I ride a bike a bunch. I am not one of the unsung heroes of cycling who make their way to work in all kinds of weather and at all hours of the day with nothing but a rusting Huffy beneath them, but I’m not a spandex clad hammerhead either.
I ride a modest touring bike that might have been an object of envy a decade ago and I ride it for whatever modest benefits it might bestow upon my unfortunate brain and midriff. If any kind of class analysis can be derived from a close look at cycling it is this: The strongest cyclists ride their shitty bikes to work every morning while the weakest cyclists ride their vanity projects to the coffee shop for Saturday brunch.
As with so many things I find myself outside the entire paradigm. I ride several times a week. It takes me an immense amount of time to get out of the house. I hate changing my pants and I have no idea why. This is the major barrier to getting started.
It always feels good at the beginning. I like climbing and I live in a low spot so there’s one waiting for me no matter which direction I choose. Cars rush by. I live in a place that could be considered ‘bike unfriendly’. This should bother me more than it does but when I crunch the numbers my earning potential is maximized by riding in wealthy neighborhoods.
The best year of my life followed on the heels of a near-fatal car accident in Southern Arizona. I was riding eastbound on a road that marked the southernmost boundary of a university and was left-hooked by a student ogling young women rather than paying attention to traffic. My memory of this event consists of the moment of terror that preceded my front wheel making contact with his truck.
I can’t remember however many fractions of a second it took for my ass to leave the seat or my head to connect with his passenger door. Those moments are lost to me. Then there was the peculiar feeling of surfacing from the type of unconsciousness a head injury produces. It is like being born. Light and sound begin to coalesce into sensation. It takes a while.
I remember a bit of the paramedics cutting away my shirt. I heard a young woman say “It says ‘fuck’ on that guy’s chest,” which is true and also another story. It wasn’t until I arrived at the hospital that I truly regained consciousness.
I was in a great deal of pain. In addition to the head injury I had separated my shoulder and gotten road rash all over my face. I demanded morphine and it was given. It felt a lot less awesome than I thought it would, producing nausea instead of blissful nothing. Then, because I lacked health insurance, I was released into the hands of my roommate of two weeks with a prescription for vicodin.
Being as industrious as I am I contacted a lawyer the next day. All told it wasn’t much of a windfall. I got about $10,500 from his insurance carrier and they paid my $50,000 hospital bill. For me that was a tremendous sum of money and between the settlement and student loans I lived a luxurious life in which I indulged my two greatest loves: Not working and second hand bikes.
But the joys of personal injury litigation are not really what I hoped to write about here. Instead it is the profanity of the American suburb as it plasters the remains of the other-than-humans who scurry between sad patches of second growth forest in a relentless visitation of insult upon injury.
Roadkill is one of those atrocities that we witness and forget. No one needs to think about it. It’s simply an accident, and not one that requires an exchange of insurance information. Really it’s the animals fault, too stupid to follow signs or observe red lights.
They are unworthy of a burial. That would be a ridiculous thing to do, to stop and watch the life ebb out of a raccoon’s eyes. To put your massive hands around it as it leaks blood and lift it into your car.
What would your spouse say? Leaving aside the matter of parasites that riddle these lower order creatures, what order of logic would you be succumbing to if you were to work a spade into the dirt of a suburban backyard under a motion sensing light? What would it say to cradle that tiny body and beg for forgiveness as you laid it in a patch of earth somewhere between the above ground pool and the aluminum shed? And what of the children? No one wants them to grow up weird.
As I rode uphill today I neared a train station. A raccoon lay ahead, fallen where the curb meets the road. Curbs are rare where I live. Roadkill less so. Denied the dignity of death in the forest where funerary bugs and keratin eating fungus do their work the corpses can sit for days or weeks by the side of the road. I gave it a wide berth to avoid the smell. This is at once a futile and a dangerous thing to do. Too far off the shoulder and I might end up in a similar position to the creature up ahead and the stink of death would still be in my nostrils.
