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.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Scrabble Scramble

[This is ridiculously long. For shorter versions, see Dave B, Brian, and Eli. Also, Eli has been kind enough to map out our various routes here.]

By the time I was three blocks from home, I was winded. Milling around from one patch of shade to the next at the Point, twenty minutes later, I contemplated my mild nausea. Was it something I had eaten? The two cups of coffee? Was I really going to do this.

The group was broken into pairs and trios, scrutinizing the map given to all registrants, which described the task: choose four of five neighborhoods to visit. In each neighborhood were three possible places to collect a scrabble letter. Only one would be staffed, the other two dummies. In each neighborhood, two were fairly close together and the third was an outlier. Evaluating our potential paths on a worst-case scenario basis -- i.e., the letter would, in each neighborhood, be at the outlying location -- we concluded as a group, Me, Brian, Eli, David W, David B, Aaron, and Andrew, that we would take the Bloomfield path and skip Lawrenceville. It was a very difficult choice, and the organizers deserve credit for having developed such a balanced course.

Amid much consternation, bag adjusting, ambling about, pee-breaking, and cigarette-smoking (Moon and assorted unknown other riders), 53 people awaited direction. Finally, it came: lay bikes at the top of the stairs, touch the fountain, smile for the camera (a brief flash went through my mind of a grainy blow up of the photograph under next day's headline marking my death from sun stroke, my stupid smile belying my utter lack of preparedness for such a task in 90-degree heat).

The organizer said, "I just want to remind you all that it is illegal to ride in the park." Hesitated. "Go!"

I had remarked to Brian before the start of the race that notwithstanding my utter certainty that I would not be meaningfully competitive, I would nevertheless run myself ragged early and likely hurt myself or just fade short of the finish line. Even if age does not confer wisdom in the larger sense, it does engender a certain degree of self-knowledge, even if no modicum of self-control. Admittedly, the course wasn't especially daunting -- one hard climb up into Oakland, and then mostly flat riding thereafter -- but my own capacity for pushing myself harder than makes any sense is a constant source of concern.

And just as anticipated, after nearly falling over as I mounted my bike in an effort not to hit some girl who'd had the misfortune to lay her bike near mine, I got it together and went flying across Fort Duquesne's footprint, breathless under the glaring sun, near the tip of a narrowing phalanx of springing cyclists -- probably in the lead group of ten or so. I was concerned that a) everything I feared about myself was comking true and b) the people I'd intended to stay with were somewhere behind me; it suddenly dawned on me that I'd given far more thought to how we'd ride around the East End than I had given to how I would get to Forbes from the Point, which it looked like I'd have to figure out on my own.

As we neared the park's exit, however, I realized that David B had been ahead of me all along, a former messenger, clad in unmistakeable khaki shorts and oddly inappropriate-seeming plaid shirt-sleeve shirt. From looking around before the race, it seemed like ironic T-shirts and skins took the day, with a handful of people in higher-tech garb, including myself in a sleeveless mesh jersey that was already sweated through before we began. Realizing that I was behind the guy I had imagined staying with all afternoon, I relaxed and focused mostly on his back wheel. Traffic outside the park was at a standstill as we poured out of the park, against the signal, and without breaking cadence swept in and out the maze of car bumpers, concrete dividers, and islands, until we broke into more open space heading away from the park on Liberty. Pulling up alongside Dave, I joked quickly and breathlessly that I hadn't recognized him; I tracked him on his left, passing another rider, as Dave turned right on Stanwix, then he crossed behind me to the opposite curb and I followed on his right as we swept left onto Fourth. Bike traffic was thin; car traffic was nonexistent for a block or two.

Brian came up behind us and quickly moved ahead. As we neared Grant, a surprisingly long line of cars awaited the signal on Fourth, and they were jumbled in a way that limited our options. Brian blazed a trail up the left of the line of cars, and swung out onto Grant, turning immediately onto Forbes. I followed with Dave just behind. At the highway overpasses just beyond the County Office Building, some jack-ass nearly clipped Brian's rear wheel when he failed to observe Brian's cautious approach to a potentially lethal intersection. Fortunately jack-ass, red-faced and borderline insensible, managed, just barely, to lock up his rear wheel twice and avert a disaster. I resisted the urge to comment snidely as I passed.

