Understanding in a Bike Crash

Jeremy Gordon

Biking is the holiest activity I do, after brushing my teeth and listening to those old Dylan CDs from when he found God. It’s pure thought combined with quickness of motion – moving through the world but continually absorbing all of its images and sounds as they fly past you, blurring slightly together in an increasingly oneiric context as you snap into fuller awareness of your surroundings, but not your mental trappings. How can you worry about the paper you have to write on Friday if you’re looking at the color of the trees as they shift in the wind, or consider your senior thesis while feeling the bumps in the asphalt as you glide over it? It runs the risk of hippie pabulum to espouse so romantically what can be such a gritty, unpleasant activity, but I see biking as not just a way to get around, but as a form of supreme clarity.

I head down Foster Street to get to class, the path I’ve taken every day for the last five months (I bike in rain, shine, snow or meteor). A song sticks itself in my head as I continually recreate the opening bars every 30 seconds in lieu of an iPod to do it for me. I begin to distract myself with the work I had to do that night in class, unable to pin it all down with the wind whipping at me. The dreariness of schoolwork soon becomes a sludgy afterthought. A brief distraction comes as I pass in front of Plex, when the accident happens.

I don’t remember the door opening, but I remember thinking, Oh n- before I crash into it head-on, the outer frame clipping my right shoulder as I flip sideways in the air off my bike, crunch the ground landing on my left knee and roll over, my bag tossed aside, the bike spiraling off to the side. In the air, I have no thoughts but a prevailing sense of Huh? as I wait for the sickening crash. Predictably, the first thing I hear is someone yelling, “Oh my God!” and then the sound of my own voice, spitting expletives in frustration.

Inseparable from technology, the first thing I do on the ground is reach over to my backpack to make sure my laptop is okay. What good is physical health if I can’t blog, right? More troubling is the expensive piece of tech possibly lying in unfixable pieces that I don’t have the money to replace. I wasn’t even able to open my bag, because by this point, two people have run over to make sure I’m okay, one pulling my bag away and the other leaning over to check on me.

“Are you okay?” she asks, a woman in her mid-40s with a red face and long, frayed brown hair pulled back in a pony tail, looking genuinely concerned like a bookish librarian might over any sign of possible conflict in the stacks. Of course, I’m not thinking this at the moment because my body is ON FIRE. Here’s a tip about getting doored, as it’s called: Don’t do it. But there’s no way to avoid it, because it can happen in a split second with no time to react, as I realize while lying on the ground. My reactions aren’t good enough, I think. My mother was right.

I get up and limp to the sidewalk, as a guy on the corner calls an ambulance. The woman who struck me looks like a mom – older, granny glasses and looking totally horrified by what had just happened. As I sit on the grass, out of nowhere a tough green blanket is draped over my knees and a white wooly one over my shoulders. Someone asks me, “Where does it hurt?” I point at my knee and my shoulder, babbling a little bit about what I do and don’t feel. “Did you hit your head?” I shake my head no. “He’s in shock, give him some space.” No, I’m not in shock, I think to myself, then loudly say so.

The ambulance comes quickly, surrounded by a fleet of cop cars in an impressive reaction time of five minutes (obviously, the ultimate crisis is an injured college kid). Four paramedics jump out and survey the situation, asking me questions about where I hurt and whether or not I had hit my head (“A lot” and “No” were my answers). Cops linger to the side, where they talk to the owner of the car I hit, who locked her keys inside in the confusion.

“We don’t know if you hit your head,” the paramedic says. “So we’re going to put a neck brace on you, okay?” Why not, I think to myself. “We’re also going to put you into a stretcher.” I start giggling uncontrollably – the rush of adrenaline masking the taut pain I would later feel in my joints – because the scene now seems so ridiculous. I was hobbled, for sure – walking to the side was difficult, and I couldn’t lift myself up without feeling pain in my legs – but a stretcher? That seemed like a chronic overreaction in the tradition of the Mama Gordon School of Medicine. But if something was fractured, why not?

They have me roll to my side while the stretcher is dumped beneath me, and I remember wishing for anyone I knew to suddenly walk past the scene, see me being loaded into the back of an ambulance and be overcome with fear that I could later play into massive sympathy points. This is an act of sheer egotism – at the same time, I hoped it wouldn’t be someone who would call my mother, who would obviously freak out. “Do you have an emergency contact?” They ask in the ambulance. “Yes,” I groan. “But please don’t call her.”

Inside the ambulance, the paramedic tries to roll up my jeans to check my knee out but is unable to because they’re too tight – a complete betrayal of hipster fashion. He asks me if I want him to cut them off, and I reply in the negative, half out of embarrassment. As the ambulance moves, I can only look above me, unable to move my head or my arms. I feel no sense of direction, only moving as the momentum of the ambulance turning shifts me from side to side, the paramedic asking me a bunch of small questions to get my personal details and make sure I haven’t incurred any brain damage.

If you’ve never laid on a stretcher before, I highly recommend it. The only sense of movement you have are the wheels of the gurney moving over whatever terrain you’re going through – the bumps of the road, the slick tile of the hospital floor. Above you, the world passes. Inside the hospital, I’m wheeled to the ER and lifted up onto a fixed hospital bed, where a bevy of nurses and hospital assistants rush to help me.

In the next few minutes, a couple of things are determined: 1) I didn’t hit my head (well, duh) and 2) I should have been wearing a helmet (well, duh). Twenty years of bike riding and this is the first accident I’ve had, but as the medical assistant warns me, one is enough. His brother got doored and was hit by a car in the road, he tells me – you don’t want to take that risk. Wordlessly, I nod. It seems silly to argue otherwise – had I landed the wrong way, I would have been dead. That’s no exaggeration, because I literally had no control over my body as I fell through the air, and if I had fallen on my head, I wouldn’t have just needed some aspirin and a a weekend of rest, as turned out to be the case. Two doctors and a cop tell me I need to buy a helmet, and I agree with all of them. They discharge me after an hour and let me leave under my own strength. “How do I get home?” I ask one of the orderlies. “The train station is right outside,” he says. “Oh,” I say, “thanks.”

I’m leaving with a contused knee, as the official medical report says, and a bizarre what-if sense of mortality that is exacerbated by my mother’s near-hysterical reaction when I call her on the phone to tell her what happened. The lesson learned? Wear a helmet. If you’re a driver, look out the window. I limp to the nearby train, go home and rest for the next three days. A week after that, my bike is stolen in the middle of the night. I don’t know what karma gods I’ve offended to make my ‘biking high’ crash down so offensively, but Evanston is sending me a message. I’ll have to wait until summer, when I return home, to experience the frantic thought of biking once more.