Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pocket Review of Life in the Bike Lane

I got my first bike at age 5. My mother very shrewdly waited a few years after I cut my heel off in the spokes of her bike to present me with one of my own. It was mint green, equipped with training wheels, had a banana seat, and chrome fenders on both wheels. I remember the first time I climbed aboard it in my granny's front yard. I felt very grown up, as I wobbled down her sidewalk between the holly bushes, and took to it quickly. In no time at all, my Uncle Don was removing the training wheels and I was taking such risks as riding with no hands, and propping my feet up on the handlebars while I cruised down the cul de sac. Amazingly, I harbored no residual fear from the great heel-slicing of '73.

When I was 7 or so, I got a new bike that suited my increasingly long-legged frame better. It was electric blue, and its white vinyl banana seat was imprinted with blue and yellow flowers. While riding this bike down the gravel strewn alley behind the duplex we shared with my stepfather, the neighborhood bullies (two sisters whose father was a cop - obviously, he taught them well), emerged from behind the blackberry bushes and persimmon trees flanking the alleyway and ambushed me. I pedaled faster, but they had the element of surprise on their side, and rapidly caught up with me, grabbing the curved chrome handle that protruded from the seat of my bike, and shaking it hard until I fell to the asphalt, embedding small rocks in my palms and bare knees. The devil girls (who were aged 8 and 10) purloined my lovely bike, which led to my mother marching me to the front door of their home to retrieve it.

While Mother confronted the fully uniformed officer about his daughters' unacceptable behavior, gesturing periodically to my purpled and bleeding knees and hands, I stood behind her feeling confused and humiliated, and wondered why these people's house smelled so strongly of burnt onions. (I mean it wafted all the way out there on the porch. An embedded odor, you know?) I can only assume that my mother felt her case would be stronger if the evidence of my injuries was clearly visible. Nonetheless, I remember this man as swaggering and combative, obviously feeling that he and his children could do whatever they wished. While he made statements like, "We don't have your damn bike. Are you implying that I can't afford to buy my daughters bikes of their own?" the oldest daughter, whom I believe was named Dana, intervened with, "I just wanted to play. Let's color!" All I wanted was to get the hell out of there, which is exactly what we did when my bike magically appeared from their backyard. As we walked down the twilit sidewalk towards home, the wheels of my bike making a gentle clicking and whirring between us, I continued to feel embarrassed and pathetic, when my mom suddenly broke the silence by hissing, "What an asshole."

Despite these negative experiences, I was thrilled several months ago when a friend gifted me a used purple mountain bike with the words, "Ol' Rock Hopper" emblazoned on the side in yellow. I decided to be greener and save money by biking to work everyday. Never having ridden a bike in a city as traffic-heavy as Brooklyn, it took me a few days to get the hang of what is legal to do, and what is not. I am a responsible and excellent driver of cars, and vaguely remembered that bikes are required to obey the same laws as motor vehicles. However, having witnessed multiple delivery guys biking down the middle of the sidewalk, with their plastic bags of Chinese food dangling from the handlebars and glancing off the heads of every small child/vertically challenged person in their path, I became convinced that bikers enjoyed some leniency in the eyes of the law.

My first morning astride Ol' Rock Hopper found me whizzing down Flatbush Avenue and loving my new-found freedom. I had to be at work at seven AM, and at 6:15, the traffic was light, the sun was shining, and the ability to control when I reached work (vs. spending lots of negative time waiting for trains and buses everyday) was intoxicating. I zipped through a green light, then zipped through a red light (after ensuring there was no oncoming traffic). At the next light, which was also red, a biker was already waiting. Noting that he was actually obeying the law, I slowed to a stop beside him.
"Didn't want to risk it, huh?" he asked me.
"Excuse me?" I replied.
"I saw you run the light back there, but figured you didn't want to tempt the cop on this one."
I tore my gaze from his full on uniform of spandex biker shorts with padded rear, neon yellow, fully reflective, safety patrol vest, light-reflective ankle strap, and aero-dynamic helmet complete with tiny rearview dental mirror mounted on the side, to glance in the direction he was thrusting his chin. I saw two cops parked in a patrol car at the curb facing the other direction, and figured they had bigger doughnuts to fry.
"Oh. Yeah," I said.
The light turned green, and dental mirror cut in front of me while vigorously making a ferociously correct turn signal with his left arm. As we sped down the bike lane of my dream street, Bergen, (a quiet, beautiful lane that is all brick homes and brownstones, and old gorgeous trees), I reflected on the fact that if one has to obey the same laws as other vehicles while biking, then the same road etiquette should be observed as well. In other words, don't talk to me just because I am not surrounded by the metal body of a car. Cut to me breaking the chin strap on my thirty dollar bike helmet within the first week of owning it. Then, insert several frames of me with the wind whipping my hair, feeling smug and healthy due to greenly (if sweatily) conveying myself to work. And then cut to a few months ago.

