I saw a man turning left in his car last week, and it unsettled me because he made the turn while barking. Barking over and over out the window. Not like a dog barking; it was a strange vocalization almost like a sneeze, like, “Aff! Aff! Aff! Aff!” But I tell you, those were no sneezes. They were barks.
He still bothered to use his winker, which around here is an overachievement.
“Aff! Aff!” Indicate. Check mirror. Smooth hand-over-hand motion. “Aff!”
The man probably suffered from a mental illness, but his left turn form was top-notch. The rest of us are doomed and should be ashamed of ourselves.
The first week I lived in San Mateo, I almost hit a pedestrian with my car. It was downtown, at the traffic light facing north at 4th and San Mateo. I was turning right, I was new in town, and in a more general sense I was not used to driving around downtown promenades with heavy foot traffic and traffic lights every hundred feet. So I started making the turn without thinking to look for pedestrians crossing, and the old man, who’d only just set his first loafer down on the asphalt, leapt dramatically out of the way and shouted something angry at me and pointed excitedly at the cross light, which I, upon tracing the imaginary line extending from his finger, realized for the first time was indicating that he had the right of way. At this point, I’d already encroached so deep into the crosswalk that it seemed the best course of action to just hit the gas and get out of his way ASAP. I waved at him and shouted something apologetic at my closed window and wondered if he might not have heard me, might have only see me waving while continuing to cut him off and gotten even angrier, thinking me smug, especially given the hipster-ass hat I had on.
All of this happened in the span of about 1.5 seconds, but the trauma branded itself onto me and I never made such a haphazard turn again.
I would wager, however, that that same scenario has played out every single day somewhere downtown to some unwitting driver-and-pedestrian pair. I’ve even been on the pedestrian side myself: a woman turning left came careening into the crosswalk in which I was standing with my KFC bag, missed me only because I back-dashed out of the way like a gosh-darned Street Fighter character, then screeched to a stop right in front of me, put the window down, and said, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” And though my life had almost ended, leaving my unconceived children both fatherless and motherless, all I could do was say, “It’s okay. Be careful out there.” Because she was me.
I’ve seen it happen to others. Awhile ago I was crossing the street with a friend when we heard an angry shout: “Hey what the fuck!” We both turned to see a burly, tattooed man crossing at the crosswalk perpendicular ours, alongside an unleashed little dog. We didn’t see exactly why the man shouted, but the unleashed little dog had veered outside the lines of the crosswalk and come quite close to a car which was trying to turn left, inching ever closer to the crosswalk, though still outside its bounds. The car slowly completed its turn, clearing the area just in time to miss overhearing the burly man shout, “Yeah, learn to drive. Fuckin’ Jap.” The onslaught of bile was so forceful, so utterly devoid of introspection or empathy that one must assume this burly, tattooed man was none other than “he without sin” spoken of in the Bible. An infallible beacon of righteous virtue. As my friend and I crossed the street perpendicular to this still-unfolding parable, I overheard the man mutter more obscenities as he passed behind us, then say to a horrified onlooker, “Oh, I’m not gonna kill you, I’m gonna kill him.” He said this sociably, almost jovially, as though clarifying, I don’t know, something other than a hate-motivated death threat.
The issue of almost-murders between pedestrians crossing the street and drivers making turns was apparently so prevalent that the town eventually intervened and changed the timing of the traffic lights such that the cross lights now have about a five-second grace period for peds to start walking before the corresponding traffic light turns green. This seems to have helped, I guess, but it’s a shame that such a measure had to be implemented when really the only problem was that people weren’t following the very first rule of the road, which is, look where you’re goddamn going. It feels like a Band-Aid for a much more serious ailment, which is that nobody—myself included—knows what they’re doing. Virtually all of us are entrusted with more power than we know how to wield responsibly. We all show up at intersections unprepared to intersect.
Those cross lights demonstrate the issue really well. Every intersection in town has a cross light, and each cross light has a button-like hand sensor which beeps when you place your hand over it. It’s a fancy, sanitary version of the buttons cross lights have always had. But unbeknownst to many, each cross light is also set to change automatically, whether you touch the sensor or not, which, yes, means the sensors actually do nothing. Other than beep, that is.
