The most prevalent road-rage gesture I see in London is the one I call the Seinfeld. It’s exactly the kind of gesture Jerry would make when saying: “What IS thaaaat?” It’s exasperation, outrage, bafflement. It’s almost an operatic sort of arm-sweep, sometimes with a bit of fist-shaking. The other day a scooter beeped at me while overtaking – I guess to suggest that I was too far out from the gutter and to get back in my place. I didn’t think I was unduly far-out, but I moved aside anyway. But not without giving him the Seinfeld. The gesture was quite mild, though – a query rather than an attack.
The scooter guy was looking back at me, evidently making sure I’d taken note of his beeping, and he immediately gave me his own, much more vigorous, Seinfeld in response, thus asserting his loftier status on the roads as the possessor of a motor and a pair of leather trousers.
This is the sadness of the post-Seinfeld age.
What do people think about as they’re cycling? A selection of cyclists I questioned responded:
- “Not getting run over.”
- “How not to get run over! Ha ha!”
- “I just look at the road. Once I caught myself daydreaming and I was like, holy shit.”
- “When I cycled I did a lot of counting and repeating of poems or lyrics.”
I used to wonder the same when I swam lengths regularly. What is everybody thinking about? What am I thinking about? Am I thinking about my own boredom? It’s just so boring, swimming in a lane. Nothing but lines on the floor of the pool, arms and legs swooshing by, the occasional flash of goggle-eye-contact. Cycling is a bit the same. There is not much blinking. Breathing is considered. Space is at a premium. I find that my thoughts never become coherent as I’m riding. It’s as though I ride with a leafblower in my head – the faster I ride the more aggressive the leafblower becomes and the further away my thought particles fly.
At the moment my thoughts are revolving loosely around the concept of boredom. This is because later this month I’m going to this thing for boredom enthusiasts, called the Boring Conference. Apparently “different things will be talked about by different people and you can listen to them and then go home.” Which is perfect – why aren’t more events like that? Last year an Interesting Conference was planned, but it was cancelled, so a Boring Conference was organised instead, and that was a success. Talks ranged from “The Intangible Beauty of Car Park Roofs” and “Personal Reflections on the English Breakfast,” to tie collections (with accompanying PowerPoint presentation) and bus routes. There was also a three-year sneeze count with graphs and charts. Apparently the highlight of that talk was when the presenter reported that he had once sneezed while recording another sneeze.
The agenda for this year hasn’t been announced yet, but I’m pretty excited. And it’s actually interesting. What can boredom do to a person – can it be dangerous? What if human beings largely lose their capacity to tolerate boredom? Are we losing it already?
The clocks have gone back. The dark is loosening its tie and letting out its belt. God, it loves this time of year. Even when the day is not technically dark (ie. it is daytime), we still have a powerful knowledge that the dark was here and will soon return, as though it’s left behind some large territorial stain on the sofa – all this here belongs to the dark; the dark is its rightful owner.
I’m going to get one of those SAD Lamps. You know the ones. They emit a happiness-making blue-white light, and they’re meant to actually work – it’s so simple it seems miraculous. Light = mental stability. Wouldn’t it be great if we could adjust a dial on our necks (or somewhere less frightening) to flood our brains with mental-health-giving bright light when required? Unfortunately the SAD lights are expensive, and I’ve read warnings that if you buy a cheaper one, it will likely be a scam – you’ll end up with just an ordinary, emotionally-stable lightbulb. Ineffective! After thinking about the other treatment ideas from SAD.co.uk (“Eat fewer carbohydrates”, “Get more exercise”, or “Trim trees or bushes that block sunlight”), my solution is to save up for the lamp by giving up the daily but unnecessary purchases: a coffee here, a flapjack there, a beer here, a beer there. Make do with the less-fancy peanut butter, the less-schmancy bananas. This effort has some similarities to the Sober October campaign in which people were urged to give up alcohol and take what they had saved on beer down to their local bookshop to buy books. (The thing is, I’ve noticed that people who really, really love books tend to also really, really love beer. It’s very difficult to sacrifice one for the other and feel OK about it. I haven’t met a non-recovering-alcoholic grown-up yet who’s been able to do it, but I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has.)
The problem is, even though it’ll be for just a couple of months, those months will hurt. Without the small daily pleasures, it’s that much harder to get through the day. Small frivolities provide relief from the burden of time passing and they soften your world view. They give you permission to stare blankly yet deeply into space. In the best cases (beer), they provide a little holiday from yourself. Still, as I write this it is 3:55pm and out the window the dark is already leeching its way into the sky, and the headlights have already started domino-toppling down the roads. So I know I’ll be very grateful once I’ve got my SAD Lamp.
