Friday, October 3, 2008

Near-Disasters in Biking—No Brakes!

It was late October that year, and having begun dental school in September I thought I was doing a good job proving that I really could manage the daily ten mile round trip on my bicycle to and from school. Although, the experience was made occasionally challenging by insane motorists who seemed intent on murdering me, the rare flat tire caused by riding over broken glass in the gutter, and inscrutably belligerent dogs sometimes tearing out into the street after me.

After nearly two months of unseasonably dry weather, rain promised for that day had held off during my morning commute. But a steady hard drizzle had then set in during the afternoon, taking more of the yellow and red leaves off the trees with it. As the evening darkness closed in, I headed home to south Minneapolis through the fall rain. My books were safely wrapped in plastic inside my backpack, and I was covered head-to-toe in my yellow and orange rain suit. Wearing my helmet and with my bike well marked front and back with bright lights, I felt reasonably safe.

The rain had made the layer of leaves on the road wet and slippery, but I prided myself in being defensive. However well marked I was, I always assumed that cars wouldn’t see me. Halfway home, I was busy watching for wet leaves and cars as I began a descent down a long hill. Then about 30 yards before an intersection at the bottom of the hill, the light turned red and I started to brake—tried to brake. I squeezed my brakes and nothing happened. Instead, it feels like I’m gaining speed, doing maybe 20 miles an hour, as I’m going towards this red light at the bottom of the hill.

The cross street I’m headed for has now filled with cars rushing through the intersection left and right. Meanwhile, I’m passing a line of cars on my left with their taillights all shining bright red as they’re slowing to stop for the red light ahead. On my right, there’s a solid wall of parked cars glistening in the darkness. Nowhere to go. And no matter how hard I squeeze my brakes, they do nothing. I’m almost at the intersection—I’ve used up my chance to stop. That opportunity is now gone.

The next thing I’m flying into the intersection—not thinking any words—rather a starkly clear and concrete knowing/feeling, “I'm going to die now.”

But sometimes, for reasons no one knows, the Universe smiles upon us. Somehow, the moment I entered that intersection an opening in the traffic parted for me—like some absurd cosmic joke. It was so improbable, like a scene from an old black-and-white Keystone Cops silent flick. With horns blaring on my left and right I sailed on a charmed path through the jaws of death, while out of the darkness some understandably enraged driver shouted, “Ya stupid sh*t, what’cha tryin’ ta do?!”

Then, I was coasting through the darkness of the street on the other side of the intersection, with the rain on the pavement and the staccato clicking of my bike gears the only sounds. Mercifully, no one followed me to point out that I’d very nearly gotten myself killed.

There’s the adage about getting right back on the horse after you’ve been thrown. And those of you who have ridden a horse and been thrown will recognize how apt and oh-so-very-true this advice is. I probably knew better, but I didn’t take this advice that fall—I was too shaken. The next day I took the bus to school, and didn’t get back on my bike until the following spring.

1 comment:

Jocelyn said...

This whole thing is sort of like playing Frogger.

Which I only really know about thanks to that Seinfeld episdode where George crosses the heavily-trafficked street.