#77: The Mourners’ Right Cuffs

October 24th, 2012

The mourners’ right cuffs were all strapped down.

Some, like mine, were tucked in socks. Others had special velcro contraptions or even just rubber bands. The mourners wore helmets and flashing lights. The mourners wore yellow vests and reflective tape. The mourners had chains slung across their chests like bandoliers.

We stood on the corner of Oak and Wells in the cold, sharp rain. We bowed our heads for a moment of silence. A man had died there.

Someone opened a car door into the bike lane without looking. A bicyclist swerved to miss it. There was a truck.

A door opened. A life was lost. That’s all it took.

The newspaper article on the crash had a name I knew. Not the man who died but a coworker of his, an unwilling mourner who lost her friend.

The mourner was Brooke, laughing Brooke. A friend of mine. She had worked with him.

I shot off a confirmation consolation e-mail. Was that you? If so, I’m so sorry.

Ten days later, her boyfriend Trevor sent me a note. Yes, it was Brooke’s friend who died. She appreciated your note. There’s a memorial Friday and you should come.

The three of us hadn’t seen each other since summer. This was not the reunion any of us wanted.

Morning traffic thrust itself loudly down Oak and down Wells, that wet static sound of rubber tires spattering up rain off wet pavement. Some drivers honked horns to shove the gawkers along. It was inappropriate and breathtakingly stupid.

The L rumbled past, loud enough to drown out the speakers even with the Moody Bible ballpark in between. Between the cars and the train, I could barely hear the speaker about bike safety. I couldn’t hear the family at all.

For a moment I thought how appropriate that was, how sad and apt. The memorial for a man silenced by traffic silenced by traffic.

Brooke and Trevor pulled up on their bikes, with their own means for strapping down right cuffs. Trevor and I chatted while Brooke talked with the family. She knew them from the funeral — she and a few other workmates had gone down to Kentucky for the ceremony.

A door opened. That’s all it took. The thought chanted through my brain. A door opened and a man died.

The family and friends wanted to let more people know about watching out for bikes, about taking that second to look back before blindly opening car doors into bike lanes. They invited the TV stations, invited the press. They spread the word online, asked for strangers to come remember their son, their brother, their friend. They left a “ghost bike,” a white-painted bicycle, as a marker on the corner where he died.

Each gesture was small, but incremental. In a way, each was like the act of riding a bike itself. People who hop on bikes to get to work know they’re not going to save the world. They know their Treks and Huffys won’t suck up the smog from all the H3s on the road. They know someone else will take their spot on the road, car traffic like water filling every space available.

Riding a bike won’t save the world all at once. One memorial won’t save the bikers all at once. But you have to try. And bit by bit, incremental gesture by incremental gesture, things happen. Things get better.

There was a memorial ride after the ceremony. Single file and silent we rode, mourners with strapped-down cuffs, all thinking about a man named Neill Townsend.

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