Falling Through Doors

Sep
30

Foreign Food

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The biggest reason I was able to live in a small city in Japan for as long as I did was a seventy-one-year-old woman named Tama. Despite a language barrier that ensured our deep thoughts and the complexities of our personalities would remain a mystery to one another, we got on well and saw each other weekly. She cared for me, taking me to the hospital once in summer for severe dehydration (after an ill-advised half-marathon run on a hot day with a new long-distance group), and again in winter for a torn calf muscle (after crashing over an icy mogul on a ski slope). We taught each other our languages. We went out for meals. She delivered vegetables from her garden to my door and taught me not to plant my tomatoes near my eggplants. We often cooked together. She showed me how to make Japanese dishes like tempura, agedashi tofu, and gyoza, while I taught her to make truly mundane dishes that she repeatedly requested, despite my insistence that we could do better than spaghetti bolognese, fancy sandwiches, and banana bread. (The banana bread episode was a real debacle. She had invited her friends for this particular demonstration, so I was properly on display. Her minuscule oven—it was unclear to me whether it had been bought for the occasion or unused for years—malfunctioned and the bread wouldn’t bake, so of course, due to politeness protocol, I later found myself sitting at her table surrounded by nine septuagenarians smiling and eating what was essentially warm banana batter from bowls with spoons, nodding and telling me it was delicious.) Food was a large part of our friendship.

Food was also one of the most persistent reminders that I was living somewhere foreign. One evening, my Australian friend Aaron and I decided we would finally try the little yakitori restaurant down a small alley in our neighbourhood. We had noticed it many times, and since the kanji for yakitori was one of the few I had memorized at that point, in a way our meal there seemed predestined. (For the uninitiated, yakitori translates to grilled chicken, and consists of skewered chicken pieces [and chicken parts] cooked over charcoal and seasoned, most commonly with salt or a sweet sauce. It’s really really good.) The interior was small and wooden, and there were a few stools lined up in front of a counter dotted with ceramic condiment vessels and ash trays. When a man came out from the back, he greeted us warmly. The menu was handwritten and had no photos, so I asked him to please bring us a dish of his recommendation. When he returned some time later with our meal, we were puzzled.

“Hey,” I said to Aaron. “Aren’t we in a chicken place?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you think he brought us sashimi?”

Aaron shrugged and said “Itadakimasu,” (bon appétit) and we cracked apart our chopsticks. Before us was a beautiful plating of pale pink sashimi, scattered with paper-thin garlic slices and delicate curls of chili peppers. Two small dishes of sauce perched artfully on the side. The man stood back and waited eagerly for us to taste the dish he had prepared. I put a piece in my mouth, and it wasn’t until it had been in there a while that I realized what I was eating. It was chicken. It was raw. It was confronting. It was delicious. I probably wouldn’t eat it again.

I like to eat and to cook Japanese food, and so I didn’t often miss food from home. Until suddenly I did. Acutely. I would find myself blindsided by an intense craving for nachos. My whole body wanted nachos. Gherrrrd, I needed nachos. Or garlic dill pickles. Or granola. Hummus! Brieee!! And then I didn’t—the moment would pass and I’d continue munching on my tuna rice ball. Because I couldn’t shop for those things on a regular basis, I didn’t think of them all that much. But then one day an opportunity presented itself, and I went all the way.

Nothing is less Japanese than Costco, except perhaps eating standing up, super-sized fries, road rage, and Christmas. Wholesale megastores are decidedly out of place among the other food buying options that side of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Even in the average Tokushima grocery store one would not find the shopping trolleys that come standard in North American shops, and while big supermarket chains are prevalent there, boasting long wide aisles of processed poisons, there was not a POS conveyor belt in sight. People there just don’t really buy big, which may be one reason why in Canada I’m a size M, and in Japan I’m like a double XL.

That said, there was a Costco in Amagasaki, just two hours of bridges and highways from Tokushima, and one day Tama invited Aaron and I to go there with her. We had spoken of it during a culinary discussion over dinner at Tama’s several months earlier. We told her of a place, a large and distant and brilliantly lit place boasting high ceilings and delicacies such as dill pickles, Spanish olives, Havarti cheese, chocolate by the kilogram, and granola.

