Nick & Choose 45: Electronic Cigarettes

February 27, 2013

Published Feb. 29, 2012

View as PDFLighting Up
On the efficacy and dissatisfaction of electronic cigarettes

It’s a filthy habit. Though it may feel cool, we all know the facts as we willfully suck the pollutants into our bodies. Long-term use is linked to hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Occasional use can become a crutch, which turns into addiction. Like many people, I ignore these facts and continue to drink. Then I sometimes want a cigarette.

I’m not a smoker by any stretch. My occasional lapses in judgment usually end with me waking up inflamed and regretful, gargling Listerine as I try to avoid my reflection in the mirror. I have an unabashed love for gadgets, though, and with the rise of electronic cigarettes, I was itching to give them a try. Plus, there was the notion that I could obliterate my occasional cravings by smoking myself sick, like a boy discovering his grandfather’s Pall Malls.

Approximately 2.5 million Americans used electronic cigarettes last year. In a recent Italian study, after six months of e-cigarette use, more than half of the test subjects reported at least a 50 percent drop in their regular cigarette consumption. Free from the formaldehyde, tar and other carcinogens found in a pack of Camels, an e-cigarette instead contains a small reservoir of nicotine that’s vaporized with each puff to create an inhalable mist.

While many medical organizations view e-cigarettes as a useful alternative to smoking, they’re not fully stamped as safe. The Food and Drug Administration and the American Cancer Society have both tried to block their sale. They’re currently banned in Canada, the land of universal health care, but are also illegal in Denmark, home of sanctioned prostitution, and Mexico, where a Tijuana pharmacist will sell you horse tranquilizers without a prescription.

I received a couple of shipments through the mail. From Krave, purportedly the industry’s most popular brand, came a disposable e-cigarette ($15) approximately equal to two packs of the real thing. Almost immediately, what began as a mischievous inquiry became a shameful embarrassment. “That could not get tackier,” said one coworker as my inhalations lit the plastic rhinestone tip a bedazzling shade of blue. With the color scheme and the unwieldy weight, the sensation is more like sucking on a Maglite than a Marlboro. And though it was thrilling to legally smoke inside a bar, I was too humiliated to take more than a brief, secretive toke. It’s a robotic facsimile of sin. Getting caught smoking a Krave would be like getting caught kissing your animatronic girlfriend.

The situation improved with the arrival of the V2 Ultimate Kit ($160) stocked with a variety of models, chargers and cases. I shared the contents with a coworker who’d recently fallen back into the habit, and we both began to warm to the e-cigarette’s potential. With the industry’s “thickest stream,” V2 does a better job mimicking the density of actual smoke, so it’s easier to succumb to the fantasy of enjoying a real cigarette. Plus, discussing office politics with your feet on your desk and a cigarette in your hand drapes the workday in a Mad Men atmosphere, without the stink or the fear of ashing on the carpet. By the time we broke out the flavor packs, which ranged from cherry (noxious), to peppermint (oddly refreshing), to coffee (frustratingly tasty), I began to worry that I might be enjoying myself.

There are key negatives, though. First, e-cigarettes lack any sense of ceremony. There’s no opening spark, smoldering middle or stamped out finale, just an endless, unsatisfying series of impotent draws. And while the routine is ruined, the physical reactions remain the same. The dry mouth, the itchy throat, the dilemma that bubbles up in the mind of “Why did I do that?” Of course, that can be spun as a positive. You’re not supposed to want to smoke, and in fact, my coworker said he could see quitting if he had a supply of e-cigarettes at the ready, so I gave him all I had left.

But my self-destructive curiosity remained. During my trial, an e-cigarette exploded in a Florida man’s face, turning his front teeth into shrapnel. I continued my experiment anyway. On my last night, like a sign from above, a friend told me he had cancer, and I still took a few furtive puffs. And the honest reason why is because e-cigarettes aren’t poisonous enough. I was chasing a buzz that the knockoff couldn’t deliver. But I tried anyway. As with any regrettable act, there’s some element of gratification motivating you to commit it in the first place. Smoking is unsavory, but at least it’s a relaxing, tingling misdeed.