Now, surely someone could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking these sensors served a purpose. After all, if you tag one every time you hit a crosswalk and the cross light always changes, how would you know? And I’m sure there are others who simply derive joy from activating that crisp, reliable beep—a little oasis of consistency in this crazy, mixed-up world. Plus, it’s something to do while you’re waiting for the light to change—sort of a non-portable prototype for the fidget-spinner. What I don’t understand is the type of person who impatiently spams the bejeezus out of the thing, slapping it five, seven times, and then, seeing the light still hasn’t changed, spams it ten times more. If ever there was a type of person not to be placed in a position of power, it is the type that exhibits this behavior, which is insane.
First of all, if the sensor doesn’t cause anything to happen the first or second time, why would you expect it to do something the third, eighth, or twelfth time? Many cross lights in many towns have poorly designed buttons with poor tactile response. You mash your finger down on this big metal nubbin and it gives you not a click, not a chunk, not a toggle, not a beep, but a slight, stiff wiggle, the way other buttons you’ve encountered in life might do when somehow locked or obstructed. You would be forgiven for trying such a button several times for the sake of certainty. But San Mateo’s sensors are a marvel of Silicon Valley engineering. They dispense with the potential for ambiguous tactile feedback by dispensing with tactile feedback altogether. There are no moving parts. Only the beep. The beep means it registered. Two beeps mean it registered twice. Three, seven, and so on. You monster. This isn’t like not noticing an old man taking his first step off the curb. You’re deliberately conducting the same experiment with the same values for the same variables and observing the same results again and again, and yet still expecting a different outcome to occur each time. You god-damned crazy person.
And what is it you expected to happen when you pushed the button to begin with? That the entire light cycle would change immediately, just for you? Are you a serial killer? Do you not see that the cross light for the perpendicular cross street is in the middle of a digitally displayed countdown? Did you think that would shoot from twelve seconds to zero the instant you touched that sensor, putting that crossing mother with the baby stroller in immediate jeopardy? Well hell, it’s a good thing those sensors don’t do anything. If they did, there’d be squashed mothers and babies littering every crosswalk in town.
I suppose these sensor-spammers aren’t solely to blame. The town transportation authority is also at fault for placing these placebo switches all over town to begin with, misleading the masses; and let us not forget President Donald Trump, who is a treasonous goblin with all the charisma of a road-killed porcupine, guts and limbs held intact only by a filthy tube of pantyhose pulled loosely over top of the whole gory fricassee like poor man’s haggis.
Sorry, I’m getting off topic.
The cross light sensors demonstrate our gluttony for power and our recklessness with that power in an annoying, but relatively harmless way. But then there’s bicycles and cars, which have such a toxic relationship with one another in America that otherwise law-abiding, non-Joseph-Stalin-being motorists will deliberately and gleefully try to run cyclists off the road, often to their untimely deaths, as though exacting some kind of vigilante justice. We have two guilty parties here, contributing to a vicious, two-part cycle—a bi-cycle, if you will.
First are the motorists, who don’t know what to make of these cyclists, some of whom abide by the rules of the road while others don’t, so they just regard all cyclists as vermin, or else coddle them in ways that are actually burdensome: waving them ahead when to do so makes no sense, driving around them with such a wide berth that it impedes traffic in the oncoming lane, or conversely, driving slowly behind the bicycle for awkwardly long stretches when they could go around. Half of cyclists, tired of disrespectful or annoying treatment from motorists, retaliate by saying “fuck it” to the rules of the road and riding around ignoring lights and stop signs and weaving in and out of traffic like they’ve got a stash of spare spinal columns. The other half of cyclists double down on the rules of the road like Boy Scouts, which both confuses motorists who are used to treating bicyclists like rogue buffalo, and makes them wildly unpopular with the misbehaving half of the cyclist population, which, as it happens, tends to be the belligerent, knife-wielding half.
I’ve long been somewhere in the middle of all this. Though I often ride a bicycle, until recently, I’d never bothered to read up on the rules for cyclists. I had a vague recollection of someone somewhere saying you’re supposed to just follow the rules of the road like other vehicles, so that’s what I did, except for running the occasional stop sign when the way was clear, or magically transforming into a sidewalk-riding “pedestrian on wheels” whenever the bike lane was suddenly obstructed. But I’ve tried to be generally mindful of safety and other drivers’ needs. I even do the dorky hand signals when turning.
