I put off writing about this for a few days - still not sure I can get it right, so you may have to excuse some cyclical thoughts or dead-end threads. Initially, I didn’t want to write because I still felt angry and thought that would come out too strongly. Then, I began feeling like it probably didn’t matter enough. Might be correct on that second thought, but here goes:
I got threatened on my commute Monday. The verb choice is not made lightly. I’m used to oblivious brush-back passing, and the odd honk here and there. As I’ve written before, it’s my assumption that auto drivers will do the dumbest thing at the worst possible moment, and that theory is too frequently supported by real-world examples. But, there aren’t many direct interactions. Heck, let’s be honest - most of my commute miles take place in marin county, CA. If you aren’t familiar with the area, suffice to say that the nickname “mellow marin” has significant historical accuracy. You can still find hippies here, and among some circles, it’s a place where Whole Foods is regarded as a Wal*Mart equivilent.
It’s also where many of the silverbacks of cycling live - Gary F, Joe B, Richard C., The Original WTB Gang of Four, et.al. - and although they are associated with the rise of mountainbiking, they have all lent their weight and expertise to the establishment of a national model bicycle commuting program. We, as cyclists using the road for transportation, have to be among the luckiest of riders in the US, gaining funding, respect and awareness when many simply hope not to be run off the roadways.
So, you get cocky. Or maybe you just forget. I’ve run the events of Monday back through my mind, and unlike an earlier incident, cockiness on my part doesn’t seem to have played into it. The unsettling part was that nothing really did. Here are the events:
I’d been working remotely from home all morning, and finally ran out of stuff I could do while wearing shorts and a dirty t-shirt. Wheeled the Zeus out and dressed very non-cycle-y - real person shorts and a short-sleeved collared shirt. It was a warm, sunny mid-day, and climbing over the hill to San Rafael, the sun felt good and I pedaled along pretty easily - thinking about the stuff I had to get done still. Cresting out and beginning to feel the pull of gravity, cars pulled past as they tend to do. The road is wide here, and when the Class 2 bike lane stops at the light, there’s a ton of room to stay out far enough to stay away from the door zone while in no way obstructing traffic. There’s a minor pinch point about halfway down into town, where there’s apartment construction at the narrowest point in the roadway. But, by that point, it’s easy enough to be riding at traffic flow, so a minor interweaving lets everyone continue without slowing.
But, it wasn’t there that the first event caught my attention.
A small white sedan had been rolling downhill pretty slowly - they may have waited tentatively to work past me near the top of the hill, but passed without incident. They seemed to exhibit behaviors of an older driver, other than moving at a noticeably slower speed than normal, no problems, but a certain carefulness that is less common these days. Behind this car, a large, long blue pickup truck zoomed up and tailgated reasonably closely. Again, par for the course.
Ahead, a tractor with a backhoe pulled out from a side street. There’s a considerable construction project starting on the side of the highway, and this was clearly associated with it. The large tires hummed loudly on the blacktop and it dieseled its way down the road for a bit at farm-equipment speed, before positioning itself for a left-hand turn back to another section of the job site. Traffic had stacked up behind the tractor as it waited for a gap in the traffic. The slow sedan was directly behind it and the pickup tight to its bumper.
At this point, there’s not enough room for the cars to pull around for an illegal right-hand pass. I’m pretty sure (see above) that someone will try it, however, so I ease off the pedaling and cover my brake levers, ramp up my spidey-sense and watch for turning front wheels and brake lights dimming. To my suprise, no one goes for the idiot-move. But, as I roll between the traffic and parked cars, I can hear someone yelling, “C’mon! GO! GO!” repeatedly. Turns out to be the driver of the pickup truck. Passing his open window, a lion-sized dog suddenly barks with the resonance and sonic attack of a Johnny Ramone power chord. Big damn dog to have a voice like that, I think.
I roll on down the flattening pitch, eventually getting caught by the red at the first stop light in town. The cross traffic is too thick to make a right turn, and I’m going straight anyway. I’m positioned on the rightmost side of the left lane, because at this time of day, parking is allowed in the next block, and nobody uses the right lane except to make a turn. There’s a cyclist on a neon green mtb waiting over in the center of the oncoming lane, which I notice because it isn’t quite where I’d want to be. Cars move up from behind to make the right turn. Then I hear a voice right in my right ear.
“I hope you’re ready to get hit.”
It’s low and quiet. And it’s very close.
I turn to find the driver of the pickup, window rolled down, staring right at me, sort of a crooked grin on his thin face. The tawny colored dog, which I take to be a bull mastiff, moves clumsily but in an agitated manner in the back of his club cab.
“You’re gonna get hit, you know,” he continues. “You go out and play in traffic, you’re gonna get hit.” He smiled wider and nodded his head.
I’ve thought this part through a few times. I’m convinced that his meaning was, “…and I’m going to do it.” I’ve heard people yell who clearly thought I was an idiot by riding in traffic - they have a tone in their voice that is clearly a warning, like you would give to a child you saw climbing the fence at Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. This guy a foot or so away from me was either a very good actor, or truly felt that he represented the vengeful hand of his god.
I stare back at him. I’ve got no where to go. The dog barks again. I’m a lot less worried about the dog than his owner.
