I know this isn’t one of my best columns, but it struck a nerve and got the most traffic: around 47,000 unique visitors in just a few days, a hundred comments — some that even agreed with me — and, the corporate tech geeks told me with spittle flying from their mouths, the story went “viral,” and got mentioned on digg and delicious. Good for me. But about five years later, I returned to the subject, and though that story, The Insurrection of Connection, was read much less, it was much better.
There was winter road construction on Walnut again, so the pack made a left on Seventh and at the light all 11 of us clicked out and sat there on the top tubes of our bikes making fun of Steak’s new baggy tights. At the green we rolled through the intersection and filed without thinking or needing to talk about it into a double paceline, and someone said the day felt warmer than it was, and someone else said it was surprising and someone said it was cloudy and might rain.
Up ahead at the stop sign Seventh runs into Broad. Off to our left a red flatbed truck was idling on Broad, his right turn signal winking the driver’s intent to turn onto Seventh and drive past us. Whoever was in front might have tapped the brakes or not but as the front of our lunch ride went through the stop sign and swooped right we barely slowed.
The truck wasn’t turning.
It ran up nearly onto the middle of our curving double paceline, lurched to a rocking, back-and-forth stop as if the driver had just at the last second noticed the cyclists a few feet in front of his bumper, then seemed to settle down onto itself like a cat readying a pounce and jumped forward as the engine revved and the tires squealed.
Inches separated the grill of truck from the double line of bikes streaming through the turn. I was still on Seventh and coming through the corner when the truck snapped to growling halt and the door flew open and the driver stood with one foot on the running board and began screaming.
A few people in our group threw up their hands and some others shouted and on instinct I cut a hard circle and rode up to the man who might have killed us and put a hand on the open door and unclipped and breathing hard, scared, angry, I said “Hey.”
He wasn’t looking at me. He was still staring up ahead at the group, screaming.
I said it again, louder, and I reached up and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey!“ I said. I stuck my hand out, to shake, and said, “I just wanted to say sorry about that.”
This is the third year I’ve been confronting drivers and being as nice as I possibly can. It freaks them out.
Sometimes all I have to do is swing around, sometimes I’ve chased cars all the way through Emmaus, or a couple miles down the local hills, knowing I can catch them at the stoplights or stop signs in town.
When I pull up to their windows, I can see people bracing for a fight — puffing themselves up for a bluff, or swallowing down panic or sometimes visibly relishing this unexpected yet satisfying chance to punch someone. But also, wherever they lie between regret and violence, they show surprise. Always. They never expected to have to meet me. That’s not the way life works: Drivers are supposed to be permitted to menace cyclists, then speed away.
I raise my hand, smile, sometimes motion for them to roll down their windows. I put both hands up. Sometimes I put a hand on the door handle or mirror to keep them from driving off. Then, before they can speak, I stick my hand out and, in bits and starts, speak from the rough, unwritten script I’ve arrived at after three years: “Sorry if we got in your way back there. I wanted to catch you and apologize and try to make sure you didn’t drive away mad and take it out on the next bike you see. It’s dangerous for us when drivers are mad. You can kill us.”
How much of that I get out in one shot varies. Sometimes I have to speak between bursts of profanity, or wait out a lecture or a series of questions that aren’t really meant to be answered. I nod, and look the person right in the eyes. I say, “Yes,” or “Right” or “I know how that feels.” Somewhere in there I might say something like, “You know, it’s legal in Pennsylvania for bikes to ride two-up,” or “Believe it or not, it’s against the law to ride on the sidewalk, and more dangerous.” But I don’t argue. I don’t try to win a debate or even score points.
Instead, I listen. I always tell them my name, ask theirs. I try to find openings where I can ask the ages of their kids, or tell them I have a German Shep, too, or that, yeah, I’ve seen them around town, too.
There was the teenage guy at the stoplight whose mom was in the passenger seat and kept hissing, as if I couldn’t hear, “Just drive away. Just drive away.” He shook my hand and apologized. There was the kid I chased all the way through town, him running two stop signs, who saw my jersey and told me he knew our intern Alison (which Alison later exposed as a lie; his mother knew Alison’s mother and wanted to fix them up). There was the wiry tough kid in the wife-beater and ballcap and with a rottie in the backseat, who rolled down the window and snarled, “You want a piece of the dog?” but ended up offering to buy me a beer if ever saw me in Armetta’s. There was the ancient guy with an oxygen cannula stuck in his nose who drove off still hating me. There was the guy I chased all the way into the foyer of his office, who stood there embarrassed, holding his take-out lunch in a styrofoam tray as his coworkers walked by peering at us. There was the guy just stepping out of his parked car near the post office who called us “assholes,” then told me he was just having a bad day and told me all about the day, promised to ride with us, lose weight, turn his life around and never showed up.
I don’t know what I hope to accomplish. I’m not sure I’m doing all that much good, changing things much.
But it feels right. It feels like my own little senseless revolution against rage, hate, detachment.
It feels like a good way to get a black eye. Or worse.
The guy’s eyes were bulging, and the words flew out of his mouth covered with spit. He sat and tried to yank the door shut, pulling me over and I said, “Whoa, hey, wait.” I was half off my bike, tipped over against the door, unbalanced, and if he gassed the truck I was going to slip under it.
Without thinking he took his hand off the door and put it on my shoulder. For the first time, he was quiet — he’d even shouted over me as I’d run through my speech — and for a long second he looked back, also for the first time, into my eyes.<
“What’s your name?” I said.
He considered the question. Stared at me. Swallowed. “Dean,” he said.
He shook my hand.
Then the lines of his face hardened again, his lips drew back, his eyes flew around inside their sockets and he told me again all the ways cyclists were jerks. He drove off.
I was pretty sure that, whatever the goal of this whole thing was, I’d failed that day on Seventh and Broad.
But I wouldn’t know, none of us would, maybe not even Dean, until he drove past the next group of cyclists.
Originally published in the January 18, 2008 Sitting In