Call and Response - the Folkways of the Baltimore Bicycle Commuter
Before I started bicycle commuting in Baltimore, I had to answer some questions: first, "Am I strong enough?"; second, "Can I keep the bicycle in good working condition?"; third, "Can I be safe?" I take this third more seriously now than I did when I was a bicycle messenger in D.C. one summer in college. I shudder to think of the things I did then: riding one way the wrong way down one-way streets in rush hour. Being willing to do almost anything to avoid stepping down of the bike - cutting across busy intersections at crazy angles, veering up onto the sidewalk heedless of (even rejoicing in) the stricken looks on the pedestrian faces. I am a materially different person these days. Old and fat. A father. Winner of bread. It would not do to die or be maimed or suffer the dependent and deranged state of the traumatically brain injured. That of course could still happen, but meanwhile I will try to do my bit not to raise the odds. One of my goals, after all, is to get healthier. That was not the only kind of safety to consider. The neighborhoods through which I ride are the stuff of white-flight nightmares: abandoned row-houses, arrests on the street, poverty, suspicion, and violence. Or so I imagined. The fact is that the intra-urban interstate I had commuted along in my car conveniently circumvented most of these neighborhoods, and I knew of them mostly by rumor. So, to "do this safely" is coded language. Coded for me and for others who ask about my riding in Baltimore: first they clearly think of how narrow and congested many of the City's street's are, and then they almost inevitably ask, "Wait, how do you ride home? What route do you take? What neighborhoods do you ride through?" So, I thought about that, too. What I mostly thought was that this plan would not work if I were to ride, guarded and paranoid, can of mace clutched in one hand, down the hill and up. I did not want to spend an hour and a half a day afraid. So I took the opposite tack. I decided to say hello to folks as I went along: embrace the whole thing. The advantage of a bicycle is that you are going slowly enough (especially at first, and especially uphill on the way home) that you can call out and there is enough time for a response. So that's what I did; what I do. On days when the weather is not too heinous (storming so I can't see, or blowing a tornado watch's worth of headwinds my way), I try to say hello to most folks I see. I try not to be obnoxious about it - if someone's not making eye contact, is on the phone or whatever, I leave them alone, but otherwise I throw a "Mornin", "Evenin", or "How you doin?" their way. Almost all of the people I interact with to and from work are African American. Probably two-thirds of them respond to the call, but here's the thing: not one of them has been rude or hostile or paranoid. Everyone who responds has been nice, and I get all kinds of responses back: "Hey", "Why hello, how are you?", "'Sup?", "Be safe", "What's goin on, big man?", "Mornin", "Evenin", "Hey, Brother", endless variations in the various accents telling of lifelong city residency, immigration from the Carolinas or other points south, or New York or Philly. I had a conversation with one guy in a car at the end of the summer about the importance of hydration - he had just come from working out and I was nodding my head to the music coming through his open windows. He told me to make sure I got enough water because it was hot and it was important for my health. Occasionally the call comes from the pedestrians, and not from me - one young man was waiting for a bus, listing to headphones and nodding his head in time to the music. I was going slowly up the hill, not pushing too hard, so I also started nodding, which brought his exuberant call of "My nigga wid a bike!", to which I could only smile and keep pedaling. I had never been anyone's nigga wid a bike before. Pretty great, really. Another man called out "Hey I keep seeing you!" - pleased - and I gave my response. Occasionally - usually at night - I might get a long stare, and once, from a kid who looked like he was about ten, a real eyefuck and chinthrust, and a call, "You police?" I just laughed. He asked once again on another night but I just shook my head and kept riding. His assumption says something about who the white guys are that he encounters. Once a young man in a car waited till I was abreast of him and blew his horn - I jumped, and all the guys in his car laughed, but it was not malicious and I was willing to be the object of fun. Another guy rode his scooter by me going my way, honking tonically, laughing maniacally, but again he didn't bother me (and the sudden honk from the loud car horn is much more effective than the long blare of a slowly approaching scooter anyway). Overall these interactions with the people along my route have been the most gratifying, most unlooked-for and wonderful part of my experience. That there is such a pleasant interaction between strangers of different backgrounds in this City just feels very good to me, better than the exercise and environmentalism of cycling. I do not fool myself that there is more to these interactions than there are. After all, folks are mostly just being polite. But I doubt very much that many white folks would be as polite to unknown black folks coming through their neighborhoods. If I ride through a white neighborhood and say "Hey" I often do not get any response. And so I am grateful for the people who are polite and warm to me, because it makes my life easier in a small but very important way. My favorite call and response? I was leaving work, exhausted one evening and frazzled from the day. If I leave too late, the ride home is a little jangly and there is no flow, no rhythm to the ride. This was the worst so far - my rear view mirror that clips onto my glasses had worked itself loose a few blocks from where I work. I reached up with one hand to adjust it, but then I saw a car coming around the corner in front of me: no big deal but without thinking I grabbed the front brake, lost control of the bike and went down, landing painfully on my left thigh. I pulled my bike to the far side of the street to check out my pager, on which I had landed and my bike, and to finally get the mirror situated. Across the street and behind me there had been a group of kids - five or six of them, about eight or nine years old on average, probably. These kids live right there, in the projects, in lives that that tend to be steeped in drugs and violence. (These lives I know a little more about because of the toll of this kind of life on the mental health of the residents in the community) So, right after I went down, one girl started cackling at the top of her lungs: "He fell! Oh, my God, he fell! HAHAHAHAAHA, did you see that, heeee fffffeeeeeeelllllllll". I flushed with quick anger and humiliation, but the obvious glee that she was taking in my downfall was infectious, and after about a second and a half I found myself smiling ruefully. It was dusk so it was a little hard to see, and I wasn't interested in facing my mocker, so I just kept checking the bike. Then, the call came, from one of the older boys in the group: "Hey, are you OK?" And my response: "Yeah, thanks, I'm just embarrassed." And I got on my bike and rode off. That the boy would reach across the gulf and ask me, an old white guy from the suburbs, if I was OK, when he had nothing to gain but just because it was a common, decent thing to do, has been by far my favorite moment, born of my clumsiness and his willingness to ignore the class and race differences dividing us. I know two people who have been punched while riding their bikes or scooters. I don't know whether that will happen to me, and if it does how my answer to the question of whether I can do this safely will change. For now the answer to the third question I asked myself before setting out to become a bicycle commuter - the question of safety - has been answered, at least for the moment, but in a way that is more nuanced than was the original question. How safe is it to depend on foreign oil? To get fat? To ignore the struggles of poor neighborhoods and remain fundamentally ignorant of the lives of those who surround us? I feel less afraid, less isolated, less weak than I did when I started, and I am grateful. For now that is more than enough.
[Sisyphus, an alumnus of the Phipps residency, will post occasionally on living in Baltimore, the view from ground level. This post appeared elsewhere in an edited form some time ago. - Ed.]