The Indignity of Commuting by Bicycle: Shoals of Idiocy

Even in New York City, cycling can be a blissful experience, and even without a fixed-gear bicycle you can sometimes feel as though you are one with both your bike and your surroundings. Such was the case for me recently on a lovely day when, traversing a bridge which spans another body of water that is not "The Big Skanky," I was briefly joined by a seagull. For just a few moments it was as if I too was flying, and while the sensation didn't last all that long, it didn't end quite as abruptly as it might have if the seagull had relieved himself on me.

Ideally, I'd like to infuse all of my cycling endeavors--indeed, all of my endeavors--with this pleasant feeling of oneness. As such, I do my best to open myself to the possibility of joy on even the most mundane commute. However, I am seldom successful. While the weather often cooperates and does not distinguish between weekends and weekdays, and while even the birds might see fit to join me (though more often they are pigeons, or sometimes geese, and occasionally other types of animals too, such as raccoons and rats), the main problem seems to be that humans behave differently. For example, on my weekend ride, I encountered not only seagulls but other humans, such as this one complete with tzitzit and pendulous saddle bag:

While I don't understand why some people do not cinch the straps of their saddle bags and instead let them dangle half a foot beneath their saddles like truck nutz, the fact is that it really doesn't inconvenience me and any displeasure I derive from it is really my own problem. Furthermore, if I want to rid myself of this displeasure, I cannot expect the world to refrain from riding with low-hanging saddle bags; rather, I have to look deep within myself and understand why it bothers me and then address that problem. It's foolish to think I can geld the bicycles of the world, and what is an irritant to me may simply be "scrotastic" to someone else.

On the other hand, during the week other riders do engage in behavior that is an affront to their fellow humans, and one such behavior is "shoaling." As I've explained before, no rider, no matter how slow or diminutive, will ever come to a stop behind another rider at a red light. Instead, it is standard practice to pass that rider and stop in front of him, even if this involves doing so in the middle of the crosswalk or in the actual intersection, well ahead of the traffic signal. "Shoaling" is an incredibly rude practice, and it's tantamount to cutting in front of someone at an ATM, supermarket checkout, or urinal line. Yet while people will speak up if someone cuts ahead of them in line, nobody ever speaks out against the equally offensive practice of shoaling. Even I have never had the temerity to address a shoaler, even though I was flagrantly shoaled just this morning, as I headed towards Manhattan and found myself at this intersection:

The light was red, and there was a line of cars waiting, so I rolled up to the crosswalk and came to a stop:

As I waited, a woman on a bicycle with an empty child seat I had passed a few blocks back approached from behind:

I sensed a shoaling was imminent, but due to the cars on my left and the sidewalk on my right there was no room to pass me, so I figured she would be forced to adhere to the rules of human decency and deign to come to a stop behind me. I was wrong. Instead, she actually mounted the sidewalk, rode around me, and entered the crosswalk:

Naturally, just as she did so and put her foot down, the light changed and traffic started moving, and I was in turn forced to go around her as she struggled to regain her footing:

Now, a regular shoal is one thing, but actually mounting the sidewalk in order to shoal somebody who was riding faster than you is like pushing your full shopping cart through a floor display so you can beat the guy with just a loaf of bread and a tube of toothpaste to the express lane. Of course, the truth is that some people are faster than others. This can be because they're carrying less stuff, or they're in more of a hurry, or they're simply more physically fit. As such, it's tempting to think that we can set parameters for what constitutes an acceptable shoal. For example, you might say that a Cat 2 racer should be allowed to shoal someone riding a laden Xtracycle, since obviously he's going to get off to a much faster start. Well, theoretically, this makes sense. However, in practice everybody thinks they're faster than everybody else. What happens when the Cat 5 who thinks he's fast shoals a Cat 2 who's on the way home from work in street clothes and thus appears to be just another commuter? Well, we all know what happens--the Cat 5 has trouble clipping back into his new road pedals, the commuting Cat 2 is forced to go around him, and then the Cat 5 spends the next three blocks doing his best to pass him again. It's a tragic cycle, and it's one that can end if we're all prepared to bid a collective farewell to the practice of shoaling.

Of course, if you're a bike messenger, you probably don't shoal because you don't stop at all. Speaking of messengers, I was pleased to receive from the author the cover of a book called "Messenger Poet" by Kurt Boone, which he informs me will be available in the fall:

I employed a popular search engine to find out more about Kurt Boone, and was intrigued to learn from this New York Times article that not only is Boone a messenger himself:

But that, more specifically, he's a foot messenger:

For 13 years, Mr. Boone, 49, has delivered his packages not by bicycle but the old-fashioned way — by foot and by subway.

Yes, in an age in which the bicycle messenger is revered and imitated, people would do well to remember that there are other sorts of messengers too. Not only that, but while bike messengers may have been riding track bikes since "back in the day" (in the world of track bikes, "back in the day" refers to any time before the person you're addressing bought their first track bike, and can be as recently as yesterday), foot messengers were out there before bicycles were even invented. (Actually, if you look at the messenger god Hermes, you'll see he was out there before even pants were invented.) Sure, part of the reason bicycle messengers are romanticized is that people think it's difficult and dangerous, whereas foot messengering seems hopelessly, well, pedestrian. This is completely untrue. Firstly, cycling is much faster than walking, and therefore easier. Secondly, foot messengers also use the subway, and while riding a bicycle may be a bit more dangerous than either of those things now, people forget that "back in the day" (which is any time up to the day before the person you're talking to first moved to New York City) people here carried guns and knives instead of iPhones and Frappucinos. Really, you were much safer flying down Broadway on a brakeless bike at 20mph than you were sitting on the A train with a bag full of stuff. Even today, if you think bike messengers must fight motor vehicle traffic while all foot messengers have to deal with is other pedestrians, think again. Unless you've walked briskly into a shwarma cart or been scalded with hot Starbucks by a texting cubicle jockey, you have no idea what it means to be a foot messenger. Also, just like the hardcore bike messengers often ride track bikes, the hardcore foot messengers have a special walk:

I get around by train and by foot. The messenger business is slower now, but at my peak, I could ride 22 subway lines a week easily. I could go seven or eight subway lines a day and walk maybe 7, 8, 10 miles a day. It’s not running, but it’s a fast kind of walk that messengers do that pedestrians don’t generally see.

Just like fixed-gears, this special walk used to be the exclusive domain of a small group of people, but now that the "hipsters" have latched onto it it's all over:

And I shouldn't even have to mention the possibility of getting hit by a shoaler.
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