Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two Bike Wrecks

Wreck One:

I had mountain bike, which I rode to work every day. I was charging up the left side of Church Street (which becomes Sixth Avenue), with a cab to my left and a sputtering green delivery truck to my right. The sensation was that of hurtling through a deafening, mobile, metal hallway. The green delivery truck made a sudden left, cut the cab off, and the hallway closed in on me. My handlebars hit the cab's right rear-view mirror, leaving it shattered and swinging lamely from a bundle of wires. The cab skidded to a halt with one long blast of the horn.

I executed a successful rear dismount, leveling the pedals and thrusting the bike forward into the converging maw. I hit the pavement and skidded on my ass and elbow, watching the front fork of my bike split in two and the frame crumble under the wheels of the green delivery truck. The truck, never slowing, turned and disappeared. There was a fusillade of screeching and honking behind me—I was lying in the street. 

I picked myself up and hoisted what was left of the bike over my shoulder. The cabbie was standing beside his cab now, hands open at waist-level, palms up, yelling at me. "My fucking mirror is broken! Who gonna pay for this fucking mirror?" I looked at my shining elbow, skin-free and red with blood from wrist to hinge. I looked at the cabbie. I pitched my mangled bike into the air and it landed on the trunk of his cab, resting for a moment before slithering to the street, a limp pile of inert parts held together by cables and wires. The cabbie jumped in and peeled off. I picked up my bike again.

I walked, helmeted, bike in pieces on shoulder, the remaining 40 blocks to work. It was humid and the outdoor plants on 27th street smelled amazing. I laughed when I realized I'd carried a totaled bicycle two miles, and left it there on 33rd street, where it immediately seeped into the city.

Wreck Two:

With nothing to ride, I borrowed a single-speed fixed-wheel bike from a friend. I was at first disgusted to have the bike-of-the-moment, but soon grew accustomed to the fluidity and speed.

I had a painful accident—I thought I had gotten used to the fact that you mustn't ever stop pedaling on these things. I was Manhattan-bound in industrial Brooklyn, and was challenged to race by a food delivery guy. I outpaced him with little effort, then sprinted on to drive the point home. High in the saddle, I saw a patch of rough road ahead, leveled my feet and stood in preparation for a quick jump. You can't do that on a fixed-wheel bicycle. My body was ejected, flew ten feet through the air and came down hard on the pavement. I landed on both elbows and both knees and held that position for a few seconds—a contorted child's pose—then rose to my feet. I saw the broad smile of the delivery guy drawing near. My elbows and knees were decorated with small black rocks and held the reverse topographical impression of the road. They were shocked white and had not yet begun to bleed. I got back on the bike, which was undamaged, and rode ahead so as not to be bested by my opponent. I arrived at work and shocked the receptionist once with my blood-soaked socks, and once again with my mangled elbows.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Anger Wat

I caught up with my girlfriend in Thailand, and we made our way to Cambodia via tuk-tuk, bus, truck and minivan. She had been in Southeast Asia for months already, so we had a lot to talk about. One of those things was sex. 

We'd agreed to have an open relationship while she was away, rather than fuck other people and lie about it. We were inching along a pitted dirt road just inside the Cambodian border when she decided it was a perfect time to come clean about her tryst. She'd fucked some German guy. It had happened more than once over the course of a few days. Despite our agreement, I was stupefied. Tricked. Trapped. Crushed. I pictured the vigorous first time, the relaxed and explorative second time, the lazy AM third time. My inclination was to open the door of the minivan and push her out, but we were going very slowly and she would only have tumbled unharmed into a rice-paddy. I held her close instead. I resolved to forgive her.

In Phnom Penn that night I could not make love to her. I cried. We cried. Things were better the next day, and our amorous rites soon resumed. We spent several days in the capital, and traveled north to Siem Reap, the city adjacent to Cambodia's national treasure, Angkor Wat. The hotel was a breezy, deteriorating villa in the French style; soaring ceilings and tiny balconies. Our one-gloved moped driver, who tagged himself with the moniker "Michael Jackson," sold us a pile of brown weed for seven US dollars. We journeyed into the massive temple city at sundown. It was Christmas eve.

