Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Us and Them: Build Your Own War Zone – or not…

The local papers have been addressing bicycling issues lately, which is largely good, except when they make everything sound so fraught with conflict, as papers are wont to do. A topic doesn’t qualify as a story unless they can identify people who are mad at each other, and then the theme goes, “See the unhappy people. See the people hate each other. See the people fight.”

I sure found that out when I was freelancing.
“Could you get more dirt on this?”
Uh, no, actually, I can’t. That’s all the dirt they’d give me.
“Oh, but come on. There must have been some hot potato reason why (bla-bla-bla)..”
The people were nice. They’re over it.
“Over what, though?”
They want to stay on good terms.
“But they haven’t been on good terms so far, have they?”
They don’t want to air their laundry in the press. They just want to get along.

Clearly I’m not cut out to be a news reporter. That’s why I usually stuck with feature writing.

“Angry Drivers Call ‘Bike Safety’ an Oxymoron,” griped a recent Tribune headline. People wrote in, many of them responding with the requisite anger to the tone set by the paper.

It's common to make sweeping general statements about bicyclists as if they were a special breed of people. Like, They whiz right through the stop lights! Or, They weave in and out of traffic!


Yes, that’s me alright. Whizzing through stop lights at the speed of fire. Playing chicken with the cars. Doesn’t that sound like me?

Someone will see three people do that in a day, and next thing you know, it’s everybody. This kind of thinking is exactly how bigot-ness happens:

The most salient members of any group are noticeable precisely because they’re behaving weirdly. The plain ones are not noticed because their behavior is ordinary. The ordinary ones don’t register on the consciousness of the unthinking observer. “If I can’t see them, they must not exist,” assumes the unthinking observer, who is perhaps not very bright. Even though the nutty ones invariably make up a percentage way too small to be representative, the unthinking observer blanketly projects the weird behaviors he’s noticed onto the entire group.

That’s it in a nutshell, from Margaret Mud herself.

See? This is what they mean when they say you create your own reality. It’s become a tiresome phrase that unfortunately has been cheapened by rampant mis-application, but this is what it really means.

You have this view of the world in place, your particular set of beliefs cast in stone that you refuse to re-assess because you’ve invested so deeply in arriving at them. If you were to look carefully at them you’d run into unbearable pain, and remodeling them would way too much work. So you stick with what you already know, and you proceed to project it out there and create it all around you, even if it wasn’t like that before you arrived on the scene.

Are we still talking about bicycling? Yes we are. Everything is about everything and everybody. Drivers are cyclists some of the time, and cyclists are drivers some of the time. We’re all just a bunch of people trying to get somewhere, ok?

I’m making a list of the questions and complaints drivers have about cyclists and vice versa, so I can respond to each of them. Please post any that you have, or that you hear people say or ask. I’ll restate the two above to begin the list. Bring it on. Let Sister Mary Bicycle explain it all to you!

1. They whiz right through the stop lights.
2. They weave in and out of traffic.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Car Story

My car tried to commit suicide the other night. Saturday. I was headed up to the West Hills for a party. The noisy, crowded party of a long-time friend. I was alone, since my partner Lindi is permanently excused from attending any event she perceives as torture.

Even the most hard-core cyclist is not seen attempting the West Hills at night in the rain. Too hilly. Car lined streets, poorly lit at night. Few bikes are seen even in the daylight. Even pedestrians have been designed right out of existence. No sidewalks.

A basic requirement for living as a functioning human being in the West Hills is to possess a car. That’s a pretty huge requirement when you consider that it’s possible elsewhere to fully participate in city life with merely a set of legs. Even in the absence of legs, one can make do with a wheelchair. But not in a place with 45 degree hills and no sidewalks.

Do they even have bus service up there? I doubt it. There, I just checked. “There are no TriMet stops within walking distance of where you are going,” said the online trip planner. Probably not enough users to warrant service of any frequency. Why not enough users? Because no one reliant on public transportation would be fool enough to move up there, that’s why.