As I passed it slowly lifted its head, the rest of its body still splayed on the asphalt. It stared at me and followed my passage with what I can only imagine was dazed and confused terror. I rode on for another quarter mile and stopped. I felt sick and I felt wrong. There are quandaries that one encounters in life and how you reconcile yourself to them can say a great deal or perhaps nothing at all. One is faced with all the actions that the broader society prescribes for the alleviation of suffering, none of which are adequate or even defensible. When the one who is suffering can’t speak or understand what is said the dilemma is amplified. Animals aren’t afforded the luxury of DNRs.
Should I have gone back with a sense of manly duty and an appropriately sized rock to enact the dubious mercy of bludgeoning a scared and dying thing? This would afford me cover to humbly and regretfully tell the people who’ve accepted my narrative about myself that I put it out of its misery, painting a thin veneer of responsibility over what appears to be sadism. All things are put out of their misery given enough time. There’s really no need to assist in this momentous inevitability.
There are other dubious kindnesses that I could have visited upon this creature. If it had survived, if it was not merely casting its gaze about at the purple twilight of the forest of the dead with me as interloper perhaps I could have rushed home for a towel in which to wrap it securely and then ferried it to the wildlife rehab. But it is likely that this would just force it into a half-life in an enclosure where it would serve as an imprisoned ambassador for all the wildlife that are already in the crosshairs of the great extinction.
Finally, I suppose I could have left it in the cool cover of some relics of an effort at landscaping that were regularly rendered futile by the encroachment of weeds. This is what I would want for myself, to stare at the sky as everything transitioned to blinding white light, cradled by grass prepared to accept my flesh as it melted off my bones.
I didn’t do any of these things. The purpose of such minor heroics seem to only whitewash the overwhelming testament to our folly as a species. The suffering of that creature was unavoidable and mundane, a tiny sum deposited in the ledgers of capitalist society’s tally of neglectful cruelty.
I rode on. At the boundary of a nature preserve I passed a fox flattened by the rush hour procession, too small to garner the interest of the highway department, a grisly stole that would be nothing but fractured bones by next spring. Another year and it wouldn’t even be that, just shards of calcium washed downhill.
I thought about all the classes of schoolchildren that would likely visit this preserve. No doubt a docent and a teacher would try to impress on them the fascinating interdependence that allows any kind of life to flourish. What will they make of the deer lying bloated on the green of an adjacent golf course, intestines bursting from its stomach in deep purple loops? I think very little. They will have no one to explain to them that they have been bequeathed a world that is doomed.
Any grade school teacher with self-preservation on their mind will studiously avoid veering into the horror that is running these children through the chutes of this fucked up rodeo. The deliberate blindness and denial that is required to lift oneself out of bed is what is actually being taught. It is a training regimen that demands that they not notice the animal rotting before their eyes and that if they do that they be incapable of generalizing the implicit logic of such a thing. Always, always deny the violence of speed.
I ended up on one of the major thoroughfares that connects east to west. I rode past yet another golf course, this one clearly unable to scrape through the six months of the coronavirus’ assault on the dubious sociality of middle-class America. The grass was tall, the trees all dead. It was curious, this uniformity. As though they had forged a suicide pact.
I was pleased with the end of the golf course. There are few things more offensive to me than the persistence of this game, the origins of which lie in the earliest colonialist impulses of the British empire, a test case for the horrors yet to come. As I rode past at my usual sluggish pace I noticed a box turtle so flattened by traffic that it could have been a leaf pressed in the pages of a book.
There was a Walmart across the road. As I passed it I could feel the square become a box become a tetrahedron. A dead animal that could have lived for a century catty-corner to a temple to the dead labor of the suburban poor from whom a well-defined black line was drawn to the sweatshops of Southeast Asia. From there a thinner and more amorphous tendril finished the perimeter of suffering with a perennially despondent outsider as the final node.
The profanity of death cultures is rarely adequately punished. The amount of rope required doesn’t exist. The earth can’t drink all the blood. Truth and reconciliation gives neither. We just have to teeter on the landscape that the past has created and try not to think about the bodies beneath us and the implicit threat that they portend.