“Don’t taunt the alligator until after you’ve crossed the creek.” —Dan Rather
Weekday mornings consist of my bike commuting into Harvard Square, a 4-mile trek to work moving in and out of the flow of traffic through the densely populated western Boston neighborhoods. It is the worst of times, jammed with buses, taxies, trucks, and vans manned by tradesmen who delight in squeezing me out of turn lanes and passage over North Harvard Street Bridge.
Ride the path next to the river, coworkers tell me. No way, I say. I like the challenge of the road in the morning, the required vigilance, the risk. I’m one of the only girls out there, in fact, with the exception of college students on foo-foo bikes moving in slo-mo while wearing headphones and flip flops. For them, a bike is a vehicle to get from point A to B. Not me—I savor the ride, like to get down and dirty. Muddy. Sweaty. Parched. Soaked. How I love to move on my two wheels, be free, feel like a kid, especially when I’m really humming along in fifth, the gear that’s smooth as butter.
I could ride on my wheels all day long. From place to place.
Thank you, Jamis, thank you Shimano derailleurs and mechs. I’m a sausage-shaped woman on the move that appreciates you.
Commuting during the summer was a piece a cake (the best of times). I had free reign over the construction-laden bridge into the square and Bert’s Electric wasn’t pinching me into the orange barrels vying for command of the lane. The driver, probably not Bert at all, had longed passed this way before me, eager to get a jump on his schedule so he could suck down beers and fish in the Charles come 3:00.
With Labor Day behind us (the worst of times), tradesmen aren’t reporting to work quite so early and city and school bus drivers are feeling the vibe, the crunch, the competitiveness to lay claim to asphalt, assert a right of way. I’m a part of this, a moving component amid congested traffic on Western Avenue, doing my best to behave, obey the rules of the road, give hand signals, thank those drivers that are courteous. Courtesy is an act tradesmen or bus drivers do not extend to bike commuters. Not even the well-behaved ones.
So I pose, where do bike commuters draw the line? Do we fight for or forfeit our right of way?
To answer employing my $82,000 Babson MBA education, it all boils down to this:
It all depends.
One morning this week on North Harvard Bridge (again, one of two locations promising a challenge, debacle, or rare easy passage), I laid claim to my crevice of asphalt by horizontally scaling my way in between a jersey barrier and Stan’s Heating and Cooling, one foot on each side, paddling along when the two guys sitting in the van sipping coffee catch sight of me in the passenger side mirror and go wide-eyed. I thought am I really doing this? Is it worth it? And I agreed with myself that my instinct was right on and made sure to slap my hand down good as I padded the van’s front fender, a determined overweight woman seated on a sleek hybrid commuter bike making her way through, “You’re seriously blocking my right of way and I’m desperate to take it back” expression playing across my face.
Despite making a spectacle of myself, there was little risk in doing this sort of thing, the traffic was jammed together tight. This was an instance where I could let the driver know of my existence en route to getting myself situated at the light on JFK Street and ahead of the number 86 bus that’s going to leave me stuck behind it breathing in fumes.
But it is dangerous out there. Risk as I like to say, is 360. Whether the bike commuter obeys the rules of the road or not. Drivers, you’ve got our back. And I realize there are a number of commandos out there, spoiling our reputation, those tall long-legged men on road bikes who cruise down the median strip in stopped city traffic and dance on their pedals at the brink of the intersection waiting for clearance and then snaking their way through it. Their egos piss me off, too. Ask anyone in Harvard Square what he or she thinks of bike commuters and they’ll say I hate them all.
It is my conviction, however, that because I behave on the road—we’re all in this together, after all—I expect some respect, my share of the asphalt. As with the tradesmen that squeeze me off the bridge despite the sign granting bicycles full lane access, when someone moves in on my turf, I’m compelled to take it back in spite of the risk. This is bad, taking revenge always is, I’m asking for trouble—injury, death—even worse, wrecking my bike.
My mother says I should always be careful.
What my mother says has never really sunk in. Because yesterday afternoon I happen to exude revengeful behavior on an extended ride home and I wasn’t necessarily, “careful.”
Out of Brattle Square, I rode unhurriedly through the Kennedy School of Government on a wide path that begins at the Charles Hotel and ends at the intersection of JFK Street and Memorial Drive. The area is usually a flurry of activity—genius academic-types, tourists, and lovers—walking aimlessly with students on bikes weaving erratically around them.
At the busy intersection, I wait for the walk signal then hoof it up over the bridge and make a hard right to make part of the ride home along the south side of the river. The 4:00 hour promises smooth sailing.
Along the path in Brighton, I part flocks of geese, regard the rowers to my right, the grass and trees to my left and up ahead, the bands of half-naked college boys who jog and close in on me until they split in two and file by.
At Watertown Yard, I break off the path and onto the road. About a mile from home on Adams Street in Newton, I’m up out of the saddle pedaling like hell in the middle of the right lane to make a left onto Washington Street but time runs out. The light ahead turns red.
As I proceed to close in behind a Ford F150, a hopped up VW Golf passes me and files back into the line. This infuriates me but damn, it’s too bad for him that he leaves a good three feet of space before the truck’s bumper.