I know that cigarettes are stupid, so I didn’t need the lesson. I needed an excuse. What I got was a faulty approximation best left to those looking to kick smoking and not to those who smoke for kicks.


Nick & Choose 44: CrossFit

February 26, 2013

Published Feb. 1, 2012

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Fit for Trial
Putting CrossFit through the paces

I first heard of CrossFit a few years ago. A friend in Denver discovered an online program that had him squirreled away in his basement for intense bouts of exercise. There were push-ups until his arms smoldered. Sit-ups until he feared his next rep would propel his lunch against the wall. There was talk of the Paleolithic diet, which has you eating like a caveman—someone with the life expectancy of 12, but the picture of health to some CrossFitters. Then there was the badge of honor known as rhabdomyolysis, a condition where you exercise so hard that your muscles disintegrate into your bloodstream and your urine turns the color of Dr. Pepper. It all sounded pretty cool.

Lately, ESPN2 has been televising the Reebok CrossFit Games on weekends, which is a genius bit of marketing. Normally that time is a refuge for sloth, when a man is free to lie on his couch with bedhead and one sock on, watching Paula Dean refry a donut. But with a quick flip in the wrong direction, suddenly your watching a woman with a torso like a Roman chest plate ripping off sets of handstand push-ups. It’s a wake-up call to step up your fitness, once you’ve watched all the new programming saved on the DVR.

With its increasing popularity—and Reebok’s recent multimillion-dollar investment—CrossFit gyms and programs have been growing in the area. After Reebok CrossFit Back Bay opened up down the street from the office, I took a free trial, as did 400 other people in the first nine days.

Before the workout, myself and about eight other curious participants learned the basics. The CrossFit program blends actions like running, lifting and plyometrics in an effort to improve all your physical attributes, from strength to stamina to speed to looking sexy. (That last part isn’t in the brochure, but everyone’s thinking it.) The workouts are varied, so you don’t get stuck in a routine, and they can be adjusted to your fitness level. The main selling point is that CrossFit is done by both S.W.A.T. teams and housewives. And now by a grown man who sometimes still daydreams about being on a S.W.A.T. team.

After a warm-up, we were put through a baseline workout of a 500-meter row, 40 air squats, 30 sit-ups, 20 push-ups and 10 pull-ups. Workouts are timed, which adds a competitive element, and our group winner was a professional lacrosse player who I feared was going to collapse on a nearby folding table. (In fairness, I think he forgot his inhaler.) Right behind him was a young woman experienced in CrossFit who didn’t drop a bead of sweat and was ready for round two.

Intrigued, I visited CrossFit Fenway, and found immediate similarities between franchises. Bay windows give passersby a glimpse at proud athletes in action, and all CrossFits I’ve seen share the same spare, utilitarian aesthetic. They’re like white-collar prison yards covered in IdeaPaint.

I wiggled my way into a midday workout at the busy outpost thanks to the affiliate owner, a CrossFit devotee who left his software job to open the gym almost three years ago. After the warm-up, we grunted through dead lifts—a fairly advanced exercise I haven’t done in 10 years—and for the timed portion, or in CrossFit parlance, the WOD (workout of the day), we plowed through nine sets of nine wall bounces and nine box jumps. It was quick, but I had to push myself, which isn’t something I normally do at the gym. Plus, in addition to being sweaty, I was a little cut and bloody, and it’s a satisfying feeling when you have to remember to disinfect your scrapes and not the handles of your elliptical machine.

Overall, I’d recommend CrossFit to anyone looking to improve their fitness, but, good gravy, it it pricey. Membership options at the two gyms I visited range from $140 to $400 per month, and while performing dead lifts gives me strength, so does being financially solvent. But if my bank account were brawnier, I’d choose CrossFit over an expense like a personal trainer. The program feels effective, and there’s that sense of camaraderie that makes exhaustion, pain and nausea so enjoyable.