Somehow, between Fourth and Duquesne University, I lost David, and I was alone, a condition I had hoped to avoid for various reasons but was relatively sanguine about since I had a map, I'd probably just hold other people back, and I knew all but one of the neighborhoods I needed to visit well enough to know where I needed to go. The last one I'd figure out when the time came. If the time came. As I contemplated the hills I had to choose from -- either Forbes, and a viciously complicated merge of several streams of traffic heading into Oakland, or the busway on Fifth -- it didn't seem at all a given that I would make it to the last, least familiar neighborhood.

I kept looking back as I pedaled into the Hill District, hoping I'd see a familiar face coming up behind me. Evidently, David B. was back there but wasn't trying to catch me. I decided after a bit that it would be better to take the Bus lane up Fifth. Buses would be infrequent, and I knew my first Oakland stop was at the Frick School on Fifth anyway. It just seemed more direct. Then, I couldn't remember where buses turn to get onto Fifth, odd since I've been on such buses a hundred times. I really didn't want to get caught running a block or two against one-way traffic on Forbes, so I waited. I turned left on Seneca, which still felt early, so then I turned right on Watson, a glorified alley that runs between Fifth and Forbes. A family played on the asphalt, young children in bathing suits; the kids and their mother eyed me with naked uncertainty as to what a white cyclist was doing riding down the crumbling pavement of their Uptown alley. Ahead, the alley dipped and all I could think was, "For every inch down an inch up." The alley ended at Moultrie, and I turned left, climbing briefly up to Fifth and turning right to begin the climb into Oakland. I spotted a few bikes in the distance to my left, riders who had opted for the same path I had; I was still ahead of people, miraculously.

Although those riders had seemed distant, I was swiftly overtaken by a messenger I know only as Bill, who had opted to ride a knobby-tired fixie ATB-ish frankenbike, eschewing the Panasonic road conversion he uses downtown for work. We approached the entrance to the Birmingham Bridge side by side and he said, "Let's see if they give us a break," referring to the long line of cars streaming through the green light turning left onto the bridge. Miraculously, they did; Bill pulled away, and I settled into my climb, alone.

Belatedly, running out of wind, stamina, intertia, I recalled the basic lesson that has served me so well with distance running and on bicycles in the past: on steep hills, spend as much time as possible looking at the pavement directly in front of you. You simply don't benefit from watching an interminable hill seeming to recede into the haze as you pursuie it; it's a stupid, but remarkably effective trick. It restored me to some sort of cadence, and my breathing settled into to a short but regular cycle. Near the top of the hill, more or less completely wiped out, I heard a woman approach from behind on her geared ATB. Conveniently, this was near the turnout; I gave up cadence and slid right, out of the lane, simultaneously to take a quick mini-break and to permit her to pass. As I slid over, however, I heard gravel crunching behind and to the right -- why would she not pass me on the left? Only then did I realize that a bus was approaching from behind; the timing couldn't have been better, since I hadn't really considered how I'd make room for a bus should one approach as I climbed the hill.

After the bus passed, she slid out in front of me. At the top of the hill, by Carlow College, she passed the bus at the entrance to 376. I didn't have the energy to make a run for it, afraid that the light would change just as I began my pass facing oncoming traffic, so I continued my break, easing back to await the light. The light changed, and the bus took off, belching grey-blue diesel fumes at 130 degrees or so in the fog of which I was forced to ride, gasping like a fish on the floor of a dingy. I let the bus increase the distance between us, but it didn't help; the miasma lingered. I had to pass that bus.