“It’s cheap,” we told her. “Big and cheap.”

This is the conversation that led to her one day borrowing a friend’s Costco card, the three of us piling into her tiny square Mitsubishi, and driving the pricey highways to Hyogo prefecture.

We arrived and parked. We negotiated throngs of Sunday afternoon shoppers mindlessly pushing jumbo trolleys full of jumbo miso, jumbo mayo, jumbo nori, jumbo chocolate-covered pretzels. We jumbo shopped. Pushing past my food-mileage-related guilt, I selected some mascarpone. Giving in to homesickness, I seized tortillas and salsa. We piled high the olives and pickles and biscuits and muffins and Corn Flakes and bricks of aged cheddar and garbanzo beans and even jelly beans.

The contents of Tama’s cart were sparse: tissues, cling wrap, sliced beef, and a package of a stomach-turning product so perplexing and revolting I couldn’t keep my eyes away. Through the transparent wrapper I saw eight chubby, sausage-shaped processed meat products wrapped around bones. Actual bones. If you can somehow imagine a meat popsicle—a collection of processed animal parts wrapped around a recycled bone from some unfortunate and unidentifiable animal species—this was it. A sausage with a bone jammed up inside. Tama’s judgment had clearly been impaired by the overwhelming experience that was Costco. I hurried away from her.

After the shame-inducing checkout experience, during which we watched our gluttony gliding along before us on a rubber conveyor, we paid a visit to the grimy-floored food court. The look on Tama’s face when we ordered our 200¥ ($2) lunch combos and were handed 20oz disposable cups with foil-wrapped pizza slices inside them was one of sheer bewilderment. We apologized to her many times over the course of the afternoon, embarrassed to have this greedy, gross side of our culture revealed to her so nakedly. I realized that a place like Costco was intrinsic to the perpetuation—validation—of negative stereotypes, stereotypes I lived with each time someone’s jaw dropped when I told them that I could use chopsticks, I ate vegetables, I didn’t eat meat three times a day, and that hamburgers were not my favourite food.

Tama announced on the drive home that she would like us all to visit Costco monthly, and that she’d like to have us over for dinner the following evening.

*

When we got to Tama’s house the next day she met us in her driveway and I presented her with a box of beautifully over-packaged cookies. She disappeared into the house and returned brandishing a bag of perfect red apples, each nestled in its own protective foam netting. I tried to resist, repeatedly refusing them, but ended up bowing a thousand times and putting them in the backseat before we all went inside. I learned another of the myriad important lessons when it comes to the complex practice of gift giving in Japan: wait until the very end, literally until you are saying goodbye and getting into the car to drive home, before you present your gift to the host. Otherwise she will in return give you a gift from her personal stash, an act dictated by custom that will leave you feeling greedy and deflated—you came with a meagre box of cookies and will be leaving with a full stomach and probably all of her apples.

We followed the cooking aromas into the kitchen. Gyoza, vegetable soup, squid tempura caught that day by Tama’s husband. I could see a bowl of potato salad, a dish of gomae, and something else sizzling away in a fry pan. I elbowed Aaron and whispered, “Look on the stove,” and he did, then looked back at me, expressionless and shaken. The meat popsicles. I could feel my throat constricting as I realized that at some point very soon I would actually have to raise one of these abominations to my lips and politely eat it, even pretend to enjoy it.

While I didn’t deem such monstrosities worthy of pre-gustation discussion, and didn’t wish to seem impolite, Aaron luckily had no such qualms.

“What are those?” he said.

“What?” said Tama.

“Those things in the pan.”

Tama, who was slicing vegetables at the counter, blinked. She looked at me then back at him. She seemed worried that she was being tricked. “Frankfurters,” she said. Tama was puzzled by this question because she believed she was preparing western food for her western guests, and therefore that we should already be familiar with, and even excited to enjoy, this taste of home.

If these are enjoyed anywhere in the world, it is surely by a remote few who keep it as a shameful secret.

Aaron continued. “Is that a bone?”

“Yes.”

“From what animal?”

“Chicken. Maybe. Maybe pig.”

“Why?”

