Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Friday, March 11, 2005

ScotchBlogging: Adventures In Commuting

This is a story about snow and grit and fixed-gear trickery and road rage. I'm really not a bad guy, and everybody knows that, except for the crew-cutted redneck in the sun-bleached one-time-sky-blue Chevy nova, chugging away each missing cylinders audibly, belching white smoke like a blue mood into the gray twilight. I don't just throw around the redneck designation, just so we're clear, but for some bizarre reason this red-faced guy had Yosemite Sam mudguards in back and a confederate flag glued to the center of the rear window along the top edge. Elsewhere on the rear of the car, observe: two Bush Cheney bumper stickers at either end of the oxidized once-was-chromed bumper, an NRA sticker, some misogynist joke involving hunting that was insufficiently witty to stay with me, in light of what followed, and two Old Glory stickers at both corners of the rear panel, like a reflecting pool image of the Bush Cheney stickers (an exceedingly clever idea I'm certain Crewcut would never have).

Nearing the crest of Penn Avenue, climbing the hill winded and fading, I trailed Crewcut's bumper as he slowed and read his stickers when I should have been watching the line of parked cars easing by on my right. Traffic was backed up at the 40th Street light, and after sliding by Crewcut -- who I caught out of the corner of my eye watching my passage with something like open hostilely -- I rode by a dozen or so of the cars that had passed me as I ground my way up the hill, and slackened my cadence to time the signal's imminent change.

Leaving downtown had been a pleasure. I escorted a friend to her bus stop, surveying the heavy, wet snow that the sidewalk refused to oblige, and wondered what visibility would be like through my glasses. We chatted about our day as I waited with her, pulling on half gloves then liners over them, snapping my helmet, adjusting the straps on my over-sized messenger bag, deciding reluctantly to affix my blue-white headlamp to the bars, checking the taillight as well to make sure it was secure. Once done with my fastidious preflight ritual, I was antsy; resting the bike against the wall in front of USX, I paced, at one point actually jumping up and down, and fought the smile that in no way responded to what my friend was saying but crept back unobserved again and again; I was lively, keyed up, anxious to ride.

She laughed.

I told her, "I wanna go!" Thinking better of that statement, I added, "I'm probably just getting an early rush, about to jump into traffic all wet and low visibility."

She smiled indulgently, a kindness for which I was grateful.

After seeing her onto her bus, I clipped into one pedal, eyed the sidewalk ahead for any clustered pedestrians and seeing none, pushed off. I held back, easing through the diffuse crowd of sodden commuters in heavy coats under umbrellas stroke by restrained stroke, and curled my path around the security flowerpot at the foot of the staircase to the tower. Realizing I hadn't turned on my lights, however, I found a place barren of people, and stopped, clipping one foot out to reach around and activate the rear blinker. Then I resumed my progress, taking advantage of the pedestrian light to drop into Grant Street, where I proceeded slowly downhill towards the federal courthouse and home, pressing the button atop my headlamp as I eased toward the intersection in the center of the right lane.

Passing by the federal building at moderate speed -- the Belgian brick road surface is sunken and unpredictable; in wet conditions its many puddles and shiny declinations make me nervous, especially since like as not I have traffic close behind me ready to pounce should I go down hard -- a car honked at me for daring to take up a lane. I looked back long enough to confirm his position, melodramatically crawling along behind me when the left lane was open with no one else near him, and when he failed to move to pass me I signaled left and crossed over to the left lane in front of him. He floored it once I was clear, honking again as he drove by, his disapproval petty and redundant. With no one behind me, I skirted along the right of the line of cars waiting at the next signal to turn left across Liberty, and, timing the light perfectly, turned a wide left, leaving a generous cushion to afford the first car in line more than enough room to make his turn.

The Strip was crowded but uneventful. Amid the line of cars confusedly negotiating the stop signs, the on-street parking, the massive lots to the left emptying themselves of the workforce homeward bound, and the Happy Hour bound pedestrians in threes and fives, I felt a burst of energy, and carefully accelerated to a speed somewhat faster than the cars beside me. My eyes were wide and attentive, scanning for potholes, large rocks, cars itching to jump out from behind their stop signs like rodeo bulls, the telltale signs: twitchy front wheels; drivers who seem to be focused only on the cars, never looking directly at you; confusion gathering as a car with the right of way stops unexpectedly suspending the rules and spurring unpredictable behavior in other drivers; heads through back windows in the cars to my right; seams of darkness as someone unlatches the driver-side door. Given reason, I'll slow down, but the driving special olympics on display in the Strip was uncommonly innocuous, and I most maintained an unusually high speed. Nearing the 16th Street bridge overpass, a roadbike track grooved a small patch of snow in a generous curve out of the flow of traffic and onto an unused warehouse apron: Brian, perhaps, who had almost certainly left downtown before I had. I thought about trying to catch him, and then laughed aloud at my hubris as I reflexively lifted out of the saddle to accommodate the Abomination Formerly Known as Pavement beneath the bridge. Better to save my energy for the Big Hill.

