Sunday, October 16, 2011

Post by my Mom: New Kid on the Train

My mother, Laurene, agreed to share her thoughts about commuting by bike/train from San Juan Capistrano to Santa Ana in suburban Orange County, California. My posts about biking in Orange County are here, and posts about Laurene's forays into transport cycling are here and here. I really appreciate her keen eye for social dynamics, and how badass is she for trying this thing out at age 60.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was involved in a car accident on September 14th on my way to work.  To be more accurate: I slammed on my brakes and veered right to avoid, but ultimately crashed into, the Mazda truck that had suddenly stopped at the signal before the I-5 South off ramp. Just for the record, I was neither on my cell phone nor applying my makeup when this occurred.  I had just looked down at something and then there he was. The enraged victim of my error jumped out of his truck and ran back to my collapsed Honda CRV where I sat rocking and holding my hurt knee. His expression transformed to sympathy.  “Oh, you’re hurt … I’ll call this in.”

Quite promptly the heretofore pristine San Juan Capistrano morning air squealed with sirens.  One would assume that a single police car and one truck with paramedics would have sufficed; instead, I found myself assailed by multiple police officers and a moving wall of fireman decked out for an inferno of cataclysmic proportions. When one rude San Juan Capistrano cop yelled at me to get off my cell phone (you are supposed to immediately submit a claim to your insurance company, right?) … I dissolved into tears.  A very kind fireman rescued me and humanely guided me to the safety of a curb where I continued to sob between answers to his questions.  As I sat there trembling, somebody to my left struggled to get my blood pressure (low) and to find a pulse.  For a brief moment I wondered if I had died and was dreaming all this. The empathetic fireman, who happened to be my age, asked me if I had any previous aches and pains. We exchanged knowing looks before having a good laugh (in between my fits of crying). I find it extremely insulting that this accident has since been called a “fender bender.”

Now you know why I commuted to work last week by bicycle and train.

Day One: My daughter Vera's boyfriend blessedly offers to drop me and my trusty little folding commuter bike off at work in Santa Ana on his way north. (My bike’s diminutive size will be addressed later.) Awkwardly folded as it is to fit in the back of his car, he graciously carries it up to the third floor of my office building for me. We stick it in the storage room across the hall from my office.  A pretty uneventful work day follows. My boss has approved me to leave at 3:45 in order to make the 4:16 train. I have previously biked the route to the Santa Ana train station once with my daughter Adonia, bicycle advocate extraordinaire, and another time I biked it alone. Piece of cake! (Think Billy Crystal in Forget Paris.) It must here be noted that neither time had I been under any real time pressure.

At 3:40 I shut down my computer and start to lock up my office. At 3:43 our accountant needs an immediate response to a question whose answer resides solely in my computer.  At 3:46 I shut down my computer again. At 3:47 my boss “remembers” that I need to leave at 3:45. At 3:50 I cross the hall without the key to the storage closet.  At 3:51 I cross the hall with the key to the storage closet where I realize that my bike needs to be reassembled. At 3:55 I escort my bike up the hallway, helmeted and apparently quite the novelty to every employee in the building I pass that wants to know why I am pushing a bike through the building. Finally on my way via neighborhoods, I ride past a middle school where a young man on a kid’s bike yells, “Cool bike!” Of course he thinks it’s cool – my lightweight commuter is bigger than his!  He obviously likes teensy-weensy bikes.

I speed into the Santa Ana train station parking lot at 4:12, jump off my bike and look one way to see the three-deep line at the ticket machine and the other to watch the (supposed) 4:16 train stop, board, and leave.  The next Metrolink train I am able to catch from the Santa Ana station only goes as far as Irvine. In Irvine I realize that if I wait for the next train that takes me all the way home to San Juan Capistrano, I will most likely be late for an (already rescheduled) appointment at 6:15. Therefore, I decide that riding my bicycle from the stop in Laguna Niguel is my best option.  Piece of cake! (Earlier reference still applies.) Halfway up the gradual climb from Laguna Niguel to San Juan Capistrano, I discover that my back tire is very flat. Undeterred, I struggle home and make my appointment by the skin of my teeth.  I fall into bed early and totally exhausted after prepping for tomorrow’s two-way bike/train commute. [Here's a map of bike routes in South Orange County.]

Day Two: Having meticulously prepared my backpack with necessary workday items, I pop out of bed at 5:30 am. I showered last night, so need only to stow perishable breakfast and lunch items. It is not quite daylight in San Juan Capistrano at 5:50 am.  In the dark, I pedal down my hill past the library and all the way to the signal on Camino Capistrano. Sweating, I remove my light jacket while I wait for the light to change. After it changes and I pedal on towards the train station, the “thump, thump, thumping” of my back tire reminds me that it is still flat (see previous day). I hurriedly purchase my $6 day pass ($1 senior discount – I’m only 60, but that qualifies me) and position myself with the other commuters waiting for the train. I notice that most of them are farther up the tracks, but decide maybe I have a better shot at quickly getting on the train if I don’t join them.  I have to run for the train. Aha! They do this every day and know where the train stops. Even after racing to find the bike symbol on a car, I am able to get my bike on and buckled in before the train doors close.  Wow, this is great!! No other bikes but mine on the car!!  One other cyclist gets on in Laguna Niguel.