Now Tama stopped what she was doing—dressing the boneless green salad—and turned and looked at us. It was a long hard look, both accusatory and nonplussed. I smiled through the silence, stopping only when I realized my eyebrows were raised and I was grimacing a little. “Why why?” she said. Tama was clearly stunned.

This was not the only food I encountered in Japan that had been embraced and marketed as something foreign. Such delicacies could be spotted in the American Food section of a menu along with fried potato (fries) and corn soup. I once got in an argument with a ten-year-old student of mine during a discussion about our favourite foods. This took place shortly after my arrival in Japan and I had not yet encountered the family restaurant favourite known as hamburg (pronounced ham-bah-gu):

Me:                  What’s your favourite food?

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  No no, your favourite food.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  You mean hamburger.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg!

I went on to explain to little Yoshitoki that there was no such thing, that Hamburg is a city in Germany, not something to eat. I even showed him a map. I mistook his silence for concession, though realistically his English conversation abilities were insufficient to hold ground in an argument with his ignorant new teacher. Only later did I discover hamburg on a menu. I ordered it in an act of atonement. What arrived before me was a greyish ground beef patty dripping with brown sauce and accompanied by a cube of fried chicken and a limp broccoli floret.

After a few more moments of silence Aaron continued. “I mean, why a bone?”

Tama gave the only answer there could possibly be: “To hold.”

When the time came I ate the monster quickly and efficiently, and even though the processed meat itself tasted of any other hot dog, my gag reflex required that I douse the beast in the ketchup and mustard Tama had thoughtfully put on the table next to the soy sauce and matcha salt. When I got down to the recycled bone of ambiguous origin I held my breath. I was contemplating what amount of processed mystery meat would be acceptable for a person to leave on the chicken bone or pork bone or whatever it was when I noticed Tama, still shaken by our incomprehensible line of questioning, observing us. When I saw the pleasure she was taking in watching us enjoy her Frankfurters I took a breath, closed my eyes and went for it. Distracting myself with thoughts of the awaiting gyoza, I nibbled that bone-stick clean.

Aaron was offered a second and, after feigning indecision for a mere moment, he accepted. A teeny bit of my respect for him floated away. I reached for the salad, feeing triumphant in having endured my first “Frankfurter.” I hid the bone under a lettuce leaf, sipped my beer, and got on with my life.

Sep
17

The Happenings

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I think I was pretty bored in my early teen years. One reason was that we lived in a rural setting on Vancouver Island. It was idyllic, but who needs sublime beauty when you’re fourteen. (As a younger child it had been different—weekends and afternoons were spent colonizing the forest and rocky shoreline, my brother and I building entire worlds for ourselves between catch-and-releasing coin-sized crabs on the stony beach and nights spent in our treehouse.) The closest town was Sidney, whose population of ten thousand had a median age of fifty-six, and whose speed limits rarely exceeded thirty kilometres per hour. It was not in walking distance. The best things in town for sub-sixteens (read: non-driving) were a five-pin bowling alley called Miracle Lanes and the Dairy Queen. These were only youth hubs in the eyes of parents, who would hand over a twenty and drop their kids off in town for a Saturday afternoon of what they thought would be bowling and Blizzards, but would most likely be a dime bag, Doritos, and Mountain Dew down by the pier. The older ones with cars would park in the Safeway parking lot at night, loitering and showing off their sound systems.

Another reason for my boredom is that I disliked school. I disliked it from day one. This had nothing to do with the content of the classes—I was able to engage with the material and excelled in all subjects except math, which was a major contributor to my boredom. Negotiating the perplexing interactions with other children stressed me out. As a small child I wore short hair. This and my shyness, combined with a surname that rhymes with hamburger, made me a prime target of the popular mouth breathers. The resulting low self-esteem would follow me until the end of middle school, when I grew tall and willowy and began to resemble an adult, at which point I still didn’t fit in. North Saanich Middle School looked like a correctional facility, which I suppose it was in a way—a brutalist grey cube to contain a few hundred kids aged eleven to thirteen. My theory then was that they wanted to keep us away from the rest of society, hide us, and perhaps in the meantime they thought we’d destroy one another. I began skipping class in grade six, a habit I kept up until the end. In my grade-twelve year I had the highest tardy rate and lowest attendance rate in the school. I marveled over the printout—pages and pages, double-sided—that the vice principal gave me. The trouble administration must have gone through to itemize each of these marked the record in my eyes as an accomplishment.