At the barren top of a ruined ziggurat we watched the sun melt into the horizon. The chorus of jungle insects was deafening, the breeze hot, and I was slowed by the unmistakable weight of apprehension. My girlfriend approached me from behind. She was standing with a tall man with very short hair. He was smoking a cigarette. She introduced him as the person she'd met a month before, the man she'd fucked. I said hello. I shook his hand. I walked away fast.

Aflame, I rushed down the crumbling temple steps. My eyes were searing and I felt they would boil forth from their sockets. My heart beat a deafening, liquescent death-march in my ears. I could not swallow. I spoke aloud to the elements, and looked frantically for support from nature. Would that tree understand my grief? Did the ancient soil feel as I felt, ripped apart, shamed, undone? I stood straight, raising both hands to the sky, a human glyph of primal grief. I came down at once, slamming both fists into the rocky ground with as much force as I could summon. My left hand was fine. My right hand was not.

By the time we got to the field clinic in Siem Reap my right hand was swollen to twice its normal size. The clinic was a simple, one-story structure with hard-packed dirt floors. The clinicians spoke a patois of Cambodian and French—very little English. The hulking, battleship gray x-ray machine clearly read "US Military" and appeared to be from the era of our wars there. I pictured tiny tumors popping up and multiplying, cells inflating and reduplicating, mitochondrial popcorn. I pictured Henry Kissinger apologizing for his illegal carpeting bombing campaigns, and by way of consolation, presenting field clinics the country over with used x-ray machines. The film showed my skeletal hand. The doctor repeatedly said, "Entorse." I would ask, "Broken?" and he would shake his head, "Entorse." I later found that roughly translates as "Contused." I felt extreme relief, and ate a lot of ibuprofen.

We continued to explore Angkor Wat and other destinations in Cambodia, and traveled on to an island in Thailand. My hand was bound up in a now-blackened wrap, my right pinky supported by a crude metal splint. I was in near-constant pain. I could not grip or support myself with the right. I was shaving, writing and drawing with the left. Three weeks after the initial impact, I thought it might be wise to seek a second opinion. I went to the Seventh-Day Adventist hospital in Bangkok with my girlfriend, my hand, and my x-ray film. It was infant-health day, and the whole place was teeming with tiny Thai babies. They squirmed more than cried. Without too much ado I sat down in the orthopedist's office. He placed my film on his lightbox and flipped a switch, the fluorescent bulb sputtering to life. His heavily accented bass croak was succinct: "Is broken. Require surgery."

I stood. I sat. I fought hot tears and lost. I ranted, denying this was possible, screaming I couldn't afford it, crying I would never draw again. The orthopedist sat immobile and waited for it to pass. It passed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bike Wreck

I was biking home one day in late Summer. I hit someone. It was unseasonably cool out.

I bike aggressively, riding as fast as possible and shouting at vehicles and pedestrians. On the Brooklyn Bridge there's a distinctly marked bike lane, but it's packed with people staring directly up, consulting maps, phones and cameras. Pointing at things in the distance. Losing control of strollers. Engaging in long, wandering kisses with eyes closed, backing slowly into the path of a fast biker.

You have to weigh your desire to hit them with the possibility of long-term consequences. The climb up the Manhattan side of the bridge is safe enough because you're slow and easy to hear, but thundering down the other side is dicey. It's like taking an ATV on a crowded beach — you're totally focussed, shouting "Watch out," "Head's up," or "Move!," and the hapless public are adrift in another world. Mostly they snap to, literally throw up their hands, gasp, scream, and are pulled into their lane by fathers or friends. 

I made it through the worst and was sailing cooly toward the final descent when my accident happened. There were pedestrians walking purposefully in their assigned lane, and I was one of several bikes passing them in the bike lane. The process seemed complete when a lady emerged from the herd and bent over an open backpack right in my path. I could have been going 25 mph. She was facing away from me and I was mere feet behind her, a concrete wall to my right and a clot of human beings to my left. I hit her rear-end so squarely that my momentum was fully transferred to her. I came to a complete halt and she catapulted, leapfrog-like, through the air, actually landing on her feet as if completing the standing long jump. She cried out and it was clear she was Italian. 

