So what’s cycling like during an apocalypse?
4:30 at work. Just finishing up an email to a friend. Another couple minutes of boning about, a little small talk, then down to the locker to swap out clothing and away. Nice thought. But suddenly my screen, the overheads, my lava lamp, all the computers around me, all snapped off. In the silence I could hear the fans spin down.
We hung around for a bit, watching the major intersection on Maitland, the cars careening though it beneath blackened signals. Nobody stopped. Nobody yielded. I was certain I’d see a wreck. It was like my own demolition derby.
Finally the news came out – the power would be off for at least an hour. And that raised some issues for me.
ISSUE ONE: Water. The power was out, and so were the pumps. I couldn’t get any water for my bottle. Outside the heat index was over 100. I’d have to find an oasis – I’d never make the nine miles otherwise. Pedal or die. But I’d risk it, but first…
ISSUE TWO: Suiting up. With the lights off, the tenth floor locker room (an interior room) would be as black as a tomb. Without lights, I’d not be able to get my combination locker open. Without that, no bike clothing, no saddlebags, nothing. Briefly I though to riding home in my jeans and T-shirt but then I reread the preceding paragraph and remembered that heat index. I’d burst into flames if I tried that.
The solution was to take my cellphone with me, down three flights, to use as a lousy lamp. So there I was, Tomb Raider, trying to put on wet clothing in the flickering darkness. Just great. Then three flights back up to the bike. During this time, I was considering…
ISSUE THREE: Getting the bike to street level. It looked like I’d have to hook the bike over my shoulder and carry it down 13 flights of stairs, and doing it alone mean carrying the bike loaded. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, I just really wasn’t looking forward to this (images of the Ghost Busters climbing the endless stairwell came to mind). But just as I was getting it onto my shoulder (Christ, it’s heavy) the director noted that the service elevator was up and running on emergency power. Finally a break. Within a minute or two, I was down the loading dock and into the blazing afternoon.
ISSUE FOUR: Traffic: The first car I encountered was driven by a large frizzy-headed woman who knew she was crossing a blackout area and was taking appropriate measures – meaning she was yakking to her friends on her cell about how crazy traffic was. She was over in the left lane, but decided to go right without signaling, damn near taking my front wheel right off the fork. The stop sign didn’t cause her any pause; she took it smartly and without hesitation. I could only glare after this troll-doll, thinking of how, if this was really the end of everything and we were heading towards The Road, she’d be the first eaten.
But there was a bit of payback with traffic. Sure it was over 100 degrees, but unlike the cars, I was moving. Lake Destiny was jammed in both directions near the Applebee’s, with none of these people having a ghost of a chance of getting out in under a half hour. Me, I zipped down the bike lane, passing a quarter-mile of cars each way, just smiling and nodding. I-4 was moving, but down the frontage road there was a half-mile backup for the left onto Kennedy Blvd, something I bipassed in my own private lane. But it wasn’t speed that my thoughts centered on, it was that empty water bottle in my rack. Licks lips. Whimpers.
ISSUE FIVE: Water again. At the corner of Lake and 1792, I knew I was getting dehydrated. South of there would be a ghost town of strip malls and such, no water to be had. Crossing the parking lot, I went up on the sidewalk and leaned the bike against Copper Rocket, a pub I used to meet an old friend at for years. Of course its been almost a decade since, the place has changed and it was dark as pitch inside (add to that my shades). I managed to beg the bartender to fill my bottle. Nice guy – I got tap water. I guess I didn’t rate cold water. Hell, beggars can’t be gulpers – without that water, I wouldn’t make it home. Thankfully nobody stole my bike while I was groping about inside. So now I was moving again.