*

I was fourteen and in my first year at Parkland Secondary. It was a year after I shed my insecurities in favour of a sense of invincibility, a year before an unknown girl in an LA Kings half-zip pullover jacket and a knuckle duster would punch my lights out at a bus stop in front of the school after I refused to give her my bus fare, and eighteen months before I would drop out of school for a year after writing a letter to Principal Bunyan outlining the flaws I’d identified in the system and explaining that I therefore didn’t see the point in my being there any longer. I was a young woman of few words. I liked to wear worn-out Birkenstocks (retrieved on numerous occasions from the garbage can near the back door of the house, having been spirited out of my closet in the night by my father), olive green combat pants, and long-sleeve knits. My favourite food was ice cream sandwiches. I played on the senior volleyball team.

I had recently become friends with Erika, who was similar to me in that she was very tall, born in 1982, and played senior volleyball, and dissimilar to me in that she went to another school, never smoked pot, and attended a Christian youth group. I liked her, and she liked me, and when I was around her and her churchy friends I felt, for the first time perhaps, as though I was a part of something—as though I belonged. They were so nice! And happy! With no traces of apathy! Also, she was normal: she didn’t talk about Jesus all the time, she didn’t wear floral smocked dresses with Mary Janes. Actually, I thought she was cool: she liked grunge, played guitar, and because of youth group she had older friends, some of whom were what I then called hotties. So when Erika invited me to a youth retreat one weekend, cryptically—deceptively?— known as The Happenings, I decided that it sounded like a good idea. I certainly had nothing better to do.

*

I arrived at St Mary’s church hall on a Friday afternoon and was greeted by a short woman with a soft, rosy face and slightly upturned nose, her thighs packed tightly into bona fide mom jeans. She wore battered Reeboks, a Cosbyish sweater (can you still say that, in light of, you know, everything?), and a headband pushing her flat brown hair into a little swell at her hairline. Attached to her sweater were two pins, one that read Peggy and another that read GOD has a plan for YOU. She approached me with a basket of pins that looked similar to her Peggy pin.

“Are you Alison? I think you must be Alison! Welcome to The Happenings.”

I smiled and nodded and pinned my pin. “Where should I put my things?”

“Sure, dear! Just go in this door, turn right down the corridor, and you’ll see Jason standing at the bottom of the stairs. He’ll show you.” Her smile was vast, and I felt very welcome. She hugged me. Our pins touched. I had grown up going to church on Sundays with my family, and it had been nothing like this. There the adults were brittle and judgmental, the hymns austere and funereal, the other kids were weirdos, and the church hall smelled like old coffee and stewed fruit.

I walked down the corridor under the condemnatory eyes of sepia-tinged pastors past, until I reached the stairs.

“Hey. You Alison?” I didn’t answer for a moment. It was a hottie. Already. Six-three, blue–green eyes, square jaw, even a goatee (hey no judging—this was 1996). “I’m Jason.” He hugged me. It was an earnest hug, close and long. He worked out for sure. When he let go, he produced a large green pompom that hung limp at the end of a length of yarn. “Warm Fuzzy!” he said as he slipped it over my head. I looked down at the sad green sphere dangling in front of my sternum, then back at Jason. I frowned.

“What is this?” It sounded like three stern little sentences.

“It’s a Warm Fuzzy,” said Jason, undeterred. “It’s, like, a good feeling. You’ll give them and receive them over the course of the weekend. They represent caring and love.” I saw another kid run past the window wearing a whole knot of these things, ten at least. He looked clownish, and loved.

“Right on,” I said, and followed him up to a small room that had two sleeping bags already laid out on the floor.

“You can drop your stuff here. You’re sharing with Erika and Miranda.”

I thanked Jason. He did that thing that guys sometimes did, like two quick snaps and a clap wherein an open hand meets the closed fist of the other one in a flourish of swinging arms, that somehow seemed cool. He said, “Later,” and walked out. I dropped my backpack onto the hardwood floor, already a little bummed that there weren’t even beds. I thought of my churchgoing grandmother and the two centimetres of bathwater she made my brother share at bathtime when we stayed with her as little kids—somehow sleeping on the floor made sense.