The payout was the reminder that exercise is best when it’s engaging, which is why my Denver friend eventually crawled out of his basement to join a tennis league. Your greatest workouts are never going to happen on a machine with a TV strapped to it. What the program offers is results through variation, but we all need to find what works for us as individuals.


Nick & Choose 43: Chilies

February 25, 2013

Published Jan. 4, 2012

View as PDF Feel the Burn
If you can’t take the heat, get out of my my kitchen.

In the mornings after, the kitchen staff goes on bucket patrol. Like criminals sweeping their tracks, they look for the stains and splatters of the fluids that erupted from their victims. Safely rinsed away, the evidence slides into the gutter and preparations begin for another Hell Night.

For 15 years, East Coast Grill has hosted the Hell Night dining series, which exalts the chili pepper and leads some acolytes to splash esophageal offerings out on the sidewalk. It’s an assault on all the senses. Death metal throbs in the air. The restaurant is soaked in a devilish shade of red, like the mood lighting in Satan’s boudoir. In the kitchen, minions in gas masks pollute the atmosphere with billowing clouds of capsaicin. Those who call for popsicles are openly mocked. Those who order the Pasta From Hell must sign a waiver. The latest rendition included the Trinidad scorpion Butch T pepper, newly crowned the world’s hottest. Clocking in at more than 1,400,000 Scovilles (the unit for measuring spicy heat), it’s roughly 250 times more powerful than a jalapeño and will puncture a hole in your stomach like a needle to a water balloon. Last month, EMTs arrived after one diner who ordered the fettuccine à la Mussolini passed out at the table. He awoke to find he had not earned his souvenir T-shirt.

Hell Night continues to expand and continues to sell out fast. I’ve been three times myself. A major part of its popularity stems from the fact that it’s an experience hard to duplicate at home. Chilies are an intimidating ingredient, and with a couple false steps, a dish can go from picante to practical joke. Like many chili-heads, I’ve taken up the crutch of hot sauces. With each swing of my refrigerator door, the sound of rattling bottles proclaims my culinary cowardice.

Graciously, East Coast Grill owner Chris Schlesinger and head chef Jason Heard helped me select three peppers that spicy food fans should have in their pantry and offered pointers on how to tame the flames. “People misunderstand heat,” say Schlesinger, sitting in front of an arsenal of chilies. “Heat is a weapon, a blunt instrument. You need to combine things to be effective.”

Any good soldier should know his weapon, so here are some SCORCHING HOT FUN FACTS:
* People are affected by different chilies in different ways. A Chipotle could put a smile on my face and tears in your eyes. A Manzano could have me doubled over while you’re asking for seconds.
* The smaller the pepper, the bigger the burn. The seeds and ribs pack the heat, so a lower meat-to-seed ratio means a magnification of pain.
* A friend in neuroscience told me the area in the brain the responds to nicotine is next to the area that responds to capsaicin. So were you to serve chile relleno to a dinner guest back from a cigarette break, you’d be digging shards of skull out of the carpet for weeks.

The first pepper that Heard recommends is the wrinkled little cherry bomb known as the Scotch bonnet.

Great for seasoning, Scotch bonnets can be diced up for salsas or dropped into stews. Schlesinger describes the Scotch bonnet as “floral and naunced.” And, like a perfume, you really don’t want to get any in your eyes. At 100,000 to 350,000 Scovilles, a handful of Scotch bonnets is like a book of matches: great for building heat, but playing with them could lead to disaster.

Tip From Heard: Keep the burn where it belongs. “Always wear gloves. And when you go to the bathroom, wash your hands before and after.”

Next, there’s the medium-sized pepper, like a serrano or poblano. Heard encourages neophytes to “substitute this in for when you would’ve used bell pepper before you knew anything about chilies.”

One trick to try is to flame roast a serrano on your stovetop. Once the skin starts to pop and blacken, stick the pepper in a paper bag and let it steam, after which the skin should peel off easily. Dice it up and toss with orange segments and lime juice. A relish of sorts, I spooned mine into a sandwich and found the spark of spice collides nicely with the spark of acid before fading into a long, slow burn.

Tip From Heard: Scrape the seeds out before dicing, as roasting makes them bitter.