I had collided with a beautiful Italian lady. She stood stock-still for a full instant, then began to take huge, deliberate steps, her body rigid. Her arms were waving in small circles. She was repeating, "Ayayayayayayai," and touching her buttocks. A few people had stopped. A hairy guy in a sleeveless t-shirt said, "You should watch where you're goin!" A lady in a visor and sunglasses said, "Crazy fucking bikers."

I made sure the lady was ok. I gave her all my information, ostensibly in case there were any long-term complications arising from our chance meeting. The smell of burning rubber lingered from my skidding.

She was earnestly trying to buck up and kept nodding to herself like, "you're okay!"

By now she was walking, talking, and ready to leave. I apologized as sincerely as I knew how, wincing and half-smiling a lot. "I'm really, really sorry."

She clutched her backpack to her chest and looked about, beholding the city. She turned to me, eyes full of water, and spoke:

"Do you know where is River Cafe?"

Friday, March 6, 2009

Tall People

I got in line behind a very tall man at the supermarket. Already I didn't like him, but he had only a few items, so I set my groceries out on the belt. He stood a good three feet taller than the cashier, who was old and visibly perplexed. She lifted a wandering index finger to the register, hesitated, and warily consulted her other index finger which was pressed just beneath the bar code on a large box of donuts. She looked up at her monitor. She looked down at the donuts. She peered into the middle distance, and shouted to an unseen Darrel.

Darrel loped up, possibly 16 years old, possibly 34, and gave the cashier an interrogative up-nod.

Adrift, she replied "Void. This new computer gonna be the death of me."

Darrel inserted a tiny key from an overflowing keychain and deftly performed the task. He loped off. The cashier thanked the tall man for his patience. Head declined at a 45 degree angle so as to make proper eye contact with her, he nearly whispered, "No problem." She passed his few remaining items over the scanner. 

The tall man's total was $131.95. He ran his card. He pushed "debit." He entered his secret code. We stood in concrete silence for one year, broken only by the cashier's defeated cry, "Darrel!"

I said, "Gracious!"

She turned her head with excruciating deliberation. She fixed her yellowed, protuberant eyes on me and pronounced, "I'm trying to figure out this new computer." She nodded in slow motion at the adjacent lane and added, "You can get in another line."

I would not move my groceries to another belt, and asked her to try and finish the transaction.

The tall man said, "Just relax, man." I felt relaxed.

The cashier bleated, "Someone musta had a baaaaaad day at work."

I had not. I said, "I did not."

Darrel arrived and we all shut up. He again produced the magic key from his bristling array, fixed the new computer, and disappeared. The cashier examined her monitor. She recoiled. She shook her head and said, "It says it's not enough. There's not—we still have $118.76 left. It says negative $118.76."

I was mortified by the tall man's extreme calm. I was trembling like a leaf, my face twisted into a mie of incredulity. He willfully waived his every right to complain, cooing, "That doesn't sound right—can you check?"

Darrel appeared, established the cashier had only charged the tall man $13.19, and vanished. Steam was pouring from my ears. I kept turning to find a pair of sympathetic eyes, to condemn these two in a court of common decency, but my lane was eerily empty. It was just us three. The tall man again swiped his card, entered his secret code, paid his balance, was again thanked for his patience, and left. I was alloyed against his inevitable pivot+recriminating glare, but he simply walked away. 

I attempted some retrenchment of hostilities with the cashier. I did not succeed. I paid, gathered my groceries, and walked home.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Esse Quam Videre

On Halloween I went to a party at the American Embassy in Rome. I thought it would be rebellious to wear the costume of a soldier, so I put something together with what I had: imitation combat boots, brown slacks, and a rotting camouflage t-shirt. It was not enough that I wore tarnished mirrored aviators, I also smoked a large cheap cigar. The bar was serving Mickey's malt liquor, in a costume-appropriate "grenade" bottle, and I quickly became intoxicated. The party sprawled out over a large open terrace, where I fell into a tree and asked someone’s date for a dance. I lost my sunglasses. I was asked to leave.

