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, November 18, 2005


A series of unfortunately flawed hypotheses:

1. Waking with an eye-crossing hangover is no excuse for not riding one's bike to work.

2. Waking with an eye-crossing hangover on a blustery, snow-flurrying, sub-freezing morning with a wind chill in the teens (for those fortunate enough to be standing still) is no excuse for not riding one's bike to work.

3. In the shower, time stops. Hence, no matter how long one stays in the shower, one emerges at the same time.

3.1. Also, hot water leeches the residual alcohol from one's bloodstream at a rate defined by individual body chemistry, hence, were one to stay in the shower indefinitely (a matter of no consequence, in light of (3)), one would achieve a state of eye-straightened unhungoverness.

3.1.1. A tall glass of cold skim milk, washing down multi-vitamin and zinc tabs, has memory eliding properties that don't so much erase as they do take the edge off one's recollection of cross-eyed hungoverness preceding the therapeutic shower envisaged in 3.1. (And under (3), recall, it's not late yet. No seriously, just don't even look at the clock; wherever the hands are, they might as well spell out "EARLY.")

4. I am faster to work, door to door, when I ride in than when I bus, no matter how strong the wind and how weak my resolve.

4.1. And this is not because I refuse to learn the bus schedule in my new neighborhood.

5. The 90-Degree Turn Theorem of Windproofing: The more times wind has to change direction on its way from the outside of one's garment to the inside of one's garment, the less wind will penetrate to the skin. Hence, layering summer weight jerseys is an effective way to combat wind. To the extent this is true, it might have something to do with some Bernoulli-esque principle or another, but I prefer to think of it as a function of frustration. I like to imagine the wind frustrated. Especially when it feels as though the wind consists of evil nanomachines bearing straightrazors. Frustrated evil nanomachines. With nanostraightrazors.

6. Smacking someone's side-view mirror with one's messenger bag while on a bike comes with different ethical obligations than doing so with one's car, both of which differ from the ethical obligations that attend, say, hitting said mirror with a baseball bat.

November is the cruelest month. In fact, that's (7).

7. November is the cruelest month.

Softshell, skullcap, lobsterclaw gloves, neoprene socks -- I'm talking old skool, bitches. Still, all the technology in the world doesn't brace me for the view from the kitchen windows, first one lonely flake eddying idly at eye level above the patio, a scout, an invisible all-clear gesture perhaps, and then others, a few, then too many to count, swirling. I'm drinking a tall glass of milk, because it seems a more appealing idea than my usual orange juice.

In the hall an uncommonly complicated ritual of zipping and cinching and tucking, adjusting, using up all that time I didn't use in the shower. Finally outside, somewhat surprised at how mild it initially feels, a momentary suspicion that I've overdressed, which lasts precisely as long as it takes me to mount Sue and take off.

She's happy, quiet, smooth. I'm bundled, bound, my lobster claw hands fumble a bit with the bars, but the last time I wore them I had gears and brakes to worry about. This time all they need to do is hold a bar; they don't interfere.

Lingering at the bottom of the will for the light to change, playing out each spin like a climber's rope, gently, foot over foot. My cheeks feel rosy, my breath crystalline. The light facing Butle turns yellow and I let out the rope more generously now, releasing in full a moment after the light turns red, angling left across the line and to my place beside the berm, using the last of the hill to gather speed.

I don't feel protected inside so much clothing; I feel naked. I'm not overdressed.

Butler is reasonably quiet, and each bump on the pavement rattles my tailbone unpleasantly, even through my corduroy trousers and the padding of my tights. Was it only a week or two ago that I made this ride in baggy shorts?

Through Lawrenceville, I time most of the lights perfectly, easing by the line of cars backd up at Main, then at 40th Street, eyeing each car on the right warily for a door, each car on the left for any sign of an unsignaled right turn. I'm down low on the bars as though to evade the wind's regard, the palms of my hand resting gently where my bars' bullhorns turn upward jauntily, forearms laying on the cross bars comfortably, my new favorite riding position.

Somewhere in the twenties, on Penn, I pull up momentarily for a light asking the cross street permission to cross against the signal. On the corner a grizzled man retreating into a bedraggled plaid jacket, hip length, hides behind his sun glasses, cringes away from his hat, and speaks.

"Ain't it a little cold for a ride?" Hailing volume. Friendly voice, rough in all the right places.

"Sure is that," creeping a moment longer than necessary to deliver the line. "Shoulda thoughta that before I left the house."

He laughs; a moment shared. We'll both remember this encounter fondly later in the day. I'll write about it, I know.

Penn Avenue is quiet, no doors open in my path, no cars encroach unnecessarily on my left elbow. The back of my neck is flash frozen where my wet hair escapes the bottom edge of my synthetic skull cap, and my ears consider voicing some dissatisfaction notwithstanding their thin cover. At the top of my field of view, the top edge of my cycling sunglasses share a profile with a child's rendering of a seagull, a shallow articulated V.

Past the shops and nearing the 16th Street bridge, I contemplate the line of cars waiting at the light. The bridge intersection is the most complicated intersection after Lawrenceville, and where cars are lined up on the right waiting, some signaling a turn onto the bridge, I grow alert, weighing the benefits of trying to reach the light before it changes along the right side. When I'm sure I won't make the light, I either slow or head for the strip of pavement between the two lines of waiting cars.

Today, however, I figured to make the light before it greened and I was a jealous lover to my brisk pace. So I swept up the right of traffic, counting turn signals, and watching the cars creep to time a narrow passage between the inching cars and a large pick-up truck parked unusually close to the intersection.

