like normal people

So declared the marquee of a Houston patio bar.

I heard lots of lawyer jokes when I worked as an attorney. Most weren’t great, but I was delighted that others enjoyed sharing them with me. My favorite? “How many lawyer jokes are there, anyway? Only three. The rest are true stories.”

Despite my years of cycling, I don’t know any jokes about it, so I was hopeful when I noticed a headline about a bar and a bicycle joke. And had it ended simply with “buying a car,” I would have chuckled/groaned, then moved on.

But, “like normal people”?

I’ve nothing against the bar. At least they tried. We-vs-them is among the basest of human urges, and although the joke’s premise appears to be we-normal-motorists versus those-weird-cyclists, I doubt that’s what was really at play. This was more likely a case of: We need some attention. I know! Let’s put something safely irreverent about bicycles on our big sign. I mean, nobody likes cyclists, right? Then, we can post about it on social media and rack up more views!

The best humor riffs on some universal human truth. But given those closing three words, the bar’s one-liner fails, unless you accept that normality is something to which folks universally aspire. But I don’t think most do. The majority might eventually settle for normal, but I doubt many start out with that goal.

Synonyms for normal include ordinary, unexceptional, unremarkable, and common. They do not encompass worthy or desirable, much less magnificent. And that’s where the assumption behind the bar’s quip failed most obviously for me.

But the bar got what it wanted; it’s seemingly innocuous stunt proved controversial enough to show up on one of my cycling news feeds.

Turns out, the marque reminded people of an incident just weeks before, on a popular Houston-area cycling route, in which a 16-year-old, driving the most common, thus most normal, vehicle in the USA – a full-sized pickup truck (16-percent market share) – plowed through six cyclists while “rolling coal.”

The idea was to punish the cyclists by spewing a noxious cloud of exhaust into their path, which required driving close to them.

Bad enough, that.

But the young motorist misjudged the close aspect.

The sin for which the cyclists were maimed? Lawfully bicycling on a public roadway.

It’s normal for kids to emulate their parents, friends, and other role models. They strive to be like those they admire. The attitude and behavior exhibited by that 16-year-old did not originate with him or her, it was taught by people who fear what and whom they do not understand — the same common fear that is a prime motivator of we-vs-them tribalism.

Aside from the “like normal people” punch line, the fallacy of the joke’s logic can be demonstrated by simply reversing it, as in, Study shows that 100 percent of accidents involving automobiles can be avoided by … riding bicycles. That makes as much sense as the bar’s logic, which is to say, none.

Cyclists are just people — no better, no worse — and thus are as prone to mistakes and bone-headed moves as anyone. Many fail to observe traffic laws that apply to them, as well as to motorists, especially stop signs.

But here’s the thing: If I do something stupid, and your automobile and my bicycle collide, you’ll be okay, but I will be seriously injured or killed. If you do something stupid, and your automobile and my bicycle collide, you will still be okay, and I — again — will be seriously injured or killed.

Whoever of us is at fault, the harm to me is the same. So, please, try not to kill me.

Yes, I could eliminate that risk by not bicycling, although driving is not an option for me. Or, you could eliminate that risk by not driving, but I would never impose that sacrifice on you.

Instead, society has decided that, absent bike-specific lanes, we are to share the same pavement, where the overwhelming majority of motorists I encounter are generous and courteous. But the consequences of the rare exceptions, like that misguided Houston youth, are catastrophic.

In 2016, I met the widow of a physician who was killed in 2012 while cycling on the Natchez Trace, a low-speed parkway dedicated to leisure activities, including – specifically – cycling. The motorist who killed him was 17, speeding, and focused on texting instead of driving.

Both of which driver habits have become so normal, some of my best friends do them, even when I, a cyclist who is daily vulnerable to death by excess automobile speed and driver distraction, am a passenger in their cars.

I no longer drive, because my vision is too poor to do so safely, but I endanger no one else when pedaling 10-15 mph. Flying insects even bounce off of me, inconvenienced but unharmed, at those modest speeds.

My bike – The Big – is often my only source of mobile independence. Today, in a rural area with zero access to mass transit, or even ride sharing, I pedaled the 32-mile round trip to a grocery store, and most of that journey was on a river road that sees only local traffic, and little of that. I got a healthy dose of fat-burning exercise (1500 calories worth, equal to five over-generous helpings of three-layer cake!), I enjoyed sunlight and fresh air, and best yet, most motorists who saw me smiled and waved to the skinny old fellow on the too-long bicycle.

A lot of folks think there’s no place for bicycles on this nation’s streets and roads. For them, the speed, comfort, and convenience of automobiles trump all else. Then again, many folks think we’d all be better off without automobiles. They reason that we’d be healthier and safer (more than 40,000 people were killed, and millions more injured, last year on US roads), if everyone walked, biked, or traveled by mass transit.

But those are either-or, we-vs-them philosophies. I believe all methods of getting people from here to there deserve the safest infrastructure we can afford. Until we manage that, thank you, 99.99992 percent of drivers. I’m overwhelmed by your kindness, patience, and compassion.

No joke.

(For Penni, whose magnificent transcendence beyond normal inspires joy in all. Now, if she could only teach me to dance!)

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