The neighborhood was quite a long way from our lodging, and a group of us staggered out into the street. The night was damp and cold and Roman. One of our party jumped me from behind and I ran, carrying him piggy-back for a few lurching steps until I stumbled. My arms were held; I fell and hit my face directly on the sidewalk. There was an ugly splat of blood on the pavement and I could feel wet blood and flecks of gravel on my face. My head was ringing. Rage, self-pity and adrenaline brought me quickly to my feet. The pale yellow streetlights held glowing halos in the watery air. The wedding cake loomed behind me, immense and inert.

I leaned forward into my anger, howling, destroying my voice, clenching my fists, slowly but distinctly screaming "I'm disfigured! Look at me! Look at me! Go ahead, just look! I know what you're thinking! It's funny to you fuckers; you don't have to live with this!" and on like that—genuine theatrics. The members of my group were laughing, some uncomfortably, others more comfortably. I attacked my assailant but his size and strength allowed him both to defend himself and remain good-natured at the same time—smirking drunkenly and speaking in palliative tones. With no clear plan of action, I knew only that I very much wanted to kill him.

Some Italians pulled up in a luxury convertible to see what the matter was. I approached the car and said,

"Laugh! Go ahead, laugh! That's what you want to do! It's fucking funny—hilarious—when you see an otherwise intact human with his fucking brains spilling out of his head!" (Nonsense, though my nose was broken and I had a good scrape and bruise over my right eye.) I continued shouting after them as they sped off.

I was hustled by my party onto a big red Roman bus. These buses have tires, but run on prescribed tracks with elevated electrical wires, and are open like trolleys. As we passed over the river and up the hill I assumed a reserved air. In a stage-whisper, I repeatedly told my assailant I intended to kill him. When we gained our lodging, I ran up the staircase ahead of him, turned, and sprung diagonally down through the air with my arms outstretched, aiming for his neck. He caught me bodily and set me down. He smuggled me to my room with the assistance of no small part of the group, where I awoke in the morning fully clothed, my bloody face stuck to the pillow. I did not speak until late that afternoon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Air Rage

A strange thing happened on an airplane. I was on the last leg of a multi-city journey, ground down and exhausted. I made my way to the penultimate row, in the stench of the toilet, and readied myself for what I hoped would be an hour of deep sleep. As I began to drift away, the kicking came; percussive, forceful, and consistent. I turned to see a four-year-old boy and his middle-aged, besuited and bespectacled father seated behind me in the last row. The child looked up, reared back and kicked with both feet, grinning from ear to ear and causing his tray table to open. I said, in the most cloying tones I could summon,

"Hey little buddy, you think you could stop kicking my seat?"

Before he could answer, his father slammed his folded paper down, and said through a glare and a grimace,

"That's my son! He's four years old. He's four years old!"

"Can you get him to stop kicking my seat? We got an hour up here and"

"What the fuck is wrong with you? He's four years old!"

The man was clearly agitated and I gave up right quick. The child kicked intermittently throughout the flight when he wasn't crying, and sometimes when he was crying. I did not sleep. I wondered if I'd somehow created this scenario, if my loathing for this man and his hellspawn was evident beneath my forced smile and affected baby voice, if hours of travel on multiple planes had set a giant chip on my shoulder, invisible only to me.

We were landing now. A portly male flight attendant whisked by and asked the man to place his child in a seat and fasten his seat belt. I craned just enough to see the man had the kid in his lap. He said no.

"Sir, you're gonna hafta put your child in his own seat and fasten his seatbelt before we land — it's FAA regulations."

The man clutched his son close as if he were about to be taken forever.

"He's four years old!"

"I don't care how old he is, sir, it's FAA regulations and you're gonna hafta comply now or there's gonna be a problem." People were noticing now. The man's face was a mask of anxious despair.

"No, I will not, goddamn you. He's my son! He's only four!"

The flight attendant pulled the intercom off the wall. The man reached out for the intercom and the flight attendant pulled back quickly, poised to strike.

