Commute: David Himmel

01. Writer

David Himmel


02. Theme

Commute


03. MUSIC INSPIRATION

Fifteen: 
Helter Smelter


04. WRITING

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.

Commute: Jonathan Diener

01. Writer

Jonathan Diener


02. Theme

Commute


03. MUSIC INSPIRATION

Nada Surf: 
Hyperspace


04. WRITING

Hyperspace

Tommy walked out of school with a smile on his face. Surprisingly it wasn’t because Derek gave him half of his chocolate chip cookie at lunch or because Brittany smiled at him in the hallway. Today Tommy was going for a bike ride into town all on his own.

After jumping down the steps of the school bus, he rushed into the house, hung his backpack on the hook in the laundry room, filled his water bottle using the new filter in the kitchen sink and ran to the garage. The rush of humidity from opening the door gave him memories of the indoor swimming pool he frequented as a little kid, but he wasn’t a kid anymore. Not today at least.

A blue Schwinn bike was leaning against some boxes his mom never unpacked from years ago. She was visiting her sister a few towns over and gave Tommy permission to go on his own adventure. He’s had adult supervision for years and today was the big test. He could finally prove he was mature enough to explore on his own. If things went well this would become the new normal.

Tommy connected his water bottle to the frame of the bike using a handy clip that came with it. He put on his favorite helmet—the one with the skull on the top—and reached for his goggles. His friends said he didn’t need the goggles and he looked like a goofy wannabe fighter pilot, but that didn’t matter. He hesitated and looked at his own reflection in the lenses and let out another massive smile. They couldn’t be more wrong. He looked awesome.

Now, fully equipped with goggles, helmet and an ice cold water for the trip, it was time to head out. If he was lucky there could be some straggler school buses making their rounds in town full of his peers ready to witness his awesomeness. They’d stare with jaws dropped as Tommy would fly down the roads as a solo rider. While imagining this he began to hum the song he heard on the radio that day. He felt cool.

Riding through the subdivision was easy. The guy who lived a few houses down with the annoying dog was checking his mail and waved. His dog barked like she always does. Tommy waved back and hoped they noticed he learned how to stay balanced with only one hand on the handlebars. They must have been impressed.

Construction on the new subdivision across the street was in the early stages, but the roads were paved and the workers had the day off. Not only was it a shortcut into town, but it was the perfect place to learn new tricks just like the guys he saw on TV. After pedaling and taking a water break, Tommy made it to the big hill at the back of the lot. He stared for a few minutes, gulped and tried to muster up the courage to finally conquer it. He wasn’t sure if he’d make it down the hill without any problems, fall down the hill and die, or gain so much speed that he’d set on fire. They were all real possibilities, but he didn’t want to talk himself out of it this time.

The hill was too steep and the air too humid, so Tommy walked his bike up slowly while replaying any and every scenario in his head. Finally, at the top, he looked down at the winding streets and houses that ants could live in. He was terrified. This was the real deal. He closed his eyes and imagined he was on a motorcycle with bad guys on his tail. The only way to get away was cruise down the hill and he’d be in the clear. While adjusting his goggles, his terrified frown turned into a determined grin. It was go time.

Tommy took a deep breath and used his right foot to push himself forward. Within seconds he felt the decline increase, the wheels pick up speed and the wind start to blow at his face. The loose stones on the newly paved streets started to crunch under his tires. He started to shake as he continued down the hill, but he flexed his arms and knew his shocks could withstand any bump that got in his way.

Halfway down the hill the wind was blowing at Tommy’s ears so hard it sounded like static on his TV. He made the mistake of leaving his mouth open and swallowed a mosquito, which was gross. This was the fastest he’d ever been on a bike, or maybe ever, and it was almost over. The hill began to level out and the smirk turned into a full blown celebratory smile. He was cruising with the wind rushed at his face right until he forgot to turn with the street and rode straight into the curb.

Tommy felt his stomach sink when the bike came to a halt. It was like the end of a cheap ride at the carnival. His head jolted down and he lost control of the blue Schwinn bike that he once felt was part of him. After doing a front flip off of the bike, he fell into the sand and dirt of the unfinished yard.

He looked around and screamed for help before assessing the damage. He was all alone and he started crying. Not sure if he was in pain or just in shock, he looked at his knees and elbows that were now covered in cuts and gravel. It stung like a sunburn and felt so bad. Scared of trying to get back on the bike, Tommy started walking it home, using it as some sort of an alternative crutch even though he didn’t have a limp from the crash.

The sight of a crying, bleeding boy alarmed some of the neighbors who tried calling out to aid him, but it was too embarrassing to respond. Tommy made it all the way home, laid his bike against the boxes in his garage and jumped in the shower. The water stung, which made him cry more, but at least he was getting the small stones and gravel out of his cuts.

Tommy found the first-aid kit in his bathroom and frantically put Band-Aids on every visible cut.  There were only really four or five of them total. While looking in the mirror with his bloodshot eyes and tears going down his cheeks, he decided to wear his pajama pants and a sweater to cover his wounds. He came back to the mirror, washed his face in the sink, wiped his face and tears with a towel and forced a big smile. He nodded to himself with approval.

He got to the couch and started playing a video game right as his mom walked in. She was still glowing from a great day with her family and hummed to herself as she closed the door and put her purse on the kitchen table.

“So, how was your big solo adventure?” she asked with excited and interrogative eyes.

Tommy hesitated and tried to decide if he should come up with a story or just pretend nothing happened. He finally looked up and tried talking, but his voice cracked.

“It was fun, but I—,” he couldn’t finish the sentence and started crying again.

Tommy’s mother rushed to the couch and gave him a big hug. While she was holding his head, her warm breathing into his hair was comforting and relaxed him. He sniffed a few times and was finally able to muster up the courage to tell his mom the big reveal.

Before he could talk, she rolled up his sleeve to see the Band-Aids on his elbows. It was like some kind of maternal mind-reading power that he didn’t understand. He looked at her, terrified, assuming the worst was about to spill from the same lips that were just breathing into his hair.

She returned his watery-eyed stare with an apologetic and comforting look. In some unspoken bond, it made Tommy smile again.

“I don’t want you to be afraid of telling me the truth,” she said as she held his shoulders, looking right into his eyes. “We can all make mistakes as long as we learn from them. Did you learn from yours?”

Tommy looked up, wiped his eyes again and nodded with a cute, little smirk. He knew he wouldn’t be grounded and that his life wouldn’t be over. This was only the first hill he’d have to conquer.