*

“Watches please!” Peggy made her way around the circle in which we all now sat, and I watched everyone surrender their timepieces, tossing mine in with the rest when it was my turn. Erika whispered to me that this was her favourite part, escaping time for two days. I liked that perspective and immediately adopted it. It made it all seem so edgy. A tiny girl with blonde hair, pink-rimmed glasses and a Miranda pin looked on the verge of tears as she rested her watch—the last one—on top of the others. “Don’t worry,” said Peggy. She held Miranda’s gaze. “We’re on God’s time now.”

There was an icebreaker in which we had to introduce ourselves with an adjective that began with the first letter of our first names, and that we felt best described us. Peggy started.

“Perky Peggy!” Her face was more flushed than before, and now that she was sitting cross-legged on the floor her jeans made me think of sausage casings. Porky Piggy. I knew it was unkind, but I couldn’t unthink it.

Energetic Erika.

Musical Miranda.

Generous Jason. I resisted the urge to object to this clear flouting of what I thought were very basic rules.

I chose Authentic for myself. Yes, we all know that it’s an impossible claim for a teenager, but I reasoned that no one could argue with it, although I’m not sure why I thought someone might try to.

I felt badly for Wacky William when it become apparent, moments after he’d spoken it, that he regretted his choice. He patted his cowlick nervously and smoothed the collar of his navy blue polo shirt.

After a rundown of the weekend’s activities—singing, eating, free time and a series of talks—we were given time to get to know each other. Upstairs I sat with Erika and Miranda, who turned out to be our age but was still waiting for gruesome hand of puberty to strike. She wasted no time in getting to the good stuff.

“How do you guys feel, you know, about having strange thoughts?” She wrapped both hands around her mustard yellow Fuzzy and squeezed.

“Like what kind of thoughts?” said Erika.

“The thoughts that are not what God wants you think. The bad ones or the weird ones that maybe the devil gives you.”

Having never thought of my thoughts in such binary or biblical terms, I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had just nodded and said something like I totally know what you mean, to save Miranda the embarrassment that ensued.

“Do you mean thoughts about guys?” I said, thinking of Jason and not feeling guilty for a second.

“No, no, not guys. I mean sometimes, when I’m with my friends at school, I start staring at their breasts, and then I can’t stop staring at them.” Her face flushed and Erika and I just looked at her. She was physically immature, and because of that I could understand her curiosity, but whatever her reasons, I didn’t think it was strange. Before I could say so, two kids lurking in the doorway started to laugh and Miranda ran from the room.

*

After dinner it was time for music. When Jason brought out a guitar I almost melted. I sat on my own on the fringes of the circle. I didn’t know any of the songs. Jason started strumming. He closed his eyes. He began rocking back and forth. People began to sway. He sang a cover of “Flood” (WARNING: before clicking the link know that it is truly terrible, and the video has substantial kitsch factor, and it may get stuck in your head) by a Christian band called Jars of Clay. I was compelled by the darkness of the lyrics: But if I can’t swim after forty days / and my mind is crushed / by the crashing waves / lift me up so high / that I cannot fall / lift me up … and keep me from drowning. I felt conflicted by Jason’s singing. At first I thought he was attempting tricky harmonies, but it soon became apparent that he was tone deaf. This was a major buzzkill. When he finished everyone clapped and hugged and exchanged Warm Fuzzies. I got a brown one and an orange one. He began a new song. This time everyone sang, and by the end of the hour I knew all the words to “Our God is an Awesome God” and “Jesus Loves Me.”

Later, when we went up to bed, Erika and I discovered Miranda’s things were gone. Erika said she heard that Miranda had been picked up a couple of hours earlier. I hadn’t even noticed, and I wondered if those were regular hours or God hours.