At the next light, the bus stopped. The cross street, however, was one-way uphill onto Fifth, and cars were flying around the front of the bus as I neared its rear bumper. This could easily be lethal. The flow of traffic ceased as I pulled up to the bus, and I decided to gamble. I pulled out of the buslane into the oncoming lane just as the light changed. The good news: no more cars would be flying blind around the front of the bus; the bad news: the bus was starting to move, and the bank of stopped traffic facing me also had a green light. Somehow, I found a little burst of strength and opted to try for it. Cynically, selfishly, I figured the car facing me in my lane wasn't going anywhere until the driver could figure out what I was going to do. All I had to do was . . . squeeeeeeeeze by the bus, which appeared to lay off the accelerator just a bit at the end, permitting only barely enough space to cut back in front. I did my best to maintain my renewed pace, thus not slowing the bus more than necessary, and finally I was out of the diesel cloud; the Frick School, my first destination, was in sight.

Just then, a group of cyclists popped up from Forbes, among them Andrew's unmistakeable white Cannondale road bike and Eli's unmistakeable traffic-cone orange T-shirt. Friends! I sped up to catch them, and was only fifty feet behind them as they jumped across Fifth Avenue. We circled around the playground below the school, and found our first check-point on Thackeray. We collected our letters and headed downhill to Fifth, crossing with the signal in front of the college bookstore, and resuming the bus lane. Eli and I in the lead, we approached Bigelow, no bus in sight, heading toward Shadyside. I spied, pointing downhill on Bigelow, a police car, sitting at the intersection. It ran through my head that an asshole cop could give us whopper tickets for what we were doing just as we did it: running the Bigelow intersection pell-mell in the buslane. Inasmuch as we'd be treated like cars if he opted to throw the book at us, I quickly cataloged three or four offenses for which we were eligible and realized that our driver's licenses might not be safe. The next block or so, as we passed in the shadow of the Cathedral, I kept looking back, expecting to see the squad car on our six.

In Shadyside, two of the possible spots were on Ellsworth -- first, the school at Morewood, and alternatively, the school at Filbert, between Aiken and Negley. At the Point, I was pretty sure we had agreed that we'd take our chances on Ellsworth, since the alternative was the outlier -- the Ellis School on Fifth nearly into East Liberty. But as the leaders of my pack climbed out of Oakland on Fifth, I realized that we were not adhering to that plan. Unfortunately, our leaders at that moment were Sir Aaron of Blawnox and Sir Eli of Indiana PA [disclosure: I quipped thus last night, before Dave B. adopted the English conceit for his write-up], not necessarily the best people to hold responsible for the finer points of Shadyside navigation. The problem was, they were too far ahead of me to call out to.

Preferring friends to speed, and the possibility of screwing up in good company to the prospect of screwing up alone, and in general not wanting to stop, withdraw the map, and make sure I was remembering things right, I continued to follow. As we crossed Morewood, there were perhaps ten car lengths between me and the next straggler, Dave W. Just after he passed, a car that had been impatiently stopping and starting behind me, finally cut around me with a vengeance and darted into the right lane in front of me. A car in the left lane, however, pulled out blind into his path, and I was certain that I was about to witness a nasty little accident. All I could think in my fever to compete was: "How do I get around this? Look out for broken glass." Nice guy, right?

Amazingly, nothing happened aside from some hard braking and horn honking, and finally relief: just past Wilkins, the others pulled off the road to reevaluate their plan. As I pulled up, the only thing I couldn't remember was where the Fifth Avenue location was. I called breathlessly, too loud, "Where is the spot on Fifth?" No one answered. "Weren't we supposed to hit Ellsworth first." No one answered. "Where is the spot on Fifth?" "The Ellis School," Aaron replied. "Shit," I said. "That's another mile or so down. We've gotta take a chance on Ellsworth." Somebody asked where we needed to go for that. I paused for just a moment. "Well, we need to swing back for the one spot. Just follow me," I said, remounted, and hopped back into the road.

I led the group left down James, a block before Aiken. Eyeing each four-way stop intersection warily, I never eased up at all, sprinting downhill and calling back a belated "Clear!" once I was in the middle of each intersection. As we neared the bottom, planning to make a left to hit the Morewood site first, I saw a long line of cyclists heading right down Ellsworth. One was David B, identifiable in his brownness. Without bothering to consult with or explain to the others, I swung sharply right to follow the group. My quick calculation was this: if the letter was at Morewood, no halfway smart cyclist would have come across Ellsworth to get to Bloomfield, the next neighborhood. Rather, they would have taken Morewood or some variant along those lines diagonally across into Bloomfield. Hence, the letter wasn't at Morewood. The group was stopped at Aiken; as I pulled up, I asked Dave whether the letter was at Morewood, and he said no. We headed the few blocks to Filbert, where we turned right against the one-way to find our friendly checkpoint awaiting our arrival.

