Being a Vulnerable User: the Little Dutch Boy in Reverse


True Story

One summer night two years ago my best buddy Tyler asked me to join him at the Marymoor Velodrome to see some track racing and drink beer.

"Come and watch the Madison races! They are really entertaining, and easy to follow!" He invites me, understanding that total incomprehension is one barrier to my overcoming my abiding boredom with all sports, including cycle-sport. I'm interested in hanging out, but not particularly interested in the racing.

"I'll ride out there with you, it'll be fun!" That clinches it. Any chance to ride anywhere with Tyler winds up revealing exciting new routes. The Velodrome is kinda far away and I love learning new ways to get around on the East side of Lake Washington. I'll go. We'll have a great time!

We do! We have a great time. Tyler's route is swell and I find it very easy to recreate in the future. My mental map of our region is drawn in greater detail. The races are fun and some of the track bikes are lovely. We meet up with Grace and Hisham and their company is warm. The beer is good. Very good, actually. So good that when we are ready to head home, a little after midnight, I am glad we choose the route that takes the Burke-Gilman Trail for most of the many miles back into town. I won't say I am impaired, just feeling tired.

It is over an hour later when I crest Capitol Hill heading South on 10th Ave.I am tired, like Tired tired and glad that I am almost home.

As tired as I am, this time of night is always magical, after almost everyone's in bed and before the bars let out the wobblies (not the Wobblies) and the streets are almost empty. There's a song in Guys and Dolls about this time that I always hear in the voice of my high school friend who played the Marlon Brando character when we did that show. (I love musicals for their special multivalent life-soundtracking relevances.)

I often ride with one earphone in, playing audiobooks or lectures or talk radio podcasts. I admit it. I do that. (Is that nuts? Comments welcome.) When I am lucky enough to be out and riding in these magic hours I almost never listen to anything but the relatively peaceful sounds of the sleepy city. Turns out that on this evening in particular it's a very good thing that my ears are free.

I pass St Mark's cathedral, where I used to go to church and cry at ancient liturgy and gospel, back when I did that kind of thing. As I crawl along some Seattle road I've ridden more times than I can count I listen to the sound of my chain, winding around my drivetrain, the sound of my tires crunching the gravelly bits of asphalt from a failing pothole patch-job, the sound of a sobbing someone, somewhere over that way, hidden on a porch or in a driveway, begging someone not to leave them.

"Don't go."

How sad. She sounds devastated.

"Please don't go!"

Is she drunk? She sounds drunk. That makes it so much worse. I wish I could stop and offer to help her, but she's not talking to me, she's on the phone or something. I have embarrassed myself and bothered strangers many times over the years by presuming to offer help when privacy was all they wanted. She isn't talking to me.

"You, on the bike! Please don't go!"

Huh? I slow down. Maybe she calls out again. I can't remember for sure. As I swing around and try to locate the owner of this pleading voice, time slows and a thousand scenarios spin through my mind.

  • Does this sad person need someone to talk to?
  • Don't be stupid, the entire "drunk person getting dumped" scenario is out. I am the person she was begging not to leave her.
  • Was this person mugged?
  • Am I about to be mugged?
  • Should I split?
  • What about Kitty Genovese?
  • Someone asked me for help, right?
  • What's the pint of living in a city if we aren't looking out for one another?
  • WWJJD? (What would Jane Jacobs do?)
  • Am I going to get jumped?
  • What should I do here?

I pull into a little parking area in front of a multi-unit building and there she is. Sobbing, one hand leaning against the door of an SUV. This person is around my own age, nicely dressed, her face is wracked with something like pain. Her bag is sprawled, spilled in front of her. Why is she standing like that? She is definitely in trouble.

"What do you need?"

"My hand is locked in my door," she howls, leaning forward, "Owwwww!"

Her legs buckle, she is in trouble.

Oh, god.

"How can I help you?"

Oh, god. I can see it now, all of the fingers on her right hand are buried in the door! Her wrist is bent in this terrible way. She is hurt.

"Get my boyfriend! He's inside! He has the keys!"

I look at her purse. No, this doesn't make sense. How long has she been here? Why didn't she ask me to get her keys from the pile of stuff on the ground? I bet her keys are in her bag. How long has she been here? She is hurt.

I am already moving towards the building.

"Which unit?"

She tells me. Each unit has its own entrance off a covered porch that runs the length of the side of the building. Up some stairs. I am shouldering my bike. I guess my arms don't trust that this isn't a setup. The porch is dark. Here's the door. The apartment looks dark. Of course it's dark! It's... What? 2:30? How did that happen?

I am knocking on the door. My bike is on my shoulder and I'm a stranger pounding on this person's door at 2:30 in the morning and I can see somebody moving around in there as I peek in through the window. Now I am a stranger peeking in the window.

"Hello? Excuse me? Don't freak out," always a great opener. "Look, I wouldn't open either, but your girlfriend needs help and... You should come out. I'll be right back!"

I run back down the stairs.

"Miss? He's in there. We are going to get you out of there. What are your names? What's you name? What is your boyfriend's name? Okay, he's coming with the keys real soon. You are going to be okay."

I run back up the stairs. I am still holding my bike on my shoulder. I can see someone moving around in the apartment.

"Hello?" I address him by name. "I know it's late. My name is David. I live down the street from you."

I tell him I have just come from his girlfriend, that she needs his help. I use both their names and I try to speak calmly, "She's got her hand caught in the door of her green Explorer, right outside in the parking lot. I really think you should come out here with your keys to the Explorer and help her get her hand out. She's in trouble."

"I'm going to move away from your door, you don't need to be afraid of me."

His door swings open. He's fully dressed, wearing slippers, and short, shorter than me and holding something over his head like as if threatening to hit me. I can't recall what it was he is holding. His move doesn't scare me. I am already backing away Back down to the car.

In a flash, they are together. He is unlocking the door. I am riding away. I think one of them thanks me. I just want to leave them alone. What a terrible thing to be trapped in a car like that. What a lucky thing that a bike ride keeps us at only an arm's length of remove from the environment.

More bikes and more walkers on the street, for a more safe and a more sociable society!