June 9, 2016 § 110 Comments
The slaughter of five cyclists by speeding, erratic, and possibly impaired pickup driver Charles Pickett, Jr. in Kalamazoo made international news. For anyone who cycles in Los Angeles, the thought of getting killed by a car is a regular part of the pre-ride routine.
- Air the tires.
- Fill the water bottle.
- Switch on the lights.
- Hope you don’t get killed.
Two days after the massacre a ride of silence was held for the victims. It was massive, as this video shows. And for many it was moving. It got posted and re-posted on Facegag, where people saw themselves in place of the victims and got chills. Coulda been you, coulda been me.
I wasn’t moved by the ride of silence. I didn’t feel sadness and I certainly didn’t get goosebumps. What I got was angry. And who was I angry at?
Not at psychopath Pickett. Even if he were drunk or even if he intentionally murdered his victims I wouldn’t be angry at him. He and the psychopaths like him are part of my daily cycling existence and my law practice. They aren’t worth my anger, they aren’t worth ruining my day or especially my ride. I note their existence, give brief thanks that they missed, and continue on. If they’re a defendant, I sue them, and if I can ever get this POS Cycliq Fly12 to work, I’ll report every single case of assault I can record. But they are not worth anger.
Moreover, Pickett has been apprehended, and more incredibly charged with five counts of murder, a trick that the Palos Verdes police can’t manage even with video evidence and at least one hot lead. In the Kalamazoo case, justice will do whatever justice does, and as we know from the the arc of the process here in Los Angeles, it rarely amounts to anything at all. Ask Milt Olin’s family.
You ride, psychopath or inattentive schmo kills you, police shrug, and the moral of the story is that it sucks to be you, dead dude. You should have played golf.
Nope, I was angry at the majority of the people on the ride of silence, and even angrier at the people who named it “Ride of Silence.” The problem isn’t the psychopaths and the drunks, it’s the silence of all the cyclists that enables them. It’s the thousands of people across this country who mournfully get on their bikes and go pedal for a fallen friend and then return to life as usual, never writing an enraged letter to their elected officials, never showing up to demand change at the local level, never even bothering to report the vehicular assaults committed against THEM.
Over the past weeks I’ve tried to encourage people to report the violent crimes committed against them by providing an actual template they can use to file with the police, and several actually have. But many who have been assaulted, either out of fear or apathy or selfishness or all three, have simply gone on about their business, in silence of course. This is not merely silence, it’s killing silence, because until society hears our voices we will continue to be maimed and slaughtered.
At the PV traffic safety committee meeting this month a tiny handful showed up to voice their anger at the murder of John Bacon and the questionable deaths of two other cyclists here in the South Bay. What would that meeting have been like with a hundred raging voices? I’m pretty sure the committee chair wouldn’t have told us to “Back off!” which is how he dealt with one of the speakers.
The same people who are too busy to stop a ride and call the cops, or too busy to leave work early, ditch their family, or drive an extra hour in traffic to raise hell and demand change from the only people who can move the system are the same ones who join sad memorial rides for the dead.
In silence, of course.
I hate to tell you, but your sad silence isn’t bringing anyone back, it isn’t stopping one single psychopath from repeating the crime, and it isn’t changing one damned thing.
The sight of thousands of cyclists who are sad enough to mourn the dead but too fucking lazy to file a police report or attend a city council meeting or write a letter makes me angry.
I hope like hell it makes you angry, too.
“When it comes to bicycling on public roads, nice guys don’t finish last. They finish dead.” For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog to show your support, but don’t think it’s a substitute for showing up. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!
May 26, 2016 § 59 Comments
You’ve been buzzed. Worse, you’ve been buzzed and honked at. Worse, you’ve been buzzed and honked at and screamed at. Worse, you’ve been buzzed and honked at and screamed at and flipped off. Worse, you’ve been buzzed and honked at and screamed at and flipped off and had shit thrown at you. Worse, you’ve been buzzed and honked at and screamed at and flipped off and had shit thrown at you and veered into.
