During his nearly 40 years as a columnist for this newspaper, my late father occasionally tweaked his readers — quite disingenuously — by belittling his cat, knowing the slur would stir invective so passionate and erudite that he could fill another column without having to do much writing of his own.
I had no intention of employing that device when I recently wrote — quite sincerely — in defense of motorcyclists who navigate the space between cars to get ahead on crowded freeways.
To be sure, I knew some motorists would object out of fear of hitting a rider, or annoyed by the intrusion on their space. I was prepared to shrug them off because, I thought, my opinion was based on logic, experience and the law.
How fragile is the hard shell of reason! Among the emails that flooded my inbox, those that left me most humbled were from motorists who mostly agreed with me. But they were hurt by my admonishment that they should not move slightly out of my way.
Specifically, I wrote: "If you want to show solidarity, just hold your course and be sure you're a little in front or a little behind the car beside you."
Joe Edward of Beverly Hills was insulted. "Moving over, even briefly, gives you more room and I, maybe mistakenly, thought it shows courtesy," he wrote. "I thought it was the olive branch between those on four and two wheels, and is confirmed when I get the two-fingered 'thank you' wag from cyclists. When that happens, just for a moment, LA freeways are a nicer place and, yes, to the late Rodney King, we can all just get along.... But now you say NOT to move over? Ok. Forget the olive branch. Forget wanting to get along. It's on!"
I certainly never intended to turn plowshares into swords. And I'd like to think that if Joe knew me personally he'd see I'm not like the name he called me at the end of his email.
But I do apologize. I was myopic when I wrote, "Hold your course." The comment was aimed at drivers who turn their wheels sharply when surprised by a motorcycle. I appreciate drivers who ease slightly left or right, giving me the room to slide by comfortably, but more important letting me know they too are attuned to their surroundings.
And yes, I always give them the wave and momentarily feel better about humanity.
As you may have noticed, motorcyclists also give each other the two-finger salute when passing, a mutual acknowledgment of our membership in a minority that embraces the fun and physics of vehicular transportation along with its practical benefits.
The wave is also a silent bond between boomers like me and gen-whatevers who wear red mohawks on their helmets and wouldn't notice me under any other circumstances.
My aggressiveness in standing up for our somewhat outcast status surprised and pleased many fellow riders.
"Doug! You are the bomb!!!" wrote Arlene Battishill, who produces a line of head-turning women's motorcycle apparel and rides a Kawasaki. "I nearly screamed out loud.... Man oh man, I could just kiss you right now!"
Yes, we can be an exuberant bunch, inebriate of air, as Emily Dickinson so nicely put it. I can't deny that a few respondents castigated me for being irrational and self-aggrandizing, predicted my untimely demise or, worse, implied that such might be the due reward for my impudence.
I think my cat-baiting father would have gotten a sly smile from the reaction of an anonymous trucker who asked, "Ever heard of a CB?
"I know when one of you guys is coming for miles," he wrote, warning that outside my state I could become "road pizza" for riding like a Californian. He claimed to have seen semis "run bikes off in the grass more then once."
To my surprise, though, the critiques that hit home were also from fellow motorcyclists.
Some noted the bad behavior of "squids," those hyper riders who weave back and forth on screaming "crotch rockets." No wonder the "cagers," those dull people imprisoned in their cars, are up in arms.
David Lasher, who makes a continuous video of his commute from Northridge to Santa Monica, sent me a clip of his own crash when a car veered into his lane seemingly in contradiction of my assertion that a motorist cannot swerve fast enough to hit me as I pass by.
Lasher followed the cowboy mantra and got right back on a replacement Suzuki. Another, John Greenwood, told me of his "deal with God" never to ride again after one bad day ended 20 great years of riding.
By carefully parsing these scary stories, I can show that none directly refute the thesis that motorcycles are safer between lanes than in them, assuming a few guidelines are followed. Lasher, for example, conceded that he shouldn't have been lane-splitting in the HOV transition zone. Some materials I got from motorcycle safety experts convinced me further.
But instead of lining up the reaction as pro versus con, I think the collective lesson I've drawn from 100 emails is that Angelenos are up for a reasoned conversation about bettering the quality of life on L.A.'s freeways, the one place that draws us all together, whether we like it or not.
Sandy Driscoll epitomized this conciliatory effect, writing to me about an encounter on Pico Boulevard.
"A motorcyclist very quickly passed me on the left (lane splitting) gave a quick (and I must say, graceful) arm signal, and moved in front of me," she wrote. "Just as quickly, I saw him move in and out of traffic ahead of me, always with an arm signal. It was like an amazing ballet, and I was mesmerized. Thanks for your article."
"Motorcycling is not for me, but I hope you keep spreading the word about its benefits," wrote Dan Brooks of Santa Barbara. "In the meantime, I'll try to heed your driving advice and will offer a respectful salute rather than a New York salute."
Reading numerous such comments I've done some self-searching about my own behavior on the road.
As a result, I find I've become a more conservative, patient and polite rider in the last couple weeks.
So, a two-finger wave to all you "cagers."
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