The goal is to bike through the winter. What sort of mental and physical fortitude will it take? How hard does one need to be, and does one need metal-studded tyres and a neoprene face mask? Judging by the rictus my face becomes on early mornings on the bike, I’m hard but not hard enough; I am al dente.
London Cyclist says you need the following to succeed as a winter cyclist (in the interests of my research on boredom):
- base layer (a Merino wool top)
- mid layer (some kind of jersey/jumper arrangement)
- top layer (a waterproof and/or windproof jacket)
- pair of leg and arm warmers to stop joints from seizing up
- pair of serious, grippy gloves (must look bionic)
- thick waterproof socks
- waterproof cap-thing to wear under helmet
- maybe a pair of ‘overshoes’, made of wetsuit-like material (I have seen people wearing these; there’s something quite Robocop about them).
Right now my cycling gear is: a pair of pink long johns, corduroy shorts from Chinatown in Melbourne, and a custard yellow windbreaker that cost $5 from an op-shop in Hamilton. Also a holey thermal top from one of those Kathmandu sales in Wellington, and a road-worker-ish orange vest that I sometimes wear. From here it’s a long, cold road. And I find myself again having to make financial decisions that don’t seem quite rational, from a happiness-seeking point of view.
This morning I was maybe going a bit too fast down Brixton Road. I was hurrying because a double-decker was bearing down behind me. The sound of a bus at close range is quite terrifying – it’s a hollow, roaring exhalation, what I imagine the inside of a tornado sounds like. The light ahead turned from green to yellow. Without thinking, I sped up. At the last millisecond, just as I was hitting the stop box, the light turned red. But something in my brain refused to accept it. So I hoofed it straight through there.
Now, I pride myself on my lawfulness. I always stop for pedestrians at the zebra crossing. I don’t ride on the footpath. I turn on my bright lights when it’s dark. I do the little wave to drivers when they wait patiently to pass me on a narrow road. Most of all, I never, ever run red lights. So I don’t know what happened this morning. It felt like an out of body experience – there I was, floating above the road, watching this idiot run a red light.
Of course, I immediately flagellated myself. You fool. You could’ve crashed into a car. Into a pedestrian! As I was thinking these things I swerved to avoid a guy walking (jaywalking, actually) across the road. His mouth was moving. There was something a bit menacing about him – he was sauntering towards me as if he didn’t care if I hit him or not, and I heard him say, “YOU HAVE TO WAIT FOR THE FUCKIN’ LIGHTS TOO, YOU KNOW.”
I turned cold. My level of shame reached fever pitch. I was now “them”: the cyclists who “give us all a bad name”, who lend weight to the them vs. us divide.
At the same time, I felt a deep sense of unfairness, and the urge to enter into a philosophical debate. The ninety-nine times you do the right thing, well, none of those get remembered, do they! No one cares if you wait at the red light when there are obviously no pedestrians while other cyclists go torrenting past, and no one cares if you wait for the bus to go first rather than racing against it. But the one time you do something thoughtless, the one time, you get a guy snarling in your face. (There are parallels between this and proof-reading a thick manuscript. You won’t be remembered for all your marvellous corrections, the penetrating gaze that ousted whole bunches of misplaced commas, but for the one time you didn’t check the spelling of that famous castle and it was grievously wrong.) I just hated the thought that I’d cemented that guy’s opinion that all cyclists are dickheads.
But wait. The red-light-vs-cyclist issue is slightly more complex than “IF YOU DO THIS YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON.” It is indeed breaking the law, and police regularly ticket cyclists who they catch in the act, especially in the City. They claim that public opinion demands such vigilance. But there are times when running a red light -with care and caution – can be safer for cyclists, in the current conditions. It can help them get through a particularly narrow road up ahead without impatient motorists trying to overtake them dangerously. It can help them to avoid being squashed by a bus or lorry when turning left. It seems to me that in many cases, cyclists running red lights are responding to bad infrastructure or the threatening attitudes of some drivers. Many cyclists would rather get ahead than get honked at for being out in the middle of the road because they don’t want to be doored by one of the cars parked on either side.
For now though, after my encounter with Angry Pedestrian Jaywalking, I’ll take pride in getting honked at.