No Brakes, But a Bell

After a few rainy days down at the shore, with our time there drawing to its close, the clouds finally broke, and when we saw the sunlight streaming through, my husband and I quickly borrowed a couple of bikes. Our kind hosts loaned them to us on short notice; they were serviceable seaside bicycles, scratched and a little rusted, with fat, full tires. The plan was to take them to the very end of the beach boardwalk, then turn right around for the return ride. It seemed a straightforward enough route.

If you stay pretty close to the boardwalk, you can cruise at a comfortable speed, accelerating and slowing to your liking. The two of us did this for a while, almost in tandem, out of our seaside town and into the next. My husband’s bike was a boyish blue and mine was pink, much to my distaste, but it also had a round bell that tapped into my childhood nostalgia. I admired it; it had cartoonish pluck, perched atop on my handlebars. My husband and I were having a nice ride together, pedaling along and taking in the summertime sights.

Then we hit the stretch where I realized that my brakes did not really work — well or at all, depending upon my traveling speed. Without a doubt, had I been a better citizen, I would have dismounted and walked my bicycle back to the garage from whence it came. That would have been the safety-conscious option. My husband and I are generally conscientious types, but we weren’t so much on this sunny day.  In brief consultation, after my husband rode my bike in a couple of lazy circles, he agreed with me that the brakes were not in good working condition.

Then we looked at each other and shrugged, as though we had stumbled over some interesting factoid, and decided we would continue on our appointed trip. For my part, I was determined to be extra careful while otherwise being reckless. This is probably a strategy that I have used far too frequently in my life, but its logic seemed even sounder to me this day than it usually did.

Maybe the soothing sounds of the ocean had lulled us into a false sense of security. In the distance, the water sparkled; up ahead, the sky was bright. Many, many other people saw this for themselves, as they came in thicker and thicker throngs crossing the boardwalk toward the beach. Soon I got a clearer picture of what could go wrong. On a nice day, beachgoers wear their sun visors low, limiting peripheral vision. They stagger under the weight of folding chairs and drag oversized coolers behind them. They grow sluggish in the heat. They seem easily distractible, frequently inattentive. They can be difficult to dodge on a bicycle with limited slowing/stopping power. Their all having the right of way only put me more squarely in the wrong.

Still, I managed to convince myself that I was too far gone to turn around. When we had nearly reached our end point, though, we came to an intersection with a four-lane state road that confronted that notion head on. Suddenly, walking the bike struck me as a great idea.

Because that idea competed in my head with the impulse to be done with this trip already, the poor compromise involved my crawling back, nervously balanced on my bothersome pink bike. My husband trailed a bit behind me. When the emergency vehicles started coming down the road at us rapid-fire, their sirens blaring, that changed the order. The two of us almost wound up as a tangle on the pavement. To avoid an imminent crash, I steered myself into a parked car then bumped backwards, while my husband pulled around and ahead of me.

Instead of arguing over points of fault, my husband and I both wound up looking over our shoulders, to that clump of sand dunes where one by one, the emergency vehicles screeched to a halt. The beach patrol van was ominous, the first police car foreboding. The shoreline was already dotted with lifeguards. Then came the EMTs and worse still, a separate ambulance, and yet another police car. Out of each sprung people starting at a sprint and gaining speed as they went. We saw a pair of men jogging a stretcher over the mound of sand. A few pedestrians from across the street joined them in the charge. This sent my heart sinking straight down in my chest.

It was hard to leave this scene suggesting calamity, but our lingering there felt like an invitation to further misfortune. As the two of us pedaled away, I prayed under my breath, fervently, for those nearby strangers in distress and for everyone rallying to their aid. All kinds of things can and do happen on warm, sunny days by the shore, and they take place instantaneously. Some are nigh impossible to anticipate; others are merely improbable, the unlikely outcomes of a momentary and slight misjudgments, about the tide, say, or the direction of the current.

Who can explain why the consequences of rather minor choices suddenly become so massive and dire?  Other bad decisions get pardoned almost immediately or entirely. The reason we no longer speak of being spared the way the previous generations did is because it occurs so commonly in our lifetimes. For us to mention it is to belabor the obvious: medical advances, communications networks, improved infrastructure. We’ve forgotten that people very rarely die in shipwrecks anymore. Steadily, our social safety nets have grown stronger. Yet we’re cavalier. We barely notice how tightly our plights have been tied together, how readily we rise or fall, sink or swim with one another, how often we float along.

In the wake of those sirens wailing, I remembered that bell on my bike, the one I had had previously admired for its pluck. I understood that it now provided me a way of communicating how little I was to be trusted, how minimal a degree of control I maintained, how distessing my judgment was. I rang it several times on the last legs of the ride home. It said that I was sorry I wouldn’t be able to stop for that group at the crosswalk, that this car would have to halt before backing out of its parking spot, that the cyclist currently biking the wrong way down our side of the street had joined me in creating this risky situation, so ring-ring, we had to share the blame.

In the absence of working bike brakes, a bell was not such a bad thing to have. I shouted some apologies along the way, but I cannot be sure that helped matters any. Either way, I brought the bike and myself back in one piece, to both my and my husband’s surprised relief. Later on, I considered checking the news for information about the conclusive results of the incident at the sand dunes, but I opted against it.

On my bike, I had felt such gratitude for those vehicles whizzing by us and every single person who jumped out, ready to spring in to action. These were professionals committed to safety first. What I wanted to keep open was this hope I had, the distinct possibility that these rescuers emerged victorious on the shore. I could just imagine everything turning out well in the end, everyone safely back in port now, no further cause for alarm.

© 2012

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