I remember pictures of Peking from the 1960s and 1970s. The streets were crowded with bicycles with nary an automobile in sight. Now the streets of San Francisco are being reconfigured with fewer lanes for cars and more for bicycles. I ride my bicycle to work. I can no longer afford a car.
My commute is not bad. When I first got the bike, I would start by following Valencia from 15th Street, where I live, to 25th Street, where I would turn left and head straight down to Hampshire Street. There I would jog over to Cesar Chavez, which would take me to Potrero, then Bayshore, the Jerrold, where I work.
On my way to work, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Valencia was crowded with pedestrians, cars, and, squeezed between the two, bicycles. I tensed up, my ears pricked to catch the sounds of cars approaching from behind, my head swiveling on my neck like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” as I attempted to look in all directions at once. So I changed my route and now leave Valencia to steer a course through side streets.
When I must use major streets, even the designated bike lanes do not help me feel safe from the tons of glass and steel bearing down on me, guided by people whom I can barely see, ensconced in their juggernauts, their tiny hands gripping the steering wheel as their tiny heads attempt to peer out through the windshield. I have no way of knowing whether these drivers can see me unless they alter the trajectory of their vehicle and clearly aim it away from me. This happens about as often as they steer toward me deliberately, taking aim at me. At such times I often respond by aiming my bicycle and myself right at them, challenging them to join in a spontaneous game of chicken in the hope of causing fear of hurting me to rise in them as a rebuke. I probably only cause them to get angry at me instead.
So I turn off Valencia onto Sycamore and jog over to Lexington. Lexington is one of those charming residential streets that one finds scattered through the Mission – indeed, throughout all the older parts of the city. These streets are usually short, five or six blocks long at the most. They are not alleys, for houses front on them, but neither are they thoroughfares. They are not wide enough for two-way traffic, automobile traffic that is, and often they run a few blocks as one-way streets in one direction and then become one-way streets running in the opposite direction. They also often hit a dead-end at a major street but then suddenly appear again a block or two farther on.
So I take Lexington, on which I am going the right way, to 21st Street, where it ends. I jog a little bit to the left on 21st and then turn right on Bartlett, where I am now going the wrong way. I ride the wrong way on Bartlett all the way to 25th, where I turn left and complete the trip as described above. Only once has anyone complained to me about riding the wrong way on a one-way street, and although I am always guiltily conscious of my violation of the law, I also know that I am much safer doing so than I would be riding in the bike lane between parked cars (whose doors may at any moment be flung open) and the cars rushing past me.
The ride home, at 3:30 or 4:00 or even 4:30 in the morning, presents no such dangers from traffic. I fear it, however, much more. What frightens me are the rats.
I encounter them on the path that goes under the freeway. This path runs under US101 at the intersection of Chavez and Potrero/Bayshore. It is at this point that Potrero becomes Bayshore: Potrero rises up as an elevated ramp, one lane of which connects to the freeway and the other lane of which drops to earth again as Bayshore. Chavez dives down under it all in a great swoop like a sudden dip on a roller coaster. Indeed, navigating the complex of elevated roadways, ramps, and underpasses is called, especially by cyclists, “shooting the rapids.” Running this gauntlet in the daytime is no problem, and the night ride home in general feels relaxed. But at night this little path poisons the whole ride home. It raises a shadowy fear ut which swirls about one almost imperceptibly until it takes sudden and concrete shape and inspires a spasm of lasting dread.
A couple of weeks ago, there came a night when as I was leaving the taxi yard, I had mounted my bike and then suddenly stopped still, unwilling to put my feet on the pedals and push. I felt so exhausted that if I could have found a place to lie down at the taxi yard or even a comfortable chair in which to rest, I would have slept there. The sun would have risen within an hour or two, and then I could have bicycled home in the early light. Instead I locked my bike to the rack at work and took the bus home because of the rats.
For the next week and a half I rode the bus, or rather buses, home. It takes two buses to travel between my hotel and the taxi yard. I have to wait at the point of transfer between the two lines for ten to twenty minutes. Furthermore, the bus I catch near the taxi yard comes only twice an hour in the early morning. So a trip that takes twenty minutes on a bicycle takes at least forty-five minutes and sometimes more than an hour by bus. It is tedious, tedium is nothing compared to the rats.
I did not see them for the first month or two, but lately – probably because homeless people are camping under the overpasses again – I never see fewer than three each night. The path is narrow, and ivy grows along the base of the fences on either side. The rats appear suddenly on the pathway as I ride, scurrying alongside me until they dive into the ivy. It is the fact that they run alongside me that unnerves me the most. If they would scatter away from me, I wouldn’t mind so much. But running alongside me they seem brazen, which makes me doubt the encouraging nostrum from my childhood that such creatures “probably fear you more than you do them.”
Fear excites the imagination, and the imagination in turn compounds the fear. Because I am riding my bike, I have my right pant legs rolled up to my calf so that it won’t get caught in the chain. So when the rats come scurrying out alongside me, I become extremely aware of my exposed ankle. The wind immediately feels colder on it, and I can almost feel sharp teeth clamp down on either side of my Achilles tendon, closing together under it, holding on tightly to my flesh as blood begins to flow into the mouth, and I want to jerk my leg sharply out to the side in an attempt to shake the vicious rodent off, but if I do I might throw myself off balance, fall from the bike, and lie helplessly on the path, stunned for a few seconds, long enough for all of them to come swarming over me, to begin feasting.
After I emerge from the labyrinth under the freeway, I seldom see another rat, except on the nights when garbage is collected. I hate those nights. Not only are the garbage trucks terrifying (they are huge, and the drivers charge at great speed from one group of bins to the next) but the rats know that some garbage is always spilled, a lump of this or that fallen in the middle of the street, and so they congregate and feed.
And though I see them on the streets only once in a while, I constantly think I do. Any dark stain on the pavement – oil or anything else – for the first split second, out of the corner of my eye, is a rat, especially if it is somewhat oblong in shape. So for a couple of weeks I rode the bus.
In the last week, however, I noticed a footbridge that spans the same distance under the freeway but is on the far side of Chavez and, most importantly, is elevated above the ground. I figured out that by backtracking on Marin Street for a block and the turning onto Chavez, I could get to the elevated footbridge. Crossing Chaves and cutting across an onramp to the freeway, I am exposed to huge trucks speeding toward the freeway as they leave the industrial area and the Produce Mart in the midst of which the cab yard sits. But for some reason I feel safer in their path than with the rats.
Heading home, pedaling uphill and into a headwind so cold that my ears stiffen, feel bloodless, and my head aches, I fight exhaustion. My days last twelve hours, thirteen to fourteen if you count the whole time that I am gone from home, the hours commuting and the hours of work. Often I am sitting here typing long after the sun has come up, for it is the only time that I have quiet time in which to open the gates of my thought and my imagination and let it pour forth onto this page.
LA CALLE DE RATON