10th Anniversary | Yeoman on the Front Lines: A Commuter's Daily Diary [From BA 42-100]

Benjamin Solomon Bike Route ATL Best of Boneshaker.jpg

"My commute is 11 miles through suburbia on a single speed road bike. It’s a bike route par excellence because nobody would navigate such a circuitous pathway in a car. To bypass busy streets and interstates I add nearly three miles to the distance, winding my way to work over small, hilly residential roads."

by Benjamin Michael Solomon

(Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008 Notable Selection)

Friday 3/21/08 Work > Home

Alone on a bike at night in early spring it’s like I own these streets. I’m the night watchman. Tonight I watch the night that nobody else does, here, alone, the only man alive in early spring. Past these thawing lawns, these new-blooming trees, these sleeping parked cars. Past these sentinel mailboxes and picket fences. Past the quiet houses of the typical American family, inside watching television as my flashing red tail light shines for just a moment off the panes of their windows.

Wednesday 3/19/08 Work > Home

Tonight is the night of old woman joggers. I spot three at various points on my ride. Occasionally the world is so sublime and temperate, the traffic so gentle and sparse, the streets so smooth and open, that I lose the benighted, self-righteous attitude of the urban bicycle warrior and remember why I started riding in the first place. It’s fun! I’m a child again, swerving in wide, graceful arcs, making my own sound-effects to compliment the rushing air: “Whoosh! Shoooo! Weeeee!” At North Druid Hills Road I zigzag over the sensor long enough to trigger the light green. When I first discovered these sensors could detect a bicycle I wanted to write love letters to the urban planner who put them in place, and even though they don’t always work, when they do it feels like a gesture of great benevolence and good will on the part of society.

On Laurel Ridge a brown rabbit with a puffball-white tail dashes across the road in front of me: good luck.

Tuesday 3/18/08 Work > Home

Nothing but fatigue. Sometimes I weave switchbacks up hills for the fun of it, and then there are the nights like this when I’m so weak I have no other choice.

Tuesday 3/18/08 Home > Work

Near Shamrock Middle School, a squirrel dashes into the road in front of an on-coming car. It happens right in front of me as I’m slowly pushing up an incline and my breath stops as I watch it dart beneath a wheel and hear the sound of rubber grazing across its back. Somehow it escapes, just millimeters from being crushed. “Stupid, stupid, stupid squirrel.” The roads are littered with their crushed bodies. Their evasive tactics, evolved over centuries of running from wily predators, are useless against the unthinking, uni-directional motion of cars. Seeing a squirrel nearly die confirms the sourness of the day, and the only saving grace is that when I go down this next hill, the wind will rush into my face and I’ll stop thinking entirely until I reach the bottom.

Monday 3/17/08 Work > Home

I fall in behind an exhaust-spewing junker on Willivee and cough and gag for half a mile. The streets are deserted and everything is frozen. Nights like these I listen to the quiet clicks and creaks of my bicycle, the thumpthumpthump sound that sometimes comes from the rear hub and goes away when I back-pedal. “Gotta get that fixed.” I’ve been saying that for months.

Sunday 3/16/08 Work > Home

The cold tonight hurts my lungs. There’s a breathlessly empty feeling to riding in sub-freezing weather. This morning it snowed and tonight I am wrapped in layers. My wardrobe is an evolved system based on warmth and wicking. Waist up from the inside out it is: a long-sleeve silk undershirt, an acrylic, severely pilled thrift store sweater, a wool Pearl Izumi biking jersey, and a polyester 80’s Adidas warm up jacket. On my head is a fleece hat with earflaps and strings to tie beneath the chin. On my hands are fleece gloves with rubberized grips. From the waist down I’m wearing silk long johns covered by knee-length wool socks and heavy cotton work pants rolled to just below the knee. Many thin layers as opposed to a single heavy coat. No cotton close to my body where I’ll sweat. Even in the sub-freezing night I reach home hot and flushed except for my toes, which are icy.

