The first thing I felt was a small burst of wind, almost imperceptible, traveling along the side of my body. By itself, this little breeze wouldn’t even register as much of a feeling, but the noise got me, the noise was scary: engine and tires welling up in my ears, advancing with a rise in volume that was so close to me. Much too close. Then a gust of wind: the slipsteam of the truck that just missed me as I pedaled on an afternoon ride not far from where I work in Vermont. I veered quickly to the right, certain I’d be hit. The truck- why always a truck?- traveled past and my relief gave way to anger and exasperation. The noise subsided. Reflexively, my hands went up, both of them, off the handlebars in a clear “WHAT WAS THAT?” gesture. Now bear in mind that I had not employed the middle finger. No screaming. My reaction was more disbelief than hostility. I’d done nothing wrong. I’d simply gone for a bike ride. The same ride I’d done countless days after leaving my office. Except today, a jerk in a red Dodge pickup truck didn’t feel like leaving me the three feet of “safe-passing room” that Vermont state law requires. I should point out that the road I was on, Morgan Horse Farm Road, is as quiet as its name would suggest. There was no oncoming traffic. No blind spot. No reason to cut a three-quarter ton pickup truck to within inches of a 145lb cyclist. My hands stayed in the air for a long time: WHAT. WAS. THAT?
Brake lights. Roughly one-hundred feet in front of me, the truck came to a stop still in the middle of the right-hand lane. I’ve been buzzed before. Been scared before. Reacted with my hands up before. But this time was different. The jerk wanted to talk. Alright- here we go.
When the truck slowed to a stop, when I realized that the guy responsible for the fear and trembling still in my hands was about to step onto the pavement. I pedaled forward. It took longer than I thought to catch the truck. Clearly, it had been driving fast, but as I rolled up, I saw the driver get out and walk towards me and knew very quickly that he didn’t intend to apologize. He wanted to open a coal plant on this road. He wanted to start a tire fire and club a baby seal.
“WHAT?!!” He asked, just short of shouting. He was in his mid to late forties, roughly six foot one with scruffy hair and the nicotine-stained stubble of a chain smoker. A passenger stayed still in the front seat, a younger man.
“Three feet would be nice!” I said, also just shy of shouting.
“WHAT?!!” He was shouting now.
“HOW ABOUT THREE FEET?!” I shouted back, still straddling my bike. I was furious, but confused. How was it not obvious that he was wrong? What could he say to this?
“I GAVE YOU PLENTY OF ROOM!” He replied, loudly. I had a split second to consider “plenty.” Admittedly, I wasn’t on the ground with a head injury, like a fellow cyclist from near-by Burlington had been just the fall prior. I wasn’t killed instantly the way a pro cyclist living in Ontario was just a month prior. I was alive, which was good. Maybe that was “plenty.” But I was mad. I could have been hurt or killed.
“You didn’t give me enough. How about THREE FEET?” It was like we were bargaining over something and I’d put out my final offer. Three feet. That’s it. There was no way the jerk wasn’t going to take it. I saw him screw up his face briefly as if considering what I’d laid down as my side of the bargain. I watched him inch forward, stepping with a dusty boot closer to me. I watched as he leaned in and said in a voice much quieter, lest the horses grazing in the summertime fields might hear his next brilliant bit of practiced debate:
“How ‘bout I knock you the f-ck down?”
I really hadn’t considered that. I mean he had a point. What if he knocked me the f-ck down? I’d be hurt, which I wasn’t already. I’d be down, which I also was not. It was a perplexing offer, something, to be honest, that seemed like it might not reason out with the rest of our exchange. Yet there it was- How ‘bout I knock you the f-ck down? – not really the type of offer one gets to bandy about very often. So, I weighed the options carefully: Either he doesn’t give me three feet and he doesn’t knock me the f-ck down. Or he does. Now, it may lose something here in the retelling, but from my side, neither option sounded really good and hence I came to where I couldn’t much process the choice. I was a bit dumbfounded.
So I said nothing.
I have replayed the incident with the fellow in the Dodge many times, and the whole altercation moves back and forth over the screen in my mind. In those few seconds, there is every bit of aggravation that is tied to questions of politics, sustainability, bike advocacy, activism and argument. On that day, after he’d stormed off in a cloud of exhaust, I stood befuddled for a few seconds before starting to pedal again. I was ashamed and aggravated. I envisioned fighting him, spinning off Jason Bourne-esque moves to decapitate him directly into the back of his cluttered truck bed. I pictured out-arguing him, blowing his mind with some flawless retort.
In the end, I rode home frustrated and wondering, How do you bother someone with the facts if they’ve already made up their mind?
It remains an unanswered question.