“At least I didn’t get hit,” you tell yourself, shaking with terror and rage. “At least I’m still alive.”
You, my friend, are a victim. And not just any old victim. You’re the victim of a crime. In California, what happened to you is a felony and is proscribed by California Penal Code Sec. 245(a)1.
If you’re like me, after the assault you keep riding your bike — occasionally you may go into the police station and try to get them to write a report. They won’t and they don’t. Have you ever wondered why? Have you ever wondered to yourself, “Can I make law enforcement to take me seriously?”
The answer is yes. Before I tell you how to do it, I’m first going to explain why it’s so important that we begin reporting violent crime perpetrated against bicycle riders. This is going to be a long read. I hope you’ve got a comfortable toilet seat.
Reporting is key
The first reason that reporting is crucial is because regardless of what happens when you’ve been assaulted in terms of prosecution, your report may later serve to apprehend, charge, and convict the perpetrator when he does it again. So let’s say it’s your civic duty.
The second reason is that only by reporting violent crime will law enforcement and the communities that employ them begin taking felony assault seriously. Currently it is regarded as “buzzing” or “asshat drivers” or some other mild term of pseudo-endearment that doesn’t have the jail bell ring of “felony,” “crime,” and my personal favorite, “prison.” Words matter. As law enforcement, media, lawyers, and pedal pushers begin dispensing with the word “accident” to describe volitional acts by motorists to harm bicycle riders, we begin to see those acts for what they are: Choices with consequences. And guess what, Mr. Assault With A Deadly Weapon? The consequences for you are not going to be pleasant.
In the same way, by using the language of felony assault, the criminal behavior no longer sounds innocuous. “Some punks buzzed me and hit me with a sandwich” sounds almost funny, especially if you were hungry at the time and it was organic peanut butter. “Some minors committed felony assault” sounds like a very premature end to the college application process.
This shift in seriousness only happens when we use the right words. And the right words must be used where they have to be taken at face value: On a police report. This means that a jurisdiction such as Palos Verdes Estates, which prides itself on its safety — a marketing pitch to rich white and rich Asian families to justify the high real estate prices and to encourage the “right” people to live here — reported only six felony assaults with a deadly weapon in 2015. If a fraction of the cyclists assaulted in 2016 report the crimes committed against them, the number of reports will triple, quadruple, or increase by a factor of ten or more.
Which means you get this headline: “Violent Crime in Palos Verdes Estates Increases 1000% in 2016.”
Nice. Now the city manager and police chief are spending a lot of time networking on Linked-In, Monster, and the Help Wanted section of the classifieds.
Suddenly everyone is paying attention, even the crotchety old shits at the council meetings who think that PVE was invented for them alone and that the public roads are private. Another way of saying it is that we have to play the long game. By piling up the reports we create a history, a record, a stack of statistics. Bureaucrats and politicians may not care about dead and maimed people, but they live and die by statistics.
The third reason is that reporting violent crimes will absolutely result in a handful of prosecutions. It already has. Two specific cases, one of which involved a road-raging cager who hit and beat up a cyclist, and another which involved a pickup trucker who swerved and tried to hit two riders, are currently on the criminal docket in Torrance. As reports continue to be made, some will be referred to prosecution, and prosecuted, and some of those will result in convictions.
You may not like the pace, but that’s called justice. And as word gets out and law enforcement gets more adept at dealing with felony assault with a deadly weapon, i.e. car-on-bike, people will change their behavior. Mrs. Gottaget Juniortoschool will compare how she looked at the PV Pageant of Homes in her Yves-St. Laurent with how she’s going to look in a bright orange jumpsuit and a set of used manacles, and she’s gonna yield.
Finally, a successful prosecution sets you up for civil damages. When someone commits a felony and is convicted, you get to sue them for damages. The cager’s moment of rage becomes years of misery, and at the end of the whole sad story you might even get paid for what you were put through.
So the rationale is simple: Civic duty, engaging law enforcement so that they enforce the law, prosecution of bad people, and money in your pocket (maybe).