So what am I saying – that hills should not be populated? No. In Italy you have towns made up of nothing but hills. But have they eliminated sidewalks? No they have not. They’ve built in more of them. You’ll find charming stairways of the most artful stonework snaking up and down the steep hillsides where cars can’t even go. In some towns you can ride the funiculari, the cable-drawn street cars, designed at a slant to accommodate the angle of the hill (a cable car and an elevator got together and had a baby).

But not here. Here it’s “let’s just load all these hills down with ritzy houses, quadruple their real value for the fabulous views, cut costs by leaving out sidewalks, and relegate all these people to 100 % dependence on the automobile.” Make a lot of people happy, at least until the gas for the cars runs out, or until we have an extra-heavy rain year and the hills can’t take it anymore and all these homes go sliding down the slippery slope (as they say) into one big mud puddle at the bottom. "Hey," said the builders. "Why don't we set out to deliberately plan and build, on purpose, a mud slide waiting to happen? –- which, while it’s waiting, is a giant consumer of oil and an upscale prison for people enslaved by their cars. "

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Getting back to my car and its flagging will to live: As I was driving up the steep hill, an impatient driver clung to my tail, some resident who didn’t need to slow down to read the signs like I did. I pulled over to let them pass. My car stalled out. I thought, oh well, I’ll just take this opportunity to give my car a nice drink of oil. It needs that once in a while.

As I emerge from the car I smell the alarming fumes of a parched motor and I wonder if this time I’ve gone too far. I open the hood and smoke billows out. Not thick smoke, though. Thin smoke. The billowing is plentiful but short lived. Not bothering with the dipstick, I pour in a whole bottle of 30-50 –- the extra thick kind, in hopes it will be slower to leak or burn or whatever it’s doing. I can barely see and I dispense with my usual finely honed skill of pouring it all in without spilling a drop outside the hole. Though half a second bottle usually fills it to the H on the dipstick, I pour in a whole second bottle out of fear of imminent car-death and guilt over being a neglectful mother. By the dim reflection of a nearby porch light, I can see that I’ve slopped some of it outside the hole, and I don’t care. My car doesn’t care either.

I head up the hill and the car’s good as new. The next day on the way to another bike-unfriendly destination, more stinkiness. I pull over to check and I find a small plastic bag melting onto the engine. How did that get there?

Anyway, enough about cars. Time to get back to the essential premise of this blog.
Cars: bad. Bikes: good.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Area Woman Plunges into Really Bad Mood after Day of Inclement Weather

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines. But not right now.

The day started out with the usual threat of dampness, a threat that doesn’t always pan out; so I was not dissuaded from riding my bike to my Saturday morning class. But by the end of the day we were smackered with a deluge the like of which we hadn’t seen since…. the previous week. Only this one, not flukey in nature like the last, was bitterly cold. And when I say bitterly, I know all you Canadians out there are laughing at me, but look: if it were “bitter” by your standards, the rain would be snow, and we don’t snow here. So shut up and let me tell my story without interruption. (I know exactly what you people are like, I didn’t live three years in Ottawa for nothing.)

Planning to lose the radio-active wind-breaker immediately upon arrival, I installed a sporty but stylish wide-wale curdoroy jacket underneath it. But that isn’t all I wore. A pair of jet black jeans, upgraded by a rayon burgundy top, a hit of bling, and my most excellent Italian leather shoes. And yes, in case you’re wondering, when it comes to me and shoes, the term ‘excellent’ does include the concept ‘sensible’. Ever since since 9-11, the litmus test of shoes for me has been, “Could I make it down 98 flights of stairs in 17 minutes in these?” But even before 9-11, you never would’ve seen me in anything higher off the ground than a bottlecap.