For a quick, biting heat that doesn’t linger, there’s the slender green or red bullet called the Thai bird chili. Use it to flavor vinegar, shave into curries, or make your own batch of nuoc cham. For this savory Vietnamese condiment, mix a cup of fish sauce with two teaspoons of rice wine vinegar and five thinly sliced peppers. While Heard suggests dashing nuoc cham on spring rolls or grilled beef, I can attest it also adds bold flavor to sandwiches. (Hey, I’m adventurous at the table, but I can be lazy in the kitchen.)

Tip From Heard: Whatever you make is going to be hotter the next day, as the capsaicin has had the chance to spread and saturate.

In your own endeavors, remember Schlesinger’s call for combination. Variety is the spice of life, but in the kitchen, it’s variety that’s going to keep spice in check. So in the beginning, be merciful. For any novice, the goal should be making food people can keep down. Leave regurgitation to the professionals.


Nick & Choose 42: Juice Cleanse

December 10, 2012

Published Nov. 30, 2011

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20110818juicecleansesummaryprimary

Pressing Issues
An adventure in clean living and running on empty

There are many reasons to go on a hunger strike. People forgo food to protest an injustice, or to seek spiritual enlightenment. But because Jared Leto drank spicy lemonade for 10 days and dropped a few pounds is kind of a silly reason to skip breakfast.

Like adopting babies and naming them after the toaster or whatever’s in the fruit bowl, juice cleansing is a celebrity trend that’s difficult to grasp. When her normal diet of tree bark and sunlight begins to weigh her down, Gwyneth Paltrow turns to organic pressings. Salma Hayek recently launched her own juice brand. But like an actor confused about a role, as I prepared for my own cleanse, I had trouble finding my motivation.

I’m not an unhealthy guy. I work out. I eat right. In fact, making the leap to 1 percent from skim required some deep reflection. As a result, I’m thin, and probably not juicing’s target audience. Removing mastication from my day wasn’t the root of my hesitation; it was the 1,000-plus calories I’d be removing from my diet. Skinny I can handle; scrawny I have a problem with.

Micki Oliva of Blueprint Cleanse assured me that I wouldn’t waste away after three days of “Renovation,” the first of their three cleansing levels. (The top level is “Excavation,” which I avoided, as the name had me picturing small men with pickaxes at work in my colon.)

For motivation, I settled on the excuse of a pre-holiday diet. After three days of no solids or booze, I could feel justified in making a Thanksgiving sandwich bigger than the family or asking my boss to hold my legs for a keg stand at the company party.

Day 1: Blueprint recommends starting your morning with some water and lemon, so as to awaken the palate. As a breakfast lover, that’s like waking the kids up for Christmas and throwing their presents out the window.

It’s surprisingly easy after that. Out of your day’s menu of six 16 oz. bottles, two are of a blend called “Green Juice,” a slightly bitter liquefied salad that’s not unpleasant, though it makes your inner Charlton Heston suspicious. “P.A.M.” (pineapple, apple, mint) is, in fact, delicious (and probably even better with rum). By the time you get to your nighttime dose of cashew milk, the biggest surprise is that going an entire day without food is actually a piece of cake.

Day 2: Still no rumble in my belly, but the cleanse began to affect my head. By 3 pm, I felt spacey and my words came in slow motion. Basically, I was stoned. Each bottle would awaken my system, but while I still wasn’t pining for food, I was missing the fun in our relationship.

That night I watched friends eat dinner, which is no way to spend a Friday. As I sucked down a beet juice, one buddy dug into steak tips and described his recent culinary adventures in Hong Kong. I threw some salt crystals in my mouth, desperate for variation.

Day 3: According to Oliva, the working principle of the cleanse is that you’re letting your digestive system rest, giving your body extra energy it can use “to help clean itself out.”

I slept for 11 hours. I felt no extra (nor any changes in my gut). In a small dream before waking, I pictured a plate of French toast. Remembering I couldn’t eat, I thought, “What do I have to get up for?” That’s not a healthy way to start a day.

