Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This American Bike Commute - Part II

“There she is!” I heard one of the students standing by the bicycle rack say as I rolled up to work this morning.

“Where were you yesterday?” he asked as I clambered breathlessly off my bike, stripping off my soggy vest and earmuffs as quickly as possible.

I grinned. “What, you missed me?” I said. “I didn’t come to school yesterday. I had to go out of town.”

“Oh.” He and the other two students nodded. “We thought you didn’t come ‘cause it was icy.”

“Icy!” I shake my head back. “Ice doesn’t scare me none.”

I’m getting to be a regular at the bike rack, it appears. In the middle of my second week of biking to work, I’m starting to develop a routine. The prospect of biking still never seems promising when I’m standing on my porch, but en route I always end up glad I’m doing it. It’s a good time to think. In fact, there’s nothing to do but think. Think, pedal, and breathe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sweat. Sweat is really one of the major problems of my bike commute. Even when it’s so cold that my hanky freezes in my vest pocket, I work up such a sweat that it feels like a July afternoon. Yet, if I strip down to my bottom layer of garments, the winter wind cuts through me like a child’s scream. My skin freezes while my core burns.

I’m just not sure what the solution is. So far, I’ve been wearing a “sweat layer” – a tank top and long johns that more or less soak up the sweat, and can be removed when I get to work. It’s funny how it’s not appropriate to be sweaty at work. It’s funny how I have to remove all traces of bicycling in order to appear professional – as if actually using my body for something useful were shameful, something to hide. Maybe it is.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is guilt. This morning as I biked down Lee Street, I passed a Latino man standing by a pay phone. He was bundled in a bulky flannel shirt, a wool hat pulled over his ears. He had the most blank, bereft look on his face that I’d ever seen. His eyes were far away, as if remembering warmer times when he was not standing by a lonely pay phone in a cold, cold country far from home. It was a look that made me want to pull over and say, “Here! Have this… apple! And these… women’s dress shoes! And this spare bike tire! Sorry, but it’s all I’ve got!”

Of course, I didn’t pull over; I didn’t say that, or anything else. I just kept biking. But it made me think. I notice that when I’m driving my car, as I pass other people on bicycles, or waiting for the bus, or trudging dutifully down the frosty winter sidewalks, I feel a stab of guilt. I feel guilty that I’m tucked up in my cozy personal vehicle while they – mostly people with less money and privilege than I have – tough it out in a system in which they don’t have a leg up. I feel guilty for taking advantage of having the upper hand and saying “Tough nuts!” to folks who aren’t as privileged.

I notice that on my bike, all that guilt goes away. It’s true that I, unlike most of the people that I pass, choose to be out in the cold; I have the choice of the easy way, at any time I want it. But still, having that choice and turning it down does make me feel better. I know that my presence doesn’t make those weary and woebegone souls any less cold or tired. Really, it doesn’t make them feel one bit different. But it does make me feel different, for choosing not to partake in the privilege I’ve been offered.

Maybe that absolution has something to do with the sweat. Driving makes me feel guilty because it’s taking the easy way out, even though it involves a whole host of drawbacks that feel wrong to me: using gasoline (and therefore justifying the U.S.’s long arm in the Middle East), generating air pollution, spending hard-earned money unnecessarily, putting myself in the midst of dangerous and stressful traffic jams, getting flabby instead of getting exercise, and so on. The guilty echo I hear as I drive past pedestrians, bikers, and bus riders – “You hypocrite!!” is not really what they’re thinking about me at all. It’s what I’m thinking about myself.

Maybe that’s why I don’t mind the sweat. The sweat is hot, it’s cold, it’s damp and kind of gross. But it’s honest. The sweatier I am, the better I feel about what I’m doing. I’m not participating reluctantly in a system I don’t believe in. I’m saying, “This is how I think it should be. This is how I know it could be.”

by Sadie Kneidel

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