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, April 18, 2006

Right Hook

I'm laying on the street at the corner of Penn and 33d, Susan beside me, looking up at the bumper and grille of a big old Lexus. Lexus, the car I'd been focusing on when it all went to shit. My head having lifted without incident, I begin to pick myself up, bringing my knees up beneath me. And then the Lexus honks. It fucking honks. Fucking car.

I find my feet, stand up and swivel to face the car. "FUCK YOU!," I yell, in my best Jersey snarl.

My point having been made, I bend down to retrieve Susan, raking her upright by her steering tube, and dragging her and myself to the curb where I set her down gently. The Lexus hasn't moved, and the driver has gotten out, already on his cellphone to 911 or the police. He's gesturing at the phone and looking at me: "Do you need a medic?" he asks. He actually uses the word "medic."

It's a really good question; I don't know. I go back over the fall in my head. I was taking it easy this morning, first time on the bike after an 85-mile weekend, and I eased through Lawrenceville quietly and without incident, my legs spry and quickening to the brisk morning air. I shot a couple of narrow openings at moderate speed, nothing special, and as I reached 34th Street, where Penn and Butler merge, I picked up the pace, using the gentle downslope to set the cadence for my run into the Strip District.

Traffic was backed up from 32d Street, but the line of cars was moving only slightly slower than I was. I know 33d Street is a dangerous intersection, because cars tend to make last-minute rights to slide over to Smallman for the ride downtown. I'm the sort of driver who makes decisions like that on the fly, based on what's going on directly in front of me, and I've seen others do the same -- jumping out of the line of traffic when they draw even with the turn, unsignaled right turns, lethal.

Let me repeat: I know Penn and 33d is a dangerous intersection.

As I near 33d, however, I'm focusing on the wrong car, a Lexus. I'm at his quarterpanel, in his blindspot, as I near the intersection and I deliberately add some speed to bring myself up to his fender, where I'll be in his field of view. Most people hit only what they don't see; being seen is everything.

Thing is, while bringing myself clearly into his field of view, I've put myself on the quarterpanel of the vehicle in front of him, a silver metallic Chevy Trailblazer, and now the intersection is upon us.

And just like that, more or less at once, Trailblazer signals right and cuts hard for 33d. As soon as the wheels turn in, I know this is it, that first, inevitable, nasty fall on a city street. I've been waiting for it, sanguine. But with it upon me I fight, I don't want it.

My instincts are good by now, and I've been in situations nearly this nasty before and gotten out of them in one piece and still on two wheels. I lift out of the saddle in automatic mode and lock the rear wheel; this sort of skidding is one of my peculiar strengths on the fixie, not just the skidding but the angling of the skid, stopping on a dime, literally sliding into a motionless stance, balanced. But skidding is not a terribly efficient way to stop, and I'm sliding way too fast and Trailblazer's not moving out of my path nearly fast enough. I've violated the principal rule of riding in the city: I have no obvious out.

At this point, a few things happen at once. One, I remember that I have a brake, now, something I use so seldom I tend to forget it's there. My right hand slides up the bar to it and clamps down. Two, I sense perhaps enough daylight to take the sharp right with Trailblazer, between it and the curb. I might strike a pedal, but that will either not upset me or put me on the ground most likely behind Trailblazer. I can also lean into Trailblazer, a maneuver I've never tried but I've heard tell of; it's not the sort of thing one practices idly, invention born of necessity, rather.

I'm still weighing these options, skidding, clamped down on the brake and drawing ever so near the car when the rear wheel hops up behind me and hits me in the ass. This is so remote from anything good, especially as I'm now nearly on top of the Trailblazer; it signals loss of control. The wheel touches down briefly, but it's right up behind me again because now I'm pretty much in Trailblazer's backseat and my right hand is doing what millions of firing neurons and ganglia, one for each year of the evolutionary history coded into my DNA, tell it to do -- Squeeeeeeeze.

I'm airborne and tumbling, until finally, heels over rear, I crunch to the pavement on some combination of left hand, left shoulder, and cranium.