When I arrive at the Santa Ana train station, I limp and thump my way somewhat fearfully up Broadway (a main street) to the closest gas station I can find. After pulling up to the air pump, I realize that the coin-operated machine only takes quarters. Side trip into gas station office for change (where attendant doesn’t advise me of the fact that it is illegal in CA to charge for air and they have tokens for this which I find out later from a family member) … successful pumping of air into flat … followed by early arrival at work. Uneventful work day follows.  It appears that my whole life is focused on commuting successfully to work this week.

I leave the office at 3:45 on the dot and having discovered that Broadway is a more direct route than the one Adonia had shown me, I take it instead. There is more traffic on Broadway in the afternoon, so I use the sidewalk.  Mistake.  It is extremely stressful watching for cars coming out of driveways and turning into them; nonetheless, since I purchased a day pass in the morning I am actually early for the 4:16 train. This time when I get on the train there are other cyclists there before me. I am able to position my bike in front of the other three but receive dirty looks from the male bike owners as I try to set my teeny-tiny little bike next to their giant-sized monsters. They exchange knowing glances with each other and ignore me when I ask whose bikes they are and if anyone is getting off before San Juan Capistrano. I’m not sure, but there may be a male cyclist hierarchy on the trains. On my way to family pizza night I stop at the local bike store where I bought my little folding commuter and invest $66 in a bike pump, emergency tire patching kit, a water bottle holder and fee for replacing my back tire’s tube.

Day Three: Having learned from yesterday’s experience (bicycling is harder in a skirt and I didn't have enough time to bike to buy lunch) today my backpack contains: a change of clothes, my lunch, book, calendar, keys and heavy wallet. I realize that my ride to the station is all downhill until the signal at Camino Capistrano and so conserve my energy by coasting all the way there. As if welcoming me to my second morning of commuting, the signal gratuitously changes to green so that I smoothly coast through the intersection all the way to the depot driveway. Isn’t life wonderful?

After purchasing my day pass and positioning my bike closer to those who have been doing this longer than me, I notice my son-in-law Eric zooming to the ticket machine mere minutes before the train is due. He is riding his own BIG bike, and I now understand why. He started doing the bike/train commute to his own job in Santa Ana before me on Adonia’s folding commuter bike. He's a man, and if the hierarchy mocks my little bike, how much more humiliation must he have faced?  Is this some kind of male private part size issue? Well, if so, I’ve resolved my penis envy, so I’m not getting hooked by it. Eric and I run to find a car with our coded symbol only to discover two bikes already there. We are able to bungee our bikes to them. Eric very kindly tells me that I can keep the bungee for the days ahead. The two guys from yesterday are just as mean to Eric as they were to me.  Meaner. “Don’t jam your handlebars into my spokes!” gripes the one with the glasses and headphones. (Okay, so maybe I am feeling a little motivated to challenge this hierarchy, but it is definitely not penis envy. I still love my little bike.)

My days are now most assuredly geared around this new train/bike commuting paradigm.  It is all I talk about, think about and plan for.  I just try and get some work accomplished at the office in between.  On the way home I discover that I can share Broadway with the other drivers instead of using the sidewalk. This cuts down on my time to the station also. Leaving work at 3:45 gets me there 10 minutes early with this shortcut.  Yay! I saw another woman with a bike on the train home. I wonder how she is doing with the hierarchy. She and I smile at each other knowingly.

Day Four: Having learned from yesterday’s experience, I eliminate my calendar and wallet from the backpack. Needing entertainment on the train, I pack a book, but a paperback instead of hardback.  Eric appears just in the nick of time again and we luckily find a car with only two other bikes on it. He decides to go check out other cars to see if every car is full of bikes after we discuss the possibility that there may be certain cars that the nasty bike commuters prefer and we can prudently avoid. Still and all, I am starting to feel camaraderie with my fellow early morning train commuters. We acknowledge each other with a nod as I walk my bike past them in the darkness. The other bicyclists continue to ignore me, though. Eric returns with information from another cyclist that it is always a crap shoot finding bike space on the train. We bid our adieus as he leaves the train in Tustin.