From there, we rode back down the hill, headed left onto Ellsworth, then right onto Aiken. We rode Aiken until it became Liberty, and up into Bloomfield. Once again, I found myself trailing. Andrew had convinced me at Filbert that we ought to try the Winebiddle checkpoint first, and, living in the neighborhood, I figured we could head up Evaline from Liberty. I called as much out to the leaders, but Andrew and Aaron were out of range. Eli, closer to me, signaled right as he approached Evaline, and I called out that we should just stay with the group. It didn't matter. Tell them to head up Winebiddle. At Winebiddle, once again, they flew by, and I told Eli again to just follow them.

Thus, we headed up to the Catholic School on Edmond, a street punctuated by a little fair. Andrew, Aaron, and Eli turned right onto Edmond against the one-way, and I followed. They turned left, however, on Corday, skirting the fair and the school at the same time. I was unconcerned, and rocketed straight into the fair, which wasn't yet running. A few portly carnies with coffee eyed me suspiciously, but didn't raise a voice in protest. The others, turning right on Pearl and right again on Friendship, found me joining them, making up the distance between us by cutting across Edmond. We didn't need to discuss it; the letter was not there.

Together we headed to Bloomfield/Friendship target 2, at Winebiddle and Coal (mislabeled Coral, as Dave B points out). There, we found a vision in an aqua dress from vintage store purgatory with bright red hair. She smiled warmly, offered us water as we each withdrew a letter from her small vintage purse, and then it hit me: I was really, really not okay.

My ears burned my fingers like fresh cups of coffee, my mouth was dry despite all the water I'd been trying to drink, and my stomach was turning slow rolls in my abdomen. I dismounted completely, dropped my bike with uncharacteristic indifference clattering to the grassy median, took off my helmet and the stupid stupid stupid do-rag I had ill-advisedly been wearing beneath it (as though to hold all of the heat in), and collapsed in a heap against the wrought iron fence of the old Victorian banquet hall. Across the street a young boy and his father watched intently as cyclists pulled up and took scraps of paper from the oddly dressed young woman.

I poured water over my head and tried, with what remained of my fried-egg brain, to gauge whether I had simply tapped my resources or was actually in some sort of real danger. I couldn't tell; I hadn't been anywhere near this exhausted since summer baseball workouts in high school. This bothered me greatly; I smoke, I could work out more, I'm not surprised to run into my own limitations. But that's very different than feeling one's body threaten to give up entirely. Nothing was changing as the seconds passed; if anything, I felt worse.

My friends, generously milled at the curb, astride their bikes, pretending that they weren't waiting for me. I said they should go on. Aaron tried to push me, meaning well. I said, "I don't know when, or if, so just go. It's okay." I was happy that they listened; I was pretty sure by then that vomiting was the worst thing that might happen. And I was only a few blocks from home; I could crawl to a cold shower if that's what it took.

Laying against the fence, eyeing two more youngsters who rode up, asking the woman dispensing letters what all of this was about, I ran diagnostic after diagnostic on my self, not liking anything I found. Although I had been drinking excess water since the night before, I had also had two large cups of coffee in the morning, and I had drunk less than 20 oz. during the race, spitting out a lot of what I had put in my mouth. How long I had been riding was anyone's guess.

Finally, the nausea began to pass, and as another large group of riders skidded up, took their letters, and ran, I replaced my helmet (no do-rag this time), and, now soaking wet, mounted my steed. Wonder of wonders, I discovered as I pedaled apprehensively toward Penn, all the water on my body was creating a miraculous cooling effect in the breeze. I picked up the pace a bit, and the effect was more pronounced; I could literally feel my body temperature dropping, and I knew then I would finish the 'cat.