Similarly, the balance of Smallman Street was crowded but uneventful; more often than not, I found myself slowing in deference to the lines of traffic forming at each stop sign, a rare inversion of the speed priority a cyclist is accustomed to, not wanting to get caught in a bad spot between a car parked half on the curb and a car in traffic easing right to close off my path. Especially since my lockring is unreliable and I can't skid. Of course, I might rest my hand on the brake, but I pretty much stopped doing that weeks ago. Where's the fun in that?

Even given the stops and starts, the occasional hesitations, I was pretty beat after turning up 30-Somethingth Street, agreeably abiding the green BIKE ROUTE arrow, to dogleg onto Penn for the final push up the long hill through Lawrenceville and Garfield and into Bloomfield and finally Friendship. A hill like the Four Corners: in one breathless climb crossing three informal borders, each with its own peculiar architecture, shops, and denizens, and me wheezing through it, insensible to anything but my legs fading like the brakes on a 1979 Mustang and the cars lurking behind me, anxious to sprint by me, the ghosts hiding in front seats ahead of me hands on their door handles, the snow blurring my glasses and cooling my reddening face, a Faustian trade-off at best.

Snow had collected in the webbing of my gloves, between thumb and index finger, which face forward in my preferred position. I wiped each in turn across my forehead, hot skin thrilling to the rapid heat exchange of chill and evaporation. I was pleased to realize that my bag, which usually has to be elbowed into position every few hundred feet, had settled perfectly on my back, requiring no adjustment since downtown.

Behind me blatted an undisciplined old American engine; cocking my head sideways over my shoulder I saw the round headlights of Crewcut's Nova, then unknown. He wasn't allowing me much room, and he seemed especially impatient to get by me; only oncoming traffic held him back. I could sense in the lunge of his engine and its retreat as he laid off the dilemma manifest in so many narrow-street drivers trapped behind cyclists, the weighing of breadths and tolerances, the gauging of the reliability of the cyclist's line, the itch to race ahead but the fear of a haste-induced mishap. No one wants blood on his side-view mirror. And I don't want any sideview mirror to wear my blood. Still, I resisted the temptation to give more ground; to do so would press me against the line of parked cars, leaving me no "outs" should pedestrian or driver emerge close before me. Finally, as we neared the cars stopped at the 40th Street light, Crewcut got an opening in the oncoming lane, and he floored his poor car to scramble past me, only to hit the breaks as soon as he was a length ahead of me. "Fool," I adamantly exhaled, an utterance that probably only sounded like the intended word in my mind.

After passing the cars lined up at 40th and timing the lights, I struggled onward, standing briefly on the pedals to build up a little speed for this last short, and marginally less steep two-block stretch preceding Penn's final merciful plateau. Resuming the saddle at a satisfying speed, I passed the gas station and eased left towards the bumper-sniffing cars backed up from the Main Street light to clear the parked cars that resumed after the gas station's far entrance. Sensing an opening, I slid briefly out into traffic, and cringed at the sound of a brief skid behind me and a concomitant blast on the horn. By the sound of the horn, by the rasp of the engine, I knew it was Crewcut and his Trusty Nova. "GET OUT OF THE FUCKING ROAD," he called after me. The mini-episode upset me, but only because I had cut in front of Crewcut; the spot had rightly been mine, and virtually anyone else wouldn't have tried to muscle me out of it. Still, I didn't respond; I never do.

After Main, I approached the new Children's Hospital worksite, the Nova still lurking somewhere behind me. The light had changed, and traffic was picking up beside me as I approached the angled turn onto Friendship Avenue, that stretch of which I no longer use. Although it's the most direct route, last fall the first intersection after that turn witnessed another friend get taken out rather badly in an accident that dislocated his shoulder and provided a real-life demonstration of the resilience of the door panels on Saturns (forget shopping carts -- try big cyclists and their road bikes).

