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.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Pass With Care

On my way home a few weeks ago, pedaling serenely up Smallman, I noticed with the jaundiced eye of the endlessly beset bicycle commuter that someone had added a line to the road. A broken yellow line, each segment as long as the yellow dashes that divide interstate lanes, wandering in and out of my lane, toward the center of the road but decidedly not in the center, confusing the straight simplicity of its double-yellow cousin trying to maintain its equilibrium despite the distraction.

All I saw in it at first was another invitation for cars to get confused, push right, shouldering me toward the endless potholes along that stretch of pavement. I tried for a moment to decode its meaning, but eventually gave up. There was no meaning. Just splattered sloppy lines plainly made by a machine driven by a truck that appeared to have been piloted by someone drunk on gin or mischief.

A few days later, driving down Penn toward downtown, I noticed the Smallman line's antecedent -- this time in the right lane. Indeed, I saw its source, some sort of storage lot on Penn between 27th and 26th. Someone, evidently, drove the truck out of the lot with the contraption, brush, roller, whatever it is they use, into traffic slopping paint all over the place and creating a new semi-lane, like a fifth dimension, in the middle of one of Pittsburgh's busier thoroughfares. It proceeded about two blocks, than swung left briefly to enable it to clear a short right turn onto a narrow side street. Not very drunk behavior, that.

And so I suppose one doesn't just load up its anti-contraption with paint thinner and retrace its steps to do away with the errant line. It's there until it fades, years from now, confusing drivers, imperiling cyclists, engendering random thoughts in every passer-by who wonders quietly to himself, "Huh?" and runs through the same conjectures I have in the weeks since.

It probably reflects a dumb mistake. Occam's Razor suggests as much. Some public employee is hanging out by the back of the truck bullshitting with a friend who's shift has just ended. When they reach the end of their affable but hollow co-worker colloquy, the guy whose shift just ended retires to his car, a blue Chevy Cavalier of late-90's vintage, and the man just coming on duty heads up to the cab of the modified dumper and climbs in, unaware that his arm resting lazily on the back of the truck as he bragged emptily to his friend lowered the lever activating the paint dispenser, and further unaware that the hopper is (for once) actually full of yellow paint.

Out he drives, the rumble of the diesel eclipsing just about every other noise, the roller quietly bowed to its task, lifting and descending in time with the wheels' rotation per its mechanical mandate, unaware that it is designed to do so at speeds considerably slower than 40 miles per hour. Thus the yellow lines come out the right length, highway length, abiding their constant relationship to the frequency of the wheels' rotation. But the lines aren't clean, sharp at the edges, because at such high speed paint spatters off the roller, leaving attenuated comets and spatters between and around the lines, little Pollock penumbras of paint.

Or maybe some kids broke into the yard and went joyriding, the little yellow light atop the truck twirling in the 3AM indigo haze of streetlights and city night. Laughing. The shotgun passenger leans his head way out the window, hooting in the cool evening breeze, energy renewed with each wandering dash laid on the pavement like the scar of a nearly forgotten boyhood injury, an insult to the flesh, a reminder that he was here. and here. and here.

Next time I'm on my bike on Smallman, I'm going to ride until I reach the line's end, the apt memorial to the moment when the driver realized what he had done, like a groom discovering that he had removed his wife's garter with his teeth, on his knees, in front of hundreds of family members, with his fly gaping wide and his cock hanging out. Or else the triumphant destination to an aimless journey fraught with intention, the boys giggling and slapping each other on the back, sweatshirts and wool hats, already composing the story in their heads for a few trusted friends, beneath each's bravado at a shallow depth an abrupt thermocline below which the fear lurks of going unnoticed and of being observed.


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