ISSUE SIX: The Parade. I never ride on 1792 pavement in the evenings, I stick to the sidewalk for the first mile – the Walter Mitties drive too fast and too aggressive after work. But just as I came out of the pub parking lot, a girl on a bike went past down the sidewalk with her boyfriend (in jeans and black shirt) jogging along her side. He was sweating like a sponge – what was the story there? And behind them was this older women on a beach cruiser, slowly peddling along. Between the three of them, they were stopping, dropping things, doubling back, going slow, just a tangle of ineptitude. I followed them on the sidewalk for a frustrating block and gave it up. Stopping at a curb cut, I looked back to find a break in traffic.
I’d never looked back like that. Looking along the line of oncoming traffic, it was like a mad river of metal, shimmering in the heat. Some of these people, I figured, had been through the blackout zone and were pissed, trying to make up lost time. I finally got a gap, popped into it and pedaled hard. Annoyingly, the wind was in my face, blowdrier hot. Cars whizzed by. Remember how people will tell you about how sacred life is? Those same people were thundering past my handlebars at 50mph. Hypocrites.
Anyway, I overtook those three basket cases but found that in front of them, a father and two kids were also biking south on the sidewalk. What the hell is a dad doing with kids on the side of 1792 in the hellish heat, with cars in and out of the businesses? I was amazed they couldn’t find someplace safer to ride, perhaps a minefield or a bowling alley. Years of riding down this strip without seeing a soul and now it was an exodus, fitting with everything else I’d been through, I suppose.
Got past them and ducked onto the sidewalk. And finally everything returned to normal. The power was up. The signals were working. The road opened up. The traffic eased. I had time to suck the bottle once or twice. Now I was back on the beam, spooling up the distance. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking of something I’d seen only this morning…
ISSUE SEVEN: The detour. I always descend via Merritt Park to Lake Sue in the mornings, then ascend using a smaller side street in the afternoons. Merritt is just too busy in the evenings with all the cut-through traffic. However, this morning there had been signs posted that Merritt was going to be closed and that a detour would be in place. And I knew the only possible detour – my side street. Just the thought of these rushing yuppies all cramming their fuvs down that narrow lane (with its high walls of foliage) was enough to curl my pickle. No way I was doing that. Instead, I stuck to 1792 all the way down, past Princeton to Nebraska. Of course, this meant that instead of traveling through forested suburbs (all which block the winds) was was crossing Lock Haven into the superheated headblast. The bottle was two-thirds gone by the time I got to Nebraska and…
ISSUE EIGHT: Fake crossing buttons. There was no way to cross to the left turn lane so I rolled into the curb cut to the raptured lumber yard. There was one of those “To cross Mills” buttons, which I pushed – it felt… klunky. And then I sat and watched the traffic flow past. The lights changed. I sucked down some water. The sun blazed in its relentless sky.
Okay, so after two cycles I realized that this device was nothing more than a Fisher Price crib toy, an amusement for pedestrians to fiddle with while waiting for the cross-light that would never come. Screw that. I slipped the bottle into the rack, looked up and down the blistering avenue, picked my gap, pushed it. Across and away, and nobody had to brake. Well, they wouldn't have anyway, right?
Nebraska was real commuter country, a narrow two lane road with low ditches to either side. I stuck right on the side line, giving as much room as I could to the car behind me. Of course, with all the risks and chances I’d taken this day, the woman behind me wasn’t having any of it. Even without facing traffic, she wouldn’t go around. When I stopped at the stop sign, I could feel the heat off her radiator. Some people. And ferchristsakes, I still had the headwind; which seemingly changed through 90 degrees to give me that final anti-boost. What a grind.
Soon enough, I was across Forrest and into my neighborhood. No cars. No winds. Beneath the trees, the temperature dropped ten degrees. I dropped into an easy pedal, leaning neatly into the curves, curling into the driveway. In the front window, Mookie’s ears perked up. She rose, yawning. Dinner would shortly be served.
ISSUE NINE: While I unloaded the bike, the AC unit came on and bellowed steamy air all over me.
It never ends.
That’s bike commuting for you.