A good driver is hard to find

I awoke on this eve of World Car Free day with more that usual sense of foreboding that Monday brings. I’d gone to sleep last night having just finished Flannery O’Connor’s classic, chilling story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” To say the story would be unsettling for anyone in our society is obvious, but more so for those of us who are generally more hypersensitive to the perils of being exposed on the road. The story concerns a grandmother whose grappling with nostalgia competes for the attention of her son with the incessant whining of his pair of kids, her disrespectful grandchildren, emblematic of what she sees is wrong with modernity, in the back seat of a car during a road-trip through the southeast. These days, grandma feels, a good man is hard to find. And then everything goes haywire, the least horrific event of which concerns a serious car wreck, and concludes with looking the devil in the eye, in the guise of the preternaturally cruel criminal that the sensationalist press has dubbed the Misfit.

He’s not this sort of misfit:



… nor this sort of misfit:
Cool Hand Luke is a misfit.

No, O’Connor’s Misfit is a straight up killa. Without giving the entire plot away, the car trip ends horribly.

I roll out of bed this Monday morning, tired already by dreams stung by O’Connor’s story. But, I am looking forward to the tandem commute – the weather is perfect these days in North Carolina, the days are still just long enough that we’re not riding in the deadly low visibility of twilight, and as I said earlier, this week celebrates world car free day. Then we meet our misfit.

The first four miles of our 20-mile commute are, as a rule, a harsh wake-up in the morning. 3.5 miles of steeply rolling hills, that accumulate to more climbing than descending in the outbound direction. There are vistas of farm fields, stretches of loblolly pine, highland cattle, confederate flags. The traffic is a bit too heavy for the road’s rural narrowness, but is generally forgiving, save for the occasional early morning logging truck going to the mill west of Saxapahaw. It’s gets the blood pumping.

Before we hit the end of this road – a typically lengthy-named NC road Saxapahaw Bethlemhem Church Road – with an on-coming car, we hear a blaring horn behind us, bleeding with malcontent. Without waiting for the on-coming car to move by, the vehicle behind speeds inches from our side, continuing with its honking (not to be confused with our tandem’s “honking”). It’s a close call. We stay calm in handling the tandem, as close, loud cars are nothing new, but this driver’s belligerence is an outlier – much worse than normal.

In my haste and automatic righteousness, I decided he needed to be put on notice. I’ve long since abandoned the divisive flying of the bird. Instead I chose a hand gesture more exemplary of what I intended to do. I gave him the “phone-it-in.” Like, “I see you, man, what you did is reckless, intimidating, and illegal, and I’m gonna let the authorities know.” Mark Cavendish provided me with a good model in one of his stage wins in this year’s Tour de France:

The "You're on notice, phone-it-in" gesture.
Image via bikesnobnyc

This gesture, however un-obscene, struck an extra nerve with our misfit. Fifty yards up the road, he skidded to an angry stop, leaving marks on the pavement. He backed up a few feet and stopped. This is never a good sign. A bit extreme by normal measure, crazy in fact. Nothing we had done – which, to summarize was a) biking on the road, and b) making a phone gesture – could enrage an uncrazy person like this. By this point, I knew better and pulled the tandem off the road, rather than ride up next to him and invite an escalated confrontation. His stopping gave me a chance to mark his description – a white sedan with out-of-state plates. And then he drove off. Of course, it wasn’t just as simple as driving off – he did peel out. But at least he was gone. And we reached for the handy cellphone to notify the Alamance County cops. Alas, we wilted when it came to actually calling 911 to report this.

The encounter concerned our minds and led our conversation for the rest of the hour-long ride into Chapel Hill. What could have made someone so angry at encountering us? Was it our simple presence? Was it my phone-call gesture? Was it the stress of the situation – that he was coming too fast around a curve behind us, saw oncoming traffic and our tandem in the way, and this led to his momentary aggression? Whatever it was, we were glad that the aggression was momentary, and that he didn’t clip us when he sped by.

One thing that we were glad of was that, at least according to this person’s license plate, he was not one of our neighbors of rural Alamance County. This is a big deal for us. It runs contrary to the supposition that everyone out here are a bunch of hicks who’d run down a cyclist just fer fun, and spit tobacky in his eye just fer the hell of it. No, our neighbors know us, and from what we’ve experienced, are pretty accommodating on our roadways.

And why didn’t we report it? Since no one was hurt, we had to puzzle out in our minds what exactly was illegal about the situation – reckless/ threatening driving, passing too close – and whether we should bother our local sheriff who wouldn’t give a flip anyway. The answer – we should have called immediately. I’m putting myself on notice here to call next time. Anything we can do to get aggression like this off our roads is necessary. It’s for the safety of everyone. Furthermore, to quote the title of another Flannery O’Connor story, “The life you save may be your own.”


7 Responses to “A good driver is hard to find”

  1. 1 Lee September 22, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    I agree you shouldn’t hesitate to call 911 next time. Police in my neighborhood tell us at neighborhood meetings to call 911 for some very mundane things (loud people in the street?). I’ve read some horror stories too from other places where the driver calls 911 in these situations and accuses the bikers of damaging their car or something else ridiculous. So it might be good due diligence to call it in and have a formal record of the situation immediately after.

    Here’s one such story: http://www.streetsblog.org/2009/08/13/nypd-arrests-pedestrian-after-near-death-brush-with-raging-motorist/

    • 2 pomocomo September 22, 2009 at 10:22 pm

      Ah yes, thank you for reminding of that guy in Asheville… Had tried to forget that happened. We had another incident more recently down here – http://www.wsoctv.com/news/20744947/detail.html – driver hits pedestrian on purpose cuz he was tired of the guy walking on the road, and kills him. I guess this is what happens when road entitlement induced by an overall car culture mixes with a generally rare malevolent nature.

      And yes, I’ve ridden across Missouri on a tour, and though I almost exclusively had great interactions with people, I remember being informed by a farmer to remember that everyone that drove by me on the road is carrying a gun in the glove compartment – “that’s how the peace is kept around here,” he said. The thought does give one pause before gesturing in any way to a motorist, except a friendly wave.

  2. 3 Cycler September 22, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    I’m always torn between my (admittedly) self righteous activist leanings and the self preservation of keeping my head down and fuming as I pedal along.
    I like the “phone it in” gesture” although I realized lately that in a crisis, I still have to log into my phone before making a call- one extra step that could make a difference. And the iphone is lousy with gloves on.
    But I digress. Although I live in Boston now and there are generally witnesses to discourage crazy drivers from acting out, I grew up riding in SW Missouri/ Arkansas which is rural and not particularly bike friendly, and I’d have to remind myself think twice and check my outrage in the above scenario. There are lots of crazy, crazy people out there, as I’m sure you’re all too aware
    Be safe, enjoy the lovely weather and good luck with the wedding dress project!

  1. 1 Coexisting with the Misfit « Honking In Traffic Trackback on September 25, 2009 at 9:52 pm
  2. 2 Anatomy of a commute « Honking In Traffic Trackback on September 26, 2009 at 1:51 pm
  3. 3 Open letter to Saxapahaw « Honking In Traffic Trackback on October 9, 2009 at 10:26 pm
  4. 4 This bike is a Quaker rifle « Honking In Traffic Trackback on October 14, 2009 at 9:11 pm

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