Forcing the sluggish hand of the bureaucracy
Most people think that the police are the only ones who can write a police report. They’re wrong. What the police are expert at is NOT writing police reports. The police don’t write thousands of reports a year. Why? Because it’s a lot of work and it leads to more work, which leads to even more work, resulting in the worst of all outcomes, more work.
Although it takes a surprising amount of effort to deter victims from reporting felonies, it takes even more effort to take out a piece of paper, ask a few questions, and then write a comprehensive narrative that addresses the statute of limitations, jurisdiction, criminal intent, the other elements of the crime, and identification of the applicable section(s) of the penal code.
However, not only can you write the police report, you should. No one knows what happened better than you. No one can articulate it better than you. No one remembers the details better than you. And best of all, seated at your computer with plenty of time to think and reconstruct and revise and use the dogdamned spell-check for fuck’s sake, no one can write it better than you.
Procedurally, it’s very simple.
- Write what happened.
- Take it to the police station that has jurisdiction where the assault occurred.
- Tell them you want report a crime and you’ve already written it up for them.
- Have them review it, answer their questions, and hand over the physical evidence (video, photos).
- Make sure they assign a DR Number or a file number and they give it to you.
- Get the name and email and phone number of the detective assigned to the case.
- Go home and email the report to the detective so that you have an electronic trail of having submitted the report.
- You’re done. You’ve just reported your first felony. And now someone is gonna have to work.
Practically, there are a number of obstacles you can run into. The desk officer may say it’s a traffic issue. Politely tell him you’re there to report a crime. Emphasize that it concerns an assault with a deadly weapon. If he resists, ask to speak with the watch commander. The police are obligated by law to take your report. Whether they investigate it, or think it has merit, or plan to refer it for prosecution are wholly unrelated issues. You’re there to report a crime and you’ve done their work for them.
Another issue you may run into is that you didn’t get any identifying information other than a description of the vehicle, i.e. “white pick-up.” Didn’t see the driver, don’t have a license plate number. You can still, and you should still, make a report. Why? Because that driver may be a repeat offender and your record of where-and-what could become evidence at a later date.
You may also think that because it happened last month or last year that it’s too late. There’s often a feeling that if you don’t get the cops there immediately the opportunity is lost. Not so. There’s a three-year statute of limitations in California for felony assault. If you have video of numerous assaults, you can write a report and submit each one, along with copies of the video. Of course this also brings up an important point — your case is much more likely to be investigated if you have video or witness testimony. Still, we reported a felony assault last week with only the victim’s testimony. It may not go far, but the Torrance PD now has a record of this clown and the detective has interviewed the suspects. If they ever kill or maims a bicycle rider, it’s been reported that they have already committed assault with a deadly weapon in the past.
Murders don’t require witnesses and video testimony to be reported as crimes. In fact, lots and lots of crimes never get investigated, much less solved. They are still reported as crimes, though, and they still go on the books. A community drowning in reports of violent crime suddenly comes under the microscope … everyone’s microscope.
Click here to see a sample of Grade A++ crime report, written at home, then taken in and submitted. Note: Always go down in person. This isn’t a job for Mr. Internet, or Mr. Telephone. It’s a job for Mr. In Person.
You and your club should start thinking about how to formalize a procedure for reporting felony assault committed against cyclists, such as by developing a club clearinghouse for crime reports. Better yet, go through your video archives and pick a few cherries from PV and environs, write up a report or three with video clips, and go submit your reports.
If you do, reports of violent crime on our beloved hill are going to spike quicker than Rubbermaid punch at a frat party.
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May 24, 2016 § 28 Comments
John Bacon was killed on Wednesday, May 18, possibly by the white pickup truck that was caught on surveillance tape tailgating him. After what in polite company can only politely be called a “lackadaisical” response to what, on its surface, suggests the possibility of first degree murder, the Palos Verdes Estates Police Department sprang into action.