I don't think about the adjustments I make. My legs sort it out. I'm all eyes and ears. Running scenarios. Modular behaviors. My riding eyes are almost interchangeable with my driving eyes; I watch for the same subtle signals; I covet grace, unconsciously resisting braking and rapid changes of speed like a mule the yoke.

What my eyes see my other systems process and evaluate, and herein lies the problem. Sometimes intelligence is massaged, spun, distorted.

And so it was that I failed to anticipate that the blue pick-up truck on the left, creeping forward, would arrive abreast of the yellow parked pick-up truck as I would. The blue truck, positioned further right in the lane than the other vehicles and prematurely angling toward the curve as though lunging toward an agreeable task, was a beast's closing jaw and I was the Millennium Falcon streaking toward an uncertain fate.

Between the trucks a keening noise occupied my constricting throat and my eyes shot back and forth between the two shoulder-level side-view mirrors, which, unbelievably, were lining up just in time for my passage, leaving my lean upper body less clearance than it requires facing square. A wobble due to a bump in the road stopped my heart as I contemplated ricocheting between these trucks toward the ground, all thumps and clangs and grunts. As I reached the mirrors, I tightened my midriff, lowering my shoulders like a running back piercing a sliver of daylight in the line of scrimmage, right shoulder dropping lower and pulling back to avoid the lower and more threatening mirror. My keening had become a drawling yell which stopped abruptly with the clap of my bag against the parked truck's mirror.

Then I was free, the jaws snapping shut behind me I imagine, and had about thirty feet to sort out the intersection, which was by then the furthest thing from my mind. As I drew even with the quarterpanel of a silver Mazda sedan, I realized belatedly that it was turning right and almost certainly had no idea I was there. If the car had signaled, my intelligence organizations had failed to observe it, and I was terribly exposed. Immediately I locked the rear wheel and arched my thighs into a controlled skid, gauging the level of danger, freed as only a new hazard can free me from the jarring memory of a blameless mirror smote. The skid worked out perfectly; I dropped perhaps half my speed as the Mazda turned across my path at spitting distance, began pedaling as it passed, and streaked past its bumper with a foot or two to spare, my respiration soft and even, my legs innocent of trembling, and a hint of sweat between my back and base layer, under my bag.

Just another ride to work.

Only settled into my office do I realize the depth and power of my hangover. Queasy all morning, suggestions of vertigo accompany abrupt changes of direction and most other movements, a bottomless craving for milk and chocolate, an odd aversion to the water my body most needed. How did I ride to work? How would I make it home?

At 6pm, the air is more frigie, the wind stiffer, my softshell black and dangerously invisible. Crossing in front of the Omni from Liberty toward Penn, a woman wound drum tight inside a peacoat, startled by an apparition sneaking by a stopped car toward the crosswalk, murmurs almost too soft to hear, "Try obeying the traffic signs."

Baffled by the insinuation -- what traffic sign? what offense did I commit beyond being where she least expected me? -- I say the first thing that comes to mind: "Try staying in the crosswalk, Officer."

An odd exchange of unnecessary cruelties to offset the streetside poetry of the morning's encounter, two diametric exempla of how one tends to give as he receives, and an air of dissatisfaction in the night.

I like that I'm invisible to pedestrians in the evening, silent and stealthy. That my invisibility extends to squirrels and cats has proven hazardous in unexpected ways, but it seems a small price to pay for barely even being there, a shadow, a driver's suspicion the source of which he cannot name, some shimmer in a mirror for a moment espied in his peripheral vision, sight and processing.

On Smallman Street the breeze is at my back, my toes numb not from the cold but from the pressure of squeezing thick neoprene socks into tight shoes, I approach my maximum comfortable spin. Only once, for no more than ten yards, halfway home to Lawrenceville, does one strong gust reach down like an invisible hand and grasp my chest, stiffening my blood and stealing my speed until in a moment I have lost nearly all of my speed. In its wake, I imagine powering home through a sustained wind of such strength; soon enough, I promise myself, before returning to more pressing matters: the darkness, the pavement, the chin I remember having but can no longer feel, the zipper digging into my neck.

So perhaps my commute isn't the quiet, bucolic idyll of rolling hills and brooks -- brooks! -- by moonlight that Brian enjoys during his new commute, any more than my newly stripped down bike is akin to his newly well-equipped cruiser. My route, like his before, is the city -- potholes, traffic indifferent to proximity piloted by cellphone yammering young professionals, car doors yawning mandibularly for a shivering Jonah racing inexorably toward his fate, unpredictable pedestrians and the merciless consequences of one's own fecklessness -- but at any temperature, in any condition of body or road, it exceeds its alternatives.


Blogger Rob said...

Actually, if you are still suffering from a hangover, there's a good chance you're still legally intoxicated -- and at the very least you're impaired, if only by the hangover.

The bus would have been a better choice, if only because I enjoy reading your posts and would hate for them to be stopped.

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Yaga said...

"the wind consists of evil nanomachines bearing straightrazors"

Heee! Oh, this is just excellent.

9:14 AM  
Blogger David said...


..."Lingering at the bottom of the will"...

the will. is this not what drives us each moring to punish our respective selves with the runing and riding and such? often have i lingered at the bottom of the will, trying to decide if i should pack it all in and go back to bed, or shake it off and make haste towards the door.


the king of tpyos.

10:19 AM  
Blogger jason said...

Slap a brake on that thing and don't get yourself killed. That sounded really hairy, I'm glad it worked out alright.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous May said...

They have already said it: lovely post, indeed.

3:08 PM  

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