“Save For The Limo”

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At the time, some twenty-three years ago, I knew instinctively that This Was An Important Moment In My Career As A Writer. My opinion has not changed since then. But I don’t know what I was supposed to learn from it. So I’m going to share the moment with you, and maybe you will know.


btoday

Here’s the background: As most of you know, the original BMX bicycles were Schwinn Stingrays and similar products, sized for ten-year-olds. When purpose-built BMX frames became available from companies like Redline, they were still sized for ten-year-olds. Eventually, slightly longer frames became available, but none of them were truly large enough for a six-foot-three racer.

In 1986, Free Agent, a small-time BMX frame maker, introduced the “Limo” frame. It was about two inches longer than the “Pro” frames sold by everybody else. It revolutionized BMX. Obviously, it worked better for tall riders like yours truly. My father got me a black Limo frame and fork in early 1987 and I was immediately faster on it. Interestingly enough, however, some riders who were well under six feet tall also were quicker on a Limo.

The entire industry promptly copied the Limo idea. By the end of 1989, everybody sold an “XL” bike. Some frames, like the S&M Holmes and GT Pro XL, were effectively angle-for-angle copies of the Free Agent original. Others had different geometry or tube lengths. Rarely were the changes an improvement.

In 1991, I was writing for Bicycles Today magazine and I was also running my mail-order bike shop, Squidco. In addition to that, I was working a succession of $5/hour temp gigs doing everything from construction-site cleanup to repacking dog food. I dreamed of the days when I would be an adult who worked one 9-5 job and relaxed in the off-hours. (Yes, I’m still dreaming of those days, even as I approach the end of middle age. The joke is on me.) Near the end of the year, I came up with the idea of using some of my bike-shop inventory to do an “XL Frame Comparison Test” for the magazine.

Then, as now, comparison tests at the major BMX rags were deeply suspect and thoroughly corrupt affairs, often determined by the ad department in advance. Some underpaid “pro riders” would be convinced to lend their names to the verdict and there would be a few photos of those kids “gettin’ rad”. Well. Thank God I work in automotive journalism now, where nobody would ever use the name of a pro driver to lend credibility to their ridiculous, advertising-and-PR-related “winners” of comparison tests.

My comparison was different; we used the best guys I could find to ride the bikes but a lot of attention was paid to quality of welding, geometry choices, and other things that we could measure in a less subjective fashion. I can’t remember all the frames we actually tested and I’m too lazy to dig into my archives. The important thing is that two of the frames were:

* The Free Agent Limo
* The GT BMX ProXL “Elite”

The GT bike was, as noted before, a complete copy of the Limo. As such, it shared the Limo’s sterling handling qualities, particularly in mid-air. Which caused me to pen the following line, concerning the GT:

…it’s also the only bike here that could really be considered a jumper, save for the Limo.

Now, do you, my adult and well-educated reader, know what I meant by that? I mean that the GT Elite ProXL was the only bike we tested that was easy to jump, with the exception of the Limo. That made sense because they were basically the same thing.

The test was published, leading to the usual advertiser complaints and small-time drama from various sponsored pro riders who said they would “set me straight” the next time they saw me. None of it really came to anything and I was already working on next month’s article. And that, dear reader, was the end of it.

Until I arrived at the Brookville BMX track late in the following summer for an evening race and I found myself confronted at the “moto boards” by some scruffy-looking eighteen-year-old clad in the de rigueur flannel-and-denim aesthetic that we’d all stolen from Nirvana or vice versa.

“You’re… JACK BARUTH!” he said. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had come to expect something like to this to happen whenever I visited a new track. When it did not, I was secretly upset.

“Yes, it’s me,” I graciously allowed. “What’s your name?” The kid told me all about his life and his riding career and his McJob and his frustrating girlfriend and his Mazda truck and so on and so forth. We talked about the Brookville facility and the various rumors, of foreclosure and expansion and sanction change and asphalt berms and whatnot, that swirl around every BMX track in existence, at all times, from its birth to its inevitable death. Then he said, with a grin,

“And you see what I’m riding, right?” I looked down: it was a brand-new Free Agent Limo, chrome with black stickers.

“A Limo!” I yelped. “Dude! I had one!”

“I KNOW!” he replied. “And I read your test last year about them! And I took your advice!”

“You took my advice?”

“YES, I TOOK YOUR ADVICE! I was all set to buy a GT Elite, but then your article showed up and I read it and I decided to do what you said!”

“Which, um, was?”

“I decided to SAVE FOR THE LIMO! It was $154.95 instead of $139.95 for the GT, so I worked extra shifts for two weeks! I SAVED FOR THE LIMO!” Rarely am I speechless in this world but the moment he said, “SAVE FOR THE LIMO!” my mouth acquired a kind of yokel-esque slack and I found myself temporarily unable to form any words. I considered my two options here.

Option A was to explain to him what I mean by “save for the Limo”. I’d explain the turn of phrase, its historical origins, and its current usage. We would have a laugh and then we’d go ride. It would take twenty minutes, tops. Well, the kid had admitted to me that he’d had trouble passing the written exam to work at the local grocery store. So maybe thirty minutes, tops.

