San Francisco Cyclists: The Mission (mostly) Edition

In a class discussion last Wednesday about cultures of honor (we are reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) my students asked me if there was anything or anyone that would engender the kind of emotion (rage) that would be required to act out in the way the subjects in the Harlan, Kentucky chapter behaved. Was there something someone could say or do to me that would trigger me. I had to think about this for a while, as I generally avoid that kind of conflict because it makes me uncomfortable, but also because as a woman it is simply too risky to actually address those who act inappropriately towards you in America anymore.

I thought about it for a minute and imagined who could make me feel so angry I wanted to actually do something to them that might be permanently damaging. My former step-mother came to mind because she is a truly Bad Person, but I am trying to let that go, so, nah. Then it hit me: CYCLISTS. My friend Justin has a saying: ‘When I am walking I hate cars; when I am driving I hate pedestrians. But I always hate cyclists’ and as a non driver a third of the sentiment is not relevant to me, but the latter thought: YES.

To be fair, I never really had an opinion on cyclists until I lived in San Francisco. For most of my life I have had a bike, and I have ridden bikes in more cities and countries than I can count. It never really seemed like a “Thing” to me. It was just an activity, or a conduit to one, I suppose.

But since I have been in San Francisco it has come to my attention that the cyclists in this city are the worst examples of people. Now, I am not saying all cyclists are the worst people, but I am definitely saying that all the worst people I have met in San Francisco have been cyclists.

The cyclists in San Francisco act as if they are the most maligned and put upon population that ever lived (puh-leeze), and there are constant outcries about how they are mistreated by cars and public transportation and, well, any one who gets in their way. Which is interesting because they are about the ONLY people you will see yelling at, and accosting, pedestrians, busses, and motor vehicle drivers in this town.

In no particular order here are things I have seen:

  • Speeding down crowded sidewalks (and being annoyed that people are on them)
  • Chasing down and banging on cars
  • I cannot count the broken traffic laws, but mostly it is running lights and I am fairly certain I have yet to see a cyclist stop at a stop sign
  • Shoving people out of the way on Bart (trains and escalators and platforms)
  • Speeding aggressively close to a pedestrian about to step off a sidewalk and yelling “THAT IS JAYWALKING!”
  • People crossing through the bike lanes on foot (I do this in the early mornings on Valencia Street when there is little to no vehicular traffic and limited bike traffic) and a singular rider, rather than negotiating the space, speeds up to ensure proximity and admonishes: “THAT IS NOT A GOOD PLACE TO BE”
  • Cyclists knock over kids and elderly people

My favorite is “Bike to Work Day” which brings out hundreds of the most entitled riders you have ever seen. Those of us who keep our eco-footprints small by always using public transportation are not super impressed with your one day of awareness, by the way. Ironically, a majority of these hyper-aggressive individuals not only ignore traffic laws and signs, but they are riding fixed gear bikes, often with no brakes or single brakes, and frequently they are helmet free.

Oh, and in every example I have listed above, the cyclist was a white male.

Just saying.

The most famous event since I have been back in the city was the guy who plowed through a cross walk and killed a man. In spite of the fact that the guy had no remorse, and blogged about the whole things as he was riding for “time” he only received probation and community service. Gross. [Also, white male.]

Now, I realize that the fact that I can list and identify my issues with San Francisco cyclists definitely suggests that the majority of cyclists cannot be this loathsome, and that these assholes must be outliers. But I am not sure that could or should quell my distaste.

In a very interesting turn of events, on the very same Wednesday that I had been having the aforementioned conversation with my students, I had a very unpleasant experience with just the type of cyclist I am speaking of.

I was coming home at what would basically be considered rush hour and arrived at my Bart station at around 6:00 pm. My station is one of the most crowded, and according to Bart information has the greatest number of people walking to and from the station. As we filed out of the train on to the escalator from the platform a white male cyclist, somewhere in his twenties, approximately 6’1″ maybe 180 lbs, in standard tech-bro normcore clothes (jeans that allowed his Oxford boxers to show and a generic shirt and zip up jacket) with sandy hair and glasses, shoved his bike on to the escalator.

For what it is worth, bikes are not allowed on escalators in Bart stations.

He shoved a few people for the simple fact that the escalator was totally full and held his bike upright resting on the rear wheel so that the front wheel was bumping the woman in front of him. I looked at him as I made my way up the escalator on the left and had a thought of how fun it would be to drop some knowledge on him about how there are no bikes allowed on the escalator.

I did not say anything to him because: 1) It had been a long day and really what point would there be; 2) as a woman I do not have the freedom to say what I want to men because there is ALWAYS the very real reality that it could be dangerous to me.

