Thröwback Week #2: Death

Dear Loyal Readers,

I am away this week. However, rather than let this blog lie fallow, I’ve put on my rubber gloves, rummaged around in my archives, and and retrieved one moldy post per day for recycling. Maybe you’ve read them before, maybe you haven’t, but each is a reminder of a simpler time when road bikes had rim brakes, fixies were still cool, and gravel was just a piece of road grit in Jobst Brandt’s eye. Anyway, I’ll be back on Monday, February 27th, but in the meantime just think of this as the “Best Of Old Bike Snob,” or “BOOBS” for short.

Also, a sincere thank you to all of you who have donated to the continued mediocrity of this blog. If you haven’t and you’d still like to do so, details are here. If you haven’t and you don’t that’s fine too. Thanks as always for reading, and I’ll see you back here on Monday the 27th.

Yours etc.,

Tan Tenovo

The Indignity of Commuting by Bicycle: Death

[Originally published September 11th, 2008]

Yesterday, on my morning commute, I made one of my usual turns and encountered a police officer as well as a strip of yellow tape. The street was closed to traffic. As many New York City cyclists know, this can be a confusing moment. Although you’re legally supposed to follow the same rules as any other vehicle operator, in practice sometimes you can do whatever you want and sometimes you can’t. You inhabit a strange middle ground. You can run a thousand reds in front of a thousand police cars, then one day you’ll suddenly get a ticket. Similarly, when a street is closed, sometimes they’ll expect you to take a different route, and sometimes they’ll let you slip right on through. I slipped right on through.

At the next corner I discovered the reason for the street closure. There was a road bike lying on the pavement right behind an empty school bus and just next to a nail polish red pool of blood. If the blood had been wine it would have been enough to get you pretty drunk. I’m not one to linger at accident scenes, and I’m definitely not one to take pictures of them, but I did ask a nearby officer what had happened. “Accident,” he replied without looking at me. In my experience that’s how police usually respond when someone’s died. I cringed a little and went on my way.

While I thought about the blood for the rest of my commute, I didn’t try to find out what had happened, and as the day wore on I forgot about it. In fact I didn’t think about it again until this morning as I rode through Prospect Park, and happened upon this scene right around the spot where I had my transcendent ride among the geese:

You have to feel a little sorry for monks, because they can’t do anything normal without it seeming either spiritually significant or ironic to a bystander. He was probably just calling the dry cleaner to see if his spare robes were ready, but to me the sight of a monk on a cellphone seemed simultaneously profound and funny, as if he were on a hotline to enlightenment. As I contemplated this, I suddenly remembered the blood from yesterday. Not the bike, not the bus, just the blood. Morbidly, I wondered if any of it was still there.

Approaching the corner, I saw some people pondering a lamp post, and as I got closer I saw the cheap deli flowers, so I knew someone had in fact died yesterday:

I asked the people if they knew how the accident had happened. They were mostly useless and doled out an ignorant pudding of speculation and opinion, but it seemed like the cyclist had made a right turn at the intersection, maybe at high speed, and hit the bus. Before I left I took a photo of the sign by the flowers, to which someone had added a pointless message in black ballpoint pen which read “Imagine no cars”:

I wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything. It seemed to me the problem here was not with cars but with bicycles and school buses, two things I think most of us agree are useful and necessary, despite the fact that they may have come together disastrously in this particular instance. Personally, I feel the only thing more depressing than a makeshift roadside memorial is a pointless and simplistic faux-John Lennon sentiment riding piggyback on a makeshift roadside memorial. It’s sort of like going down to Ground Zero and spraypainting “Airplanes Suck.” Speaking of spraypainting, I’m sure someone’s preparing a ghost bike as I type this. As I’ve said before, if I were to make a premature exit via bicycle I would never want a ghost bike. (Though I must admit the idea of a Scattante Empire State Single Speed ghost bike is oddly appealing to me.)

In any case, for the second morning in a row I found myself contemplating blood and death during my commute. I also thought about the middle ground cyclists occupy as I mentioned earlier, and how it extends well beyond law enforcement. As a human being you’re never really all that far from death no matter what you’re doing, but when you’re on a bicycle you’re especially close. When I’m on a bike I think of death as a membrane so thin you can’t see it because when all is going well you’re looking at it from the invisibly narrow side, not the all-encompassingly wide side. But when things go awry, and a series of decisions and coincidences sends you directly towards it, it’s all you can see. And the death membrane has extraordinary wicking properties, so sometimes all you need to do is touch it in order to wind up on the other side of it in a puff of vapor like an evaporating bead of sweat.

We all behave a little differently in this precarious middle ground, too. Some of us ride cautiously, and some of us ride recklessly. Some of us obey all the rules but without that extra level of comprehension that allows you to make a decision when the rules no longer apply, and some of us disobey the rules but have the intuition and experience to successfully slip through unharmed. And some of us just ride blithely along, waving our hands in the air as we ride our wobbly bikes over bumpy expansion joints on the Manhattan Bridge, avoiding tragedy simply by dumb luck like Mr. Magoo wandering through a construction site:

As I rode behind that last rider this morning, I realized it’s this sort of disregard that can be most infuriating. For those of us who respect death because we know on some level that we ride with it every day, it can be frustrating to watch people who don’t seem to know it rides right beside them. Perhaps that’s even why some of us favor a certain austerity when it comes to our bikes and our attire. Sure, it’s important not to take cycling and life too seriously, but at the same time tragedy is all the more tragic when the victim looks ridiculous. (Walking into a room full of dead bodies is one thing; walking into a room full of dead bodies in clown suits is something else entirely.) Yet perhaps most infuriating of all is that one can take every precaution one can and still meet with disaster, yet the salmon chatting on the phone with a shopping bag full of $300 jeans hanging off the handlebars will live to ride another day and smoke yet another pack of American Spirits.

Then again, whether you fear death, respect it, or ignore it, it’s always there. One second you’re riding along with the flow:

And the next thing you know traffic, circumstances, and fate align themselves in such a way that there’s nothing between you and the great tacky tinsel-festooned afterlife except an invisible soul-wicking membrane:

I don’t know the story behind yesterday’s accident, and to be perfectly honest I haven’t been compelled to find out. I’m just going to do my best to keep on this side of the membrane for a little while longer. I hate street fairs.

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