UPDATED : Would That This Were Lake Wobegone


Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor has a fictional home town called Lake Wobegone. He gives a monologue each week about the “doings” in his home town on his show the A Prairie Home Companion. Connie and I have been listening to this show for almost 30 years. Lots of things happen in the town and many of them make you laugh and some make you cry. But the nature of any small town is the close interaction of its denizens. Most of Garrison’s stories have a level of meaning far beyond the incidents themselves.

David Feucht of Portlandize fame had a Lake Wobegone moment this week. He was involved in a bicycle-on-bicycle-on-bicycle collision. Yep, a three-way. After describing the gory details of the crash and who was at fault and how much each participant suffered he offered up some reflections:

Firstly, I’m really glad that guy was riding a bike and not driving a car. If he had been driving a car somewhere with the same insistence on driving faster than the surroundings warranted and ended up with an unexpected situation in front of him, he may well have killed someone (possibly himself). I both don’t want anyone to die that way, and I don’t want anyone to have to live with that kind of thing the rest of their lives.

Secondly, this just highlights to me a general cultural issue that we face, and that is that we 1) tend to feel like we need to rush everywhere, even that we have a right, or even an imperative to do so and 2) we tend not to think about the consequences of our actions until the consequences kick us in the teeth.

I am suspicious of the causes of this impetuousness in urban traffic situations. If indeed stress leads to aggressiveness this would explain in large part what I see every time I enter the city limits of Chicago. Drivers change lanes more often than not without ever signaling their intentions.

Drivers are in such a hurry that when an intersection stalls the close the gap behind the cars in front regardless of the fact that when the light turns red they will be blocking the intersection. Bicyclists are constantly weaving between standing traffic trying to reach the intersection first and then proceed against the light to cross.

What is even more interesting is that the very same crowd of ChainLinkers who sign on to the ethical nature of blowing stop signs and running red lights despite know that both are illegal nevertheless have the temerity to chide blacks and hispanics who ride against the traffic. These same riders with a sense of entitlement cite the law when pronouncing against the use of headphones while riding on a bicycle. They even have strong words for cyclists who deign to pass them on the right in the bicycle lane. Again they cite the rule of law to justify their indignation.

This is a group that rides in the darker hours of the day in what they like to refer to as ninja-mode. Because lights are not cool and clothing is supposedly to be more pedestrian-like you end up with folks coming home from the office in the same outfits they wore all day and devoid of anything reflective. Despite the fact that front and rear reflectors are the law, these folks usually have none.

Driving into the city on a Friday evening along the length of Milwaukee you realize that whether they are riding towards you or away they are visible only because of the headlights of the very automobiles they say they hate. And this same group decries the fact that they are often frightened out of their self-absorbed stupors when a fellow ninja-style rider comes towards them in the dark against the traffic in the bike lane. They wag their moralist fingers (the same ones they never use for signaling cars) in outrage that someone would put their personal safety at risk by riding in such a manner. But of course they freely admit that these folks are usually older (more than 50 years of age) and brown-skinned (the muse about them being either black or hispanic) and so what could you expect from such vermin?

Their bikes, clothing and apparel are often black in color and designed it would seem to identify them as Apple Store workers coming home from a long day at the Genius Bar. The males and females alike are stuffed inside impossible tight black stretch jeans and mathcing t-shirts. And if they wear helmets or gloves these too are black. Once in a while I see female riders on Milwaukee sporting panniers which thankfully have small reflective strips built into their rearward facing surfaces, but I could count on a single finger (you can guess which one I might choose) the number of times I have ever seem a reflective vest in high-vis yellow worn by anybody in this crowd. That would look to dorky for a group that worships Bicycle Chic.

They are often more concerned about whether their pedals and their high-heels match than whether riding in such a get-up allows them to function in the event of an evasive maneuver to avoid getting doored or colliding with a fellow ninja who is probably not as much of a fashionista. This is a crowd that knows how to ride to their local brewpub and take on a full six pack (internally) and then suddenly forget where they have parked their fixed gear brakeless bike until an equally soused buddy reminds them. And once their bikes are located they ride them home in the dark, dressed like ninjas, without benefit of helmets, or lights and wonder why the heck that a driver nearly ran them over as they wobbled along the bike lane at 1 AM.

And during their drinking session you can bet that the conversation was all about clueless motorists who disregard the laws by passing others cars and cyclists on the right, blow through red lights and stop signs, pass to close, open their doors without looking, and honk at them when they “take the lane” because the guy in front of them with the six pack of PBR just dropped a bottle on the bicycle lane surface and left a lot of glass in his wake.

This is the crowd which whoops it up in anticipation of “auditing” the L.A.T.E. Ride, which they feel is populated by stupid suburban cyclists who despite the fact that they are even willing to venture into the city and ride its pothole-filled streets at night, need to be shown how the Midnight Marauders do it. Yet when it comes to attending a docent-led ride by one of their own they have a strict rule of “no pay, no ride”. You end up wondering why the disconnect. But then you consider the source and smile.

Before long you begin to understand that this is a crowd whose knowledge of traffic law is learned not under the tutelage of a League Certified Instructor (LCI) but rather over beers following a Critical Mass Ride where every law they could think to break is broken (while feeling ethically justified, of course). Somewhere in the dictionary is a group photo of the 20th Anniversary Critical Mass Ride here in Chicago, alongside the definition of the word hypocrisy.

This is a group who typify what it means to be impatient and insistent on their “rights”. They have no compunctions about plastering stickers and flyers over every imaginable surface in support of their latest anti-dooring campaign. But have a fit if someone dares to post advertising for a business on bike rack. When they had their latest anti-dooring rally the run-up to it involved people suggesting that every automobile in the area be plastered with flyers on a daily basis to drive home their point.

Chutzpah is the word that comes to mind when I think about their brashness and impatience about everything. It has become a bit of a parody to listen to them strategize about passing some law that will be onerous enough to force drivers to behave impeccably in the presence of bicycles. And this from folks who do not mind threatening runners and skateboarders using “their” bicycle lane. This from folks who would have a stroke it someone were to suggest that they be licensed and forced to absorb the costs of bike racks and the removal of stickers they have affixed to surfaces where not allowed. And be given tickets not only for running stop lights and signs but for chaining their bikes to handrails on CTA station platforms.

At least in Lake Wobegone everyone understand the need for both legality and ethical behavior. And they rarely allow one another to lie to themselves when they are wrongheaded.