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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Re cycling

It’s 59 degrees in State College today.  I’m in my English department office and I have the window open.  I rode my bicycle to my seminar yesterday, and again to my office hours today.  I’ve never done that in a February.  And we didn’t even get hit by the record-setting snowstorm that covered New York and New England last weekend, so there isn’t any lingering snow in sight.  You know, I could grow to like this whole “climate change” thing.  Besides, there’s so much of northern Canada still underpopulated, and I hear Antarctica is a great place to raise a family.  So I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Riding home yesterday I had a bicycling flashback.  I’m not much of a cyclist, and I don’t have much of a bicycle (though I heart Janet for getting me one for my birthday two years ago; it’s definitely the best vehicle for getting to and around campus).  Just four speeds, but it looks pretty cool, being black and silver like the Raiders.  It’s the first bicycle I’ve owned in over twenty years.  Here’s what happened to the last one.

In 1981-83, when I worked as a word processor at Simpson Thacher Bartlett in midtown Manhattan, a new cadre of middle management human- resources dweebs arrived in the corporate world and began harassing the clerical staff.  By the time I left New York, the HR dweebs had outlawed Walkmen in the office, even though the word processors, in our windowless room, had no direct contact with attorneys (and thus no need to keep their ears open for orders, requests, demands, or ringing telephones).  They argued that listening to music distracted us from the task of revising all those loans, tax memoranda, and merger-and-acquisition documents.  They implemented a dress code.  They tried to drop the overtime “meal allowance” for night-shift WP staff from $6.50 (dinner) to $2.50 (breakfast) on the grounds that no one eats dinner after midnight.  The fact that no one in New York eats dinner for $6.50 somehow escaped them.  And this was in a firm that charged clients $500 per billable hour in 1981.  But I’m proud to say that I fought that one and won on behalf of all my brothers and sisters on the late shifts.  It was my only victory over the HR crew: the other issue on which I challenged them, their brand-new lateness policy, remained in place.

That policy penalized employees if they were more than five minutes late for the start of a shift three times in the course of a month.  I pointed out to the dweebs that with the exception of myself and two other guys (actors who had chosen word processing over waiting tables for their regular-income jobs), the entire support staff lived in the outer boroughs, and had no way of insuring that their various buses and trains would reliably get them to work right on the dot.  I asked for a fifteen-minute period instead.  The dweebs, being dweebs, responded that the support staff should simply plan to arrive extra-special early to avoid lateness penalties.

Yes, well.  I lived only four miles away from the office, but after one week in which two of my west side IRT trains broke down, leaving me late for work and within one five-minute mishap of suffering lateness penalties, I went and bought a crappy used bicycle for $100.  I called it the Plymouth Duster of bicycles.  But it got me to work on time.

More than that, it gave me tremendous adrenaline rushes once I got out of Central Park and into midtown each morning.  And the trip back home was even better.  For those were the years in which the city created bus lanes on Madison Avenue in order to ease the pressure on bus traffic heading to the Queensboro Bridge: through 60th Street, the right two lanes of Madison were off limits to all vans, cabs, trucks, and just plain cars.  Well, the bike messengers and I loved that.  We would slip into the narrow space between the bus lanes, which at 5 pm were lined with buses as far as you could see, and take off.  I thought of it as the urban-bicycle equivalent of surfing, and it was definitely tubular.  Getting out of the tube was tricky, of course, and there was always the possibility that a bus might creep out of its lane, which would leave a cyclist plastered to the side of the bus alongside the display ad, where he would doubtless remain until someone peeled his flattened ancient-Egyptian form off the bus a couple of days later.  But it was, to say the least, a rush.

When I moved to Charlottesville in 1983, I brought my bike with me.  I didn’t have a car, and I believe Charlottesville’s public transportation system consisted of one single bus making lazy circles around the county.  But one day in my very first week in Charlottesville, while I was riding my crappy used bike back to my crappy graduate-student apartment, I realized that I had never been in a left-turn lane before.  Three years of riding around Manhattan, and I’d never once seen a left-turn lane.  Damn!  And here I was trying to make this turn, and like a fool, I was on the left side of a left turn lane on busy four-lane US route 29.  So, looking behind me to make sure I had the room to cross over, I pedaled to the right side of the lane . . .

. . . and flipped completely over my handlebars, heels over head, and smack onto the back of the flatbed truck that had stopped in front of me.

I broke my sunglasses—but nothing more, miraculously enough.  Traffic stopped, and I picked myself up and dusted myself off, apologizing to the truck driver, who, for his part, couldn’t believe that a dumb-ass cyclist had done a 270 onto his flatbed.  (He was extremely kind, actually.) In response, I thanked him for having a flatbed, and for making sure that the payload area was empty and ready for my arrival.  Because, needless to say, if he’d had a mess of equipment back there, that would have hurt; if I’d hit a car instead, I would have wound up on the trunk or the roof, where I probably would have slid off and into the street; and if I’d hit any ordinary truck, I would have gone right into the back end, head first.  Was I wearing a helmet?  Of course not!  Why would anyone need a bicycle helmet?

I’m glad I lived through my first week in Charlottesville.  And I learned how to be more careful with a bicycle, too.  But to this day, I remember that accident vividly, and I’ve always found it kind of pathetically comic that I survived three years of biking in Manhattan, riding the bus-lane tube, dodging thousands of pedestrians and suddenly-opened car doors, and twice being deliberately jostled by crazy cabbies on Park Avenue at 15 mph or so, only to fly over my handlebars and onto the back of a flatbed truck within days of arriving in sleepy little Charlottesville.

Here’s to mild weather and bicycle safety.

Posted by Michael on 02/16 at 02:07 PM
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