03. MUSIC INSPIRATION
Bike Lane Blues and Ghost Bike White
According to my watch, it takes me twenty-four minutes to get to work on the train. That includes the one block I have to walk to board the train and the one block I have to walk from my stop to my office. Not a bad ride. Gives me a little time to read a bit of news or blow through a chapter in whatever book I’m reading, though I won’t retain anything my eyes may have consumed.
According to my watch, it takes me twenty-one minutes to get to work on my bike. That includes carrying my bike down the steps of my apartment to the street and locking the thing up at the racks outside of my office. Not a bad ride. Gives me a little bit of a workout. The wind in my face wakes me up and puts resistance on my chest, inspiring the determined spirit I need to tackle the day. When I arrive, I’m sweaty and sticky, and the helmet has permed my hair into a wooly mountain range with peaks where the slats were and valleys where the hard Styrofoam protects my skull.
I try to stick to the streets with the designated bike lanes. Some of them are protected with small concrete curbs about three feet wide. Some are protected with flimsy, reflective plastic pylons. Some are protected by faded white painted lines along the street. But there are small sections of the ride that are unprotected where cars and bikes must coexist.
Each day I ride my bike to and from work, I see a handful of bike memorials: ghost-white bicycles left upright at the scene where a biker was killed from a run-in with a larger, faster, angrier motor vehicle. The ghost bikes are usually surrounded by plastic flowers, stuffed animals, a photo of the dead rider, and in the case of one of these, an altar of religious artifacts accompanied by a woman who is dressed and draped in matching religious garb.
In the morning around eight o’clock and at night around six o’clock, she’s there. Every day of the week. She’s on her knees, her wild, tight curly hair swaying in the wind and bobbing as her whole body moves to the rhythm of whatever it is she’s saying. From what I can tell, she is grieving, and doing so through the comforting routine of some kind of religious procedure.
I ride fast. I have things to do and I enjoy the scenery of my own weekday routine much more when I’m whizzing past it in my best effort to blur it. Plus, the harder I pedal and the faster I go, the more I keep my body alert and closer to fit. But I’m sometimes forced to slow down near the grieving woman and her ghost bike because they’re at a light-controlled intersection. Every day, it’s the same thing: She nods and sways and mumbles things and raises her artifact-drenched arms up and down as if making an offering—pleading—to whatever god or gods or bicycle spirits she thinks or hopes are listening.
Last week, on the way to work, the intersection light was green, and I breezed through it with two fellow riders nearby—complete strangers but unified in our cycling quest to get to and from whatever and wherever in an eco-friendly, fast and free manner. The woman was standing up, her arms and head reaching to the heavens, her voice thrusting ear-piercing wails into the air. It threw me out of my standard concentration and awareness of the routine road and its potential to throw unexpected obstacles at We the Riders. A new traffic pattern for construction, a car pushing through a yellow-red light, a spastic rider not abiding by the Code of the Road, a parked car door swinging open without awareness… These things I was always ready for. The grieving mother or shaman on her feet and crying out in pain as if the rider had just been taken from this mortal world in front of her very eyes was not something I had ever expected. The intersection was made thick with sadness and agony.
As I burned through it, I felt heavier and disturbed. I thought I heard one of the other two riders who crossed through with me say, “Holy shit! I’ve never seen that before.” But it could have been me who said it. I kept pedaling. I made the turn onto the short, three block stretch that is without a designated bike lane. I wondered if today may have been the anniversary of that rider’s death.
And then I felt my shoulders tighten into my neck. The shock shot down my spine. My fingers crushed into my brake handles, which I felt break loose underneath my knuckles. My bike stopped. I heard someone yell, “Jesus!” But it could have been me who said it. The wind against my face maintained there for a moment before being replaced with concrete. The plastic and Styrofoam of my helmet screamed out as it cracked between my skull and the street. My knee burst into flames—or felt so—as the street tore away at my pant leg and then my skin as I slid a few feet in front of my bike and the Hyundai Accent driver’s side door that separated us.
I tried to push myself up but my arms wouldn’t do as they were told. One of the riders turned me over. “Are you alright?” she asked before recoiling and using her phone to call 9-1-1. Other riders arrived. I could hear their brakes squeaking and their bikes dropping on the sidewalk. I heard some of them restraining what I assume was the driver of the car who had opened his door into me while neither of us were paying attention. Was he trying to get away? Was he trying to help me? Was my bike okay? Would my arms be okay? I couldn’t move my legs either.
And then I heard the wailing. It started softly but built as she rounded the corner and fell to her knees by my side. She draped me in the necklaces and scarves and beads and bracelets that she had always worn. She continued wailing in a language I recognized only as misery.
Minutes later—I think they were only minutes—more wailing approached, this time from the sirens of cop cars, a fire truck and an ambulance. The medics moved on me. They lifted me onto a stretcher and loaded me into their rig. As they closed the doors, I heard a cop say, “Goddammit. I really hope another one of those stupid ghost bikes doesn’t get put up here. I’m so sick of seeing those things. When are bikers and drivers going to learn to watch out for each other? Who are we ticketing here?”
But it could have been me who said it.