Sunday 3/16/08 Home > Work

Sluggish ride. Nothing inspires, not the blue sky nor the light Sunday traffic nor the brisk, clean air. My legs are weak and I don’t want to pedal. I move incredibly slow. Supposedly a bicycle is the most efficient form of transportation on earth. Today I pray it will carry me through this aftermath of Saturday’s tornado with a minimum of effort. Everywhere minor destruction: downed trees, dead squirrels, wooden flotsam and leaf matter washed up on the road.

Friday 3/14/08 Home > Work

Everything is dramatic today in the wind and sun and glare. Suburbia has a charged, expectant atmosphere. A cluster of American flags at the Marathon gas station all blow in one direction. On Willivee Road a toppled Port-O-Potty slides down into a ditch at an empty construction site. On Pangborn Avenue a mailbox flag hangs upside down like an inverted periscope. I pass a father and son on bikes going up a hill and take care to smile and nod so as not to seem arrogant. I remember how I used to watch adult cyclists riding alone and fast when I was a child, with a mixture of envy and inevitability. Today I am a model of safety. I am wearing my helmet. As I ride away I hear the little boy’s voice and I imagine he is saying something like, “Daddy, that man has a very fast bike.”

Thursday 3/13/08 Home > Work

Balmy spring day. I only feel like coasting. I take Katie Kerr instead of Columbia because it’s a sooner downhill, even though I know I’ll have to pay it back in just a few minutes. Today I am lazy and living for the present with no thoughts of what’s ahead. It’s rush hour and the intersections are clogged. When a line of cars is backed up at a light I weave through the line to the front, then mount the sidewalk until I get a chance to slip back onto the street again. Improvisation is essential. The sidewalks are empty because hardly anyone walks in this city, and if they weren’t so bumpy and ill-maintained they would make good bike lanes. Biking in Atlanta is unregulated by convention or enforceable law, and with this comes all the freedoms and pitfalls of any un-established system. I do whatever I can get away with and follow just one cardinal rule: stay out of harm’s way. My commute is about minding and finding the gaps, inserting myself into the space left unclaimed. Atlanta roads epitomize America’s over-abundant space. Cyclists insert ourselves into that space and claim it as our own. We are squatters of the road. I wouldn’t have built a world like this, but I am willing to work with it.

Wednesday 3/12/08 Home > Work

Bright, blustery day. Left turners hazard me all the way to work. First an oncoming red compact cuts into my lane before reluctantly slowing to let me pass. Then a hulking brown Suburban lumbers in front of me like a careless dinosaur as I’m speeding down a hill. The driver examines me with bovine indifference as I brake hard and grimace. He pulls into the parking lot of the Elk’s Lodge Bingo Parlor, demonstrating clearly that bingo trumps biker. Then at a traffic light a gray Mercedes roars by in front of me, unwilling to wait the extra four seconds it would have taken to let me pass. Self-righteous and pissed, I can’t help but return the favor five minutes later, cutting off a cautious driver who has the right-of-way. It’s funny how small retributive acts like these seem to even the score, as if the cars were a unified enemy, and any act against me is a collective act of war.

At Lawrenceville Highway someone makes an illegal turn on red and gets honked at by three other drivers. I shout at her too because it could have been me she almost hit. What’s worse, to be hit by a car, or to hit a biker? Horrible physical injury or horrible guilt? I can never settle on an answer, but sometimes after a close call or a near miss I know that I would give almost anything to avoid being hit. I would be the driver. Self-preservation trumps all.

Tuesday, 3/11/08 Work > Home

Gray, oppressive day, surprisingly warm but the air feels soggy and so do I. Waiting at Church Street a truck roars by so loud I cringe and shrink away. Day of hassles and tedious exchanges. The over-courteous driver at the four-way stop sign flashes his lights at me and breaks my rhythm. I’m squarely against special concessions to cyclists. It makes us seem like children or old ladies crossing the street. Atlanta drivers either dangerously ignore you or behave like you’re a one-bike funeral procession. Mr. Courteous, if only you would have just taken your turn, assuming your right-of-way, you would have been on your way and I would have barely needed to slow. Instead I stop dead and watch you flashing and waving at me like you’re doing me a favor. Like you’re doing the right thing. To protest, I ride through the intersection excruciatingly slow. It’s an unfair reaction to someone who just wants to be safe and nice, but I can’t help it. I want to treat every interaction with a car as an instructional experience, but sometimes my frustration gets the best of me. I want them to understand that cyclists don’t need favors or concessions, just fairness. Treat us as equal human beings, only without a ton of medal armoring our bodies. Sometimes I outright refuse to accept the courtesy-wave of drivers at stop signs and find myself in a standstill of niceties, each of us waving the other through and nobody going anywhere.