Riding down Washington is very peaceful all the way to Broadway. The parking lot at my office building has its usual three or four cars and is otherwise isolated. I love it. Another work day drones by as I look forward to my commute home. On the way back to the station on Broadway, I confirm to myself that sharing the road with drivers beats the sidewalks as far as safety.  Overall, I believe that drivers on Santa Ana surface streets adapt better to me on a bike than pedestrians do on the sidewalks.  I haven’t been honked at yet; conversely, I have experienced pedestrians purposely blocking me and I’m pretty sure that hostility exudes from them. The only negative behavior that motorists have exhibited so far is zipping around me or trying to beat me through stop signs. I sit in front of them, behind and between them at signals.  So far I’ve encountered mostly consideration. Seeing multiple other cyclists on the streets leads me to believe that car drivers may be used to us.

Feeling confident about whipping my bike onto the train for my fourth ride home in a row, I am somewhat taken aback when the conductor tells me I have to find another car.  “But there were only three other bikes” I assert as he escorts me quickly to the next car shaking his head.  He enters through the handicapped side (bikes enter on one side of cars while the handicapped enter by the other entrance) and as I struggle to bungee my bike to the THREE others, I give him a significant look. I don’t make a nasty remark because he did hold the train for me after all. Following his “all aboard” announcement he comes back and explains to me that the new cars only hold three bikes, while the older cars can fit up to four. Now wouldn’t this have been good information to have the first day? There should be a bike-commuter trainer on board every train, methinks.

Day Five: My last day of forced bike/train commuting! I excitedly coast down my hill through the dark early morning and then past the library singing, “I did it … I did it …” under my breath. Yes, I’m bruised and scratched from hitting myself with my pedals and my muscles are sore, but I DID IT!!! Well, almost, anyway. Eric has Fridays off so I’m on my own this morning. The ride in on the train is uneventful. Although I take my now usual route up Broadway to work, I’ve decided to take the late train and take the long way through neighborhoods back to the station. My coworkers are very impressed that I have come through this experience intact and without significant incident. I sit in front of my boss’s desk and discuss the possibility of continuing this regime two or three days each week. She is agreeable.

I run into the only other bike commuter (she rides from home) in my building in the elevator. I’ve heard that she recently was hit by a car on her way to work. Although the office gossips told me about it in a “see how dangerous it is biking on city streets?” tone, she is back biking to work on a brand new bicycle.  “I love it,” she proclaims to me. “I couldn’t wait to get back on a bike!” After five days in a row of biking through the same town, she is preaching to the choir. We walk away from our conversation with conspiratorial grins on our faces.

At some point during the day I get a text from my eldest daughter, Gia (Eric’s wife).  “Guess whose car broke down?” I take a wild stab that it was hers. Indeed. Funny how many people around me have been affected by mechanical breakdowns of late.  Eric had just resolved Vera’s car breakdown the night before my accident. Hmmm.

I work for some hours and then leisurely ride to the train station where I have time to eat a meatball sandwich [yum! sez the newly vegetarian editrix] at the café before joining my fellow commuters by the southbound track.  At 5:30ish (train was due at 5:26 and is usually early) I notice small groups gathering. Around 5:35 I overhear one of the closer groups talking about our train. Apparently, it broke down at the Anaheim station and promptly began spewing some liquid from the engine. I gradually approach the closest group and begin asking questions. They include me in their conversation and larger groups form as we all start pulling together and sharing information. The only information we get is from those with Iphones … the speakers by the tracks are apparently also not working. I text Gia, “Guess whose train broke down?” She calls right back and we laugh hysterically as she shares that it has started to rain and I spot the clouds approaching from the south. When I get off the phone, I share this news with my fellow San Juanenos who have been eyeing me as I stood guffawing. We are bonding!!

Around 5:45 a southbound Metrolink stops and we all crowd around one door until someone tells us that it only goes to Irvine.  Some get on, but most of us decide to wait for the next one. An Amtrak comes a little later and some of us with monthly passes get on that one. Finally, around 6:15, a southbound train boards the remainder of us (and those who usually ride the later train). The rain hits after we are safely on the train and only in Irvine. I wave goodbye to all my new acquaintances as we go our separate ways when the train arrives in San Juan Capistrano. In a funky sweetly melancholic mood I pedal up the hill home.

So, what have I gleaned from my week of going carfree? Principally, I have learned that human beings are very adaptable – much more so than one might generally assume. Most significantly, for me anyway, I have learned that riding the train and biking to and from the train stations is FUN. It is interesting to ride through neighborhoods instead of sitting in traffic on the freeway. I see and interact with people, both on my bike and on the train or waiting for it. When the train broke down we gathered together and communicated with each other. On the freeway when something similar happens people sit in their cars and bitch to themselves. I have time on the train to read or nap. By the time I get to work I have exercised and interacted with other human beings. Because I get to work early I have more time to get ready for my work day. I have discovered businesses along the way that I plan to frequent.

I have decided to continue to commute this way at least two days a week. My poor 2000 Honda CRV with over 236,000 miles on it deserves a rest and I can use it for the days I have appointments and such. I have met the challenge of being carless for a week and overcome!! Watch out male hierarchy … I’ll be back!