I don’t live in South L.A. But I can be found somewhere within its confines 4 times a week, on average. Often, more. And, always on the bike.
Depending on how you classify it, South L.A. can be as big as 51 sq. miles. Covering it is no small task. I might spend anywhere from three to six hours riding to, from, and to different sites within it at all hours of the day and night.
Odds are pretty good, then, that I would have an occasional brush with a near-death experience.
I’m just surprised it took so long.
I had gone down to spend some time with the East Side Riders, who were fixing kids bikes for free at Ted Watkins Park Friday evening as part of the Parks After Dark program. Business was intermittent but gathering steam, as families slowly emerged from their homes and into the slightly cooler evening air.
I left around 8 p.m. and headed over to the Watts Cyclery to get some help from Stalin with my chain and to talk more plans for the co-op he’ll be opening there. I didn’t want to stay too late; I told him I had a feeling something was going to happen that night and I planned on avoiding whatever it was by taking the Metro instead of riding my bike home, as I usually did.
He agreed that was a good idea and said he would walk me to the Blue Line.
As we headed toward the Metro station, I saw a car turn north onto Willowbrook and slowly head in our direction. We were walking in the street, right alongside the curb, because the sidewalk wasn’t wide enough for the two of us, my bike, and the couple chatting up ahead of us. I didn’t think it would be a problem — the northbound lane is more than two cars wide.
Apparently, that is not nearly enough space to negotiate your car when you are drunk.
As if in slow motion, I watched the car careen directly towards me, speeding up as it came. Stalin hopped up on the sidewalk, then I did, yanking the bike up as I leapt, painfully cracking something in my wrist in the process.
The car whooshed silently by, its tires scraping the curb, missing me by inches.
“Did you see that?!” hooted the woman standing on the corner.
I assured her that I had.
“Are you OK?” asked her friend.
We watched the car veer sharply back into the center of the lane and then disappear around the corner.
“Who does that?” sputtered Stalin. “Why would they do that?”
“I know I been drinking,” the woman tipped her 16 oz. can at me, “but that was crazy, right? I mean, that felt like it happened in slow motion, right?
She was right. It did.
The incident must have only taken a few seconds, but I was surprised at how many thoughts could run through my brain during that brief space of time. As the headlights came toward me, I oddly even had time to flashback to the scene of a made-for-TV movie on the origins of M.A.D.D. in which two girls were run down by a drunk driver. A movie I had not seen since it was on TV. In 1983. Not the most exciting last thoughts to have.
“I bet your nerves are all shaken up now, huh?” the man declared, nodding in agreement with himself.
Surprisingly, they were not.
It hadn’t seemed like a deliberate act. I’ve had people try to scare me or instigate close calls with me in the past. Those people tend to taunt you as they do it. They want you to know how much they enjoyed making your life miserable. This incident went down in total silence. I couldn’t even see the driver and have no idea if there were passengers. The windows were tinted and fully rolled up.
The only frustrating thing was that there wasn’t much we could do. I was pretty sure the guy was drunk, but I couldn’t offer any identifying information on the car or driver, and we had no idea where they went. And police in the area were likely otherwise engaged, anyways; we could see a helicopter circling above the area around Nickerson Gardens.
So, we wished the couple a good evening and walked on to the station.
As I nursed my wrist, I thought about how amazing it was that this was the first serious incident I had had in the area, given how much time I spend there.
The first thing people who don’t live there tend to ask me is whether or not I am afraid to be there, especially being as exposed as I am on a bicycle. Then, they usually confess that they are “terrified” to go to South L.A. because they think they “would probably get shot.” When I tell them I often ride home from there well after dark, they generally do not hesitate to let me know they think I’m insane.
They would likely be surprised to learn that most of my frightening run-ins on the road happen well north of the 10 freeway. If there were a special place in hell for irresponsible drivers, self-righteous hipster-types and their ironic facial hair would far outnumber the people of South L.A.
That doesn’t mean that the area doesn’t have its perils. A few weeks ago, passing through Hoover Gangs’ territory on Hoover St., I saw teenagers openly passing a loaded handgun around. It looked like the gun was being returned to someone for safe-keeping. The boys might have been a little surprised to see me watching them as I rode by, but clearly did not care if people knew they had weapons.
But, it is very rare to see that kind of thing when just passing through.
Moreover, people tend to leave me alone. This is probably because I am a female of ambiguous brown heritage and clearly an outsider to the neighborhood. Residents of all ages are incredibly kind and open, and regularly greet me with curiosity, waves, and smiles. The only real problems I tend to have are more of the harassment variety. Marriage proposals are not uncommon. And, several times a day, people will ask if they can ride with me. Sometimes it is a greeting. Sometimes it is flirtatious. Often it is both. But it is even hard to be annoyed by that, particularly because the person proposing we ride together is usually either a sixteen-year old boy or a toothless elderly man in a wheelchair.
For me, serious run-ins have been the exception, not the norm. Still, it only takes one to crack an arm.