Monday 3/10/08 Home > Work

Drivers must think I’m too poor to afford a car. They must wonder about this big black bag, slung over my shoulder like a pelt. They must question the intense look on my face, my wide eyes and flushed cheeks. A commuting cyclist occupies a higher intensity level than the cars around him, given that he could be mangled if his reactions are slow. Drivers must wish I wasn’t here, impeding their progress, asserting my right to space that was made for them. But sometimes, especially on windless sunny days like today when it’s not too hot or cold, I imagine some drivers wish they were me. Slowly one less car spawns two less cars, two less cars spawns four, and over time we grow into a significant force.

Friday 3/7/08 Work > Home

Frigid starry night. Dry crisp air. I usually love these nighttime rides home because there’s so few cars. Traffic signals become mere cautionary points where I slow, swivel my head and slide through the intersections unhindered. But it’s Friday night, so there’s more traffic than usual, and I have to stop and wait for a light to change at Lavista Road. A white Bronco pulls up beside me with its windows down. I hear that country version of “Gin and Juice” blasting from inside. The occupants are two young men, the kind of rural suburbanites that grow increasingly common as you move further and further away from the city center. They’re shouting along with the lyrics, taking great pleasure intoning the word “motherfuckers.” They shout with an enthusiasm approaching reverence. They are tone-deaf, aggressively happy, and when they notice me they scream louder.

On Montreal Avenue I pass the giant Brill factory with its legions of semis backed up to the loading dock and the sickly sweet smell of confections in the air. Brill, I discover, is the largest wholesale manufacturer of icing and glazes in the world, and I am both enticed and repulsed by the smell.

Wednesday 3/5/08 Work > Home

Cause and effect: Because last night I used my headlamp as a flashlight, tonight my headlamp is still sitting on the counter at home. Without a headlamp, there is very little to demonstrate to oncoming traffic that I exist. It makes for a wary and tentative ride.

At the crest of a sleepy suburban hill, the road takes a ninety-degree turn and I meet a car’s headlights face to face. Something about its middle-of-the-road trajectory tells me the driver hasn’t seen me yet and I hug the shoulder, ready to dive onto the lawn if necessary. Just before passing the car swerves away and I know I’ve been spotted. I wonder what the unexpected sight of a dark biker evokes in a driver on an empty road at night. A jolt of panic, a sharp intake of breath, the futile reactive swerve that would have come too late, the silent curses as they drive away, and the tension of that moment lingering all the way home.

Wednesday 3/5/08 Home > Work

Today I ride slowly. I like being languid in a world obsessed with speed. When the rest of Atlanta is rushing home in cars, full of end-of-day tensions, dinner plans and desires, I’m rolling my way out to the suburban office where I do after-hours telephone surveys for the YMCA.

My commute is 11 miles through suburbia on a single speed road bike. It’s a bike route par excellence because nobody would navigate such a circuitous pathway in a car. To bypass busy streets and interstates I add nearly three miles to the distance, winding my way to work over small, hilly residential roads. 

I pass Medlock Elementary School. I pass the baseball diamonds of Medlock Park. I cross over North Druid Hills Road in a flurry of frantic pedaling because if I miss this green light it means waiting ten minutes in exhaust. A mile from work is a railroad crossing and a freight train is creaking past. Traffic is thirty cars deep. I cut to the front, and from here I can see the end of the train approaching. If I position myself just so on this little incline I can track-stand until the train passes, then dart through the gates before they open, the first to cross. Today it feels like the whole world yields to me and I make it all the way to work without touching my feet to the ground.

Evan P. Schneider