The one part of my body that was supercharged was my nose. I could identify items cooking on a stove top two rooms away. I could list components to a carbernet’s bouquet, when I usually say things like, “It smells like grapes.” My body could go for days, but my brain was ready to eat.

On the morning after my cleanse, I weighed myself to find I’d dropped a pound and a half. I then bought a large coffee with cream and a muffin the size of a brick, which I troweled with jam. For lunch I had a salad. Everything in moderation. Which makes a three-day cleanse extreme.

I didn’t feel cleaner or more virtuous, just perhaps more aware. The food world is industrialized. Bad cantaloupe can kill. One-hundred-ninety-five bucks worth of juice is too steep a price, but we could all be more mindful of what we put in our bodies. It’s a theory easier in design than in practice, but at least it’s something to chew on.


Nick & Choose 41: Scientology

November 13, 2012

Published Nov. 2, 2011

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Dropping Science
Nick is tested by faith.

Question 2. When others are getting rattled, do you remain fairly composed? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )

The Church of Scientology of Boston offers free “scientometric” intelligence and personality tests. Before my appointment, three separate coworkers offered to come along as protection.

The facts are: Scientology is a faith created by a former science-fiction writer. Devout practitioners believe humans are haunted by the souls of dead space aliens. The church has been accused of fraud and abuse. Some loyalists have their children sign billion-year contracts of service. All of this tends to give people the creeps.

But John Travolta seems content, so at question 49, I was happy to answer: Do you find it easy to be impartial? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )

My objectivity was tested at the door, where I was greeted by a kid in a shirt and tie, apparently working as a receptionist—at 2:30 pm on a school day. He passed me off to another adolescent in cheap business attire who led me to a desk in an adjacent room.

Surrounded by coursework and materials for classes promising to teach me values, integrity and “a simple, powerful action that assists children to recover from physical injuries,” I penciled through the 200-question test. Alongside innocent, repetitive queries like “Do you smile much?” and “Do you laugh or smile quite readily?” were questions I found odd: “Do you consider the modern ‘prisons without bars’ system doomed to failure?” and “Are you in favor of color bar and class distinction?”

I answered honestly and turned in the form. In college, I took an aptitude test that claimed I was made to be a flight attendant. I’ve learned not to put much faith in paperwork.

80. Do you accept criticism easily and without resentment? Yes: ( ) Maybe: (X) No: ( )

Your personality is graphed along 10 points on a scale from -100 to 100. The second adolescent was pointing to the spot detailing my composure, where I’d scored a 20. “Your friends and family find you difficult to be around,” he said, reading from a script I couldn’t see. As a communicator, I scored a -82. Apparently, this also makes me tough to live with. My guide drew stick figures on the back of his page and penned over smiley faces to make frowns, illustrating the effects of my character flaws. After each summary of my deficiencies, I was assured, “we can help you with that.”

174. Are you usually truthful with others? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )

“Honestly, what were your first impressions when you came here today?” he asked.

“Honestly? I thought you looked really young.”

“I get that a lot,” he said before adding, “I’m 18,” without prompting. Then he brought over the E-meter.

Essentially a crude lie detector, the working premise behind the E-meter is that stressful thoughts possess mass. Holding two metal cylinders, you’re told a current is working through your body. A distressing thought is supposed to impede the current’s path through your mind and move the needle on the meter.

Concerned about receiving Scientology’s wrath and junk mail, I was using a fake name. I had also lied about my profession. But for 10 minutes, I spoke openly with a kid I was sure was holding back truths of his own. He asked about my family, my friends, my love life, and each blip on the meter was treated as a clue toward clearing up my issues. On the topic of drugs, I told him I’d never taken anything considered hard.

“Hey, that used to be me,” said a boy who looked years away from shaving.

From there I took to playing with the tin cans in my hands, watching the needle bounce with each squeeze of my fingers.

100. Are you logical and scientific in your thinking? Yes: ( ) Maybe: (X) No: ( )

Before I left, a nervous young man gave me a 20-minute lecture on the connections between affinity, communication and reality. As he stumbled through a prepared script, it became apparent we both had a hard time grasping the principles, but I didn’t doubt his sincerity.