"Sir, I will hit you with this intercom! You are in violation of Federal regulations! Now belt your child immediately!" The man did not. The flight attendant made a hushed call on the intercom. The man rocked back and forth almost imperceptibly. He began to apologize. He'd been traveling for a long time. He'd overreacted. His son was only four years old.

We landed, and police entered the rear of the plane almost immediately. The man was cuffed and escorted out the back door, his son in the arms of a uniformed officer. He kept muttering his son's age over and over.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Golf Cart Cops

The vast majority of these posts will be about biking because that's when I tend to have hostile encounters.

Biking over the bridge I heard honking. I didn't react because the bikeway is adjacent to the roadway and cars honk. The bikeway was a bleak waste of ice and uneven clumps of crystalline de-icing pebbles. The bridge swayed and vibrated as it always does, and my wheels went crunch, crunch, crunch. The honking came again, insistent reports, and I heard a small motor and an increased rate of crunching. I looked back over my shoulder and saw a golf cart cop in the bikeway approaching fast. I shouted,

"Jesus Fucking Christ!" 

The cop slowed to match my pace, and I was stuck riding in a claustrophobically narrow corridor between a blue and white golf cart and the outer fence of the bike lane. He sized me up and shouted over his motor,

"What the fuck's your problem?"

"Sorry, officer, I was just surprised to see a vehicle in the bike lane." (Normally when I see a moped or any motorized vehicle in the bike lane I scream "Cheater!" I did not call this cop a cheater.) He continued to pace me for a fair stretch, looking right at me and not at the bikeway, until I said,

"Officer, please just go past me."

He pursed his lips, knit his brow and practically spat,

"You fucking asshole!" And tore off, churning the de-icing crystals into a cloud of irritating dust which immediately coated my throat and filled my eyes. To make things more bizarre, he got behind another biker before getting to the bottom of the bridge, whom he did not honk at or pass. Soon I was right behind him, effectively creating golf cart sandwich for the last hundred yards of the decline. I rode as close to the cart as possible, trying to make eye contact in his trembling rear-view mirror. I could see his eyes but they remained fixed ahead. I imagined he was heading to a blue-turfed golf course with red golf balls, uniformed cops at the putting green, having a smoke, ready to tee off. I pictured him taking the final turn too fast and flipping the cart, years in rehab, learning to walk again. I hoped he might pull too quickly onto Chrystie street and be flattened by an an illegal immigrant driver. I thought of all the reasons a cop might be relegated to such a humiliating vehicle, and hoped the degree to which he intimidated others was outweighed by his private misery. I thought, as he pulled safely into traffic and putted off, perhaps the whole affair could have been avoided if I'd simply pulled over to let him pass without saying a word.

Gathering Stones

I ride my bike every day. On this day it was extremely cold and I was warmly dressed, right up to my black neoprene face mask, which as it turns out is very handy for muffling apoplectic screaming. I was almost home, whipping downhill on a wide avenue, when a black SUV coming the opposite way made a sudden, sweeping, unsignalled u-turn, which would have flattened me if I had not a) been paying very close attention, b) taken decisive action. I came to a sudden, awkward stop, half up on the sidewalk, pressed against a parking meter, staring into the blank, yellowed, unresponsive eyes of the driver. I screamed he could have killed me. I shook my fists in rage. I felt my heartbeat pounding in my temple. I got an unwelcome metallic taste in my mouth. The driver seemed only partially aware of me, possibly because my main organs of expression were masked. I brought my hand down on his hood with a hollow thunk. He remained locked in his vehicle. 

I rode on, counseling myself against overreacting, focussing on breathing, on methodic pedaling and peaceful thoughts. What if the driver had gotten out of the car? My throbbing temple felt distinctively pre-aneurysmic. On a calmer street, much closer to my house, a beaten white delivery truck swung into the road from a parked position (in reverse), forcing me to drop the bike and stumble a few feet toward the vehicle in disbelief. I met the drivers eyes and he shrugged as if to say "what can I do?" I screamed hoarsely into my mask. I shook my fists in rage. I actually saw red. The driver continued backing into his lot, the gate of which rumbled into place to cover him.

