I’m still shaking a little, and if I can steady my hands a bit, I’d like to tell you about it. You see, this morning, I was biking Emma to school, which I don’t usually do. But since we moved, there’s an extra intersection to cross which I worry about a teeny bit.
Today, we got a couple of feet into the intersection in the crosswalk, and a car was speeding along down the road, so I yelled at Emma not to go. She hit her brakes, hard, and then I yelled at the car to “watch it.” Or something like that. I actually yell at cars at that intersection probably fairly often— the road looks like it should go fast, and it’s not that uncommon to for cars to race by without even noticing that there is a crosswalk, let alone a pedestrian standing there. My hope in yelling is that I can maybe jolt them out of their automaticity in driving in our neighborhood, and that next time they drive there, they will pay a little more attention.
This time, though, the driver heard my yell and came to a screeching and dramatic halt in the middle of the two-lane street. She exited her vehicle and began screaming at me, “IT’S NOT MY JOB to see if you want to cross the street or not. TEACH YOUR DAUGHTER THE RIGHT WAY.” She was standing by the side of her car, and I was on my bike, having crossed the street by now. I was frankly surprised that she could think that she was in the right, but she continued yelling without stopping, insisting that because we paused to let her speed by, she had the right of way. And you know what? I started yelling back.
She continued screaming about teaching my daughter “the right way” and I all of a sudden, I was saying, “right of way, right of way, right of way” and pointing at myself which is all I could think to say. Now that I reflect on it, it was almost like twisting her words back at her, because who can think straight when they’re being yelled at? I noticed that a neighbor was watching the whole thing, me on my bike on the far side of the street, she standing by the side of her car parked in the middle of the street, gesturing and screaming at me.
“Go on to school, Emma,” I said, deciding to loop back towards her car, where I slowly read her license plate out loud before circling back and catching up with Emma and leaving the scene behind.
“I’m sorry, Emma,” I said, trying to calm us both, as she was as rattled as I was. “You see? You manage to get to school on your own every single day and the one day I come, I make trouble.”
And teary-eyed, she said back to me, “No, I would have died today if you hadn’t been there. I don’t want to die.”
Writing this, my watch has just indicated to me that my stress is a “little high” and don’t I want to take a couple of relaxing breaths?
The thing is, I am worked up about this. I’m not iron-clad sure I didn’t act really badly too. Maybe Emma could have crossed safely before the car came by, or maybe I should stop yelling at cars even if they’re not driving well. But I am absolutely positive that she should have stopped for us to cross, so I called the police afterwards. I gave the license plate, I told him there was another witness, but he said that there wasn’t much they could do after the fact.
What did I want them to do anyways?
Because here’s one other thing. I am a white woman who lives in Palo Alto. I was confident that I would be believed by the officer. I was certain that they would understand that I as a cyclist was treated badly by a driver who had not ceded the right of way. But I don’t know what would happen if they knocked on her door and found a large black woman who seems like she might have been intimidating to a bicyclist. Calling the police was a form of privilege. Restraining myself from using my privilege does NOT trump pedestrian and cyclist safety, but it’s not nothing either.
And then I thought of another recent incident which was even more upsetting, and maybe this is the real reason my watch keeps bugging me to take a breath.
On our flight to Israel in April, a guy seated across the aisle from us was trying to get his roller bag overhead and it didn’t quite fit. It almost did, but then the compartment wouldn’t latch on one side. I could see that if he just turned the bag sideways, it would close, so I suggested that to him as he tried to push it closed again, again, again.
“No, it’s good enough,” he said.
“Well, they won’t take off without it latched,” I said, “so you should just fix it now.”
He pushed it again.
“No, the latch is just broken on this one, it won’t close any further.”
The overhead compartment was directly opposite our seats. Based on the partial way it was latching, it wasn’t certain that it would open on its own in the middle of the flight. But if it did, his tightly jammed and heavy luggage was going to fall on our heads.
So when the stewardess came by a few minutes later, I gestured to it above my head and told her that although the compartment looked closed, it wasn’t latching.
She examined it. “Good catch,” she said to me, “we would have found it sooner or later, but now is better.”
The man glared at me briefly, and then he began to mansplain to the flight attendant that the latch was broken, and that his closing was as good as it was going to get.