I’m not the first person to poke at Scientology. All I can say, from empirical evidence, is the atmosphere is disjointed. Treated as a potential convert, I felt like a shill, with the disciples of this self-help con game the unwitting marks.

145. On subjects about which you are not an expert, are your own ideas of sufficient importance as to tell others? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )


Nick & Choose 40: Helicopter Tour

October 31, 2012

Published Oct. 5, 2011

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Suspended Disbelief
Boston, from a bird’s-eye view

In 1986, my family went on a vacation to Hawaii. Thumbing through the photo album, it’s clear we had adventures, but I remember little beyond the helicopter ride. It had everything a seven-year-old could ask for: classical music pumped into ill-fitting headphones, exciting views blocked by my father’s towering frame, a nauseated sister turning green in the adjacent seat. It’s not my fondest memory, but the adrenalized atmosphere did make an impression. Now whenever I hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” obstructed snapshots of majestic waterfalls and volcanoes hover up in my mind.

Brothers Christian and Matthew Nowosiadly have brought that experience to Boston. The two software businessmen happen to be aviation geeks (the back of Matthew’s SUV is crammed with RC airplanes), and it’s their belief that a helicopter tour is what’s needed to propel our city into the stratosphere of the elites, joining such heavenly destinations as Indianapolis, Des Moines and that arbiter of class, Branson, Mo.

Currently, the Nowosiadly’s infrastructure is humbler then their sky-high ambition. Stationed between a tool shop and a dog kennel in Revere, the helipad for Now City Tours, Inc., is a sun-cracked patch of asphalt left over from an abandoned oil rig project. Inside a square of chain-link sits their office, which consists of a folding table under a small collapsible canopy tent (the kind used for bake sales and industrious tailgates). Outside the fence stands a smattering of dry-docked boats, including a shabby Grady-White named “Master Baiter.” Matthew jokingly refers to the motif as “rustic New England.”

The swampland and gaping gray quarry of Revere look pretty rustic from the air, too, but what you’re reminded of when the helicopter begins to levitate is that your perspective on a subject always depends on your angle.

Now City Tours offers three different routes: Skyline, North Shore and South Shore ($99-$124.50). Routes are set but flexible, the paths bending on the whims of the Federal Aviation Administration. I had hoped to get a bird’s-eye view of my apartment, but an ocean tanker in Boston Harbor nullified a flyover of the North End. “We can’t get over there unless we want some F16s coming after us,” said Matthew. Down the barrel of a Gatling cannon was not the angle I was aiming for.

The beauty of the helicopter tour is that it provides you with the real-life views you could previously only imagine. It’s akin to dreaming about flying like Superman, at the cost of relinquishing his control, agility and ability to buzz the Zakim Bridge without having to check in with the control tower.

In reality, the copter’s glass bubble becomes the world’s best window seat. As the Robinson R44 curves around Fenway at 120 mph, you see the park as a skydiver floating in for the first pitch. Snaking along the Charles at 500 feet you’re a bird, and the rowers beneath are water-skimming snacks. Every day thousands of pedestrians see their reflection in the Hancock Tower windows, but waving to your image mirrored on the 50th floor is a singular experience.

Like a superhero dream, the ride is cut off too quick. Even with a swing up the South Shore, the trip lasts just over 30 minutes. Is it a tour worth taking? Absolutely. Is it worth $3-$4 per minute? That’s trickier to answer.

A city tour implies some educational element, but the descriptions are basic. Native Bostonians aren’t going to learn much beyond what the tops of certain landmarks look like. Vacationers are the key (which is why Now City Tours has wisely established a relationship with the Lenox Hotel).

If a friend from out of town has some scratch and an itch to take a tour that doesn’t require quacking, Now City Tours would be a viable choice. There are other operations, but the airfields are farther away, and the prices are higher. Maybe your friend will spot you the cost of a seat in exchange for your expertise.