The last time I wore high heels was to a costume party when I was four. I hadn’t made it as far as the front door when I fell down and hobbled crying to my mother, outraged and dragging the offending so-called shoe off my insulted achilles all the way home, which was two houses down. (In those days you could send a four-year-old out alone to a house two doors down -- even in the outskirts of our nation’s ravaged capitol, where we were living at the time.) Some girls would have to learn the ‘dumb shoes’ lesson over and over again for decades, but not me. I got it the first time, and that was the end of that.

By the time I got home in the late afternoon, my treasured shoes were drenched through. My shoulders were so tight from hunching against the cold that I looked like I’d dropped out of a bell tower in France. My jeans were so wet that the pumping action of my knees had moulded permanent little knee pouches in them. Had I not nabbed the extra, waterproof jacket that I stuffed into my bike basket on my way out of the garage, my torso would have been as saturated as the rest of me, and my way-cute little Italian leather mini-backpack would have been ruined.

My head throbbed from the added pressure of a fleece headband stuffed underneath my helmet and the ice water pounding in through the openings in the top for the 45 minute duration of my extra-slow ride. At least I assume that’s what gave me a headache. If I were an Italian person, just thinking about such an ordeal would give me a headache; actually undergoing it would warrant a trip to the hospital. Or at least the insane asylum. (I’ve spent enough years in Italy that I think I can talk.)

I was grateful on this occasion to be wearing some sturdy green leather gardening gloves I’d picked up at a sale table for $3.00 -- much as I’d rather have been wearing a pair of Italian leather gloves lined with rabbit fur And when I say rabbit, I don’t mean clubbed-to-death-on-an-ice-floe infant mink, ok? So don’t start with me, you vegetable-brained Oregonians. I’m talking about wantonly reproducing rabbits that patently refuse to employ any birth control whatsoever (someone run and tell the Pope that at least somebody’s listening) and if they weren’t being made into apparel we’d be having to share our apartments with them.

You know, that’s the thing about living in Oregon. Much as I love it, I never aspired to be Miss Cordura. I tire so of the mountain backpacker look around here. Nylon this, goretex that. One can be completely free of any inclination to ever climb a mountain, yet be forced to dress like one just peaked Mount Olympus. I like a wool knee-length coat with tortoise shell buttons. But around here a garment like that wouldn’t have time to dry out between wears. And forget riding a bicycle in it. You’ll get drenched enough just stepping around the corner for a cup of tea. And when I say tea, I don’t mean coffee. In these parts you hear nothing but coffee, coffee, coffee. As if it’s the only beverage known to humankind. All they do in this place is go out for coffee. Coffee gunked up with god-knows what else. Flavorings. “M’am? Do you want that caramel-flavored or cranberry-flavored?” Ugh!

How about coffee-flavored? How’s that? Could you put some coffee flavoring in my coffee? Would that be too much trouble? The final camel was when I’d been lured into a Starbucks (by some unfortunate wretch who didn’t know any better) and I looked up at the wall menu and saw “Cranberry-mint Java Latte Shake.” Or the like. I don’t remember exactly the name – it has mercifully left me. But I almost hurled on the spot. That was it. I’m boycotting the entire coffee industry for as long as I’m standing on American soil.

Americans always think “The more, the better.” You go to an Italian restaurant in the States and you order pasta al pesto and you think you’re going to get pasta with pesto in it (hence the name, right?); and it turns out they decide to mix pasta alle vongole and pasta al carciofo and pasta al prosciutto all together into one dish with the pesto, and your poor taste buds are so confused they don’t know what hit them. Someone has thrown you a surprise party and you didn't invite most of these guests, who have no business even being in the same room together, and now they’re having a riot in your mouth.

Alright, I got off the topic a little this time, but getting back to bicycling, I must say I feel more discouraged after this last ride than I felt after getting squashed by a passing auto the week before. Increasingly, I find myself indulging in secret fantasies about public transportation. And I know better. I’ve tried that. It’s the same as going by bike, only without the exercise. And if it’s not going to save me any time, why do it? I’d still have to fit the exercise in somewhere else. Boo, hiss.

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.