Monday, February 5, 2018

Fake News

Weird conversation with a cashier on the way home. He was a very tall, grey-haired older man. We'd exchanged a couple of comments: he'd mentioned he couldn't reach too far over the counter because he had a hernia and was going in tomorrow to find out what was wrong. I'd expressed sympathy. He asked if I wanted a bag, and I said no, my backpack was fine and if I needed extra space I had two bags on my bike. He'd obviously already seen the helmet hung over my wrist. Then he said, "Biking at this time of year?"
"Sure," I said, as usual. "At every time of year."
"I don't agree with it," he said flatly. "It's too dangerous."
It's a little jarring to have someone do that, but I've had people I thought of as friends say that kind of thing, so it doesn't bug me much. I was about to do my usual light, bike-ambassador response: "It's not really that dangerous, you just have to watch what you're doing a bit more," etc., and he added, "Especially during that storm last week. They were falling down all over the place. I nearly killed two of them. And of course they told me to eff off."
"Well --" I almost started, then backed off. And I just said, "Well, it's how I get pretty much everywhere," as I packed my bag up. This is a cashier conversation, after all. You can't really ask the guy if maybe he shouldn't have been following a cyclist close enough to hit them in a snowstorm, when there's someone waiting in line behind you. Cashier conversations are time-limited, socially constrained and, frankly, a little performative. You're subjecting the person behind you to whatever happens as well.
"It's too dangerous in the winter. There's a bylaw against it, anyway," he said then. "They just don't enforce it."
I stopped then. Gave him an actual raised eyebrow, sort of a pitying one. (A writer I follow recently commented that no one actually raises an eyebrow. I beg to differ. I, and Leonard Nimoy, are proof positive that people do.) "There is no bylaw," I informed him.
"Yes, there is," he said.
"No. There isn't," I answered. Do I even start on the many, many reasons I am pretty sure I know more than he does about this? Do I go there? I thought.
"Yeah, there is," he said patronizingly.
"No, there really isn't," I said, as I walked away, because there is a time limit on cashier conversations and we had reached the point where, paid up and with purchases in my bag, I was supposed to walk away. And so I did.
There were a lot of weird things about that conversation. I'm struck by the fact that, while talking to a woman with a helmet hung off her wrist, who had just stated she was on her way out to her bike, he still kept saying "they" about cyclists. Something I've seen before, actually. It's a variation on "oh, well, I'm sure *you're* fine and you ride safely but, let me tell you, cyclists never obey the rules." It makes it a lot easier for someone to tell you that you, your experience and your choices are all wrong, without them having to feel like they're confronting you directly.
Then there was the mansplaininess of it all. I mean, older, avuncular man trying to tell me there's a bylaw against riding in the winter, when I'm standing there with a helmet in my hand in February, and I'm on the board of directors of a bike advocacy group that enjoys a great working relationship with the City, several councillors, and the police, and that actively encourages and works toward more winter cycling? Yeah, you tell me all about the things you know to be true, sir.
And then there's the unnerving thought that over and over, you meet people who honestly think you are breaking the law by being on the street. And whether they mean it or not, that might affect how they act. That might affect whether they decide to express their annoyance with a close pass, or an angry rev of the engine, or a lean on the horn if you take the lane. That driver behind me might honestly, misguidedly, believe that I'm breaking the law by going from point to point on a bike between the months of November and March.
And maybe I could have stopped and schooled the guy. But there wasn't time to do that in a way that would change minds, there would only have been time to get in a flame war, because someone was in line behind me. So I headed out, and got on my bike, still convinced that the safest bet is to assume that every driver thinks I'm not supposed to be where I am, and to act accordingly.