Of course, Moon rides with a helmet, which a) protects against severe brain injury, something we all know Moon cannot afford, and b) makes a really creepy sound when striking pavement at high speed under a substantial amount of weight, a striated crunch that suggests medical halos and spinal injury.

This catches us up, no? Right.

So now I'm on the sidewalk, Lexus man asking whether I need an ambulance, and two or three others who saw the fall milling around me in kind concern for my health. They're all ashen. I glean from this fact, and the fact that Lexus evidently called 911 before my body came to full rest on the pavement, that whatever just happened to me must have looked really scary. Clipped into the pedals, of course, when I go flying the bike flies with me; we probably both, Susan and I, flew through the air for a half-second and fell hard in a tangle of steel and flesh. Poor Susan. I pity the bystanders; I, too, would be appalled to witness something like that. I'm reminded of an unbiked motorcyclist I once watched slide across perhaps 60 feet of sidewalk and a few yards of grass before coming to an abrupt stop against a chainlink fence. He stood and brushed himself off that long-ago afternoon, just as I'm doing now.

The adrenaline hits, with the pain sure to follow. I'm up, I can feel my extremities, I don't have any obvious symptoms suggesting head injury except for the creeping sense of abstraction that attends surprise trauma. A youngish woman, pretty and petite in too much makeup and a suit so purple it prompts me to second-guess my initial diagnosis of my lack of head injury, is especially concerned. "Are you sure you're okay?" she presses, in a tone of voice suggesting that she won't believe any answer I give her.

"Yeah. Maybe." I shake my head, hands on hips, and turn my back on her, looking back up Penn as though I might run back the tape, analyze what went wrong, figure out why everyone looks so freaked out. There's no conscious decision on my part to shout, but there it is, a throaty yawp rumbling up from somewhere deep inside me and climbing skyward. Frustration, pain, fear, adrenaline -- I am, as they say, jacked up. It almost feels good. Almost.

It's probably just as well that Trailblazer's driver didn't stop. I don't think the driver saw what happened behind him or her anyway, because anyone with that much car has a corresponding amount of insurance and a sense of duty to match. I'm not saying Trailblazer shouldn't have seen or shouldn't have stopped. But Trailblazer didn't. And I'm over it.

Three strangers pacing with nervous looks on their faces wait behind me, at once relying on me for their cues and suspicious of any cues I offer, and then a vision emerges on the horizon, an old attorney on his bike, a man who works in my building and rides to work often, whom I've come to know only just by name, call him Steve, in his sixties I imagine or older, an old-school athlete with the soul if not the resume or the frame of a boxer. He rolls up on his old but lovingly maintained roadbike and dismounts, his tall slender body an aging geometrical testimony, points and lines and angles more fluid than his proportions suggest they would be, at home in his age.

A site for sore eyes.

In the ensuing few minutes, Steve's aura of responsibility and his personal familiarity with me combined with my continuing protestations that I don't need an ambulance, don't need a cop, really don't need anything but the time to figure out what's broken and how to fix it, have convined the others, all with places to go, to move on. I make an effort to pat each on the arm, look each of them in the eye, thank them for their kind concern. I don't take names. There's some discussion of Trailblazer, but I assure them that I was at least as in the wrong as Trailblazer was, that my fall may not have been evident to the driver, that I've got good coverage should anything come up and am not much inclined to sue in any event.

Steve says something to one of them about being my lawyer. Than adds that I'm a lawyer too. Soon after, they all meander off. Infer from that what you will.

The rest warrants recounting only in summary. We righted Susan to see if she was still in order, and discovered that the front wheel was out of joint. With no obvious bends, however, I immediately suspect that the axle has just shifted in the drop-out, which would explain why the tire is rubbing one side of the fork. I make as though to continue my ride, and I'm not just gesturing -- it seems like the right thing to do. Steve, balks. "I think you should go to the hospital, let them check you out," he says. I'm ambivalent.

All I can think, at first, is "I have things to do." But I'm not just banged up, I realize belatedly, or at least I can't assume, based on available data, that I'm just banged up. As the adrenaline slowly diffuses into my system, I discover that I'm in a lot of pain, most of it in and radiating from my left shoulder, which hit hardest in the fall.