Option B was to say, “Fucking RAD, man!” and go ride my bicycle.

I chose Option B. “Fucking RAD, man!” I said, and we grabbed our helmets for a few practice laps in which I was absolutely and thoroughly smoked by this illiterate man-child whose difficult and semi-literate parsings of my offhand phrasing had caused him to spend several extra hours of his life cleaning up a warehouse.

On the drive home, I tried to understand what the universe was communicating to me with that incident. Was it just this: “Write as simply as possible?” But if that was the case then I might as well give up writing, because I’ve never had Hemingway’s flair with the monosyllabic. Perhaps the lesson was “Write for your audience”. But what about all the times in my own life that I’d found myself inspired to read or learn more about a particular subject because one of my favorite writers had forced me to stretch a little?

The memory of that night remains strong with me, though it was more than half my life ago. And though I never settled on what the Universal message behind it was, I settled for this: “Be careful.” Remember that your readers are real people. That they make real choices based on what you give them to read. That the mere act of reading is, in a sense, an act of trust, and to take what you’ve written seriously is infinitely more so. That you cannot take your readers for granted, and you cannot take anything about them for granted.

It might not be the correct lesson, but it’s one I can live with, and one that I try to pass along to my fellow writers whenever I can. What you write matters. It affects people. And whenever I’m tempted to indulge in a real four-alarm-fire of a literary flourish, I think about my friend, whose name I cannot remember, riding his BMX bike to the warehouse for a long evening of work. Pulling up, clocking in, putting on his gloves. Long, tough night ahead. But he smiles as he casts a glance back to the long chrome frame, the number plate with the state championship sticker on it. Thinking to himself. I’m glad I saved for the Limo.

19 Replies to ““Save For The Limo””

  1. Ark-med

    I prefer writers who do not patronize or dumb-down their writing. Expect excellence from the reader, and deliver excellence.
    Through much of the nineties, before I came to the USA, my only sources of American culture were Car and Driver articles and editorials. The obscure references therein informed me and inspired me to explore beyond my sphere of knowledge to the point that when I landed on these shores, I was as well-integrated as the best Soviet moles.

    Reply
  2. Cptbkl

    With great power comes great responsibility….
    You earn more and more respect with every article, and you do use your “power of the press” with great responsibility. Keep it up.

    Reply
  3. Disinterested-Observer

    I had to read it twice to even figure out what the problem was. I’m no Pete Douchinski, but I do talk like that.

    Reply
    • VolandoBajo

      Douché, Disinterested Observer. Well put. You, probably as much as anyone, might want to look up one of my replies in the Pitino thread, where I took a close look at what the Internet reveals about our bald eagle.

      He is more like a Maltese Falcon with a patina that gives the appearance of experience and value, but in fact is just a superficial cloak used to disguise his at best just slightly more than mediocre existence.

      Believe me, once you learn about the interesting but not very deep life of El Douché you will never again feel like a worm with an eagle hovering overhead.

      Reply
  4. awagliar

    I’m with Suto, Option B was the better choice. No need to browbeat your interlocutor with superior intellect and The Truth (as defined by you, Pirsig, or The Lady Chablis). I too would do well to heed that advice.

    But that was a one-on-one verbal interaction, one that perhaps had the potential to shatter the self-confidence of a fragile youth. The broadcast written word is different, special. Though it should take its audience into account, by its very nature it cannot kowtow to the sensibilities of every reader. It should elevate discourse, and commit brilliance at each possible opportunity. There can still be gravitas, even in the oft-denigrated medium of the internet.

    That is of course just my opinion. One size does not fit all, and quite possibly fits only me. But that’s why I’m here rather than reading some drivel over at Yahoo! News.

    Reply
  5. VolandoBajo

    Once again a well-crafted and profoundly meaningful look at writing, and at members of the human race, and how they react to writing.

    A story of mine comes to mind, though with a slightly different twist. In my early twenties I was in charge of computerizing a small printing and advertising shop. They had an ad salesman who was pretty good, and as a result, they became overwhelmed by the need for more ad copy.

    Since I had demonstrated enough of a command of the language that they trusted me completely with proofing anything that went out with our name on it, they decided to let “the new kid” have a chance at writing some ad copy.

    It was for a small fishing boat made in FL. My first response was to try to ascertain what might be unique about the boat. I was told that out of a field of approximately two dozen manufacturers, our client’s boats were the only ones that had a single-beam construction.

    So I wrote some glowing copy about how this was the only boat available on the market that offered the benefits of a lighter weight, and a sturdy single beam.

    After I finished my first cut and had showed it to the chief copy writer, who had given me the assignment and the briefing, he laughed and said I was good at it.

    The reason? It turned out that most of the boats were double beam, because they were less likely to get punctured by submerged logs if they had a double beam construction. But because our client’s boats were manufactured in FL, where the rivers tended to be clearer and with less underwater obstacles, they had elected to make their boats single beam, as that was cheaper.