Now City is convenient, just down the road from the Wonderland T station, and the ability to make Lynn look like an affluent seaside hamlet is a kind of magic. It’s a different city seen from the sky. We’re much smaller than we sometimes like to admit, but a new altitude can reshape your attitude.


Nick & Choose 39: Hubway

October 30, 2012

Published Sept. 7, 2011

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The Wheel Deal
Giving Hubway a spin

Often the most stressful part of the workday is just getting to the office. The noise, the congestion, the sea of bitter faces. A friend’s therapist recognized that her commute was compounding her anxiety. So she recommended my friend get off her bike and start squeezing onto the T.

For years, Boston was ranked as one of the worst cities in the world for biking. But in 2007, noted cycling enthusiast/mayor Thomas Menino launched an initiative to reverse this reputation. The biggest step has been the implementation of Hubway, a near six million-dollar bike-sharing program that debuted in July.

There are now 600 bicycles stationed at 61 kiosks, stretching from the North End to Allston. For prices ranging from $5 a day to $85 a year, the bikes provide an intriguing alternative to cabs and public transportation. (Key addendum: That price remains at its base as long as you return your bike every 30 minutes. An hour ride would cost a casual user an additional $6, and from there prices can escalate into the prohibitively expensive.)

On the surface, the program is fun, green and healthful, the commuting equivalent of forgoing a steak for a salad. In practice, the program can be disappointing, like forgoing a steak for a salad.

Boston is notoriously difficult to navigate by car (and, because it follows the same basic rules, by bicycle). My commute takes about 35 minutes if I walk, 25 if I take the T and 20 with Hubway. In my first rush-hour ride, I had more scares and broke more laws then I thought I could squeeze into a 15-minute window.

I went the wrong way down one-way streets. A valet almost clocked me with a car door. I rode on sidewalks and ran red lights—although I don’t feel so bad about these last two. (Sidewalk riding is only illegal in “business districts,” and the state has yet to define what that actually means for cyclists, while getting a head start at a red light is apparently the bicycle version of jaywalking.)

Part of my performance can be blamed on inexperience, and I’ve gotten better. What worries me is the riders I’ve seen who are much worse. Drunk kids biking the wrong way down Cambridge Street at night. A woman struggling to pedal ahead of a wailing ambulance.

There’ll be growing pains in a city adjusting to a new system. The problem is many of these riders aren’t wearing helmets.

Hubway is already popular. Since July 28, there have been more than 42,000 rides. Cities of comparable size with their own bike-sharing programs, like Denver and Minneapolis, have taken months to reach that number. But according to city statistics, 28 percent of riders aren’t wearing a helmet. That’s about 12,000 helmetless Hubway trips in just over a month.

The good news: Hubway makes it comically easy to purchase a helmet. They have street teams and local stores selling them for $8. They’ll even mail you one. Only someone who’s already suffered brain trauma could avoid owning a helmet.

MassBike executive director David Watson recognizes the influx of new riders. The number of cyclists has quadrupled in the last three years, and according to Watson, “There’s definitely a learning curve.” MassBike has begun offering free one-hour classes to Hubway users, and Watson cites studies showing that getting more bikes out on the road actually makes cycling safer. Says Watson, “Everyone has to become aware, so it essentially forces the issue.”

Many more bikes are coming. In the next few years, the city envisions adding more than 4,000 additional bikes and 200 kiosks, with Hubway’s reach extending into Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville. Thankfully, the infrastructure is changing, too. Says urban planner and Boston “bike czar” Nicole Freedman, “Would I expect someone like my grandmother to be biking across the city now? No. But five years from now, will the infrastructure work for someone like my grandmother? Probably, yeah.” Recently, more than 38 miles of bike lanes have been added, with lanes coming soon to the Greenway and Mass. Ave.

I’ve yet to find Hubway’s place in my life. Walking’s just as good for my health, and it saves me from biking’s minor heart attacks. But I have a dear friend (who owns a much better TV than I do). Getting to his place for football games is a huge pain by any way other than taxi. This fall, cycling could merge cohesively and cost-effectively with my sloth, and that’s when I’ll know if we have a system that works.


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