I'm not actively blogging here anymore. But if you got here because you were searching for something about bikes, you might want to check out my latest project, Vermont Goldsprints. In summer of 2014, I bought a used goldsprints racing setup and have made it a mission to get more bikes in more people's faces by putting on fun races in unexpected places. Come join me!
The Indignity of Driving a Car: Road Ragers Out of the Cage
As much of a cyclist as I am, I have been known to drive a car from time to time. Recently, I found myself doing exactly that as my wife and I traveled home from a long labor Day weekend to see her parents on Cape Cod. As we passed through New Hampshire, we decided to pull off a familiar exit to use the facilities and grab a cup of coffee. There's a gas station right there, so while my wife went inside, I decided to top up the car.
The pumps were pretty busy. I drove to the end of the row, and finding no empty pumps, got in line for the last pump, behind two other cars. I had barely come to a rest when I realized the pump to my left was likely a better choice, since there was only one person there and I was no in a position to pull up behind them without making a strange turning movement. The only problem was that a steady stream of cars was driving toward me, along the path I had just taken, and I could not find a gap that would allow me to move over.
The last of these cars, a white 15 passenger van, finally passed by as the woman at the pump of my desire reached for her receipt. I made my move. Just as I reached the pump, I saw the white van come around the other side, aiming for the same spot I was now in. The woman waved wildly from the driver's seat, and I could not hear her but it looked like she was yelling. She clearly wanted the spot more than me. I pointed forward, signalling that I would drive through and get out of her way. I looked down to put my keys back in the ignition to start the car and get out of the way.
It's a good thing I looked up before moving forward, because when I did, the woman who had only an instant ago been behind the wheel of the van was standing in front of my car, against my hood and bumper, arms crossed. I leaned out of the window.
"I don't think so!" she yelled.
"Just let me drive through, I'll get out of your way." I said, trying to look sheepish and apologetic, but mostly feeling disbelief.
"No way." she said. "I have your plate number."
"I just want to drive through and get out of your way." I figured I'd try reason one more time before backing up the car.
"I'm with her." A burly man with a blond Fu- Manchu mustache yelled. "Get out of here, you Vermont asshole!"
He wanted me to respond, He wanted me to pick a fight. The woman stood fast in front of my car.
The situation was hopeless. In 30 seconds or less, I felt as if I had gone from a normal guy, somebody who works to make his community better, who loves his wife and family, who cooks dinner and gardens and waves to the kids next door when he gets home from work, to a no-good, line-cutting "Vermont asshole." I backed up the car and parked it around the side of the building. I went in long enough to find Kate and let her know we needed to get on the road. I felt shaky and bruised, like somebody had punched me in the ribs.
I played it over and over in my head. Should I have stood my ground? Tried to explain? I couldn't see a way that doing so would have done anything but escalate the situation further and make it more dangerous. Why were my actions so misunderstood? I'm still not sure, but I am left with an unsettling impression that the veneer that keeps us from living in a Mad Max, caveman sort of world is exceedingly thin.
I have a theory going that has to do with the broken promise of advertising. Advertising offers us two major things: first, the proposition that our lives are incomplete and that we are inadequate as human beings. Second: advertising tells us that whatever product they are selling will resolve our inadequacy. After beer and tobacco ads, I can think of no industry more guilty of this than the automotive one. Think about the car ads you see: most involve a lone vehicle, by itself on the road, if there is a road at all. The driver is unburdened by traffic, the cost of gas, the inconvenience of a repair bill. The driver is elevated, faster, more agile and more entitled than those around him. The car has made his life and he himself, complete.
Contrast that with reality. Cars, and a life dependent on them, can be a real pain. Gas is expensive, and sometimes you have to maneuver around other cars and wait in line to get it. Contrary to their advertising image, cars make you dependent, and sometimes even helpless. If you can't get the gas the gas they need to run, they become a burden, if you have to delay what you really want to do in life to tend to the care and feeding of your car, it becomes an expensive burden.
So we drag these heavy, expensive burdens with us wherever we go, constantly angered at the stark contrast between the lie we believed when we watched the advertisement and the miserable reality that a car, like most things, can't really make you a happier, more confident person. Some of us even get enraged, some of us yell at each other, some of us even shape our rage into prejudice against people from other states, threatening violence at the same time.
To the people at the gas station that day: I hope you find something that costs very little and makes you very happy. I have a beautiful, loving wife, and we both have wonderful families. I have beer in the fermenter and tomatoes in the garden. I have a bike that I can ride to work almost every day. I hope these angry people have those things in their lives, and remember the joy they might hold.