As is her job, she insisted that he move his bag to an appropriate location and demonstrated that the compartment was fully operational when his luggage wasn’t in it. By now, more people had come onto the plane and put their luggage up, so there were fewer spots available for his bag. She patiently located a spot for him, but it was two rows behind his seat. He seethed at her that it was too far away, that he could not be that far away from his carryon luggage for the duration of the flight. She told him that he needed to calm down or he was going to be asked to get off the plane. He didn’t understand the threat, and continued to insist on the proximity of his bag to his person.
She had a million other things to do. I tried to tune it out. Eventually it resolved. Or seemed to.
And then, once she was gone, he turned his attention to me. “People should mind their own business,” he rasped at me. Did he say more to me than that?
“They weren’t going to take off like that and if it fell, it was going to fall on my family” I said back. We had been boarding for an hour, anticipating a long flight. “I was actually trying to help you.”
“Help me!” He scoffed and made a face. Somehow it escalated. He started to yell at me. I yelled back. I was in the right; I knew the rules, the flight attendant had backed me up. Planes don’t take off when luggage threatens to fall on people’s heads.
Still, my heart raced and I think I couldn’t see straight. I abruptly stopped looking at him and instead looked around frantically for the flight attendant.
“Excuse me!” I yelled across the aisle to her. All of a sudden, I knew for certain that I couldn’t have him near my family for fifteen hours.
I caught her eye. “Excuse me! He is now blaming me for his luggage, and I don’t feel safe!”
This was all true. I think I blanked out a little. She came back. More threats about deplaning. I think he finally understood his flight was at risk. Michael tried to tell me, “he’s just being Israeli.” He was trying to lower the stakes and help me shrug it off.
I had been yelling too. I’m not positive that, if you could watch a video right in the middle, that it would be clear that he was an aggressor and I was a victim. He definitely felt like a victim, even though it was hard for me to see him that way. Meanwhile, I didn’t have any doubt— if I got a flight attendant involved, I was going to be believed against a big burly Israeli man who had different norms of appropriate and aggressive behavior.
The flight attendant asked him to apologize to me. He never did that, but he did calm down and I never talked to him the rest of the flight. But I did notice; he didn’t touch his bag in the overhead a single time in the entire fourteen hours. I don’t know why I mention that as though it was some sort of vindication for me.
The whole thing was unfortunate. I have tried describing what this was like, as well as his insistence on his luggage being nearby, his certainty that it “would have been fine” if I never said anything about his luggage. I’ve tried on the idea that I was being excessively cautious, that I interfered and should have just let the flight attendants solve it (I honestly was trying to help him out because I knew that by the time they discovered it on their own, it would have been much too late to get his luggage anywhere near him). And maybe really he was right: people should mind their own business.
It always seemed to me that Israelis are surprisingly lackadaisical about safety. One time, just walking through the city, we came upon a city employee trimming trees with a chainsaw. He placed it down on the sidewalk just as we were walking by, the instrument still chugging along. I steered the kids around it, as it inched itself forward on its own motor power.
I don’t like the image of myself as an overly worrying mama bear who sounds the alarm about safety protocol when it’s easy to just walk around it. I don’t like the image of myself as someone who picks fights unnecessarily. And I don’t like the idea that I use authority figures to help reinforce my own privilege.
But I’ll never take lightly someone else’s well-being or safety, and I will never give up on living in a world where other do the same for me.
And with that hope, and having written this all down, just now, I finally gave in to my watch. A few minutes of well-chosen slow breathing exercises. I feel almost as good as new. I’ll know that I really am all better when I forget her license plate number.
And tomorrow, I’m going back to the old habits which were working better— Emma can bike to school herself. Whether or not that lady cedes the right of way, I’m pretty sure that Emma won’t forget to stop at that intersection, and maybe that’s the real reason to yell at erring drivers. Not to convince the drivers to change their driving, but to remind me and my kids not to neglect our own vigilance on the road. But maybe vigilance about overhead compartments should best be left to professionals.
And as one last concluding thought, I want to offer so much gratitude to all of the people who work hard for my own private and for public safety— police officers, traffic safety officers, crossing guards, flight attendants, and the tree trimmers in the United States who cordon off their work areas.
Stay safe, everyone! And breathe.