They sat on their asses while local cyclists searched for, found, and reported a vehicle that closely matched the pickup on surveillance tape and perhaps more importantly, matched the driver described in the police All Points Bulletin. When another cyclist put in a WTF phone call about the police response, he was advised by Detective Hellinga that the driver who voluntarily came in with the vehicle didn’t match, and that there were “minor differences” in the two vehicles that definitively ruled it out.
The person who came in with the vehicle was Hispanic, not a heavyset white dude as described in the APB. However, the PV Irregulars had corralled the person who appeared to be the owner of the white pickup, who was indeed a heavyset white dude. It appears that the owner may have sent a friend down to the police station with his vehicle to throw them off the scent.
With regard to the “minor differences,” the PVE police advised that they consisted of running boards and tinted windows, neither of which were present on the surveillance video. As the driver of a 2007 Prius (point of personal shame) with 149,000 miles on it (point of personal cheapassedness) and a person with zero knowledge of or interest in car modifications (point of supreme pride), even I can tell you that window tinting and running boards can be slapped on in a couple of hours.
At this point the police had done no additional queries in the cycling community regarding basic, Cop 101 work such as asking The Most Basic Question Ever: “Have any of you spandex weirdos ever been harassed by a nutjob matching this car and description?”
The PV Irregulars, however, did. And what they got was an avalanche of responses. Numerous cyclists had indeed been assaulted by a heavyset white guy in a white four-door pickup. Some would call it coincidence. Some would call it irrelevant. Some would call it a silly lead. But any halfway competent cop would at least take the time to round up every single cyclist lead, bring them in, and interview them.
Remember, folks. Someone has just died, and he may have been murdered. In TV shows this where Columbo comes onto the scene. In PV Estates? If the victim is a cyclist, not so much.
By now a combination of bad press, terrible press, awful press, and downright hysterical press had moved the donuts over to the far corner of the conference table and forced the higher-ups at PVEPD to get to work, or at least a rough approximation of it, because local cyclists were informed of some key facts that you should take to the bank and remember for the rest of your life:
- You don’t have to wait to be contacted to make a report.
- You don’t have to have the cops’ authority to make a report.
- You can write your OWN report.
- The police have to take it.
- Just because you couldn’t identify the car or the driver doesn’t mean a crime hasn’t occurred, it just means it may not be solved. There are actually cases on record of crimes happening where the killer wasn’t caught!! And they’re still considered crimes!! Who knew? Cf. Jack the Ripper.
- “Buzzing,” “harassing,” and “threatening” a cyclist with a car, with the intent to cause injury, is a felony per People v. Wright, as it constitutes assault with a deadly weapon.
Fast forward to yesterday. One of the cyclists who had been assaulted on an earlier occasion by the mystery white pick-up went down to the PVEPD to report the crime. What she saw there was a thing of beauty: “The phones were ringing off the hook!” Cyclists were calling in like crazy, reporting the crimes committed against them (“White Prius just buzzed me on Via del Monte!”), in addition to the people who had shown up to report being assaulted by the mystery truck.
As a result of all this, the heavyset white dude who the PVEPD definitively ruled out as a suspect, then moved up to a “person of interest,” is now possibly, according to the police, going to find himself in a police line-up. Maybe in the interim someone will get around to carefully documenting the front and side of his vehicle, and having a collision reconstruction expert analyze John Bacon’s bike to see if there are any paint transfers or other marks that might show that the vehicle actually struck John. And a quick check on how recent the running boards and window tinting are wouldn’t be a total waste of time, either.
But hey, what do I know? We’re just a bunch of cyclists.
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May 22, 2016 § 41 Comments
The recent trio of cyclist deaths here in Palos Verdes has another angle, in addition to the lackadaisical police response as compared to how they deal with property crimes and crimes such as Driving While Black, Driving While Latino, and Driving While Poor. This other angle is the angle of cyclist inaction.
Since John Bacon’s death, numerous cyclists have reported that they too were buzzed and harassed by a vehicle similar to the one in the surveillance video. At least one other person confirmed that the driver was a big white dude, matching the APB description. None of these cyclists, after being assaulted, took the step of filing a police report. In one instance it was because the driver sped away before the rider could get his license plate, and although the PVE cops came they refused to report the incident because the cyclist didn’t have a license plate.
