I was riding home through The Bronx yesterday. Just before I exited the borough, I turned right off of Kingsbridge onto Terrace View Avenue to reclaim it for myself. It’s a side street, a curvy residential way marked as an on-street bike path, lined with apartment building, houses, cars and a high school; one way only. Rarely have I encountered more than a few moving cars and the sidewalks are usually empty.
A few weeks ago, I had one of those incidents that happens infrequently, resulted in nothing, but was enough to keep me up at night wondering “what if…”
Then, as yesterday I was finishing up a ride that took me on the South County Trailway. Almost halfway in, I see some teenage boys looking in my direction and laughing. Probably just out of school. One of them decides to stand between two cars on the right in a boxing pose, with his fists ready to lash out, presumably at me. He’s smiling, light on his toes, working his arms, punching out, about my head height. I’m riding on the right side of the road, in the on-street bike lane.
While this particular brand of torment was a first, it’s not unfamiliar. I had been rushed by a teen girl in Central Park the previous week. Same basic situation: a kid performing for peers trying to scare a stranger, probably because it is fun. The difference there was speed—in Central Park, I was doing about 25mph down a hill, in The Bronx, I was going much slower, around 17mph on a flat. Just like throwing snowballs at a moving car, a cyclist, or an individual walking down the street. It’s little different than the people who lean on horns or swerve, or throw stuff out of the windows of a moving car. But in those cases, we never see it coming, we have little time to think, and we can write it off as accidental.
Hassling the stranger, particularly one that seems unprotected, is a common human phenomenon. The easy reference is Lord of the Flies, but there’s a behavioral term for it. Groupshift. People see groupshift in different ways, but essentially, the presence of a group can encourage more extreme thinking and behavior. Maybe it’s because of discussion, or interpersonal dynamics, or hormones, or diffused responsibility, but the result is the largely the same—it’s easier to attack a stranger when you’ve got a posse with you. Even cyclists do it; we’re more likely to chase down an asshole driver when we’re on the local hammerfest than when we’re out solo.
Seeing the kid, I realize I need to make a decision fast. I think that if I move left, he’ll move out farther into the street leaving me fewer options. I know if I stop to talk, I’ll be in a worse position. I’ll have a hard time defending myself in cleats and I’ll have a hard time getting any purchase on pavement if I feel the need to swat him. And even if I have that, he’s got friends who might go after me as well. If I take an arm off the bars to hit him, he could grab my arm, taking me down. If I lower my head and try to helmet butt him, I could crash and potentially injure myself.
I don’t see a gun helping. Taking out the gun I don’t have seems like a stupid escalation, and once it’s out, I better be ready to follow through, and if I don’t, I better back away, not easy on a bike.
I can ride through as if nothing is happening. He could be playing a game of chicken with me. If he steps out at the last instant, I still have room to swerve left. That is, so long as a car doesn’t occupy the space I need at that very moment.
I ride straight by. He punches. Doesn’t hit me. But close enough that I feel a puff of air from his fist on my nose.
That puff never left the remaining five miles home. What if he had connected? What would I have done? Would the kid realize the error of his way and help? Or run? Or would he and his friends go after me? Would anyone intervene? What should I have done differently? What could I have done?
Differently is the problem. I couldn’t think of anything. About the only thing I think I could have done is slam on the brakes, do a 180 and ride out the way I came. I didn’t think about it at the time. If had felt more threatened, I hope I would have done it. But folding because someone is playing chicken with you seems bad for society. A corollary of Broken Windows perhaps: it gives the boxer and his friends reason to believe they have power and frees them to use it on others. At the same time, my first responsibility is to myself. I didn’t believe the boxer would actually go through with it.
Still, weeks later, I’m stuck for a solution. Life is filled with perilous random occurrences. A passing car misses you by inches. You can worry about it all you want, but the “almost” doesn’t really count for anything. The car didn’t hit you. And since the car approached from behind, you couldn’t prepare for it. And you won’t be able to prepare for the next one. Even if it hits you, what is there to say or do differently? You can get hit by a car when crossing a street, or have a drunk driver ride over a curb and get you that way.
We don’t think about those, because, collectively, we like to believe we can control our own fate. The longer I live, the less I think we have much in the way of control. So, when I relive the boxer, I’m stuck. It seems that I pretty much have to take the risk. It’s not embracing it that I need, but accepting it, letting go of the “what ifs” and riding on. I’m not happy about it, but I see few options.