*

I woke in the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I rose, skirted my mound of Warm Fuzzies and went downstairs, hoping to pilfer a snack. I followed the dark corridor, the framed faces ghostly, hints of their eyes trailing me. Before I reached the kitchen I noticed a glow issuing from beneath a closed door at the far end of the hall. I pushed the door gently and it opened. Seated in the centre of the room were three teenagers I’d never seen before, holding hands and chanting in whispers. In the corner Wacky William and another couple of kids were bent over a low table, surrounded by scissors and balls of yarn, a pile of Warm Fuzzies on the table between them. Wacky William looked up at me, his eyelids heavy. One of the chanters opened his eyes and smiled at me, then closed them again.

It was the middle of the night. I looked at my wrist as if there were a watch there. No one said anything, so I backed out of the room and went back to bed, my shoulder blades pressed against the polished floorboards.

*

Day two was tedious and I felt disturbed. Breakfast was stewed fruit. William and the others from the midnight Fuzzy factory wore vacant expressions, bags under their eyes. I gave all my Fuzzies away.

The “talks” were little sermons delivered by speakers in their late teens. One about the masks we wear to hide our true selves from the Lord, another about facing the darkest parts of ourselves. This involved asking volunteers to publicly dredge up their worst memories, and opened the floor for others to express sympathy and advice. Everyone would then encircle the person, touching or hugging him or her. Two people left the room in tears. Jason gave a talk on being in a canoe with this father, and the canoe capsized but somehow he was alive.

“I was seriously drowning and the waves were crashing, and I could like, feel him lift me out of the water.” Everyone was rapt by Jason’s account of his near death experience, having clearly forgotten the words to the song he’d bastardized the night before. I looked at Erika and rolled my eyes. She mouthed the word bullshit and smirked.

As the weekend went on The Happenings revealed itself to be a kind of porn—everyone getting off on each other’s teenage melodrama and piety. The more dramatic it all was, the stronger the sense of belonging, even if “belonging” meant hugging it out through crocodile tears to the tune of made-up pain. I was young and more than a bit apathetic, but I felt in my bones that there was something perverse about what I was witnessing. It was clear that my minimal hugging and lack of indulgence in the theatrics of the weekend had made me a pariah. Any Fuzzies I received were pity Fuzzies.

That night, long after lights out, I said to Erika, “This blows, right?”

“It very much blows.”

She wasn’t surprised when I told her what I’d discovered the night before.

“Oh yeah I know, you found the prayer squad. There are people in that room praying in shifts all weekend. They’re praying for us. Plus, they approach kids and tell them they’ve been ‘chosen’ to help make the pompoms. It’s weird. I had to do it last year. It kind of wrecks the weekend for you.”

“Hey, do you want to get out of here?”

We escaped through the window. Erika had left her shoes downstairs, so we each put on one of my Birkenstocks and walked into the centre of Sidney. When I asked her why she bothered with this type of thing she said she didn’t really know—they were her friends and this was her world. “Plus,” she said, “What else is there to do?” We turned left on Beacon Ave and walked the main stretch.

Some grade twelve skids were hanging out in the Safeway parking lot with a brown and gold ’85 Chevy Van, a Too $hort decal emblazoned across the rear window, bass rattling the chassis. I could just make out the tinny classical music playing outside the 7-Eleven across the street, a recent initiative to keep loitering teens at bay. The Normandy Restaurant was shut up tight, the next day’s early bird special in tight cursive leaning against the window. The smell of the sea rode a breeze up from the pier.

“Shit,” said Erika. She slid her foot out of my sandal and nudged it towards me. It was as if she was saying Here’s your bad influence back. A white hatchback turned in from a side street and approached us. We stood still in its high beams and when it came to a stop, Piggy and Jason got out.

“Here they are, Mom,” said Jason. Traitor! We were busted.

*

It turns out I wasn’t saved by The Happenings. Over the years that followed I went on to do far worse things than a midnight meander through sleepy Sidney. I lied to my teachers, deceived my parents, indulged my interest in older boys, went to parties and took hallucinogens with older kids, dropped out of school. But I don’t think I was worse than those youth group kids, the ones who judged, who feigned acceptance, who bullshitted each other, who hugged and hugged. There was no substance there. No empathy. There was a brittle emptiness, a void in which young people practised conforming.