This next bit is the only part I don’t remember clearly. I think I said “Just back off” or something similar. Didn’t yell it, but said it firmly and directly, the way they tell you to say it when you are approached on the street and don’t want to be.
I should note that this type of interaction is not a frequent occurence. While not a gorilla-boy, I’m not a bird-boned climber, nor a plodder who can’t catch up with a burst of speed. I’m alert and aware on the bike and like to think that my physical presence is enough to dissuade folks from nasty outbursts.
I’m watching for the light, which is still green to the cross traffic. Across the intersection, the mountain bike rider decides to become a pedestrian and eases forward, hooks a 90 degree left and wobbles though the crosswalk to the corner, then positions himself on the far right corner for the crosswalk north.
The driver of the pickup - a younger man than myself, wiry, like a skinny dry-wall hanging guy or roofer - is not in any way dissuaded by my physical presence. Indeed, he’s continuing to tell me what a problem I am, ramping up his volume, calling me, among other things, a “fucking faggot”.
The light changes about this time, and he’s back to telling me that I’m going to be hit. Meanwhile, oblivious cyclist on the corner rolls towards us in the crosswalk, pedaling slowly. The pickup driver is yelling now at me, and I am easing into the intersection while repeating flatly, “You need to relax, my friend.” (Although my voice is sounding tight and a little higher now).
As he is looking at me while hitting the gas and starting to turn right, he does not see the cyclist in the crosswalk at first, then manages to stop short with a squeak of tires, looks at at me gesturing with his left hand and yells, “You’re going to get hit, just like this idiot!” More epithets follow as he gets a clear intersection, pounds the accellerator and screeches up the road. Then he’s gone.
My pencam is stashed deep in my bag, so I pull out and arm the camera phone so that I’ll have something ready if he swings around. He doesn’t reappear at the next intersection, or up the roadway, and I realize that (a) I have no idea of what pickup truck model it is, or (b) his license plate.
This second one irks me more, as I have good enough recall of the visuals on his truck to pick it out of a 50 car lineup - it’s been a long time since I was car-guy enough to know an F250 from a Silverado. But, how the heck did I forget to get his license plate? Oh, yeah, I was in the middle of an intersection trying to make sure he didn’t decide to change direction and follow me at ramming speed. Sometimes, Homer says it best: “Doh!”
The adrenaline has kicked in pretty good on this one - I want to find him, track him down, give him what-for, then have him strike me in front of witnesses so I can sue him. I know this is a fantasy. I’m conjuring up scenarios with much more clever retorts and wanting to lash back. I am also deeply embarrassed by these thoughts and wonder at the intensity of them. They burble up and distract me for much of the rest of the day.
Later that night, my wife had brought home a copy of “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion“. We sat on the couch and watched horrendous histories and events being related - long imprisonment, beatings, cattle prods in places you don’t want them, planned genocide - and yet through it, as the Dalai Lama - as well as the nuns and monks who received these injustices, but were lucky enough to live through them - denounce and describe these actions, they are careful to point out that they bear no hatred towards the Chinese in general, or the people who specifically engaged in these actions.
It is awesome to consider that.
And earlier in the day I’m here, in nice, safe California, ready to picture myself going toe-to-toe with this other person, who was clearly working out some significant set of issues. Pretty unimpressive.
But, I guess I felt a little good because I didn’t actually start yelling back, raising the stakes until it became - to all outward impressions - an inexplicable argument between two idiots. But, maybe that’s a manifestation of unhelpful pride and ego.
It remains a funny balance - the desire to do something so you aren’t a passive target and the need to remain detached enough to act rationally and clearly, to anticipate where the real danger might come from and react appropriately. It would have been nice to have the clarity of mind to have had the pencam out, remained calm and observant, and then snapped a shot of the rear of his truck as he went away. But, it didn’t even occur to me at the time.
There would’ve been a lot of fun things to do, I guess - take a photo of his face, for example, and tell him that it would go well with the police report - y’know, movie-kinda-lines that make you seem clever.
But, in the real world, in this specific example, it strikes me that it would have raised the stakes in a dramatic and reasonably uncontrollable way. The pickup driver was going to be antagonistic, but he did leave. If I’d shoved a camera in his face, I’m not sure what would have happened. Ultimately, it’s best not to amplify a situation.
On the other hand, the phrase “loose cannon” comes to mind. If he’d thumped that cyclist in the crosswalk, or if there had been a pedestrian up in the mid-block crosswalk when he was reaching escape velocity, the rest of his day would’ve taken on a very different texture. He is still out there, obviously, and as I think about how he was going and turning, he had to have some local knowledge of the streets to have taken that right. I hadn’t noticed him and his big truck and dog before, out there either really having some deep-seated rage issues or at least enjoying jerking peoples chains (and those two things are pretty indistinguishable from a step or two back.) But, I’m pretty sure I’ll note his license plate if there is a next time.
Which means it falls back my way again. I have no desire to “teach him a lesson” or anything so schoolyard. A situation can’t ramp up unless there’s two folks engaged in making that happen. Since the only thing I can control is my own attitude and actions… well, there ya go - personal responsibility rears its ugly head. They say character is how you act when no one is watching. It would seem to apply to this situation as well.