[Note #1: The police aren’t required to have a license plate to make a report. Note #2: Why haven’t the police followed up with every single person who has reported being buzzed by a similar vehicle? All it would take is a post on Facebag, a couple of phone calls to a couple of local cycling clubs, or even reaching out to a certain South Bay cycling blogger, to get that information. Note #3: This slackness is another example of the PVE PD’s casual approach to this case, rather than active, aggressive detective work.]
The other cyclists who have been assaulted by the white pickup driver never called the police. The reasons are myriad, but they typically boil down to this: Stopping your ride, calling the cops, and insisting that a report be made ruins your whole ride; in some cases your whole day. Most people ride by “snatching” a bit of free time in their busy day to go out and pedal. If they knew they would be spending the balance of the day at the police station, few would do it. In fact, when people are riding before work or before they have to be home to take kids to school, they simply can’t afford to stop–or so they think. And when they think about the hassle involved and the fact that the cager who assaulted them didn’t hurt or kill them, they get on with the ride and maybe talk about it over coffee or on a Facebook post.
This failure on the part of cyclists to report assault with a deadly weapon means that people like the mystery white pickup driver, who may or may not be the person the PVE cops have now identified as a “person of interest,” know that they can go about their deadly ways with impunity. In fact, the most famous case of cager-rager Dr. Thompson intentionally hitting a cyclist, in which the cager lost his doctor’s license and went to prison, only came to pass because of a previous incident in which a rider had reported the doctor’s assault on him. No charges were filed in that earlier case but a record existed, and this record resulted in the Thompson’s prison sentence.
Many have written or facebooked asking what can be done. The short answer is, “Take the time to report every single instance of assault, and especially every instance of battery.” No assault with a deadly weapon is minor, and people who do it once are the most likely people to do it again.
To give you an idea of what a buzzkill it is to report a crime, consider this:
A local 17-year-old was returning from the Telo training crit two weeks ago Tuesday, riding in the bike lane. An angry driver began honking and screaming at him. Of course there was a passenger and a child in the back seat because, role model. The cyclist tried to find out what the problem was, when the cager said he would get out and beat him up. The rider, a small high school student who is hardly a cage fighter, pulled over as he was afraid he was going to be run over, and the passenger jumped out. The rider took pictures, but not before the passenger slapped him in the face (a battery), and the driver continued to scream and threaten him (an assault).
Then they drove away. All this because a kid was riding his bike. In the bike lane.
Shaken and terrified, this young man decided to do something about it. So my daughter, who is an attorney at my firm, went with him to the Torrance Police Department to make a report and have the police open an investigation. Despite the location of the incident being clearly within the Torrance PD’s jurisdiction, they were sent to Redondo Beach Police Department, where they were told to go back to Torrance. It’s called Complainant Ping-Pong and the object is to wear people out so they give up and go home.
At Torrance, they waited almost three hours for the police department to do its job, and the boy was questioned over and over again, ostensibly to “make sure” he had his story straight, but clearly in order to try and trip him up so that the police wouldn’t have to open a report. Then, when it became clear that the kid’s story was completely consistent, and he had photos of the perps, and the attorney wasn’t going to back down, they opened an inquiry but only as to battery. It took additional argument to get them to include the obvious charge of assault as well.
The entire process took four hours, and of course the only reason it happened at all is because the rider happened to be on a club that happened to have a lawyer sponsor who happened to have someone on his payroll who happened to be able to take half a day off work to go help a crime victim. You can imagine how the young man would have been treated had he shown up at Torrance PD on his own.
Yet now the people who committed the assault and battery are going to be investigated by the police, and since the rider took photos, they may also be charged with a crime–though it’s easy to imagine that they will fabricate a story defending or wholly denying their behavior. What they can’t expunge is that there is now a record of them and their vehicle. If they repeat their behavior, or run over and kill a cyclist, there will be a smoking gun pointing at their California driver licenses and vehicle registration.