Back at the church I was taken into the chapel and Erika was sent back to the room. I was escorted to a pew and a group closed in on me: Piggy, Jason, and some people I recognized from the prayer squad. They each closed their eyes, put one hand on me, and reached the other up in the air. They were reaching for God. I began to panic, and they began to pray.


[I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, and I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details.]

Sep
07

Getting Hit: A Casual Cyclist’s Guide

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Photo caption: Worst pic of us in existence. Quite pleased to have found a use for it.


For those of you who didn’t get the memo: cycling in the city is dangerous! Cyclists and drivers seem to come from two different planets, and despite the fact that so many of them move regularly between the two modes, they really, very much seem to despise each other.

As a long-time bicycle commuter, car driver, flâneuse and road-use generalist, I have found myself at various levels of victimized by drivers and cyclists – and the odd pedestrian – alike. Roads the world over are not places of peace, and the way in which we use vehicles reflects more and more the way in which we – I refer chiefly to city-dwellers here – exist in society: as solitary beasts in competition with strangers, falling out of practice applying community principles such as sharing, empathy, patience, and resilience. I have been squeezed by a moving car into a row of parallel-parked cars. I have been kicked by a man in a suit who was standing on the footpath as I rode past. I have had a bottle thrown at me from the window of a moving bus. I have had drivers bump my back tire, race ahead of me only to cut me off, drive up close to me and scream suddenly in my ear, drive slowly alongside me at night for a kilometre or so, yell lewd comments, and give me the finger while hurling abuse as I rode in a wide bike lane, sopping wet and freezing, through a sudden deluge.

Cyclists can be real dills too. They can be self righteous, darting in front of cars to prove a point or acting aggressively towards other cyclists; careless, not signalling, and riding two or three abreast as traffic piles up behind them; dangerous, running lights and stop signs, and failing to warn other road users of their approach; and stupid, cycling on the wrong side of the road at night with no lights while smoking and checking Facebook with ear buds in (FYI, offenders: any one of those things alone makes you look like a real twit). Stopped at a red light one day, I tapped the cyclist in front of me to let him know that I’d noticed his back wheel was beginning to wobble. He looked at me as though I’d just slashed his tire, then rolled his eyes and rode away when the light changed.

I’ve also been hit by a car. I was lucky and escaped relatively unscathed. My position on accidents is that if you ride regularly, this – or something like it, such as being doored or run off the road by a taxi – is eventually going to happen. For your convenience, I have prepared the following ten bits of wisdom to keep in mind to prevent this from happening to you, or for dealing with it if it does.