    So by only knowing the facts, and not their significance, I wrote some copy that made it sound like single beam construction was a feature that made the boats superior to all the others, when obviously they were not, unless you were sure you were only going to be in clear bodies of water, and were too cheap to spring for a somewhat stronger hull.

    I have long since lost that piece of copy. But I remember the glowing way I described how it was “the only boat made with unique single hull construction, for better flotation and speed, unavailable in any other manufacturer’s boat”, and drivel like that.

    The lesson was that while you can’t polish a turd, and can’t put lipstick on a pig, you can surely spraypaint a turd to like shiny, and can retouch a photo of a pig to make it LOOK like it is wearing lipstick.

    After that, I came to a fork in my career road, and, as Yogi Berra advised, I took it. Went down the computerization path, and stayed away from writing advertising copy, as I didn’t want to be responsible for someone buying a cheesy boat just because I had convinced them that the unique construction of that one boat was somehow not just unique, but an actual advantage.

    But back to your BMX reader, I doubt that he was served poorly by his belief that you were telling him to spend a bit extra. You usually, though of course not always, get what you pay for, and at the very least he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had spared no expense to get the best bike that he could.

    Your writing is always food for thought…I am easily bored by pop culture trivia, but I find your work to be insightful and thought-provoking, which is why I keep coming back for more.

    Reply
      • VolandoBajo

        Single beam! Lighter weight! Better acceleration! Get to those fishing spots quicker!

        Think of all the benefits!

        Then go out and buy it!

        Well, at least it was more original than “new, improved, giant economy size”.

        I learned two things that day: I could write ad copy, and I didn’t want to have to do something like that to make a living. Fortunately I was even better at wrangling computers than I was at slinging verbal BS, so I didn’t have to wrestle with the idea that I might have to give up a lot of material goods if I passed on ad copy writing.

        (BTW, what is the past tense of “forego”? Sounds like it might be “forewent” but it doesn’t sound right. So I usually just get lazy and use another construction.)

        Reply
  6. Kvndoom

    That’s pretty funny. In high school i wrote a science fiction poem about pollution or something. Each stanza started with the words “Save ourselves,” comma included, and dealt with the minority who saw the problem but expressed no objection and took no action.

    It ended with something like- “and now at our last/ we find there’s no way to/ Save ourselves.”

    You totally made me remember some personal ancient history this morning.

    (Typing on an ipad, punctuation be damned!”

    Reply
  7. rpn453

    Good story. I love old BMX stuff.

    I’d have saved for the Limo too. They had a lot of mystique in my ten-year-old mind because a local rider – certainly the most talented rider in Western Canada at the time – had a factory Free Agent sponsorship and he seemed pretty cool with his matching yellow and blue suit, bike, and helmet. Unfortunately, he was almost as good at hockey as he was at bmx and followed the money.

    But I was much too small for a Limo and, strangely, I can’t even recall any of the local shops carrying Free Agent. So I splurged for the Robinson MX Pro over the GT Mach One. I think most of the parts between the two were identical, but GTs were much more common, and the Robinson was prettier. I originally had my eye on a basic GT Intercepter, but I guess my birthday and Christmas that winter were good to me. Had I known what I was doing, I’d have sourced an expert-sized bike instead. Then I could have grown into it over the next year or two.

    Reply
  8. Dan S

    I would agree entirely that “option b” should be used more often in day to day conversation.

    On a totally unrelated note, since I don’t comment on TTAC, thank you very much for the counterpoint on active safety mandates today. I haven’t been a big fan of the articles Aaron has been publishing, but that editorial took things to a new, Ill considered low that reminded me of the BS era at ttac.

    Reply
    • Niclas

      On the totally unrelated note, I’m in the same boat. ABS, ESP, EBD is in every new car already with radar cruise and lane-assist not far behind, and making them mandatory wouldn’t really make a difference. And both passive safety and these assists will only become better. Realistically there’s not really much else that can be done without addressing the meatbag behind the wheel. I purposefully didn’t check the TC and ESP boxes when I bought my car in 2003, but they are now advanced and un-intrusive enough to be useful and not only a nuisance. Nothing like the early systems where the ESP would allow the car to go totally sideways and then violently try to straighten it.

      Related to the unrelated note, I’ve experienced what a modern ESP system can do to drivability on snow(in combination with proper tyres) and it allows you to make evasive manoeuvres that would simply be otherwise impossible without having superhuman coordination, four legs, and four brake pedals. No matter how good you are. But getting the full benefit does require a different driving style and learning how to utilise those systems.

      As a bonus: modern assists make power sliding a doddle.. Almost boring. And I refuse to call brutally overpowering the rear tyres drifting.

      Reply
  9. AoLetsGo

    You choose well grasshopper
    Option B for the face to face was correct, who knows since he really believed it was the better bike he might have been performing better on it because of his belief
    Option A for your writing and speeches. Challenge and provoke your audience and leave the dumb down versions to the rest of us

    Reply

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