I made my way through the turnstile and headed up the stairs to exit the station. As I reached the top of the stairs I became aware of the fact that this cyclist had sprinted up the other stairs (so clearly he did not NEED to be using an escalator…) and as I stepped off the stairs, he physically blocked me with his bike and got in my face yelling, “YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH HOW I HAVE MY BIKE ON THE ESCALATOR?!” I looked at him in total shock and took my ear buds out.

“Are you talking to me?”

“YEAH, BITCH I AM. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH HOW I TAKE MY BIKE ON THE ESCALATOR? YOU WANT TO SAY SOMETHING TO ME? BITCH?”

“Uhh…”

“YOU GOT SOMETHING TO SAY?!” (At this point, he is still physically obstructing me while I am trying to walk, and takes one hand off his bike raising it as it to… well, who knows.)

“Are you serious? FUCK OFF.”

“YEAH WHATEVER. BITCH.” Now he swings his leg over the bike and begins to pedal away – through a very dense crowd – and yells back, “I WOULDN’T HAVE FUCKED YOU TEN YEARS AGO!”

Wow. He went there?

And he rode off up the sidewalk towards Bartlett regardless of the steady stream of foot traffic in both directions from the station. Then he crossed 24th on the diagonal, from the SE corner of Bartlett and 24th to the NW corner.

Now this encounter brings up myriad issues, not all related to cyclists, but likely all related to white male privilege, and in my neighborhood, the two more often than not overlap. And then of course there are the obvious facts that I am completely within my rights to look at people around me and not only for general safety and awareness, and his waning insult suggests his problem might have had little to do with any look I gave him, but much more to do with some larger issues he has, dare I say, with women. 

Here is the (hardly inclusive) list of things it brought to my mind:

  • How is it possible that no other person stopped to see about this potentially problematic situation?
  • Who the fuck was this kid?
  • Would this have happened had I not been a woman, walking alone (albeit in a crowd)?
  • Would this have happened had the cyclist not been a white male? (I tried to replay the situation where the rider is black or latino or Asian or female and the resulting image is laughably fictitious)
  • Who the fuck is this kid?
  • How is it that the most offensive and entitled cyclists are the ones who do not follow the rules?
  • Why did I not think to retort that his aggressive ass was not supposed to be on the escalator in the first place?
  • Did he think I said, “Fuck YOU” prompting his retort about how he would not have fucked me ten years ago? Or is this just the go-to kind of insult for a young man to level at a middle-aged woman?
  • Did he think I would have actually ever wanted to fuck him? (I know this is not the issue, but it makes me think about how homophobic straight guys always think gay men will want to get with them – and I had to remember that a great number of young men in San Francisco must somehow by into the mythology that San Francisco women are desperate for them.)
  • Ultimately, my largest question (aside from what I should do about the situation) was: WHAT IN THE HELL WAS THIS KID’S DAMAGE?

This is the kind of shit that ONLY women have to put up with. And I know it is not only from cyclists, but anyone reading this can be absolutely sure that this little prince would not have done this to a man, or a woman who was with a man. Further, not that I should ever need to say this, but let me add that I was dressed completely normally, coming home from work carrying a load of stuff – there was nothing setting me apart from any other person returning from work that day, and certainly nothing sexualizing about my appearance.

The situation agitated me enough that I spoke to the Bart station attendants the next day, who told me that they were terribly disappointed I had not come back in to report the man the night before, and that they did have him on video in the station as a matter of policy if I wanted to file a police report. I considered it for sure. At this point I have not done anything else about it, but I certainly have considered how the experience speaks to so many of the social issues we are facing in our society everyday including white male privilege, sexism, misogyny, entitlement, dangerous self-interest, ageism, to name but a few.

It is a shame that this guy was on a bike because all it does, even in my rational mind that knows it is unfair, is make me more unforgiving of the bicycle culture in San Francisco.

At the end of the day, if I had to name a group of people who bring our any sort of Hatfield-McCoy energy in me, it remains SF cyclists. How unfair it is that I am unable to express this because of cultural norms that endanger me for responding to this sort of thing in kind.

Earlier in the day when I had arrived at my answer for my students, their response (many of them skaters and riders) was a chorus of agreement, and nearly every one of them had a story about an egregious act perpetrated by an urban cyclist. As Malcolm Gladwell would say, one example is just that, but 30 is a pattern.

Watch yourself out there people.

“The worst kind of people…”

I was on Bart yesterday, only anomalous in that it was a weekend, generally a more Bart free situation for me, and was feeling a little agitated because the trains were running late and I was trying to make a connection to CalTrain to head down the Peninsula to Palo Alto. Of course, I missed the connection and was feeling supper annoyed about this and had to remind myself that I was not actually “late” for anything, and that another train was coming (albeit in almost a half an hour – oh American public transportation how I wish you could pick up the pace a bit) and so I sat in the sun and waited. This turned out to be a good thing, because as I sat in the sun in Millbrae waiting for my train, it gave me time to do some conscious consideration about why I was feeling so out of sorts. Suffice it to say it was not about the missed connection.