I gathered stones. Stones in Brooklyn are no longer naturally occurring, so my pockets were soon bulging with jagged chunks of asphalt, miniature black asteroids rich with dazzling specs and reflective flecks. I fingered one with a gloved hand, testing the heft. I resolved to wait there until the employee came back out, presumably in his own vehicle, and smash his windshield with a stone. I resolved always to ride with rocks in my pockets so I could defend myself against the blithely murderous legions of absentminded motorists, hurling as I rode, a rogue cavalryman, a mobile, low-emissions David. I wondered if the cop I bought pot from years ago in the Red Hook Houses would sell me a gun. I pictured the surprise on the face of the next driver who nearly took me out when I forced him from his car, made him perform humiliating acts, pistol-whipped his face.

I began to feel very cold and there was no sign of the offending driver, or anyone for that matter. The sun had set and the wind off the water was brutal. I emptied the chunks of asphalt from my pockets. I gathered my bicycle and rode home.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Briefly Reported

7:48pm While awaiting the downtown F on the 34th st platform, the D train arrives and the conductor and I are left face to face when the train comes to a halt. The PA reports the trains are running differently, so I ask him directly if this one is running like an F.




I clear my throat and ask again to make sure F trains are still running on this track. His gaze fixes somewhere over my shoulder and he makes no reply.

I turn to the nice-looking Asian lady (with large teeth) standing next to me and say, "That's just disrespectful!"

Her earnest nod is impossible to misinterpret. The conductor stares on, unblinking.

I ask him, "Are the F trains running?" and am met with the most profound silence, this time with eye contact. He closes the doors.

The Asian lady!

"Hey, I want to get on the train!"  her strained voice, her slight form wedged between the closing doors.

The conductor is looking at me and cooly allowing the train to start. I say,

"Look, man! She's stuck!" and she cries again, teeth looking anguished and very large, "I want to get on the train!"

She is divided exactly in half by the doors and her reflection in the windows makes a strange whole of her. She shouts again at the conductor.

I say nearly in his mouth, "You are amazing," and the man is able to free the Asian lady, accelerate, and ask me "What'd you say?" all in the same instant.

Demonstrating Restraint

Sometimes people want to murder their own family and friends. In fact, it happens more frequently then you might think. Statistics show that you're more likely to be killed by a close family member on Christmas Eve than any other time. That does not link to any statistics, by the way. I know Christmas seems far away, but don't get too comfortable — you might get yours tonight.

I wanted to murder a close friend this weekend, but providence won the day. I was helping him move into a fourth-floor walk-up, and after fifteen or so trips (wherein I diagnosed myself with tachycardia, smelled hamburger helper, heard top-volume reggaeton & devised several clever methods for getting boxes up stairs quickly), I elected to pour myself a beer. He rose from the floor where he was idly fiddling with audio equipment and unironically said, "Yo man — how about more carrying and less drinking?" 

I considered throwing the glass at his head, trying to push him out the window, or taking a flying leap feet-first into his pile of high-dollar electronics. Instead, I took a deep breath, drank my beer, and continued carrying boxes. See? See?


I never ride the subway because it makes me want to hurt people and/or destroy things. I never act my my first impulse because it is frequently the exact opposite of the proper course of action.

This morning I was forced to ride the subway because of a huge snowstorm. Busses were late, trains were infrequent and densely packed. A lady right in front of me got on, and instead of moving all the way into the car as we're asked to do, she immediately set her bag down & bent over, effectively blocking all further access to the car. She fumbled with papers. She retrieved a small blue coffee cup and sipped some.

I envisioned myself kicking her headfirst into the support pole, an explosion of coffee and a chorus of gasps. I envisioned myself kicking her bag and strewing her meagre belongings across the crowded car. I saw myself taking her aside and speechifying on the importance of self-awareness and consideration for others, especially on a crowded train at rush hour. I thought of bending over as if to tie my shoe.

Within seconds I realized she was a Latina cleaning lady struggling just to get by, revised all my former opinions and forgave her completely.

Introduction and Premise

Hello and welcome to DoNotReact. This blog will chronicle my daily interactions, especially those containing some degree of competition, conflict, danger, or violence.