What’s as important is that regardless of how the case turns out, these bastards will know that their actions have consequences. They will think twice before attacking a cyclist. They may even have to hire a lawyer and part with some cold, hard cash to avoid a criminal conviction. These are the kinds of consequences that can never happen unless cyclists are willing to sacrifice the day’s ride and peace of mind to do the right thing. Like it or not, it’s on us.
This type of reporting has a ripple effect. Police know that their time is going to be consumed if they don’t do a better job of policing cager criminals. Best of all, these reports show up in local, state, and national statistics. And although dead bodies don’t impress bureaucrats, numbers do.
I reflect on the times I’ve been assaulted and have caught up to the driver and exchanged heated words. Never again. From now on I’ll be taking photos and calling 911. I’ll also be upgrading my bike into a rolling video production machine with front and rear cameras. Ruin my day? Fine. But at least the fucker who tried to kill me won’t be ruining some innocent person’s life.
So to everyone who asks, “What can we do?” the answer is this: Report the crime. Because if you don’t, the next John Bacon may be you.
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May 20, 2016 § 74 Comments
The Palos Verdes Peninsula now has three cycling fatalities since March. The most recent person to die on a bicycle was John Bacon, age 68, a guy many of us knew from his old-school, dark green steel Eddy Merckx.
The facts surrounding his death are unclear. Immediately prior to his demise a surveillance camera shot video of a white pickup trailing him very closely. Here’s the pic:
The PV Estates Police Department is well known for its aggressive policing of property crimes, which makes sense in this super-rich, highly white, greedily exclusive enclave whose unofficial motto is “Don’t Touch My Shit.” A recent burglary caused law enforcement here to call in a helicopter, with all hands on deck by the police, and they fully cordoned off neighborhood.
Because you know, someone’s jewelry might get stolen.
One on one the officers here are professional and polite, but they take direction from their boss, who takes direction from the City Manager, who takes direction from the City Council, who takes direction from the Don’t Touch My Shitters. And cyclist deaths mean little or nothing to the wretched excuses for human life who run city politics here.
The police put out an all points bulletin for the white pickup and they put up a couple of signs going up and down Granvira Altamira requesting information. That, folks, is what a suspicious death of a cyclist merits in PVE. Two flashing signs.
What do you think they would have done if a couple of kids from Compton had rolled into town and shot someone?
The only real detective work done on the case was by outraged cyclists who identified a truck the following day at a construction site near the death scene that was extremely similar to the one in the video. After phoning in the information to the PV police, the caller waited for forty-five minutes for someone to come.
No one did, and the truck left. Because, donuts and coffee.
Imagine if an upstanding white property owner in PV had been gunned down at Malaga Cove and someone called in a tip that the African-American shooter was a few yards away the following day. It’s easy to imagine the response that would have gotten, and the hailstorm of lead that would have rained down.
Eventually a person did voluntarily appear at the police department for questioning, but he didn’t match the physical description of the person of interest in the APB, who was a heavyset white male. The PV cops decided that due to “minor differences” in the two vehicles, a running board and a tinted window, that it was definitively not the car in question.
Of course these are items that can be quickly added to a car to change its appearance, and there’s no indication that they did a detailed investigation of the front of the truck, which could still have had paint transfers or other evidence of hitting John if that’s in fact what happened. What’s even stranger is that the cyclist who called in the tip later talked to the person who appeared to be the owner of the truck, who was in fact a heavyset white male. It seems that the person who went in for questioning may not have even been the owner of the truck.
Later that day on Friday the 20th, the police put out another bulletin saying that thanks to a phone tip they had finally found the driver of the vehicle they were seeking. The report didn’t say whether it was the same truck that the cyclist had phoned in, and an NBC reporter couldn’t get the PV police to confirm, but it’s hard to imagine who else it could be.
If it turns out that the “person of interest” who has notably not yet been charged or arrested is the owner of the truck called in by the cyclist, it will only underscore what we already know: When it comes to doing police work regarding dead cyclists, the PVE police have more important priorities.
