Someone spat at me today. It was my first time—and it wasn’t that bad! Word is the pleasure only increases with time. I decided it’s a pretty effective means of communication: the guy hardly said a word and yet his feelings were somehow very clearly conveyed.
First, a little background. Since the advent of the Velib in Paris, the quantity of bikers here has skyrocketed. What is Velib, you ask? Well, monsieur, only the best thing ever. It’s a bike rental system with stations scattered liberally every hundred meters or so across the city. You sign up using a credit card and presto! you can snag a bike from any station and use it for free for up to half an hour—enough time to get almost anywhere in the city. The price goes up in 1-euro increments from there. The best thing about it, in my mind, is that whenever you need a bike, you’ve got it—and you can drop it off anywhere and not have to worry about locking it up or anything: a situation I imagine to be about as sweet as the invention of disposable contact lenses. Those are pretty sweet, right, contact users?
So biking has drastically increased recently. And the city has done an admirable job of adjusting infrastructure to accommodate this change. Bikers share the right lane of busy streets with public transportation only, and there have even been some biker-only paths installed in certain popular locations.
At the same time, though, there are certain traffic situations that, due either to their intrinsic physical nature or to some kind of incompetence on the part of city planners, are still pretty much unworkable. One of the most important examples of this is that very minor and rare traffic circumstance which I have a special little name for. I like to call it: “The left hand turn.”
The problem with this is that since bikers typically occupy the lane furthest on the right of the roads, and since they travel at a speed much slower than the surrounding traffic, the only way they can make that turn is by either cutting wildly across the flow or waiting for a red-light intersection in order to weave among the pedestrians crossing the street in that same direction.
Yes. Turning left sucks. I’d much rather turn right three times. But sometimes you just gotta do it. And I admit it: the imminent threat of some minor collision is one of those dangers that makes Velibing just a little more fun than it might otherwise be—in the same way that it’s a thrill to careen down the packed sidewalk of the Champs Elysees, pretending people are cones. (Before I go any further, though, a couple of stats for those of you who might be genuinely worried about my safety: first, Paris is a small enough city that the traffic speed never gets much about 20 or 30 miles per hour; also, despite the tens of thousands of uses of Velib in Paris last year, there were a total of 3 Velib-related deaths in all of 2008 [and countless minor accidents...shh baby]).
Anyway, back to the story at hand. The point is that today I got a little too bold. I was going for a lefty and did a quick look behind me and made the snap judgment that the traffic coming up behind me wasn’t moving fast enough to get in the way of me doing a sweet and seamless left-hand swoop onto the perpendicular road. I was wrong. The car behind me had to slow down a lot to avoid hitting my back wheel. But he did, and I safely crossed the road and continued biking for a few seconds. But when I turned around I realized that this car had actually stopped in the middle of the road, holding up a rapidly increasing number of cars behind it, and the guy had gotten out and was shouting and gesticulating wildly.
Safely protected by the flow of traffic moving in the opposite direction, I watched the guy take a stand at the road’s center divider. First he screamed, then he spat, then, realizing that even the force of his anger didn’t have the power to project a glob of mucus 25 feet to my person, he ran back to his car, fished around for something on the front passenger seat, ran back to the center divider, and heaved a half-full bottle of Evian water in my direction. It landed to my right and wedged against the gutter with a dull thud.
He was still screaming a fuming when I yelled back the best, most biting retort possible in the French language—a retort so unexpected that he stood for a few moments in a daze then slowly backed away to his car as if he had been hit square in the forehead with a big rubber bullet. “Sorry!” I said.