Monday, April 22, 2013

The cyclists, the drivers, lives interrupted – and then the ghosts

Photograph by Bob Castro

It’s funny – or in this case sad and not-so-funny – how the endless variety of people, places, and events in New York can change the way a day starts out.

I had joined one of the city’s several bicycle clubs this past Sunday morning for a no-stress ride on a sunny day. At some point in the early afternoon, our for-pleasure ride merged with a ride of far more serious intent.

An organization called Ghost Bikes had organized several somber "Rides of Silence" in the city to remember some of the more than 100 New York  City riders who had been killed in accidents with cars and trucks during the past year or so. In a city as big and spread out as New York, there couldn’t be just one ride, I discovered. There are too many places where riders have been struck. And too many dead.

So I ended up with a group that began by pumping up a rather steep hill in the borough of Staten Island to a spot just a past the beautiful and almost bucolic hilltop campus of little Wagner College. It was there that on February 12, 2012, a student named R.J. Tillman (that was him, at right) had left the library around 9 p.m. after studying, to head back on his bicycle to where he was living. 

Somehow, on the steep hill, a black SUV managed to hit him so hard that one of his sneakers flew off. This may not have been the first time the SUV’s driver had been in an accident, since police reported that the car’s front grill was missing. Or perhaps R.J. was struck so hard that the grill was smashed off. It's hard to know for sure because this was a hit-and-run

Ghost Bikes, which is now active not only in the U.S. and Canada but also in  26 countries from  Cyprus to Singapore, had erected a simple memorial for R.J. It’s a steel post to which a spray-painted white bicycle has been chained, and above the bicycle a sign commemorating the student’s death.

The ghost bikers brought flowers to insert in the spokes of the memorial bicycle. R.J.’s parents, who had traveled here from Syracuse, New York, a distance of 247 miles, brought something more heartbreaking: his ashes.

A solemn young woman who was leading the ride and who gave her name only as Jackie read a brief memorial service. R.J.’s parents, grim but stoic, stood by. When it was his parents’ turn to speak, his mother produced the box of ashes. She said she hadn’t been ready to do this the previous year, but now she wanted to leave some of R.J.’s remains at the place where he was killed. She invited others to spread his ashes with her.

It was hard for some of the bystanders to stay completely composed. Imagine: you raise a son and proudly send him off to college full of high hopes and great expectations. Then, suddenly, he's dead. Grieving with R.J's parents would have been enough for one day, but from there we bicycled on to 23rd Street in Manhattan, just off Fifth Avenue. Here, on January 4th of this year, a lovely woman named Jean Malizia, had gone to pay some bills.

At 58, Jean had been working hard and for many years to better herself. She started when she was 16, beginning as a waitress. She later became a bartender, then a cab driver, and then discovered her true calling – helping, caring for, comforting others. She had been studying nursing and was about to take her RN exams. That was Jean, at right.

But one day at 12:20 in the afternoon, she stepped into the street with her bicycle and was killed by a garbage truck from a private carting company. Her fiancé wrote:
The report said the truck was pulling out and clipped her; not true; he ran her over twice. There were no charges made and the driver was issued a ticket for failure to have a fire extinguisher in the truck…really?
Jean’s fiancé reported that the allegedly “clipped” woman was alive for 10 minutes under the truck’s wheels. And as for the driver, “on a bright, sunny day he did not see a 5’8” blonde woman with a bright red bike.” 

There was nothing for us to do but distribute the flowers and contemplate her finacé's skepticism.

Jean's story was read to us in front of the white ghost bike chained to a pole in honor of Jean. Her family stood by, fighting hard and not always successfully to hold back their tears.

One wonders about the police officer or officers who “investigated” the tragedy and decided that a woman lying dying with the wheels of a garbage truck on top of her had merely been “clipped,” and that the driver’s only misdemeanor was not having a fire extinguisher. A New York City cyclist and writer named Richard Rosenthal has wryly observed that in police reports, the bicycle almost inevitably strikes the motor vehicle, rarely the other way around.

Forgotten in all this is that the victims of carelessly driven cars and trucks are not only the cyclists, but also the cyclists' mothers, fathers, brothers, husbands, wives, children and fiancées.

It isn’t only some cops who sometimes have a flippant attitude toward bicycle fatalities. It’s the person in the street, and the person behind the wheel, too. Drivers resent the slower moving bikes, or the necessity of going around them. One driver out in the Hamptons, furious that a cyclist in front of him had slowed him down, once angrily told me, “People shouldn’t be allowed to ride bicycles around here. They’re just toys.”

No sir. A bicycle is a simple, relatively cheap, and pollution free machine for getting around. Your Lamborghini Adventador LP 700-4 is a toy. 

1 comment:

JoyfulA said...

So instead of doing all the stopping-n-frisking constantly, looking for a toke or some way of sending a kid to Riker's for a vacation, why aren't the cops looking for the first murderer or looking at the evidence regarding the second murderer? I think the mayor's got his priorities confused.