  1. Refrain from biking downtown with your boyfriend on a Saturday afternoon because you’ve had enough of winter and you have your sights set on a queen-sized electric blanket that’s on sale at Target. In fact, just vow to stop letting your boyfriend talk you into buying blankets and electronics in general – convince yourself it was just a fluke that you ended up using that little AM/FM radio so much. Also, it’s just best not to shop at Target. Every time you go there, something – the lighting? the fat noisy children eating messy sweets? the questionable quality of the merchandise? – tells you that you should leave.
  1. Actually, if it’s not too late for you, reconsider going to university. The student life is largely to blame for the temptation to shop at discount department stores, and if you spend too much time within their fluorescent, mildly flickering white walls it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself wearing body spray, reading young adult fiction, purchasing Gone With the Wind and The da Vinci Code on Blu-ray, making arguments in defence of the film Air Bud – your mouth aggressively sweet smelling and stained red from an entire package of off-brand licorice – and buying things like queen-sized electric blankets because you can’t afford to rent a heated room. Being a student will also make it difficult to afford to repair any future damage to your bicycle, which you ride for equal parts fun factor, high-horsedness (it’s a pretty big bike because you’re quite tall), a daily excuse to ring bells, and to save money on public transportation.
  1. While riding home feeling pleased that the cube of plastic-packaged blanket fits perfectly into your rear basket, resist – and this is a big one – the urge to stop at The Drunken Poet for a drink and a chat about narratology (again, university and its hovering fug of pretentiousness bites you in the butt) with your fella. You know drinking and cycling is dumb – a lesson you learned in 2009 while biking home from Ingrid’s International Bar in the wee hours one morning with your friend Jasmine through the empty streets of Myodo, Japan, a ride during which you both managed to buckle your front wheels and stagger home after that garden wall came out of nowhere – but you also know that a single Guinness made to last over a drawn-out gush sesh about your mutual love for Michael Pemulis will not do you in. But no matter how you slice it, should a road accident occur later in the afternoon, a pint at The Drunken Poet is incriminating. It’s especially ill-advised if you’re a poet, so if this applies to you I suggest changing course immediately and taking up narrative nonfiction instead. Seriously, start a blog or something.
  1. On the way home, don’t bother riding in the bike lane, even though the road you’re using has a nice cushy wide one. In fact, don’t bother with your front and rear lights, your beloved bell, or those reflective strips on your helmet either. That Lexus coming along a side road will run the stop sign and T-bone you anyway, no matter how aware you are of the encroaching dusk, of the slight drizzle that’s beginning to gather on your eyelashes.
  1. If you find that you’re the boyfriend in this scenario, don’t ride too close behind. Keep your distance or that car will take you both out in one go. You’ll end up on the grassy median, mud ground deep into the wool of your favourite navy pea coat.
  1. Go with your inability to move. The shock will keep you there, pinned by your bicycle to the pavement and immobile, but when the urge comes to get up, I say fight it. When another cyclist casually rides past the scene of the accident and the urge comes to call him a sociopath, I say go with it. Even though you might be numb and uncertain how injured you are, don’t lock your bikes to the nearest pole and allow the driver – who in your memory looks like Al Bundy with Magnum P.I. hair, a Danny Tanner sweatshirt, and Napoleon Dynamite glasses – to drive you to emergency. In other words, don’t leave. Call the police and hold your ground, dummy! In the event that you do go with him, take his card, get checked out, take a tram home, have a whiskey, compare blossoming bruises. Don’t bother calling the driver to inform him that there are no serious injuries – despite him taking you to the hospital, he’ll soon reveal that he is not a decent guy.
  1. The next day, have your bikes assessed for damage at that bike shop near the train line run by that nice bearded hipster. When he says $400 all up for both bikes, feel good about it being a relatively low amount that you’ll be asking the driver for. The bike guy says he’ll sign a statement attesting to the type of damage to the bikes and how it was most likely incurred. Don’t bother taking him up on this – you’ll soon learn that you have few rights, and despite how much trouble you go through compiling a case, it’s the driver’s word against yours. When you report the accident with the local police, resist the urge to verbally object to the officer’s apathy and indifference.
  1. Don’t ask the driver for money, don’t expect the driver to accept responsibility, don’t bother the poor pro bono lawyer you read about on the university student services website, don’t file a claim with the transport accident commission, don’t ask for support from the local cyclist’s support network, and don’t tweet anything about the accident that the driver could consider defamatory (you will find out that this includes assuming that he was at fault, even if you’ve left his name out) – he’ll send you a letter from a ‘lawyer’. If you’ve forgotten what really happened the day of the accident, this letter will tell you. Make a promise to yourself never again stop your lightless bike in the middle of the street in a rainstorm after dark and stand there for some time trying to tie a large and cumbersome package to your rear carrier. What a dope you’ve been.
  1. Over the coming weeks as you continue to plod away at your thesis like a chump, you might find your eyes snapping open in the night from rage and discover you’re in a sweat, your electric blanket working away beneath you, your mind wandering, hatching cunning plans to exact revenge on this gutless Lexus driver. The most cunning of these may or may not include somehow trapping him into exposing a drunk driving record, and/or tracking down his car and inserting decaying barramundi fillets in the ventilation system. Allow yourselves the catharsis that such serious nighttime discussions provide, but try to get over it sooner than later. You’re starting to sound a bit crazy.
  1. Don’t worry! That d-bag has to live his whole life as a d-bag. In a few days’ time, get back on your noble steed. Speed down hills and ring your bell to your heart’s content. Spring will be here soon. As you pack away your winter things in preparation for the searing heat that will follow, fold the electric blanket as neatly as you can fold such an awkard, fitted, corded contraption. Allow yourself to admit that it did keep you warm, and by the time you pull it out next year, you’ll have forgotten that it’s the bastard to blame for causing the accident in the first place.