In a city as busy and crowded as New York, it is inevitable that people occasionally commandeer a bit of space that technically does not belong to them. We all do it. If you have a stoop, someone's going to sit on it to tie his shoes. If the subway train is crowded, somebody is going to make physical contact with you. And yes, as even someone as staunchly against it as I am must accept, occasionally there's going to be a car in your bike lane. Simply put, sometimes you've got to cut people some slack.
As anybody who lives in a big city knows, there are times when space-commadeering is acceptable, and there are times when it is unacceptable. There are no hard and fast rules, but like porn, you know unacceptability when you see it. For example, in the subway scenario, a shoulder brush is sometimes unavoidable but a crotch-fondle is never warranted. Similarly, a car entering the bike lane to get around a garbage truck or to parallel park might be the equivalent of a shoulder brush. But sitting in an expensive car and having a cellphone conversation in the middle of a bike lane during the evening rush is just a full-on ball grab.
Still, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and since she was sitting at an intersection I thought that maybe this was a new DOT pilot program inspired by the Copenhagen foot rest, only instead of little railings they were using luxury SUVs. So, after making sure there was nobody else in the car capable of beating me up (by which I mean pretty much anybody tougher than an inconsiderate dowager), I simply placed my hand right on the driver door window exactly where her face was and leaned there while waiting for the green.
It took a few moments, but she finally noticed me and rolled down the window, which forced me to move my hand to the door. She didn't say anything--she just put the phone on her shoulder and looked at me expectantly. Affecting my most genteel tone, I explained that she was parked right in the middle of the bike lane, and since she was engrossed in a conversation I figured she wouldn't mind if I availed myself of her vehicle to lean on until the light changed. As I spoke, she looked me up and down, taking inventory of my battered Scattante and my modest wardrobe. Then, in an amused manner that might also have been contemptuous if it wasn't so utterly dismissive, she just sort of shrugged as if to say "Whatever," closed the window, and resumed her conversation.
Like anybody, in weak moments I occasionally feel good about myself. This is a dangerous impulse, and in such moments it's important to keep in mind how lowly you really are. Being looked at like this woman looked at me is a great reminder, so for this reason I decided to take her picture. I figured it would be handy for staving off happiness in the same way you might use a photo of a puppy carcass to quell an erection. However, while my lean didn't spur her into action, the presence of a camera certainly did, and she quickly shielded her face as I took the shot:
The speed with which she blocked her visage indicated she was experienced with this kind of thing, and I wondered who she was. Perhaps I had caught some sort of power broker in the midst of planning a torrid liaison, and had I captured her face I might have used the photo for blackmail and been able to retire on the proceeds. As it is, I may never know. In retrospect, I sort of regret the encounter, since while the glass-touching may have been a shoulder brush perhaps the photo was a bit of a fondling below the waistline. Still, the starkness of the photo makes it look far more intense than it really was. In real time the whole thing was just the equivalent of a sarcastic passive-aggressive "Excuse me."
Speaking of aggression, yesterday I mentioned the imminent "Empire" fixed-gear video, and the reactions to this cinematic endeavor were predictably vehement. Regardless of whether you think that "Empire" is an exciting "grassroots" film that conveys the excitement of urban riding, or you think it's yet another irresponsible vanity project by one of cycling's many cliques, it certainly made some people angry and in that sense alone I believe it's valid. I also happen to believe that when something makes you angry you should think a little bit about why it makes you angry, since it's our capacity for rational thought that separates us from lower creatures such as cockles and man-eating kangaroos.
One thing that made people angry about the "Empire" teaser was its use of a song by the Cro-Mags, since it seemed as though the filmmakers were lazily appropriating the hardcore music of the 1980s in order to imbue their project with a sense of "street cred," or perhaps even declaring themselves the rightful heirs to New York City's street-savvy anti-establishment subculture--never mind that former Cro-Mags vocalist John Joseph is himself a cyclist and rabid triathlete who uses the city as his own personal jungle gym:
One wonders if Joseph (who is so tough he probably keeps "fixies" in his Saxo Bank jersey pocket and eats them instead of Clif Bars) endorsed this use, or if he did not whether he would be honored or find it audacious. It would seem as though the people Joseph was "calling out" in the song "World Peace" are the sort of people who are making "Empire," and that their using it is like scoring a beer commercial with a Minor Threat song, but for all I know Joseph may have indeed given the crew his blessing, perhaps in exchange for a dozen IRO frames to snack on between reps of street sign pull-ups.
In another sense though the song selection is appropriate, because it wasn't long before the Cro-Mags's audience grew to include day-trippers who merely had to walk through the streets, not live in them, and who could partake in acts of physical aggression in the (relatively) safe and controlled setting of places like the Ritz. Sure, you might get punched in the face, but after the show you knew you could go home. Similarly, the sort of riding you see in "Empire" is mostly optional risk-taking. In a time before email and Jan Gehl-designed bike lanes, more people became bike messengers and rode like maniacs as a matter of necessity and survival. Certainly, this is still true for a number of people, but for many others it's more of a "lifestyle choice." Running the light at 23rd and 6th during rush hour because your baby is hungry is one thing; doing it while being followed by a cinematographer on a Honda scooter (whether or not you work as a messenger) is something else.
This is not to say there's anything wrong with entertainment for entertainment's sake, or that partaking in it (either as an entertainer or as an audience member) should require some official license of authenticity. Still, sometimes it lacks integrity. When the rider runs the light in the "Empire" teaser, there's absolutely no reason for him to do it, yet whether you find it thrilling or idiotic you simply can't look away because you need to see if he will make it. It's one of the cheapest tricks in media, and it's the entire basis behind entertainers like David Blaine. Most people hate David Blaine, and the stunts he pulls are utterly pointless, but when a guy announces he's going to lock himself in a lucite refrigerator in the middle of Piccadilly Circus for three months, you simply need to know whether or not this moron is going to die. Sure, it's a foolproof attention-getter, but it also requires the entertainer to constantly out-moron himself in order to have a career. This is a bad economic model for creating entertainment; it's like living off your credit cards. The interest will eventually bury you.
Actually, if you really think about it, even the most conservative, practical cyclist takes the same risks as the "Empire" riders do, and has just as many "bragging rights." Really, in a way speeding up the riding is just as phony as speeding up the film, since the commuter in the day-glo vest with the helmet mirror and the hybrid bike covered in reflective tape is about as likely to get hit by a bus. The difference is that day-glo commuter doesn't expect anybody to think he's cool.
Maybe cycling needs more commuting videos to keep things in perspective, since the rest of us seem to be preoccupied with showing the world that we touch cars. This could be why people seem to be so captivated by David Byrne and his grueling midtown-to-SoHo loft-to-loft commute. David Byrne doesn't touch cars; he just talks about how evil the suburbs are. In a way though it's kind of the same thing. Whether you're a car-toucher, a light-runner, or a gallery-hopper, it's easy to design an urban cycling lifestyle for yourself when you have so many options.