Somebody yelled at me from a car this week. I’m pretty sure he was yelling at me. It happened so quickly.
I was heading down a hill, preparing for a left turn. I checked the traffic behind me with my rear-view mirror. I moved out of the bike lane, into the main lane, and toward the left turn lane. A brown SUV going the opposite direction had just pulled out of the driveway on my trajectory, leading into an apartment complex that I cut through almost every day.
And as the SUV passed me, I heard a hostile, Doppler-shifted voice yell, Get the fu@&remafdr…..!
That’s what it sounded like to me, anyway.
In a flash, I concluded that he was yelling at me because I was a cyclist with the audacity to be in the middle of a lane. And had I heard him clearly, I decided what he had said would have been, Get the f!@k out of the road. And in that same flash, I became angry.
And it stuck with me for the next couple of days. Scenarios ran through my mind ranging from:
Find the guy, and calmly say, “Sorry. I didn’t quite get that. Were you saying something to me?”
Find the guy’s car and put a big rock through the windshield.
And while I’m observing these involuntary fantasies play out in my head, another part of my brain was thinking…
This never happens to you. Imagine how you’d feel if you were one of those people who take this kind of hostility nearly every day. Other cyclists deal with actual in-their-face aggression from drivers. Other cyclists have vehicles used as weapons against them. You’re obsessing about teaching some guy a lesson, and you don’t even know for sure if his unintelligible utterance was directed at you. You’re a big baby.
There are many articles on the Web about how to deal with aggressive drivers. And I think all of them boil down to this: Keep your cathartic violent fantasies at bay, remain calm and polite.
In decades of commuting by bike, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been yelled at from a car. I have to wonder what it would do to my soul and my behavior to have these experiences more often — monthly, weekly, or daily.
When I was in The Peace Corps in Cameroon, the slang word for “white man” was sarra. Even after two years in the country, I never got used to hearing it. For awhile, I would confront people who used it. Or I would reply with the slang word for “idiot.” (That word is butuku, if you are interested.) During a particularly rough period of culture shock, I would find myself not wanting to leave my house, just so I wouldn’t inevitably hear that word. At some point, I realized that my reaction to the word was my decision, and that an angry reaction had consequences. I would fume for days after a confrontation that I initiated. And I don’t think it was very effective on the people I confronted anyway. So even though I never achieved enlightened indifference to the word, I learned that it was best to just ignore it.
And that’s exactly the advice given by this Web site in our article, Commuting 101: How to react to aggressive or angry drivers. Ignore it. As if it were easy.
Having been the bike-commuting beneficiary of several good biking cities throughout my life, I’m just not used to it. And when I heard an unintelligible bark from a motorist, I was angry before I could put my emotional guard up, and the fuming had begun. I have not developed the mental discipline and restraint against rudeness from motorists that some of you have learned. And it makes me sad to know there must be days that you just want to freakin’ drive in order to have a break from it.
So yesterday afternoon, I rode over to Home Depot. It took me awhile to find the bike rack. When I found it, it was placed about the width of a bike from the shopping cart return. This meant a single bike could create a de-facto gate and block any other bike from using the rack — or from being removed the rack. The one bike already in the rack was not only blocking almost the entire rack, but it had that stolen-seat-and-abandoned look about it.
The internal dialogue started.
Don’t these butukus realize that this is hardly better than having no rack at all?
I went into the store and found the items I came for. As I was checking out, I asked the cashier, “Is your manager available?”
Uh oh. Am I going to turn into Crazy Angry Cyclist Man again?
While I was waiting for the manager, an employee asked me about my Ridekick trailer. We were still chatting when the manager arrived. Not to be mean, but she looked like someone who could use some bike commuting. She was kind of chunky.*
Look at her. She’s going to be totally unsympathetic to an adult who rides a bike. She will perceive me as a kook who thinks he deserves unreasonable accommodations.
Contained in that thought are the complexities of one who has been made to feel marginalized, while at the same time the same mind is committing the same crime against someone from another marginalized group.
She joined the conversation about the Ridekick. She’d seen it out front too.
Finally I said, “I was wondering if you’d noticed that the bike rack isn’t very usable because it’s placed so close to the shopping carts.”
“It’s not anchored to the ground, is it?”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“That’s in a temporary location. We are redoing our parking lot, and that will be relocated to a better spot.”
“I’m glad to know you are thinking about that. Thanks.”
And three days of fuming was extinguished.
*Ms. Manager, if you ever read this, I mention your physical attribute not to make fun of you, but to illustrate the unfair and reflexive societal bias that was evoked in my infected mind. I’m working on it.