Commuting to work on my bike has brought my competitive spirit back—a quality I thought I left behind on the softball field my senior year in high school. My heart pounds in excitement as I gear up to ride, just like it did when I stepped up to the plate. The ride into Harvard Square means exertion and potential hostile territory as I move in and out of the flow of traffic through the Boston neighborhoods.
I savor the challenge of the road, the required vigilance. I’m one of the only girls out there except for college students on foo-foo bikes, wearing flip-flops. For them, a bike is a frugal means to get from point A to B. Not me. I savor the ride, like to get down and dirty.
Commuting during the summer is a piece a cake, the best of times. I have free reign over the construction-laden bridge into the Square and Bert’s Electric isn’t squeezing me into the orange barrels vying for command of the lane. The driver will have 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 three o’clock.
When Labor Day gets behind us, the worst of times, tradesmen aren’t reporting to work early and city bus drivers are laying claim to the asphalt. I’m a part of this, a cog amid congested traffic, obeying the rules of the road and thanking those drivers who are courteous. Courtesy is an act tradesmen do not extend to bike commuters.
And city bus drivers?
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve played chicken with ‘em and won.
One morning on North Harvard Bridge I lay claim to my share of the asphalt by scaling my way in between a Jersey barrier and Stan’s Heating and Cooling. That’s one foot plodding along the van and the other along the barrier, when the driver catches sight of me in the passenger side mirror. He goes wide-eyed as I slap my hand down on the front fender with a “You’re-seriously-blocking-my-right-of-way” expression playing across my face.
It is dangerous out there. Risk is 360. But because I behave on the road—I expect respect. As with the tradesmen that squeeze me off the bridge, when someone moves in on my turf, I feel compelled to take it back. Think of Kathy Bate’s character in Fried Green Tomatoes when she rams the car of the young girls who rob her of a parking space: “Face it girls, I’m older and have more insurance.”
It’s a competition and that’s why I love cycling in the city rather than the country. Who wants to pedal by meadows, breathe clean air, and listen to the calming effect of birdsong? Give me the congestion and pollution of the city streets. Taking risks enable me to handle the challenges that life brings.
Yesterday I encountered bad sportsmanship. At Watertown Yard, I break off the river path and onto the road. I’m up out of the saddle pedaling like hell in the middle of the right lane to catch the green to make a left. But time runs out and the light turns red.
I’m closing in behind a Ford truck when a VW passes me and zips in behind it. This infuriates me, but damn, it’s too bad he leaves a five feet of space between his front end and the truck’s bumper.
Now, what do I have to do?
Exercise my right to asphalt again. I ride past him. The 30-something driver has his window closed and stares straight ahead like he just didn’t pull a fast one.
“Am I invisible?” I huff, and wedge what I can of my bike and person between the two vehicles.
My focus steadies on the red light. The guy is seething, staring at yours truly donning an orange jacket so bright you can see it from outer space. The effin nerve of this smartass.
Perspiration slips into my mouth. It’s a matter of principal as well as law in the Commonwealth. I’m just after fair play, and willing to fight for it. Sure, there’s an obvious disadvantage. I’m on a two-wheeled 18-pound carbon frame and this guy’s driving a ton of steel.
I’m ready. Got one foot flat on the ground, the other poised on the pedal. I take getting out of people’s way seriously, although its plain I’m not going to come out of this showdown with the least amount of respect.
My foot plunges the pedal down at the green. I’m standing up on the bike, pumping hard. The air moves in and out of my body in breathy bursts. The VW and my bike continue to advance, accelerating. The driver forces me to shadow his car on the inside, squeezing me to the median. I grunt; want to pound my fist on his door, but my brain warns me that my jacket could get caught on his side mirror. What’s even more upsetting is I’m incapable of conveying my disgust; he’s still eluding eye contact.
“You bastard!” I yell over my shoulder. It’s a novelty this outburst. Why I don’t call him an asshole is beyond me, it’s usually there handy in my on-the-road arsenal of expletives.
Hell, I’m not even afraid.
Should I be?
Reality is too much for him to bear; the witnesses are screaming lawsuit. He breaks away, swerving his VW to the far-right lane. I straighten out in the left; wave a clenched fist and pump to the right side of the road knowing the traffic behind me is minding my back. Competition over.
Once I’m seated on my bike navigating Boston’s streets, I can’t know the challenges I’ll meet on a given day. I’m risking life and limb for a spirited thrill, vying for space, powering my way through a sea of cars. I’m that fearless girl swinging the softball bat on my high school field; invigorated and ready for action.
This post was published in Machines for Freedom blog with a title of “We Are Not Blocking Traffic. We Are Traffic“, June 13, 2018.
Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on the sequel. You can contact Lisa at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.