Fleck from behind the wheel

I’m no fan of football. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me. It’s not a lack of appreciation for the skill required to play. But more so, perhaps, the people who sit on the sidelines and scream and yell. Well, not even the fans — being enthusiastic for a sport (or anything else) isn’t wrong. Maybe it’s the armchair quarterbacks who bother me. The ones who sit, are not on the edge of anticipation, but in full-on criticism mode. Who knows. But these people, who seem mixed into every crowd, just irk me the way gum under a counter irks an unwitting discoverer.

I’m on 30th Street, headed up to Adams Avenue. This is a bit of unknown territory for me, a bit more north than normal. Ambient riding through new neighborhoods is something I typically enjoy. After years of riding different portions going west to east and east to west, I’ve learned there’s always something new around every corner. There’s a general idea of where I’m supposed to end up and about an hour to kill with only a few blocks to go, so no hurry.

Behind me, I hear a car rolling up as we both approach a stop. I get to the line and the car is behind me, somewhat left oblique. The street is mostly residential, but a thoroughfare as well, between major west/east arteries that take you to freeways. It’s always helpful, at least to me, to know the probable destination of the majority of an area’s drivers as routes can be planned for speed, or for just riding along. The car is behind me, I can’t see it, but it’s close; the kind of close you know as “I’m a good driver and won’t hit you,” translated from behind the handlebars as “dude, you’re a little close, can you back off?” Life teaches me, as the song said “don’t look back, you can never look back.” I roll up, see no cross traffic, and execute a California stop.

Yes, I didn’t stop. Which is illegal. Which can be very, very unsafe. Which can draw the ire of other cyclists. But, after 10 years in San Diego, I can tell you that it is not a matter of convenience, or laziness, but sometimes a very real survival skill.  But yes, it’s against the law. In some states it’s legal, and there’s a ton of debate about whether it should be. The key factor is how to apply common sense to a decision that has the potential for a very one-sided outcome. But anyway, yeah, I didn’t stop.

Across the intersection, I’m thinking nothing of what happened. Moving forward, interaction done.  The car rolls up beside me, parallel to me now, instead of oblique. I can hear the window go down, and the wind pick up as the airflow around the car changes. A voice calls out from the car. And again. And again.

Now, people do this. They want to talk to you from a car. This is comical, and dumb, all wrapped up in a neat little roll. It’s happened before. Sometimes they want directions (something I’m horrible at, being more of a landmark guy than a street and cross street guy), sometimes they want to make funny comments (“Go Lance, Go!” Really, does Lance wear cut-off Dickies?). I was propositioned once. Which was flattering, until the price was mentioned. If my financial situation ever comes down to dire straits, I’ll have to rely on plasma sales, as apparently my cycling posterior doesn’t have much of a market value. Occasionally, I’ll get a “get on the sidewalk,” or some other derogatory statement. Ignoring all of them is usually the best policy.

Image from earthfirst.org.uk

The voice repeats again, and finally I look over. A white Toyota Highlander, with an overweight, aged white male who, for all intents and purposes, appears to be some sort of cyclist, at least he’s got a cycling cap on. “What, cyclists don’t have to stop at stop signs?”

Busted. Yes, clean and clear. And of course, the fact he used the word “cyclist,” confirms that he’s a cyclist. What to do? I keep riding. Not angry, but somewhat perplexed. “What, cyclist don’t have to stop at stop signs?” he repeats.

I’m reminded of an incident from a while back on my commute. I ride to work in the early mornings and late nights, riding through places where the base is loud and people stand in the middle of the street. Places where, at times, shots have rung out in the distance. Places where some guy on an fancy-looking bike is a standout against everything else. Places where perhaps just riding through is not a right, but done with permission. A nod, or a glance, or simply moving at an unspoken but agreed upon pace. Some of these areas can be avoided, others have to be crossed. After years of riding, mostly without incident, I was taking a new commuter through Euclid and Imperial a few years back. It’s not the worst area, and over the years has cleaned up a little. He shut up and picked up the pace. Noticeably. Once downtown, he let out a sigh, and told me that area is known as the “4 corners of death”. I looked it up, thinking perhaps he’s just overly nervous. It. Was. True.

Gun shots, not that frequent, but recurring, have echoed through that area from time to time. I’ve learned for the most part to keep clear in residential areas, don’t clog an intersection, stay out of open window conversation zones, do your own thing, look people straight in the eye, ignore most things, remain confident, and most of all, just ride. I grew up with Triads and Norteños and a mix of others that, really, I never noticed. But, growing up in this led to absorbing a few things that were a matter of self-preservation. So, while comfortable in these areas, there are certain cultural norms that you abide by. Such as not getting “in the way” at times, not so out of much fear, but more as a matter of respect.

Though it’s been years since I’ve lived in this type of environment, some of the experiences carry over into riding. This guy in the Toyota probably knows nothing about this type of situation. Long, swift rides up the coast, perhaps a spirited group ride on some back country road. From his arm chair in the SUV, he has no idea what any of this means. He’s never rolled up on a car with 6 people, bass loud, the smell of marijuana thick and pungent in the air. He hasn’t looked into a car and seen shaved heads with tattooed area codes, skulls, shamrocks, or the like. From his comfortable spot, everything must be cut and dried. Rarely is it.

