By ANDREW HERMANN
Blast Boston Bureau
Last month I engaged in the silliest act for which I have ever
received praise -- and I say that as someone who also does guerrilla
theatre and juggles koosh balls. I rode my bike 250 miles, from
Boston to New York, as part of one of the great AIDS Rides.
You've probably heard of the AIDS Ride; there's currently five of
them, in California, the Midwest, Florida, the mid-Atlantic
seaboard, and the northeast. They include thousands of
participants and raise millions of dollars, about half of which
goes to local treatment and prevention centers and about half of
which goes to "overhead costs," more than a few of which are
somewhat dubious. They are probably the most ostentious and
shamelessly commercial charity events to be organized since Live
Aid. And they are wildly successful.
So what motivated me to join such an epic, high-profile assault on
a disease most commonly transmitted through sexual contact? Sex,
It was just over a year ago, and I was at a party with some
friends. One of them was doing the 1996 Boston->New York AIDS Ride (yes,
as part of that annoying trend towards computer-generated non-verbal
typography, that little arrow is part of the ride's official title), and
was showing off his cast-iron quadriceps to a girl I secretly yearned for
myself. "Just feel that," he boasted, hiking his shorts up and offering
her a tan, sinewy thigh.
"Wow," she said, squeezing. "Wow," I thought, watching. "I want
my thighs squeezed like that."
So it was that several months later, as I was sitting my indolent
ass down in a coffeehouse and taking a big creamy slurp of the
day's second latte, I noticed a cardboard cutout full of AIDS Ride
brochures. Remembering the thigh-squeezing moment, I grabbed one
and opened it. Inside were various abstractly horrifying statistics about
the scourge of AIDS (over 300,000 deaths in the
last 15 years; cases among women tripled in last ten years; and so
on) and several pictures of smiling, attractive young men and women
in bicycle helmets.
I thought about my bike, and how much I loved riding it even though
I never seemed to find the time; I thought about my dull life of
ridiculously easy temp jobs and ridiculously insurmountable writing
contests, and how I craved a genuine challenge to supplement my
diet of flukes and busywork; I thought about my prematurely burnt-
out ideals, and how I hadn't really done much of anything for any
worthy cause since being run through the meat grinder of political
correctness that is your basic liberal arts education; and I
thought about that girl squeezing my friend's thigh. And I filled
out the name-and-address card inside the brochure, clipped it, and
mailed it off to a P.O. box in Boston.
A few days later I got the reply:
"Dear Friend," it began, "Thank you for requesting information on
Boston->New York AIDS Ride 3 Presented by Tanqueray. For many
people, the Ride will be a profound, life-changing experience."
After further words of information and inspiration, the letter of
greeting invited me to an orientation meeting the following week.
"As a participant in Boston->New York AIDS Ride 3 Presented by
Tanqueray, you're special to us and we'd love to have your spirit
and enthusiasm with us!" Interesting, I thought; thanks to a truly
remarkable syntactic contortion, I'm being invited to participate
and already a participant in the same sentence. The letter
concluded breathlessly with, "Your adventure begins when you send
in your registration form. We promise you'll remember your
achievement for the rest of your life!"
A phone call to the AIDS Ride headquarters verified that I could in
fact attend the orientation meeting without actually registering
beforehand. My call was fielded by a smooth-voiced man whose
guileless enthusiasm was a note-perfect live version of the
greeting letter. "We look forward to welcoming you aboard!" he
So on a Saturday morning in May, I found myself inside a church in
Back Bay, watching a video full of more smiling, attractive young
men and women in bicycle helmets, this time seen in living,
breathing action riding, talking, celebrating, and all gushing to
the camera about what a life-changing experience they were having.
Their testimonials were set to gospelly pop music (Peter Gabriel,
Hothouse Flowers) and slickly edited montages of past AIDS Rides.
The video made it all look pretty much like summer camp, but
afterward, the AIDS Ride representative hosting the orientation
painted a far different picture. "The AIDS Ride is not for
everyone," she told us earnestly. "For many of you, it will be
the greatest challenge you will ever undertake. Some of you won't
make it back." Well, OK, she didn't actually say that last part,
but she certainly seemed as though she was about to at any moment.
She was an oddly compelling cross between war-flick recruiting
officer and Amway salesman. "Your country needs you, boys. Now
get out there and start selling!" (She didn't say that, either,
but I almost wish she had.)
Of the 30 or so people in the room, roughly half of us, by show
of hands, had not yet registered for the ride. By the end of the
session, we were clambering over each other to get to the sign-up
forms in the back of the room. The representative's presentation
was a brilliant display of reverse psychology; by elaborating all
the aspects of the Ride that made i t so seemingly "not for
everyone," she made not signing up seem like a profound gesture of
mediocrity, a gutless submission to our own shortcomings. We
couldn't fill out those forms fast enough. The room took on the
giddy atmosphere of self-congratulation; it was as if we had
already completed the Ride, and the paperwork was some last
formality standing between us and our laurel wreaths.
In such an atmosphere it's quite easy to strike up conversations with
strangers, and I soon found myself having one with an attractive woman
wearing bicycle shorts that showed off legs like marble columns. We
quickly discovered that we both lived in the same neighborhood and agreed
that we would make plans to do some training rides together. The Ride was
boosting my social horizons already.
The $45 registration was due on the spot, so I put it on my Visa.
In return I got a t-shirt and a stack of literature to take home.
I was on my way.
To be continued... in the next issue of Blast.