With fear in her eyes, she told me to “F*%! Off!”
It’s not that I am an Olympian, or anything close to it, but cyclist I am. A sport I found one Christmas when the gift of a mountain bike to my wife hooked us both into the pedaling maniacs we are. I’m even a little bit of a coach, instructing seven spinning classes a week. You may have run into a person like me before: a chubby stomached, big legged, snack-eating, connoisseur of any human powered two-wheeled transport. Yep. Give me an uncomfortable seat, padded spandex shorts (sorry for the visual), then make me sit on it for hours and life is blissful.
It was a Friday night and I had just finished teaching class at the Porter Ranch YMCA in California; an expanding suburban neighborhood where not often is anything of a violent nature featured in the news. The kind of community where, on the edges of the pace and density of Los Angeles, can be found a much wider cityscape and slower lifestyle. A place where one would think casual dialogue was reasonable in just about every circumstance.
I remember it clearly. Stopped at a red traffic light, corner of Rinaldi Street and Corbin Avenue. An intersection that after five years cycling with my friends at the Y, I could almost navigate blindfolded. Nothing around me was unknown. I had frequented most of the businesses, had a good grasp of the vibe of the area, and even though lived in another burb, felt like part of the community. Even to the point of recognizing many of the pedestrians who passed the intersection on a similar schedule to mine. Basically, a local.
She appeared about fifty yards to the right of where I waited for the light to change, a left turn away from my route home. Over her shoulder a bike, around her neck a flat inner tube hung like a necklace, and in her hand a full rim and tire. Her face was grimaced as in pain, and once having to carry my broken down bike for three miles out of mountain bike disaster, I knew how she must have been feeling: tired, frustrated, in pain, and just wanting to be home.
Then the genius and gentleman set in; an idea of service and compassion sure to have made me hero in helping a co-rider who looked in need of assistance. Yeah, there were social and good-sense barriers, but in the blink of thought I formulated a safe and respectable approach.
The light turned green and as I slowly entered the intersection, one eye watching oncoming traffic, the other being the good Samaritan in monitoring my in-need co-rider struggling her bike across the street, I readied to extend my service.
She hit the other side of the street, the same side where two hundred feet in front of her I had pulled into a church parking lot under the illumination of a bright streetlight. After all, I wanted her to be able to clearly see me—the conservative cyclist and family man that I am in full view. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to give her the wrong impression as I rolled down the window in desire to help her out. Fifty feet away she was, and it was time for my knighthood to reach out as I muttered the first words in explaining my desire to assist.
“This might sound a little freaky,” blurts out.
“What! Where in all heaven did those words come from,” flashed in the back in my head as I felt my face beginning to turn red, but before I could her response flew in my face.
“F*% OFF! Get the hell away from me!!”
At first I felt hurt. Why attack me? My intent was to only help, yet it took me only a second to realize I had just frightened the life out of an lady isolated on a nighttime street. Putting myself in her shoes I listened to myself, “This might sound a little freaky,” was so far away from what I was trying to say. Re-living the experience I should have said, “I know you don’t know me, but would you mind if I do what I can to repair your bike?” The freaky thing in my mind being, What stranger takes the time to stop and repair someone’s bike?
All this flew through my head as, with a feeling of shame wrapping around me, I withdrew into the cab of my truck. I had unintentionally terrorized a woman and my head was dropping for doing it. Her piercing words a shield, she quickly ran past the front of my vehicle. Bike still on shoulder, apparent fatigue on her face as never for a moment she took her eyes off me. Literally staring me down as if I was some kind of pervert or abductor.
I shank back into my seat, shifted into first gear, lifted the clutch, and with a wide right turn entered into the flow of traffic. I felt dirty to say the least, and I’m sure her heart rate was up. My eyes catching her in my rear view mirror as she looked over her shoulder to confirmed I was leaving the scene. Two people emotionally injured from what was meant to be a most innocent intervention.
My intent was a worthy reason, and to even be considered as a threat or immoral was a real blow to me. Especially because it was a self-inflicted pain brought on by my thoughtless choice of words, terrible timing, and a really bad introduction. A lesson learned, that to this day, has affected my interactions in the world, as well as brought to my attention the results that can literally arise from our chosen words.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” A child’s chant recited on many a playground. Call someone a fart and it will probably roll off pretty easily. A jest shared between adolescent friends. A ridiculous title that in most ways is OK on the gauge of silly buddy building. But in regard to deeply pinpointed character assassinations or biased invocations to whoa person is, those are in a completely different league. They are not sticks and stones. They are weapons that hit like metal pipes, bruising and breaking the esteem of their target with tragic effect.
To that add timing, and situation, and you have a lethal cocktail requiring zero physical contact or action—a very sobering reflection when considering our individual part in the equation of face-to-face human communication and relationship.
In fairness to myself, I will never have a full perspective from the person I scared immensely. Nor will she ever know the motives for my reaching out to her. A sadly misrepresented offer to aid on my part, and a deservingly defensive posture returned. Two individuals in an out-of-synch sidewalk play that had no resolvable outcome, other than each most likely leaving the situation with a bit more emotional baggage to carry. Yet in the story, there is an example to glean from: The true impact we have on each other in even the briefest exchange.
My heart was broken a little that night, and I’m hoping I did not traumatize an innocent stranger too deeply with my poorly chosen introductory words. An impromptu moment that the best I can do post the occurrence is find peace to forgive myself, and as I do, to keep in my prayers a wish that my unknown neighbor of Porter Ranch is OK, too.
Our words do matter, and if there is any one big take away from a most painful Friday night on the corner of Rinaldi and Corbin it’s that, other than the not-so-smart decision to stop on a dark night to reach out with a creepy introduction, is just how strongly our words impact others. So then, to each of us a challenge is set forth in how and where we use our words, and in that, the intent, where’s, what’s, and how’s of what we offer is ours to master.
Talk tomorrow my good friends,
Readers, if you are returning, so nice to be with you again. If you are new, looking forward to getting to know you.
To all: please comment, like, and forward. Every engagement goes a long way toward connecting us; as together, we grow a movement that betters the way we view and treat one another.