If it turns out to be someone else, it still doesn’t explain the police department’s lethargic response to this epidemic of death on the peninsula. What makes it worse is that after John’s death no less than four cyclists reported being previously buzzed and harassed by a white pickup and driver matching this vehicle’s description. The environment of hostility and hate towards cyclists in Palos Verdes has a parallel with the local surfing gang known as The Bay Boys.
Don’t touch my waves, don’t touch my shit. Even when the ocean and the roads aren’t mine.
Stay tuned …
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April 20, 2016 § 34 Comments
It’s illegal to bicycle while drunk in California. You might think it’s a slap on the wrist but as a misdemeanor it will show up as a criminal conviction on your record. Ouch. It also makes you subject to the provisions of CVC 13202.5, which relates to suspension of your driving license.
There are lots of great reasons not to cycle while drunk, and most of those reasons are because although immensely fun and the source of hilarious stories and the occasional Darwin Award, drunkenness rarely ends well. Still, the enhancement of CWFU to the general experience of riding is without parallel, at least until you get run over and killed.
The first time I ever CWFU I was fourteen or so. It was in 8th Grade. There was a guy in my homeroom class named Greg Choban, who was about six feet tall, which meant that in relative terms he was, like, twelve feet tall, and who had failed 8th Grade and now had to repeat it. Greg was a loner who always wore a big cowboy hat before and after school. He was quiet and standoffish, and no one ever fucked with him because he was so big, and now that he had failed 8th Grade, he was older, too, further making us all afraid of him.
His locker was next to mine and we’d occasionally talk, super briefly. He had a baritone voice and raging beard stubble and towered over me, especially when he put that cowboy hat on. One day, out of the blue, as we were collecting our books to go home, he said, “Hey, man, you doing anything after school?”
“No,” I said.
“Why don’t you come over and check out my treehouse?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Okay.” Mostly I was afraid to say “No.” Treehouses, everyone knew, were for little kids, a few planks nailed to the side of a tree, some plywood in between the branches, and, like, that had stopped being fun in elementary school. The thought of going to play in a treehouse with Wilt Chamberlain was weird, to put it mildly.
We rode our bikes over to his house. His Dad was home, a very old guy, older than old, so ancient he might have even been fifty, sitting in the living room watching TV, which was weird because in 1976 or 1977 there was nothing on TV at three in the afternoon. I’d never met anyone whose father was unemployed, and all the drunks in my family didn’t start getting lubed up until 5:00 or 6:00 PM.
“Hey, John,” said Greg.
I froze. I’d never heard someone call his dad by his first name. The ancient fellow nodded and sipped some more of his Schlitz. I still remember how immaculate the living room was.
We went out the back door. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Oh,” I said.
In the backyard stood a massive oak tree. Indeed, it had wooden steps nailed to its trunk, but there looked like a zillion of them and they went way, way up. Far above my head I could see the bottom of the treehouse, which looked like a small house. So much for plywood planks. Greg disappeared into the foliage.
I followed, soon swallowed by the boughs and leaves. You had to enter through a trap door in the bottom, which I did. When my head went through the floor I looked around, mesmerized. The treehouse had carpet and windows and its walls had incredible black light posters. On the floor were large velour red and purple pillows.
Greg was already seated, his back leaned against the wall, smiling. Even though it was in the high 90’s outside and humid as only the Houston swamp can be, it was cool and pleasant up in the tree, where a light breeze played through the open windows. His treehouse was a hundred times cooler than my bedroom. “Like it?” he said.
“Wow, this is amazing.”
“Settle in,” he said, and put a record on the turntable. It took a few seconds for me to realize that his treehouse had electricity. He showed me the album cover. “Like this?” It was Foghat.
I nodded. “Cool.” I noticed that there was a string suspended from the ceiling, and on the end of the string was a small plastic skull, about the size of a Hackysack, which was still years away from coming to the backwater of Houston. Seated where I was on the velour cushions, the plastic skull was about eye level. As the treehouse gently creaked from the occasional breeze that swayed the giant oak limbs, the skull moved like a pendulum ever so slightly.
