I was a roadtripping fool last week, driving with my beloved M to Pennsylvania, and then commuting daily from Philly to Lancaster, a plan hatched to haul some stuff to M’s apartment that would be tough to transport on a plane, and to give me some flexibility in meeting with folks out in Lancaster. (Yeah, I should have taken the train. Even as a former rail commuter, some habits die hard. I promise, the train next time.)
The drive to PA was delightful in one sense; four years into the adventure, M and I still find unstructured hours together a rare treat. And yet, I also have to acknowledge that the traffic around Baltimore and DC was a nearly unmitigated slog, going and coming home. And I burned a lot of gas on this trip, a burning that is its own asking for disaster.
That said, the time spent behind and above wheels left a couple of deep impressions, all the more for having been repeated over and over.
I don’t have the information or wisdom to make a complete accounting and figure all of this out. So I’m offering this as flawed reportage and reflection … make of it what you will. This is the view out my window, the ruminations in my gut.
M and I were driving north on I-95, somewhere south of Baltimore, when the attack of the suicide cyclists began. If you’ve driven anywhere between Bal’mer and Philly lately – or apparently on any stretch of 95 clear down into Florida – you will know what I mean.
They come singly or in packs, motorcyclists driving at death-inviting speeds. One article suggests 170, 185 miles per hour. I believe it. These cyclists go from being a whine in your ear one moment, causing you to wonder if you have a mosquito in the car, to a heart-stopping flash near your bumper as the biker closes in on you and then pulls around you.
“Closes” and “pulls” do not begin to describe what happens, of course. It’s a high-velocity, high-pitched wwwwhhhIIIINNNE you are immediately afraid will turn into a high-impact crash. By the time your heart has slowed to anywhere near its normal rhythm, the bikes – and there often were several, in a pack, playing chicken with each other and you in the cars around them – are long-gone ahead. As they are passing near you and through you, you have the illusion that your car and the cars around you have slowed nearly to a crawl, even as you know you are traveling 65, 70, 75 miles per hour yourself.
You can’t help thinking what would happen if – in your panic – you swerved to avoid one of the bikes and put yourself right in the path of another. And of course, this has happened ….
By the time we got north of DC, we had probably been passed by 15 or 20 bikes, some traveling singly, some in packs. I had moved from fear to anger to dismay, wondering what this behavior meant, especially as it became inescapably clear that most of the riders we saw this day appeared to be African-American males. As the dismay settled in, the snap judgments started like popcorn:
“Two-wheeled nihilism? Substance abuse with a carburetor? Vehicular Russian roulette? Motorized equivalent of auto-erotic asphyxiation? The bikes are sometimes called crotch rockets …. Of course, they are also called rice-burners, a racist reference to their manufacturers’ Japanese origins.
“These guys are being completely irresponsible. If they will flirt with death like this, they must think they have nothing to live for. These guys must need a huge thrill just to feel alive. They endanger themselves, each other, us … is it not caring, or something worse? Is there something worse?”
Of course, any time I’m pointing a finger at someone, several fingers are pointing back in my direction … “Why aren’t we a society where young black males have too much at stake to engage such risky behavior? Why are we a society where young black men feel like dead men walking? Why are whites in this society so afraid of young black men that we incarcerate them far beyond their statistical representation in the society, and keep them locked up and disenfranchised?”
I don’t know all the answers to the first set of questions … but I’m pretty sure it’s the flip side of the answer to the second set of questions: societally expressed white racism that maintains white privilege and the exploitation and disempowerment of people of color. Because it’s profitable. There is surely a relationship between the two sets of questions.
* * *
And now, to a different scenario.
As I drove out to Lancaster, I passed through several construction zones. At the last one, early in the morning, the signs gave plenty of warning: “Left lane closed 1 mile.” There was an amazingly orderly line of cars already in the right lane, moving along fairly well. I got over, too, and we continued to move forward until the construction zone itself could be seen around a bend. Just then, a car came by in the left lane, traveling quite a bit faster than the rest of us. And then a couple more … and then a couple more … and the next thing you know, all of us in the right hand lane had slowed to a crawl to let the last-minute-lefties into the merged right-hand lane.
Grr. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was irritated by the fact that our following the rules and making steady progress had been foiled.
Since I made this commute four times going and three times coming back, I got to observe all kinds of behavior, mine and others. When I’d join the righties, I’d feel holier than the self-important drivers dashing by me on the left, and yet if more than one or two passed me, I’d start feeling like a chump, too.
And then, on my second trip through the squeeze, I noticed a van a couple of cars back edging into the middle of the road, where Texas lore says you won’t find anything but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. But this person was neither yellow nor dead – rather, determined and intentional about getting in the way.
Her presence kept the left-lane cheaters in their place in the queue, and kept the whole parade moving at a reasonable pace to the merge, where she slipped over to the right, as did the people behind her, because they had to.
One BMW had gone off into the grass median to get around her – honking and angry. Others simply tailgated her, with their blinkers flashing, clearly irritated at not being able to cut ahead.
I have seen semis do this kind of nonviolent traffic control before, but I had never seen an average person in a passenger van do it. I was impressed. Especially since my sexist indoctrination makes me think women often don’t have the fortitude to weather the disapproval of such an act. (I know, I’m deep in my privileged weenie white girl stuff here.)
Over the next few days, there were several people who undertook this labor of reasonableness. And others who got completely bent out of shape at not being able to take their accustomed cut to the front. Privilege. Assumed privilege. Who I am and what I need of course takes precedence over you little people.
Out on this secondary highway in farm country, I was surrounded by white people, some behaving arrogantly, some trying to maintain automotive decency. And I couldn’t help thinking about the racing bikes. And wondering what it meant that it was easier for me to think of the speeding bikers as children of God, made like me in the image of God, and deserving of God’s grace and abundant life than it was to think of the cutting-in car drivers that way.
* * *
Two scenarios. Varieties of good and bad behavior, risky and careful moves, various ethnicities and classes. (Notice my language … whose behavior elicits my stronger tone? I see it. I’m leaving the evidence where it lies.)
So, I ask you, who were the crazy wheels, and who the brave?
My enculturation paints the obstructionists as the brave ones, and the speeding bikers as the crazy ones.
But that blinds us to the craziness of the privileged drivers (predominantly white) cutting their way to the front, and how that sense of entitlement ultimately helps to create the world in which some young black men believe they have no option but speeding to the point of death.
And it also blinds us to the edge of bravery – foolish and dangerous and illegal though it is – in driving as fast as it takes to feel alive.
Do I really have anything to say about that foolishness if I don’t have the wisdom and courage to make a better way?