot.

But it’s the next bit, the bit in the church that looks like an old grey office building, that the real part of the evening begins. You are almost the first one there, and the building has been mostly gutted. There is a great big digger in the middle of the place like a brontosaurus and people are already climbing up over its tread and into its cab, up its great sloping neck. What’s left of the floors from the upper stories sag down from where they have been severed, almost to the ground, almost low enough to climb up. But not quite so you climb up the walls instead – the demolition wounds scored into them for a ladder. At the top you find boxes of bibles and theology texts, you find laminated sheets summarising bible stories for children, you find cassette tapes with sermons on them. And from up there, watching the bikes and all the people stream in, you see them discover the cross, you see them wheel it out into the centre, and you know this won’t last long.

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