The reason I recently read up on the rules was that a sixty-something woman yelled at me on the road without a clear reason, and the sensation I felt was so vividly reminiscent of grade school trauma that it plunged me into a hallucinogenic whirlpool of childhood’s greatest hits—the public shaming ritual of “taking one’s bear down” in first grade, receiving recess detention for taking too long to draw an American flag in second grade, the ear-drilling preemptive warn-scolding of fifth grade’s Mrs. Price (“IF I’VE TOLD YOU ONCE, I’VE TOLD YOU A MILLION TIMES! INDENT YOUR PARAGRAPHS!! YOU MAY BEGIN WRITING!!!”), and a dozen other flashes of being screamed at for breaking rules I hadn’t known existed or hadn’t broken.
Here’s what happened. The woman crept up behind me in her car, window down, and shouted, “Excuse me, are you aware that you just rolled through the intersection?”
I turned to look.
“You just rolled through the intersection!”
“Y . . . I mean, I was . . .” In the heat of the moment, I lacked the full mental clarity to observe that “rolling through the intersection” is the only way for someone on wheels to traverse an intersection. I also hadn’t fully rendered the thought that technically, I hadn’t rolled through any intersection. In the heat of the moment, I knew only confusion.
What I’d actually done was skate my bike into the crosswalk to the left of the intersection, using the accompanying foot traffic to cover me as I veered left from there into the road.
I had to admit, I wasn’t entirely sure this was a legal maneuver, but I also couldn’t think of a better, safer way to transition from the sidewalk to the road. It was also impossible to discern if this was indeed what the woman was angry about, since the words she’d selected had no meaning.
“I,” I said.
“Uh-uh,” she interrupted. “In the county of San Mateo you can’t roll through an intersection.”
“I was at the crosswalk . . .”
“YOU BROKE. THE LAW.”
I tilted my head at her with genuine concern, unsure of what I’d done but mortified by the accusation. I was sure now that, lawful or not, I’d planned my maneuver carefully and with great concern for the safety of all. But I didn’t want detention again.
The traffic light ahead turned yellow now, and I noticed for the first time that in order to accost me she’d stopped in the middle of moving traffic. She also saw the light change, gave me one final, scornful sneer, and floored it through the intersection as the light turned red. It was a masterpiece of hypocrisy the likes of which I typically only see in the news. I let out a shrieking laugh, watching her zoom into the distance with a trail of dust.
Still, I couldn’t dismiss her accusation. I pedaled home self-consciously, my brain fluttering with theories, and went to Google as soon as I was through the door. Not that the middle of the road at a green light is the best place to hold a debate anyway, but it bothered me that I didn’t actually know if I was in the wrong or not, so I couldn’t have stood my ground in any setting. I consider myself rather fastidious about bike safety, but I kind of just make it up as I go along. And that means that, ultimately, I’m still part of the problem: I don’t know what I’m doing.
I perused a web page detailing the rules and guidelines for cyclists, and when I closed the browser I still didn’t have a definitive answer, but the facts were on my side. Much to my surprise, I learned that cyclists are actually allowed to ride on the sidewalk. Many do so in this neighborhood, but I’d always thought they’d just fallen through the cracks. Of society, not the sidewalk. If that’s allowed, then it stands to reason that riding through a crosswalk must also be allowed, as it is an extension of the sidewalk. And if that’s allowed, and riding in the street is allowed, then surely there is no law prohibiting riding from the crosswalk into the street. How else would you get there?
I like to think that that woman has since reflected on the episode and is somewhere out there right now feeling bad about herself. That she realized how hypocritical she’d been the instant she cleared that changing traffic light. That she, too, paid a visit to Google and discovered she’d been wrong about the law. That she read the news, saw shades of her own hypocrisy in that which now terrorizes our democracy and indeed the world, and came to regret the role she’d played in electing and then emulating President Donald Trump, who is a wretched burlap sack full of crescent rolls, who at once embodies all of the worst traits in infants and all seven deadly sins. I like to think this woman had a long, sober look in the mirror that evening. Her first in years, perhaps.
Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she sped the whole way home, cursing about god-damned millennials and cyclists and millennial cyclists, so annoyed that she turned a hard right without actually looking where she was headed, and–
Well. Let’s just try to do better.