My friend Tom tried to explain to me one time how the universe expands. He used the “balloon analogy,” noting correctly that one can comprehend the universe’s expansion by imagining a two-dimensional balloon being blown up—with all parts moving away from each other at all times on a flat plane—and then imagining an additional spatial dimension to this movement so that everything is moving away from everything else in all directions at the same rate. Or something. Apparently, this analogy has been the source of great confusion among amateur cosmologists trying to grasp the larger physical questions of our universe, but I find it quite apt when thinking about how one must move around New Orleans on a bicycle.

The moniker “Crescent City” is no joke. New Orleans proper rests in a severe bend in the Mississippi, and the geniuses who laid out the city’s streets did so along the arcs that the river creates—rather than paving straight roads with truncated endpoints. The cross-town streets therefore look from above like the tracks of a giant rake drug on the bank along the river’s curve, with cross streets fanning out from a centerpoint somewhere in the vicinity of Gert Town or Mid City, and cumulating at (more or less) right angles along the river’s edge.

The routes one chooses when traveling through a city by bike are different from those one would choose by car, for obvious reasons—car travel favors broad, fast lanes along legal routes, whereas bikes prefer short and straight, and have little regard for one-way streets, speed limits or other variables that impede automobiles. The most important determining factor for a cyclist picking a path (besides, perhaps, having ample lateral space between traffic and parked cars) is distance—we need not venture five extra blocks to arrive at the main thoroughfare when we can cut through a residential area at the same speed, and every inch saved is welcome, since we’re propelling ourselves by our own strength.

It is during this effort to pick the shortest (therefore straightest) distance between two points in New Orleans that I think of the two-dimensional balloon being blown up, the universe moving outward in all directions forever. There are no straight routes in New Orleans—at least not cross-town—and every time I mount my bike and attempt to take off toward a destination I must ride a warped pathway—just as if I tried to point my spaceship at a distant star and rocket straight toward it, having instead to surf the curve of space expanding around me. In New Orleans, as in the larger expanses of the universe, there are no direct routes.

There are a couple handy tools when it comes to determining the most direct route to take through New Orleans on your bike, however: Google Maps’ bicycle directions, and the NolaCycle bike map. The latter provides mostly accurate information about road condition (a serious, serious issue in New Orleans, and one I believe I will be baffled by as long as I’m a resident), as well as general traffic speed, which is an issue because drivers in New Orleans tend to think that two inches between car and handlebar is plenty of space to give a cyclist.

Google Maps’ bike directions does not offer qualitative information about particular bike routes (although they tend to avoid hills, busy intersections, and non-bike-friendly streets), but it is immensely helpful when figuring out which is the shortest. It beats a normal street map because New Orleans’ streets curve at different pitches, so it’s tough to tell which would take you least out of the way just by looking. With Google, it’s all science and gigabytes and general computer smartness, even providing you exact distances for three different routes to the tenth of the mile. It’s so useful that it makes me almost want to forgive Google for not providing public transit directions for New Orleans (but then again, there’s not much public transit here anyway). Note: One slightly obnoxious thing about Google’s bike directions is that it won’t ever direct you the wrong way down a one-way street—something that’s completely common, especially on streets with hardly any traffic.

Utilizing Google bike directions can lead to some interesting sights because it does not discriminate by neighborhood quality when providing routes—in New Orleans, where the urban planners have not thoroughly separated the poor from the rest of us like they have in many American cities, the shortest route between two affluent areas can take you through places that look like … well, post-Katrina New Orleans, I guess. This is good for me because it helps confirm my suspicions that, contrary to what lots of white people will tell you, you will not necessarily be mugged, raped, shot, skewered upon a spit, infected with swine flu, cursed by a voodoo practitioner, surrounded by hoards of gangster teenagers with machine guns, sold crack at affordable prices, or be made fun of for the utter whiteness of your physical appearance, attire and demeanor immediately upon entering New Orleans’ “bad neighborhoods.” Some of these things might happen if you spend longer amounts of time in sketchy areas, but most likely just the latter two. (And if you’re a girl, you might be vulgarly hit on—but that happens in New Orleans’ “good neighborhoods,” too.)

So far, the two most interesting rides I’ve begun to frequently undertake are the one from my house to my friends’ house in Mid-City via Lafitte Street—which takes me through the “Frontier of New Orleans,” past a street sign and stoplight graveyard, and right by the best graffiti I’ve ever seen sprayed at a police station (see below)—and the ride I take daily to and from work, which leads me through the Central City and Freret neighborhoods, both enormously blighted (and formerly horrifying) neighborhoods on the rebound. I would never have seen either of them had I stuck to automobile routes—unless I was making a special trip to Zeitgeist, perhaps—and I imagine a good portion of New Orleans’ wealthier natives haven’t been down these roads more than once. I find it consoling that New Orleans still has an “inner city” that actually exists in the middle of the urban area, rather than having its poor and troublesome residents swept to the peripheries.

50% of N.O.P.D. pigs R dyke lesbian or straight up faggot

I don’t know about you, but I like my “bad neighborhoods” where I can see them. It’s harder to forget about them that way, it makes it harder for you to feel sorry for yourself, and harder to stereotype the people who live there when they’re nodding at you from the sidewalks.