Is this neighborhood the same? I don’t know, but instinctively, here I am. I think about trying to explain to him my reasoning, my philosophy, some of the things I’ve seen. Part of me feels a little dumb, and it smarts a little to be called out by another cyclist. A police cruiser would have been acceptable. Part of me is labeling him as an armchair quarterback, yelling something from comfort, part of me wants to say he just doesn’t know all the facts. Logic says, just ride the hell on.

“What, you can’t speak, MORON?” The white SUV is close to me and I’m riding next to parked cars. He’s slowly edging over, narrowing the distance to about three feet. Three feet and I’m bologna in a car sandwich. He repeats his comment again. I’m getting kind of pissed now, but trying to quell it. Some people, when they get caught doing something wrong, react out of anger. Inside, I’m pushing to make sure that I’m not going to react in anger. He turns down his radio and leans over. The car edges closer, I’m now down to about two feet, getting closer to parked cars. I retort something I find comical after hearing it discussed in person and seen typed about all over the Internet.

“Idaho stop law,” I say with a laugh, and purposely slow down to let him pull ahead. Momentarily, I’m happy. Just let it slide.

He slows, and now he is holding up car traffic behind him. “You’re a fucking moron.” The Toyota slows more and closes more distance. I go from embarrassed to harassed. Instinctively, I’ve judged the situation. The car is the danger.  Another stop sign approaches, and I accelerate toward it as if I’m going to run it on purpose, and then I stop quickly. Ironically, the Toyota rolls the stop. Up ahead, he is slowed by traffic, so I pick up the pace. I ride past, and he yells something out the window, and catches up with me again.

He yells again, “You fucking moron!” and edges his car over again.

I reach for my number one weapon in this situation. It’s compact, it’s easy to shoot, gets pretty good distance, and it’s very recognizable and tends to really level out all tense moments: I reach for my camera. The camera is the great equalizer, it makes almost everyone much calmer. A picture is golden. The camera is the fix for this. I’m happy with this solution. I reach for it, only it’s not there, only my phone. The camera is in the bag.

Image at britishcycling.org.uk

Now things are complicated. I’m remembering my New Year’s resolution to use a LOT less foul language. The car is edging over yet more, and all I can think is how “flecked” this situation is. And then I laugh a little at my supplanted word. “Fleck!” I yell.  I repeat it about 4 times:  Fleck, fleck, fleck, fleck!” I shrug my eyebrows at how really fun this is at the moment. Then, snap back to reality, the Toyota is on top of me, literally, so close that things are not going to go well in about three seconds.

So, I call him out: “You want to pull over and talk about it tough guy?” It’s been, truthfully, many years since I was in any sort of physical confrontation. The last time, well, it wasn’t so great. But I can read people pretty well, and he doesn’t smell of alcohol, so if he pulls over, he’ll yell from his window. He’s like that, I can tell. I sit up in my seat and take a deep breath. No longer hunched over, this driving cyclist can now see that a 58 cm frame equals a 6′ 2″ me. I’m more linebacker than cyclist, by genetics at least. His face reveals a recalculation, sort of an “oh shit” moment. I repeat it twice: “fire for effect” as the Army people used to say. He looks ahead, as do I, then I look back, and he is forward-focused, shaking his head. The car slowly shifts left away from me.

This is where common sense kicks in, on my part. I could “go in for the kill,” chase him down the street, get on his left and yell in his window, block him at the next intersection, spit on his window, smash his mirror, u-lock his side panel. Any of those things that you read about on the Internet about confrontations between cyclists and drivers. But I just take off, the whole “u-lock justice” just isn’t my bag. Bravado in the form of damage to a car is at best stupid, at most long-term destructive. And really, it wouldn’t even make me feel any better.

Sadly, now, we are both doomed to share 30th to the termination at Adams. He hooks right, pulling in tight to the curb. Purposely to block me? Maybe, maybe not. I do a track stand behind him, waiting. The light is red. No traffic. He stalls there for a minute (pretty much the limit of my track stand ability, I’m severely lacking in this department). I look, I see there’s no one coming. The light turns green. He’s still sitting in the cross walk. Does he think I’m following him? Another car rolls behind me and honks. I come around his left, looking him right in the face. I make eye contact, to make sure he sees me, and make sure he doesn’t want to pull out into me. He’s shaking his head.

No one wins in these things, unless they are so self-absorbed they don’t understand the balance. I’m mad that a cyclist would be so arrogant as to think he could call the shots from a car. His only regret is that he doesn’t feel comfortable enough to get out and talk. He probably could veer from his absolutes. What ever started him down this path, the situation has clearly changed for him, and like me, he just wants to get to his destination without further drama. I’m good with this, just get where we’re going. Later, he guns past, then hooks right a block later near a 7-11. My anger, long past, is a faded black pearl, and I’m left a little unsure what to think.

I know one thing: in life, there are very few absolutes, and often in our self-righteous indignation, we forget the very precepts that make up our core moral fabric, all in an effort to better others, when in truth, we only have our own shortcomings to ride through. Some readers will cheer me, others will boo me, and yet others will feel the need to guide actions from their armchair. Just like football.