A gap in traffic loomed, and suddenly a familiar engine gunned beside me slackening my legs in reflexive hesitation. Around me dove the Nova, barely squeezing between my slowing bike and the triangular island at the intersection's axis as I lunged for the brake and gripped it as hard as I dared, his quarter panel missing my front tire where it finally stopped by no more than a foot.

I slipped out of my body, floated up for just a moment, and heard myself yell "COOOOOOOOOOOCK!!" at full bellow. A cyclist's "horn" by its nature is far more vulgar than any car's. Except maybe the General Lee's. But while that horn might have been well-received by Crewcut, mine was not. Only a few car lengths past me down the hill into Friendship, he slammed on his brakes and slid, car crabbing slightly on the slick pavement.

A second rush of adrenaline surged into my body as I saw Crewcut manhandling the steering column shifter through the Nova's rear window. All at once, my sanctimony had fled; I was the twelve-year-old on the lawn of the Marlboro Inn as a child, flinging snowballs at the cars passing on Grove Street, until one of them stopped upon impact and belched out a massive, hirsute man in a red flannel work coat, one look at whose face confirmed he had every intention of chasing us until either he caught us or we conclusively escaped. I remember the terrific thrill of flight tinged with the terror of what apprehension might mean. Surely he wouldn't hurt us, right? Right? High-stepping a shambling pseudo-sprint through eight inches of heavy wet snow, our pursuer bellowing like a bear having rudimentary language close on our heels until we escaped the snows greedy grasp for the well shoveled sidewalks of Watchung Avenue, and Christopher Street beyond, with the sanctuary of Chris's garage and a pack of stale Marlboros awaiting us in our mishcievous satisfaction.

Snap out of it. Nova was K-turning. Thankfully, I had managed to wrench my left foot out of its pedal just before I tipped over sideways, or else I might have been pinned on the road with snowmelt soaking into my softshell and no hope of escape. Instead, however, I spotted an opening: while he was angled 45 degrees to the road, I eyed him closely not moving. As he gathered speed on his final cut forward, and back toward me, I pushed off and sprinted down the hill before he could change course, and blew by him at a cadence that threatened to shake my feet out of the pedals. As I neared the bottom of the short hill, I slammed on the brakes; right where my friend had gone down, a car, in much the same posture as on that day, slipped into my right of way, but this time I wanted that. Slowing at the last minute to a crawl, I cut hard right and up the ramp onto the sidewalk, enabling me to shoot the wrong way down the one-way street, towards Liberty Avenue and Bloomfield, police, traffic, crowds. Behind me I heard horns honk, and I tried to visualize, even as I negotiated the crumbling sidewalk, what Crewcut might be doing to continue his pursuit.

As I neared Liberty, it dawned on me that what he almost certainly wouldn't do would be to head down Friendship, the way I had gone before the turn and the way he had come -- the way that would lead to my house, after passing behind West Penn Hospital, in a few fast blocks. Should he see me and give chase, I would have my choice of one-way streets to use to my advantage as I just had used this one. There were no cars on the street at the moment; I jumped off the curb, circled back towards Friendship Avenue, and hung a spontaneous right onto one of the alleys that run parallel to Friendship and Liberty, pushing narrowly in disintegrated asphalt through Dickensian eyesores -- leaning brownstones of indeterminate age in desperate need of windows, paint, siding, off-street parking -- and all the way to the hospital, all but invisibly.

I never saw Nova again, and when I pulled up in front of the house, trembling with exertion and flight, I realized that it had been worth it. Terror, for one thing, clears the pipes; it's good to be terrified every now and again. And anyway, the guy was a cock -- somebody had to tell him.

Inside, my cigarettes and my scotch raised no argument.

(Note: Nothing involving a blue Nova actually happened on my ride home, in case you're wondering. But it made for an entertaining post-commute shower reverie. And the cigarettes and scotch are so true it's not even funny (sip (puff)).)


Blogger eli said...

good story.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

hey --

thanks for reading such a long pointless story. :-)

4:24 PM  
Anonymous binky said...

And if not exactly true of a blue nova, certainly true in spirit to the joys of the urban commute in pittsburgh. That was the first place - after living in Gainesville FL and Iowa City, both bike friendly towns - I was ever shouted out to "get out of the fucking road."

11:25 AM  

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