Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Rain Soup and Bike Sandwich

When I first met Tasha she was shaking and crying because she’d just experienced everybody's worst nightmare – she had hit a human being with her car. Coincidentally, I had just experienced everybody's second worst nightmare – I had just been hit by a car -- hers. Yes, it’s true – in spite of the fluorescent lime green jacket I had blogged about that very morning, I got clobbered.

The drawback of the clobber-proof jacket is that the driver has to be looking in the wearer’s direction for it to work. Same with the front headlight, which I'd just flipped on while crossing the bridge because of the rain and approaching dusk. I was riding East on Broadway. Broadway is one-way going West, which is why I was on the sidewalk. It is a wide sidewalk used by very few pedestrians, and I go home by this route every day. I have only a few blocks to travel on Broadway before turning North on Flint Street. At one of the preceding side streets, I was crossing in front of this car sitting at a dead stop at the stop sign. Normally I make eye contact with drivers before crossing in front of them, just to make sure. But though daylight still prevailed, it was raining so hard I couldn’t see inside, so I wheeled right on ahead. But the driver was busy scoping out the oncoming traffic for a slot to jump into. Her brain was thinking “no need to look to the right, all the cars are coming from the left.” She was thinking cars, not bikes or pedestrians or sidewalk.

So then, as the next opening whizzed by, she leapt in, and crunchola – there was I. As I went down, I pictured the car continuing over me, breaking me up into bits. I thought of Lindi and how upset she’d be and I feared she'd nix the whole bike idea. Of course I yelled deafly in protest, but no doubt the clunk of car against bike was what caught the driver's attention, and she suddenly stopped. But then, in a panic, she followed a compulsive instinct: she backed up!

Wouldn’t you? I would. How could you not? You’ve just rolled your 5 ton vehicle over a human being, and what’s your next thought? "Get this thing off of her!"


Though I appreciated the sentiment, she didn’t realize that my bike had become caught on some part of the car, and my legs were entangled in the bike. To my horror, I was being dragged along on the asphalt. As I yelled “NO! Stop!” and wondered how far this would go, I was particularly aware of my right elbow sliding along and pictured it being ground down to a bloody nub.

The driver thought that ten feet or so was sufficient.

Two or three cars driving down Broadway screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. A professional looking man and woman darted over from one of them. A few pedestrians trotted up, among them one who might not have slept in a bed in years. The driver of the offending car emerged, crying into a cell phone, approaching me and asking if I was alright.

“Are you ok? Can you move? How do you feel?” came the questions from all around. “Do you want to get up? Shall we help you?” Some amount of caution toward the injured has seeped into the general public consciousness. Even the down-and-out street person knows that scraping the accident victim up off the pavement is not necessarily the first task at hand. “You should go to the hospital,” he advised. “You think you’re OK, but that’s because you’re in shock.”

By now I was standing. Another pedestrian, concern on his weathered outdoor face, handed me my still blinking helmet light. The homeless man, who I wouldn’t have expected to own a pair of soles for the shoes on his feet, efficiently pulled out a small sturdy notebook and a working ballpoint pen, wrote his information down and handed me the ripped out page. Randy ________, it said, with the well-known address of a Portland homeless shelter, and a phone number labeled “mesage.”

The other people around had turned their attention to moving their cars out of the way, to dispersing, to wrapping up and leaving the scene. One man had gone back to his car to get me his business card, which he now passed to me. The homeless man handed me his notebook and pen, saying, “Here. Why don’t you give me your number," and adding with a little laugh, " That way I can call you if I want sex.”

No one else heard the absurd comment and I barely heard it myself. For a fraction of a second my brain tried to make sense of his words, looking for a way to fit them in, to have some kind of meaning, until I recognized the reason this guy was on the streets. I handed him back his notebook and said, “That’s ok. Why don’t I just call you if I need a witness.” He nodded amiably.

The driver herself offered me a ride home. Perplexed, I thought about it for a second, and accepted. A friendly woman from one of the pulled over cars held her cell phone out to me, asking if I wanted to call anybody. I thanked her and called my own self at my office, waiting and wondering why Lindi was taking so long to answer. When I called the right number I told Lindi, “I got clobbered. But I’m perfectly alright… The person who hit me is bringing me home.”
“Well….okay,” she replied slowly, her voice exuding skepticism.