Earlier, while I had been on Bart contemplating the likelihood of missing said connection, a gentleman had come through the car. He had a prepared announcement that he was making. The gist of it was that his son was stuck at the airport and could not board a plane because he had no money for luggage fees. This man gave quite a lot of details, the airline info, that he had been talking to Bart police, that he was desperate because if his son did not get back to Chicago he would lose his visitation rights, where he worked, and various assurances that he was telling the truth. And then he said he had a military ID because he was a veteran.

A couple of things to note about this: just about every day that I ride Bart, at least once someone will be working their way through the cars of the train asking for some sort of assistance. It may be food, or money, sometimes even clothes. Every day. Just about all of them have a story they share. Some are long, some are short. I sometimes listen, I sometimes do not. I also have a tendency to assume that the more detail that is offered the less likely it is that the story I am hearing is really true, like, in a factually accurate way. But I am pretty sure that is not the point.

Yesterday, as this man, John he said his name was, finished his story I gave him a $1. I might have given him two. I happened to have some singles in my hand and I was on the way to meet some friends in a bar to spend far more money than that on things I really and truly do not need. As I handed him the money he gave me the regular “God bless” and all that, and that is nice, or at least better than the “fuck yous” we so often get from our fellow humans, and I nodded and went back to thinking about my inconsequential missed connection.

The next thing I knew a young man sitting behind me was demanding to see the military ID that John had said he had. “I just want to see the ID!’ He yelled out as John worked the car. “It doesn’t look like a real ID!” John kept on going and this man was getting really annoyed. “This is a scam!” He yelled out. “I know! I am a veteran. It is a really good scam but he is lying to you!” He was treating this like a PSA for the car. He continued, “You people are getting robbed, this is a scam – it is a good one, but it is a scam!” He took a breath. “These are the worst kind of people!” He yelled. “Impersonating military personnel. The worst.” By this time John had moved on to the next car, but the orator behind the PSA was really wanting to make sure people knew that he knew what was up.

The worst kind of people? I thought. In a world with the Westboro Baptist church, this guy was the worst kind of people? In a world with racist young men who chant they “would rather see a nigger hang from a tree than be an SAE”, and then cry that their entire group is painted in a negative light for the actions of a fewthis guy on asking for money on a train was the worst kind of people? When we see organizations televising beheadings, or individuals going into schools with guns and killing everyone they see with automatic weapons, a hustler on the train is the worst kind of people? Surrounded by scandalous lying politicians, greedy corporate entities that are profiting on the ruination of the environment, animal abusers, child abusers, spousal abusers, rapists, murderers, and fucking plain old mean people…. this guy asking for money on the train earned the label  the worst kind of people?

I don’t think so.

I don’t know if John was telling the truth. As I said, the more detail I hear, the less of it I cling to as fact. But that is hardly the real issue. If someone gets to the point where they are publicly putting themselves out there to ask strangers for money – something has gone horribly awry. Regardless of the situation, something is no longer working. And if I see people every single day at both ends of my commute and throughout it who are in a situation where they have to ask people for money – the reason they are asking for the money is not my concern. Maybe Mr. PSA thinks that there is a more virtuous way to be poor. Maybe he thinks if someone is busking, they could rightly ask for a handout. Maybe he thinks if some one is a drug addict or a drunk they do not deserve a handout, but if they are quietly holding their hand out for alms, they are worthy. I do not really know. The fact is, that by the time someone is asking strangers for spare change, something has changed in their life in such a way that they have arrived at a place very few people I know could ever understand. Do the reasons matter? I imagine John and others like him have worked out that people like a story – a reason or a justification, for giving. I imagine saying, “I am a man who cannot meet his needs today because circumstances suck,” is not such a great story. I imagine that as people decide who to give money to they do a lot of thinking about whether this person “brought it on themselves” or is “scamming” or “working the system.” I cannot imagine that given the choice many folks would choose to beg over self-sufficiency, though I certainly have friends who say it is so.

I am far more concerned about the fact that I live in a country with the greatest wealth ever known and am faced with unbelievable poverty on the daily. I gave John two bucks because I do not care what his story is. I do not care if he is going to use those two dollars for a beer, for a room for the night, for a burger, or to pay a luggage fee for his kid, or he just needs some cash. I care that we have so many people who cannot meet their daily needs that it is no longer fair, accurate, or relevant to say that “they brought it on themselves.”

The worst kind of people? Oh, I have a list for you… and I can assure you John is not on it.