Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Breaking the Law

Cycling brings me great joy. It also offers many challenges. Of course there are the obvious physical challenges: faster, smoother, into the wind, at night, in traffic, in the rain, yes it does rain a few times a year in Southern California. There are however other challenges. For me it has come down to the challenge of being humble. I am not humbled by this simple contraption of conveyance; rather it seems I am emboldened to a state of lawless abandon, or at least this is what I have come to find out.

Nothing says "I am the most important thing going on here." like disregard for our basic public safety laws. There is of course the typical cyclist's approach to traffic signage. I for one err on the cautious side. I see many fellow riders glide blithely through intersections without so much as a look either way, never mind the stop signs. On my regular ride in to work there are places I have learned to stop; others where a judicious look around has been enough for safe passage. I do not think it is cool to roll stop signs, though I do with regularity: law breaker. All of us in our cars, have gone over the speed limit, made an illegal u-turn. I have watched my local police roll the stop sign at the end of my block in order to get to the coffee shop at the bottom of the hill. So maybe this lawlessness is not unique to cycling. Perhaps there is an acceptable level of lawlessness that will not tip the balance too far.

I rarely see the police on my ride to work. A good eight miles of it is on a "bikes only" bike path and "the man" rarely shows. When he does, it's never good. For example one morning a couple years back, I got to the bridge connecting Playa Del Rey to the causeway to Marina Del Rey where a Sheriff's deputy was blocking the way with his car. "Crime scene. We found a body, you can't go through." "A dead body I asked?" "Uhhu…" "If it's dead already what's the big deal, I gotta get to work." The wise guy (me) says turning back to face the only other way across Ballona Creek: the dreaded shoulder-less Culver Boulevard, to Lincoln. Not nice, even in broad daylight. Bleary eyed morning commuters texting and applying eye makeup in their carbon fired velo-crushers at 40 to 60 mph is not the kind of traffic I am comfortable with.

A few months back, on my ride home it was dark and cold as I pushed west down Fiji Way in Marina Del Rey. It ends with a traffic circle and the bike path leads out to Ballona Creek joining the path to and from Culver City. At this point I turn West towards the causeway and the bridge to Playa Del Rey and points south. Just before the causeway proper there is a boathouse used by crew teams and sailing clubs from local universities. When they are practicing they sometimes block the path as they carry their boats and oars, and there are a few parking spots and sometimes they are coming and going and milling about. As I came up to the boathouse, this seemed to be just such a night. I dropped my speed and maneuvered through what seemed to me to be an unusually large crowd. "Perhaps a meet of some sort…" Then I noticed a Sheriff's car partially blocking the entry to the causeway proper. The causeway runs east / west for about three tenths of a mile between Ballona Creek (a branch of the LA River) and the inlet to Marina Del Rey Harbor. It's one car lane wide asphalt and completely unlit at night.

So here is where I made a series of some of the stupidest decisions in my adult life. On seeing the Sheriff's department's car, I noted that I could slip right by it onto the causeway and did so as quickly as thinking of it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw what was probably the deputy, distracted, talking to someone. Once on the causeway I realized what I had done, but going back to get yelled at and sent out to Culver Boulevard did not seem to be a good idea at the time.

Once on the causeway I noticed the police helicopter overhead and the police boat up by the bridge. It was totally dark. No moon, just pitch black and there was something going on up ahead at the bridge, but I could not see what. I had only a small "be seen" type headlight on my bike. I thought "oh crap, I am in some trouble now!" I rode faster, fear took hold and suddenly I was in flight from the law. Somehow all I could envision was tearing past whatever was going down at the bridge as fast as possible and disappearing into the night. I turned off my light, stood on my pedals and went as hard as I could.

The causeway meets the bridge at a ninety degree angle. Approaching It, I was hauling and in the dark, barely made out the emergency vehicles and officers who were as surprised as I was at finding each other in this situation. "Hey, Hey, whoa where are you going?" An officer jumped in front of me, grabbing at my handle bars. I swerved, missed him jumped the curb off the bridge onto the terra ferma of Playa Del Rey and skidded to a stop in front of five or six irate LA cops. I was so busted.

Something physiological happens to you when you are in a state of exertion. Maybe it is that fight or flight adrenalin rush that you hear about. When you are riding you are already pumped, ready for action looking out for trouble, perhaps there are chemicals released by the body that make you more aggressive, ready to race, ready to protect yourself from danger. Anyhow as I sat on the curb with my hands cuffed firmly behind my back, I had a chance to take a deep breath and realize how stupid I can be. "What the hell were you thinking?" was the question the cops asked. It was then that I noticed the emergency trucks belonged to LA SWAT. While the officers dealing with me were regular cops, there were also guys in full paramilitary gear, bullet proof everything, and crazy automatic gas grenade launchers, and sniper rifles with night-vision scopes walking around. "Oh crap, what a total idiot I am. Not only am I another jerk these guys have to deal with, I could have been shot!" "You know you could have been shot!" They repeated. "What's going on here?" I asked. "Did a cop get shot or something? This is crazy." "Can't tell you." the officer stiffened.

Now I had never been in a situation like this; my only other experience with cops as an adult being the occasional traffic stop… be polite, yes sir, no sir, absolutely sir, have a nice day sir. Sitting on the curb in hand cuffs is a very humbling experience. I am not some kid, I am old, old enough to know better. People from the neighborhood are out, they see you, and you are that guy in hand cuffs. The bad guy, the unlucky fool, the lawbreaker, Johnny Too Bad. After a while one of the cops started chatting about cycling, asking about my ride, my route, wasn't I cold… Anyway, I ended up being a pain in the ass for them as I was another bunch of forms and paperwork that would need to be filled out. I was un-cuffed and given a citation for failure to stop for an officer and crossing into a crime scene. These are serious charges, I was totally mortified by how dumb I had been.

The next morning on the way into work, the only sign of the previous night's action at the bridge was a few scraps of police tape fluttering in the bright morning. I stopped and tore off a strip, rolled it up into my pocket… some kind of reminder to not be an idiot. I checked the local news sites and found out a man with a gun had passed out drunk on the jetty that extends west of the bridge and causeway. LAPD had responded big.

It took several weeks for me to enjoy my ride again. I felt ashamed for being stupid and getting caught at it. A month later, I went for my day in court. I waited in line with others like myself who had somehow ended up on the wrong side of the law. When it was my turn at the clerk's window I handed over my citation and ID, ready to face the judge, ready to tell what I have told you here. She punched the numbers into her computer. "Your case has been rejected! Go to the fourth floor, City Attorney's office." There, I found out "rejected" is a good thing - no judge, no fine, free to go just keep this piece of paper and here is a wallet size one to carry because sometimes these things stick in the computer.

Lately I have been going hard, five days a week. Pushing myself trying to learn to pedal more smoothly and efficiently. Going hard into the wind on the causeway. Summertime it stays light late and blows cool out of the west northwest almost every evening. Smile, enjoy, be humble, pass with a wide berth, try not to judge others, just be me: a dork.

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