I loaded my bike into the back of her station wagon onto a thick bed of soda cans, and we proceeded home. Days later, now that my brain has settled back into its proper slot, I would advise as a general rule “Do not accept rides with strangers who have just run over you with their car.” It worked out fine this time, but she was probably too shook up to be driving and I was definitely too shook up to be giving directions. I had her make a couple of wrong turns and lane changes, which were time consuming to correct in the rush hour traffic and put us behind schedule enough to make Lindi wonder. A person who just ran over you could be either drunk or insane, though she was clearly neither. She was a regular person who made a mistake, just as we all make every day.

When at last we pulled up in front of the house, we formally introduced ourselves and she apologized for the unfortunate circumstances of our acquaintance. On a slip of paper she wrote down her information for me and promised to cover any expenses incurred.

I had held tight to my elbow all the way home. Lindi and I put my bike in its place in the garage, putting off an examination of it till the next day, eager to get out of the dampness. Once inside, I peeled off my fluorescent jacket and the shirt under it and showed Lindi my elbow, lacking the fortitude to look at it myself. I could guess the extent of the wound by the size of her laugh. No bigger than a raspberry, no deeper than a postage stamp. No amount of checking the rest of my body could produce any other sign of damage except for two bruises on the palm of my left hand. The next day bruising began to appear behind my left knee. I’ve had some mid back pain and a few other roving aches, but nothing debilitating. A massage, a couple of adjustments and I’m good as new. I credit the slipperiness of my rain pants and jacket with allowing me to slide unscathed over the pavement.

And as for the last miraculous segment of this story, my bike also escaped serious injury. Though unrideable the next day, a visit to Hugh at Northwest Bicycles determined that neither the frame nor the forks were bent. Everything else had been knocked askew but was easily and inexpensively repairable. Now I don’t have to go through the meticulous protracted process of finding the right replacement bike and making all the necessary adjustments like I did for this bike, which took months.

For all of us car drivers, the lesson here is Never move your car in a direction in which you are not looking. For us bikers, I don’t know. Never move in front of a car till you’ve made eye contact with the driver? I already had that rule. As I described, weather conditions made that impossible on this occasion. What if I had waited, not knowing if she could see me? What if she had gestured to me invisibly through a window darked by rain and grey weather or completely obscured by reflectivity? Not seeing her invitation, I might have gestured for her to go ahead. We might have stalemated into a contest of polite but fruitless gesturing, blind to each other’s true meaning, and then we might have both lurched forward at the same moment and met the same crunchy end.

We cannot protect ourselves from every possible eventuality. We can only educate ourselves into maximum carefulness and proceed with our lives. I’m not the slightest bit dissuaded from my conversion to the bicycle as an alternative to the car. When our streets are as full of bikes as the streets of urban China, maybe then we will be visible enough.


At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Andrew Turley ( said...

I got hit the same way a few years back. The lesson here is, "Never ride your bike on the sidewalk." More generally, "Never ride your bike where you wouldn't drive your car." And if your situation ABSOLUTELY requires you to ride on a sidewalk, ride in the direction of traffic and remember that you're already in a legal grey area in most states. And if your situation ABSOLUTELY requires that you ride your bike in the opposite direction of traffic, get off the bike and walk across the street. It may feel like it takes longer to do this, and it probably does, but you are MUCH less likely to get hit by a car if you follow these rules. And not being mangled in a hospital saves time.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger kate gawf said...

Thank you for your response, Mr. Turley. However, I disagree. One of the advantages of riding a bike is that you’re not a car. Why ruin it by pretending that you are? You can take all kinds of shortcuts and pass through road closures blocked to cars. Of course you shouldn’t ride on a sidewalk that’s heavily used by pedestrians, but in Portland we have many wide sidewalks where there’s plenty of room to ride without scaring pedestrians or riding over customers as they step out of shops. (What city are you in?)

I agree that riding against traffic is not good, as it is disconcerting to drivers. But crossing to the other side won’t fix that if it’s a one way street and you’re not going that way.

I’ll be posting more on this topic of traffic rules for bikes soon. I am bursting with opinions about it. Thank you again for your comment. kg

At 2:53 PM, Anonymous beth said...

First, I agree wholeheartedly with your advice to drivers. I rear-ended someone once because i assumed they had gone - and they hadn't. but i also agree with andrew here that the lesson for us bicyclists is not to ride your bike the wrong way on the sidewalk, no matter how tempting. i take a different route home from work than i do to work to avoid doing that, and although it added a few minutes to my commute, i feel much more comfortable and safe doing so. sacrificing a little time and convenience is so much easier than getting hit by a car. it sounds like you had a really scary experience, and i am glad you were not seriously injured! thanks for sharing your stories.


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