As a cog in the commuter wheel at large, I need to exercise my right to asphalt again. I pedal past the VW and the 30-year old looking guy behind the wheel and to my chagrin, his window is up despite the mild temps and stares straight ahead like he just didn’t pull a fast one. I’m compelled to get his attention. “What am I invisible?” I say in the form of a rhetorical question. But he’s not making any eye contact and keeping the disbelief to himself that I’m actually wheeling by him to reclaim my right of way.
The tailgate of the truck seems to grow larger as I bring the bike to a stop and wedge my front tire in between the two vehicles. I’m not fooling around.
The seconds tick by and a number of scenarios play through my head. I know the guy is seething, staring at the back of yours truly, a heavy set chick on a bike wearing an orange jacket so bright you can see it from outer space. He’s thinking she has just, incredibly, planted herself in front of my zippy VW. She’s going to slow me down out of the gate, who does she think she is, the big lard ass. She’s gonna pay big time.
My focus is on the perfectly round red light. Just behind the veil of running the various outcomes of this pissing match in my mind, I’m hearing Judge Judy’s voice. Something to tune of “Madam, you can’t make it right with a wrong” and “Why would you jeopardize your safety over this lunkhead?”
But the thing is I’m not afraid, I’m just after my share of the asphalt and willing to fight for it. Sure, there’s an obvious problem, a disadvantage. I’m on a two-wheeled 18-pound carbon frame and this guy’s driving a ton of steel. No matter. I, along with the traffic that will be accumulating on Washington Street, will be waiting to see what this guy’s going to dish out for me, what he’s got in mind.
In any case, it’s not going to be pretty.
I’m ready, like I always am. I’m straddling the frame, got one foot flat on the ground, the other poised on the pedal. I take getting out of people’s way, to the right side of the road, seriously. Want to be a responsible rider although I realize I’m not going to come out of this particular showdown with the least amount of respect. I’m not even in the proper position to get out ahead of the VW. I’m too far to the left of his bumper instead of smack dab in front of it, vulnerable to his whim.
There it is. The green. My foot plunges the pedal down and I’m standing up on the bike, beginning to pump hard. Sisters are doing it for themselves. Seconds expire, I can’t break out in front, I’m not granted full access to the road–I sense this more than I actually know it.
The VW moves into my periphery then is alongside of me, squeezing me over to the median on Washington. Numb nuts here is going to force me right into the audience I expected, cars are backed up in two lanes, six deep.
Time, when of the essence, magnifies your perception one hundred fold. Enhanced perception, however, does not guarantee enhanced control over the outcome.
The air moves in and out of my body in breathy bursts. We’re in a contest, numb nuts and me and that suits me just fine, but geez, I didn’t intend on fighting to my death. I just want the asphalt that’s coming to me.
The two of us continue to move, accelerating. He forces me to shadow the line of his car on the inside. I begin making grunting sounds, exasperated; want to pound my fist like hell on his front quarter panel. I could manage it even with making the turn, but my brain warns me good and loud that my arm could get caught up on his side mirror. I’m also incapable of conveying my disgust; again I’m eluded eye contact. The frames are moving too quickly, anyway.
I’m hating that he has the upper hand.
Laced with saliva I shout, “You, bastard!” It’s a novelty this outburst, I’ve never used the expression before. Why I don’t call him an asshole is beyond me, it’s usually there handy in my on-the-road arsenal of expletives. But I do like the sound of bastard; it feels incredibly satisfying to say in a fit of rage. I think, too, that our audience must be excited by my raw, fueled display of passion.
We’re neck and neck, I’m a charged overweight thoroughbred seeking release in the starting cage—I gotta bust free from this guy, veer away for safety to my rightful place on the road.
And, hell, the funny thing is I’m still not afraid.
Should I be?
The VW finally breaks away giving me clearance, reality is too much for him to bear, the witnesses are screaming lawsuit. He swerves to the far right lane, I straighten out in the one on the left. I’m not going hit the Jag sitting first in queue head on after all, flip over the handlebars and crash through his windshield.
Hello, Mr. Jag Man.
Waving a clenched fist in the VW’s wake, I repeat bastard, what a bastard! and hoof it to the right side of the road knowing the traffic behind me is minding my back. The VW speeds off down Washington towards the gauntlet, the infamous FUBAR rotary over the Pike by the Crowne Plaza.
I lose sight of him, catch my breath and reach for water. Contemplate whether or not I’d venture in this sort of thing again—a ton of steel vs. 185 pounds of flesh, bone and guts, and an 18-pound bike. I figure, probably, squeeze a squirt of hot tap into my mouth, fit the bottle back into its cage and look up.
A cop car passes in a casual matter of speed. He’s doing about 25 MPH.
“And where the hell were you?” I say and throw my hands up to the sky.
Lisa Mae DeMasi lives in Natick, Massachusetts with her boyfriend Dennis and a fluctuating number of animal companions–some live with them full time, some are fostered, some board. This animal husbandry is a compulsion, saving just one more neglected cute and furry creature warms her heart. Dennis loves them too; the landlord is exceedingly tolerant. Her mother thinks she’s nuts. Lisa is also a blogger and avid writer, her work has been published in Shark Reef Literary Magazine and Elephant Journal. She considers Massachusetts her home, but has lived in Connecticut, Vermont, New York State and two other planets called Wyoming and Arizona. She earned a B.A. from Regis College and an MBA from Babson College, and possesses over 25 years working in administrative support roles in small Boston consultancies. She also holds a Master certificate in Reiki and practice this form of holistic healing on the animals in which she cares for.