I test my left arm, raise it above my head, and my body buckles beneath it. For the first time, the depth of the pain registers. This isn't a mere contusion, whatever else it is, and my arm really isn't all right in any conventional sense of that word.

"The ER, maybe," I concede, still hesitant.

"You should go," Steve reaffirms. "Can we get you a cab?" Steve asks. "Do you have a phone?" I say I've got money, then return to my bag to check that my phone hasn't been crushed. It's in fine working order. I look into my wallet skeptically. Steve much catch my look. Instantly, his wallet's out: "Just let me lend you $40," he says, withdrawing the bills.

"No. Thank you. Really. Just help me lock up the bike and I'll take it from here. No concussion, I swear," I say, and offer a smile designed to dissuade any alternative diagnosis, a smile that surely doesn't reach my eyes. I'm not much for smiling just now.

It then dawns on me that my roommate probably is only just now leaving the house. He has a wagon and a flexible schedule. I call. Tell him the minimum. Ask for a ride to the hospital. He agrees, of course.

Steve, however, keeps company until Roomie arrives, and helps me deal with a police officer. Evidently, the Lexus guy was on the phone long enough with 911 that they decided it would be best to send a badge to the site to sniff around. She, too, was wonderful; she encouraged me to file a just-in-case report, and took as much information as I had about the car. Candidly, I explained my complicity in the accident, and she sucked her teeth disapprovingly but not judgmentally.

I fish into my bag for my cigarettes. I need one.

Two hours later, leaving Presby, the verdict: nothing broken, nothing torn, a knee badly bruised and a shoulder pretty well relieved of its skin and swollen to within an inch of its life. My left arm feels like someone's pulling down on it pretty much any time I stand and let it hang, but I've been worse.

I'll be at work tomorrow, and back on Susan no later than Friday. And perhaps I'll be more cautious, or perhaps not. While today's misstep wouldn't have happened had I been more cautious, there's a fine line between dumb bad luck and recklessness, and today's fall bestrides it. That said, if I am nervous I'll allow it, hold back, for a while at least.

End of story.


Anonymous eli said...

glad your ok, if a little worse for way. good luck getting back on the horse.

6:01 PM  
Blogger brian said...

I would like to say something like "welcome to the club" but I'm fairly certain that would bring about accident number two in short order. Glad that you're generally ok, though.

Also, good to see you didn't let a little accident prevent you from logging those miles in We Endure.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous aaron said...

happy to hear that the body is still intact. best of luck getting back on it, I know you will without problem. what were you saying about buying a new helmet this past weekend?

10:33 PM  
Blogger Shar said...

Glad you (and the bike) are ok! Hope you heal up quickly.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous May said...

As I would say to a young boy who is learning to ride his bike "It is good that nothing really bad happened. Try to be as careful as you can and continue riding".

10:23 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

thanks everyone for the concern and support. day 2, it's turning out, is surprisingly mild. make no mistake -- i'm in a lot of pain -- but overnight things improved, which suggests i'm moving quickly in the right direction. in fact, my shoulder improved enough that i'm starting to wonder whether the dual wrist sprains (the left is kind of bad; the right came up over night and isn't that big of a deal i don't think) are going to be the more persistent problem over time.

but all in all, i maintain that i'm very lucky, and this shouldn't be too big of an issue in the weeks to come.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Didn't I explain my accident to you the other day? Yours is eerily similar to my January encounter with a Transit van. But it's hard to learn from other people's mistakes, huh? You did make a good choice in electing not to land on your face.

A couple weeks after my accident one of my co-workers, a very occasional cyclist, was mentioning the utter impossibility of riding a mile or two to work. Of course I protested and told her it was simple. She looked at me with my stitches and splint, and said, "No, not after what happened to you" I frowned, and pronounced, "Do not be ruled by fear."

You are lucky, as I was. Let's continue so.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous accident at work said...

jeez this sounds like a pretty bad experience. glad nobody suffered a really bad head injury

7:26 AM  

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