After I turned right on Penn, pedaled past the house I bid for and lost a couple of weeks ago and then the Quiet Storm, two bikes were ahead of me, people I didn't know. As we neared the intersection with Negley, I tried to remember what I could of the map without withdrawing it. I recalled that two of the three possible locations in East Lib were on East Liberty Boulevard. I knew ELB terminated at Negley, so it seemed self-evident that if I hopped onto the Boulevard at its end I could run its length. If the letter were to be found thereon, I'd find it sooner or later. The other riders stayed in the right lane, following Penn toward East Liberty; I signaled left, slid into the left-turn lane, and caught the light, pedaling hard through the turn onto Negley, using the last of my downhill speed to cover ground.

At ELB, I turned right. I spotted Brian heading down ELB the other way, and turning right onto Negley. This increased my conviction that I was heading the right direction, into the heart of East Liberty, a part of town I could know far better than I do. ELB is broad, divided, and on Saturday blessedly quiet. I pedaled past Home Depot as far as Collins before I started thinking maybe I'd screwed up. I dismounted at the corner there, reached around into my bag, and for the first time withdrew the map. There I noticed that Stanton and Collins was the non-ELB East Lib stop, and filed that for later consideration. The two ELB stops, however, were unfamiliar locations, including some German-sounding middle school. I was frustrated, unsure how to proceed. Just then, however, I saw a cyclist coming up the hill on ELB, and looking intent on the finish. If the letter were at Collins and Stanton, I realized, Brian never would have been finishing his ride on ELB, since the ride finished on Stanton, and there would have been no reason to leave Stanton after grabbing the last letter.

Thus, I remounted, turned onto ELB, and headed downhill. A couple of blocks later, I saw a group of riders turning right onto ELB from Broad. Once again, there was Aaron on his killer black SOMA fixie and Eli at the rear of the tight pack in his orange shirt. I pulled up beside, said something incoherent about being a bad penny (a more vulgar version of the sentiment), and slid into the pack, smiling that I'd caught up with my group.

At ELB and Penn, Aaron paused, uncertain. I couldn't figure out why he'd stopped, since over his shoulder I could see the middle school -- Oh, that one -- and several people hanging out below a tree who looked like anything but middle school students. While Aaron and the others dawdled and conferred, I blew right by (later, Aaron said it was only then that he realized I'd resumed riding and rejoined the group), through the intersection and into the parking lot. I hopped the curb onto the grass where the letter awaited, grinding my pedal on the curb as I passed over it. A man was there with a fairly serious-looking camera, shooting at odd angles as one by one the group pulled onto the grass.

From there, the rest is a blur. Back onto Penn into East Lib, right and then left around Penn Circle, right on Highland toward Stanton. At Stanton, Aaron, ahead of me, blurted out "Cop!" as I breezed into the intersection of Highland and ELB, across the island, and right by the police officer in question -- potential nast ticket two of the ride.

A half-block later, Aaron caught up and passed me, and then he led me left down Stanton, to the Union Project, where he and then I limped diagonally across Negley to a smattering of loose applause from those cyclists who'd already arrived. As a group, we placed in the low 20's, not a bad showing for first-timers who made some poor navigation decisions, and early enough to sit around for a while to watch others show up one by three by two.

Water and beer were waiting, but I could only drink water for the first half-hour, leery even of standing for two long as my stomach remained sketchy and the world swooned about me for a good twenty minutes or so after the finish. I drank all the water I could swallow, making up the defecit I'd created during the ride, and looked on in incomprehension as various other riders lit cigarettes. As much as a cigarette soon on the heels of a ride is a tradition for me, it took nearly a half-hour for me to light one after the 'cat. It was that long before I stopped breathing
into the deepest parts of my lungs.

Others looked far more composed than I, but having pushed through a wall was tremendously gratifying. The whole thing, in sum, was one of the best times I've had in ages. And it was all about the company who motivated me and, as Eli said in private correspondence, pulled me around the course. They were the sine qua non. (And their write-ups are much shorter and more entertaining.)


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