Greg pulled out his water pipe. The bowl was massive, and he filled it. The acrid smell of burning leaves filled the tiny space and we took turns, each pull on the pipe causing the water to jump and gurgle and roar. After a long time it was dark outside, pitch fucking black.The only light was the fire from the bowl, and eventually that went out too, and we were in total blackness.
“Kind of dark up here,” Greg said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Better turn on the lights then,” he said, and flipped a switch. In the corners of the ceiling were four small black lights, and when they came on the psychedelic effect of the Hendrix poster, the Jefferson Airplane poster, the Robin Trower poster, and the Zeppelin poster was overwhelming, profoundly stoned as I already was. It took what seemed like hours for my eyes to go over the intricacies of each poster, getting lost in the curlicues and the hair and the guitar strings.
“Hey, man,” Greg said.
“Check this out.” He leaned forward to the dangling skull and grabbed it, pulling it back toward him. Then he let go and it came flying towards my face. He had measured the string so that the skull would get within an inch or so of your head before swinging back, but I didn’t know that.
All I knew was that I was being attacked by a flying skull, and as I violently jerked back my head cracked against the wall of the treehouse. Greg erupted in laughter, then he convulsed, then he fell over. “Oh, man,” he said, “that was the best one ever.”
My eyes were pinned to the swinging skull, stoned-terrified, praying that it would just stop swinging and not devour my face. Robin Trower was singing this, I think, from (what else?) Victims of the Fury.
I’m not sure how, but I stumbled down the ladder in the dark. The last thing I heard Greg say was, “Hey, man, it’s cool, it’s cool!”
I hurried through his house where his dad was still seated in front of the television, a pile of empty cans at his feet. My bike was leaning against the bushes. I jumped on it and rode crazily, drunkenly home, and I never went back. I still think about that lonely giant up there in that treehouse with the swinging skull.
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March 1, 2016 § 36 Comments
When you get hit by a car you get hurt. The easiest injuries to take account of are physical. Broken bones, contusions, blood, and lots of pain let you know when you’ve injured your body.
But whether you get hit by a car or fall down in the middle of a crit, you almost always wind up with another kind of injury that is much harder to evaluate, diagnose, and treat. It’s the mental trauma that accompanies the physical injury.
Formally recognized as post traumatic stress disorder, as cyclists we’re all familiar with it in different guises. Here are a few:
–Fear of descending after a downhill spill.
–Fear of riding near others after you’ve fallen in a group.
–Anxiety about the proximity of cars after you’ve been hit by an auto.
–Anxiety about your tires/wheels/frame after you’ve fallen because of an equipment failure.
For many cyclists, these fears can be much more debilitating than the bones and torn skin that eventually heal. The joy and freedom of cycling, for many riders, vanishes forever after they’ve been clocked by a car and carted off to the ER in an ambulance.
I was so terrified the first time I descended the road on which I’d cracked my pelvis that I shook. That’s a road I’ve descended hundreds of times, but the first time after my fall it was a fearful new world.
One friend who took a nasty spill found her heart racing at 172bpm seven months after the injury … as she drove to the shop to get her bike repaired.
Whether you got hit by a car or slid out in a turn, these anxieties can completely ruin cycling for you. Along with that, you can lose much more than fitness. When the healthy lifestyle that often accompanies cycling is replaced by sedentary behavior, it can have a ripple affect that upsets work, family relationships, and the fundamental building block of your existence, your health.
From a legal perspective, this type of injury is compensable. A cager who whacks you and breaks your leg and bike is also on the hook for the resulting fear and anxiety that he has now brought into your life, especially when your PTSD wreaks havoc in your home and with your work.
But whether your trauma was caused by a motorist or your own bad judgment, your behavior should be the same. Fear and anxiety about riding should be treated by a licensed healthcare professional. “Get back on the horse” is the ultimate goal, but there are therapeutic ways to get there that are safe, healthy, and effective.
So if you find yourself unable to pedal after your physical injuries have healed due to anxiety or fear, get help.