Friday, February 17, 2012


About twenty years back I lived in Washington DC and worked in MD as a social worker and moonlighted occasionally as a bicycle courier* in the city. 

When I first arrived my mother told me not to go outside after dark because it was dangerous but I threw that advice to the wind early on (my cheap studio apartment was unbearably lonely) and discovered that I could bicycle through the most dangerous parts of the city with the only risk being that of an incidental casualty in a drive-by shooting.  Yes.  At least for me, no one cared.  No one even saw me.  The dankest parts of SE could be biked at any hour of the day because the denizens knew at a glance that I had nothing to do with them.  The roads did not have bike lanes (then) but they were huge and wide.  Some nights, restless and lonely, I'd bicycle down the middle of Constitution Ave.  There wouldn't be a car in sight and the air was so thick with moisture it was part biking and part swimming.   I would bicycle to the Zig-Zag Cafe and write short stories.  I would bicycle up and down the steps of the Capitol (this was before 9/11) and I would bicycle around the museums of the Mall and I would bicycle from DC to Bethesda where I had a job.

True story follows.

I was at work and had the opportunity to observe a conversation between two managers of different departments.  Race is going to be important so you should know from the start that Bea was caucasian and a manager and high-strung (she was a married woman having an affair with one of her reports) and Pamela was African-American and the company CFO and calm and sang gospel music at her church. 

Bea was complaining about being late to work because of a slow bank teller.  She described in painful detail about how she had only asked for $foo and the teller had walked so slowly, had gotten her the wrong form at first, had asked her several questions that did not have bearing on the matter, that the teller had, in short taken an endless amount of time to accomplish was was a very straightforward task and it had been very frustrating for Bea and she was still upset.

Pamela smiled broadly.  "Was the bank teller black?"

Uncomfortable pause in the mostly white liberal workplace where we did not really care to acknowledge the variety of naturally occurring pigment density that may be observed in homo sapiens.  I can tell that Bea is trying to figure out how to extract herself from the situation.  

Bea gives up.  "Well, yes."

Pamela's smile gets even broader.  "That was BPT."

Bea:  "BPT?"

Pamela nods, "BPT.  Black Person Time.  That's our way of saying, "don't be in such a hurry, whitey!  Slow down!  Take it easy." 


Fast forward to life in the bay area.

At the intersection of El Camino and Sandhill only bicyclists can cross El Camino and continue on to Sandhill.  In fact this is a major bicycle crossroads.  There are bike lanes to Bryant, bike lanes up Sand Hill, and a confluence of multi-use paths in three different directions.  We bicyclists have two options for halting car traffic so that we may cross busy El Camino.  We can pause in a nice safe spot and wait.  This triggers the light for specifically for a bicyclist meaning, the duration of "safe" time is relatively short, as bicycles are fast relative to pedestrians.  The other option is to reach around and push the button for a walk signal.  This gives a much longer "safe" period complete with nice countdown to when the traffic will start again.  Guess which one the cars prefer.  If you guessed, "no bicycles at all!" ding!  You are a winner. 

For quite awhile I just sat there and triggered the light for bicycle duration.  I was a bicyclist after all, so bicycle, right?  ...  but now we press the button for pedestrian traffic.  How come?

Because so many cars run the red light that I would encounter situations where by the time I had an opening to cross the six lanes of road in front of me...the light was already turning yellow.  Yay!  Wait some more!  I love to fucking wait for my turn and not get a turn and then wait again, it's awesome!  It's not as big a deal if the cars just run the red light, but they were routinely being caught in the middle, filling up the box and creating a situation where I had to weave my bicycle and wagon through a parking lot that might start moving at any moment.

So the Contraption Captain and I started pushing the button for the walk signal, mmm, much better.  Quite a bit more time no matter how many automobiles behaved like asshats.  Once, a roadie with a European acccent politely told me that I did not need to push the walk signal, teh light would trigger for me.  "Watch" I said grimly.  Our light turned green.  We were blocked by a bus.  We waited.  He shook his head several times.  I guess drivers in Europe have better manners. 

And so, my little automobile driving non-friends I give you BPT aka Bicycle Person Time.  You drive too fast and run too many red lights.  You scream obscenities at us if you are merely presented with the idea that you might have to pause in your acceleration.  I'll respond to your bad behavior by pushing the pedestrian walk signal.  This will let me get across the street with a modicum of comfort and may remind you not to drive like a stupid fucking muppet whose ass caught fire.  

*The other couriers were not fooled by my uncool bicycle, my uncool clothes and my backpack not messenger bag and I was never in the club which just goes to show that some things do not change.  

1 comment:

  1. I too use a backpack to carry my stuff. Messenger bag flopping around just seems like a pain in the ass.

    Cool story Chafed. I remember that restless feeling of youth. 20 years ago my roomate and I after getting off work at midnight would ride our mountain bikes downtown to Riverfront park in Spokane, WA and play trials in the outdoor amphitheater riding up and down the stepped isles. Good times trying not to run over the homeless people trying to sleep.