After zipping down my favorite stretch of my daily commute (the aforementioned Bergen Street), I hung a right on Smith and encountered some road construction which necessitated me biking the wrong way on a one way street for a block or so. Though I tempt fate by riding helmet-less and dental mirror-less, I do not flagrantly disobey laws in this manner, though I see other cyclists do it constantly. I slowly proceeded up the slight incline of Dean Street, until I encountered a parked van in the bike lane. I stopped in front of it, and peered cautiously around it to assess if there was any oncoming traffic. Seeing none, I nosed out into the street, intending to quickly whip around the van back to the relative safety of the bike lane. No sooner had I eased into the street than a black sedan came racing around the corner, showing no intention of stopping. I heard a faint roar of panic in my ears as I jerked my handlebars to the right trying to get out of the path of the oncoming car. As I did so, the front wheel locked up and I went flying over the handlebars, landing with a thud on the pavement. I eased myself to a standing position, and picked up my bike, my primary concern still evacuating the street. As I did so, I saw a brown hand with brightly colored nails emerge from the driver side window of the black sedan which had stopped a few feet from me. The hand made an impatient and repetitive "come here" motion, while the driver honked her horn several times. I realized belatedly that she was telling me to get out of her way, and was extremely irritated at being held up.

I was shocked by this. A kind lady on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street stopped the stroller she was pushing to call to me, "Are you alright?" As I limped to the shoulder with my bike, I replied, "I think so. Is she for real?" Nice lady said, "She's crazy. Ignore her." Meanwhile, a native Brooklynite pulled up behind the black sedan and as fingernails continued to berate me, he yelled to her in his thick New York accent, "What the fuck is wrong with you? She fell off her bike. Give her a fuckin' break, already. Jesus. Shut the fuck up!" I finally succeeded in reaching the sidewalk with my bedraggled self, and as she finally drove past me, fingernails paused long enough to say, "Fuck you, white girl. Fuck, you white bitch," with venomous hatred.

I was stunned. Not that white folks don't have some racism comin' their way, but this woman acted as if I had deliberately fallen and hurt myself in order to hold her up. Furthermore, she was the one in the nice car with time for a manicure, while I was the one on a second-hand bike with ragged cuticles on my way to my fifty hour work week. Also, I know I am a klutz, but what does that have to do with me being caucasian? I truly don't see the connection.

I walked the rest of my route to work, a broken spoke on my front wheel sproinging in the breeze. I met up with a co-worker outside Starbucks, and he helped me ferry my bike the rest of the way. I felt very grateful for him and his kindness, as I was in pain, covered in chain grease and street dirt, and feeling genuinely baffled about fingernails.

By the time I reached work and clocked in, everyone had heard about my mishap. I was very sore, but went ahead and worked an 11 hour shift, anyway, then woke up the next morning unable to move. When I returned to work the following day, a co-worker who had already heard the story of my fall, asked me to repeat it, and I did, as we were alone in a back room of the store. Unbeknownst to me, my boss was sequestered in what is jokingly referred to as the "super secret office," which is a small, windowless room inside the room we were occupying. A few hours later, he took me aside, and informed me that he had overheard me talking to my co-worker, and that I was not to repeat the story, because I could get in trouble with HR if another employee heard me, as I would sound racist. I was gobsmacked. As far I was concerned, what happened was a fact, and since it happened to me, I could tell any damn body I chose. I felt unnecessarily censored, and very much like I felt standing on the cop's front porch all those years ago. To whit, "I am the victim, here, Goddammit!" It was at precisely that moment that I realized without a doubt that being a supervisor in a grocery store is not the right career for me.

A colleague at work generously fixed Ol' Rock Hopper, and I was back in business, though a bit more jaded now. For instance, I was riding home in the bike lane on Union Street when an older man in a huge white van decided I wasn't far enough over and honked at me repeatedly. I let the road rage that has been in my bloodline for generations bubble to the surface as I screamed, "I'M NOT IN YOUR LANE, YOU STUPID OLD BASTARD!" And it felt right.

About a week after being back in the bike lane, my beau and I were getting ready for bed when we heard an odd pop and hissing sound near the front of the apartment. Upon investigation, my beloved found my youngest kitty, Madeline, seated beside Ol' Rock Hopper with her eyes wide and her ears flat on her head. Apparently, the rear tire threatened her in the night, and she responded by viciously attacking it. Somehow, she managed to flatten the nubby, all-terrain tire.

I know I should fix it. It's just taking up valuable space in my foyer, since it is no longer my primary conveyance. But, I have started to consider the possibility that maybe God himself doesn't want me to have a bike. And believe me, in New York in the dead of winter, an unlimited Metro Card is definitely something to have sex with.


  1. Thanks to your genius story-telling gift, while reading this amazing tale, I felt as if I was right there while it all was happening. I love you!! ":^) xom

  2. I'm just glad I'm not reading another post where you end up in the g-damn hospital!