This is my family bike, a.k.a. my Smugness Flotilla Mark II (with all due respect to the Smugness Flotilla Mark I
, which has since been re-homed):
Every weekday morning I load my larger human child onto the front seat and strap my smaller human child into the rear seat, then I take the middle perch and we all ship out together to bring the former child to day camp. According to a popular Internet mapping application, it's a journey of exactly 1.1 miles. (Or a whopping 2.2 miles round-trip.) And of that 1.1 miles, .7 miles (or approximately 70% of the total one-way trip) is within the confines of a sub-neighborhood in the Bronx called Fieldston.
Fieldston is a privately-owned neighborhood consisting entirely of very large and expensive single-family homes, and it was established early in the last century as sort of a "residential park." While not gated, truck traffic is forbidden, as is street parking for anybody who is not a Fieldston resident. Apart from the Ubers and luxury cars headed to and from the local prep schools in the morning and the afternoon, automotive traffic is light. Because there are no parked cars lining the curb the sight lines are ample, and because the streets follow the topography of the land rather than a grid it's that much more difficult for drivers to speed.
What I'm establishing here is that this is not exactly a hardcore bicycle commute.
Indeed, the only challenging aspect of this ride is that it takes you over a fairly steep hill. Sure, it's not quite Mont Ventoux, but it's enough that with two kids and a 50lb bicycle I'm going slightly faster than walking speed. Also, by the time I'm about halfway up I'm generally pretty winded and not in a position to answer my older child's incessant questions about science and the nature of the universe.
And it was at exactly this moment that I passed the Helmet Mime.
So what is a "Helmet Mime?" A Helmet Mime is someone who points repeatedly to his or her head and mouths the word "Helmet!" admonishingly over and over again as you pass. Occasionally these Helmet Mimes also speak, which I realize is not exactly in keeping with the whole "mime" analogy, but it's still a fitting term in that gratuitous gesticulating is the main feature of this bizarre behavior.
This particular Helmet Mime happened to be an older woman. She was walking in the street along the curb, which is what you do in Fieldston because: 1) The bluestone sidewalks are often bulging due to tree roots and are therefore generally unwalkable; and 2) Fieldston is one of those exceedingly rare places in New York City where an older woman can walk safely and comfortably in the street. She was walking down the hill and I was grinding up it. She smiled, which is what people often do when they see us all on the bike together, because it's fucking adorable. So I assumed that's what was going on here too. But then the miming began:
"Helmet, helmet, helmet!," she repeated over and over again while pointing to her head repeatedly and idiotically with both index fingers, like she was drawing the McDonald's arches over her head.
By the way, in case you're wondering, here was the helmet breakdown on the Smugness Flotilla this morning (and every morning):
--Me: no helmet
--Elder child: no helmet
--Younger child: helmet
This might seem like a haphazard arrangement, but indeed it is quite the opposite, and it's one I've arrived upon after a lifetime of cycling. Now I'm not saying I know all there is to know about riding bikes--far from it. Indeed, my life as a semi-professional bike blogger has afforded me the opportunity to meet all manner of cycling luminaries, which in turn has only served to remind me of what a relative neophyte I am. Trust me, when you talk to someone who's won a Grand Tour, or run a successful bike company, or helped get bike lanes installed and legislation passed, the first thing you realize is that in the grand scheme of things you don't know shit.
Still, at this point in my life I maintain I'm allowed to say I've been around the block as far as bikes are concerned. I've crashed coming out of the gate at a BMX race and heard the pounding of bear trap pedals against my helmet as my fellow competitors rode right over me. I've ridden a hybrid shirtless and wearing half-shorts. I've attempted to race the Five Boro Bike Tour. I've stood outside a building at 7:00pm in the freezing December rain, near tears because I had a modeling portfolio still to deliver, everyone in the office had already gone home, and I'd have done anything to do the same. I've placed second in a park race and won like $20. I've attacked Lance Armstrong on the slopes of the River Road ranger station climb while a documentary film crew was rolling. I've experienced the wide spectrum of motor-vehicular intimidation and assault, and since starting this blog I've lived eyeball-deep in such stories from around the world.
I could go on. The point is that as a cyclist I am the sum total of decades of experiences good, bad, and embarrassing, and that the way my children and I are outfitted on the bike at any given moment is not happenstance. It's me concluding quite judiciously that you don't need a fucking foam hat to safely ride a bike through a "residential park" for five fucking minutes, and neither do your kids--though it's also me concluding I'll put one on the baby anyway because of the goddamn Helment Mimes.
But alas this concession to the illusion of safety was not enough, for here was this woman pointing to the two spots on her skull where her antennae should be and bleating the word "Helmet."
My entire cycling life passed before my eyes as I watched this woman do her inane jumping jacks at me, and at that moment it was as if there were no dumber person on Earth than her. Who was she to chastise me as she perambulated in her bubble of privilege? Could she possibly think what I was doing was unduly dangerous or irresponsible? Or is she simply under the delusion that I'm setting a bad example for my child by not making him wear a foam totem on his head for the five minutes he's going to be sitting on a slow-moving bicycle? Because let's be totally honest here: Who's going to learn more about safety? The helmetless kid who spends every day on a bike with a father who lives and breathes cycling and shows him all the ways drivers kill, or the one with five inches of helmet strap slack on the Spider-man bike from Toys R Us who has never seen his parents operate any vehicle that isn't an SUV?
Speaking of SUVs, what would you rather be passed by as you walk in the street? A family on a bike who are two-thirds helmetless, or a two-ton motor vehicle? Because here's what camp drop-off and pick-up looks like around the corner from where we passed the Helmet Mime:
This is not my kid's camp; this is another one right nearby. But pretty much every camp and school everywhere is beset by a cluster of cars twice a day. And while I'm in no position to get all "One Less Car" on anybody (I do drive a car that a bank owns until I finish paying them back), the fact is that I'm basically doing the Helmet Mime and everyone else in the neighborhood a personal favor by not adding to this kind of shitshow on a daily basis.
Of course, I was able to communicate exactly none of this to the Helmet Mime, owning mostly to the fact that to confront her would have been to set a bad example for my children. (Though I suppose there's already no hope for them since I'm subjecting them to a life of flagrant helmetless, so what does it matter anyway?) Therefore, I had to content myself with congratulating her for successfully pointing to her own head as I passed.
Anyway, incredibly and against all odds, we made it to camp unscathed despite our reckless behavior.
And sure, I could forgive this woman for her concern, but to do so would be to surrender to both brainwashing and victim-blaming, as embodied by this now-deleted tweet from "Brainpicker
This ghost bike belongs to Olga Evgleska Cook, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver while riding on the Hudson River Greenway
. (And, as other tweeters pointed out, was apparently wearing a helmet.)
As for Popova, she mounted a brave yet wrongheaded defense of her stupid and insulting tweet before ultimately taking it down.
As for me, after the camp drop-off I headed north, where I encountered this deer:
As I passed, I pointed to my head and repeated "Antlers!" over and over again:
I hope it learned its lesson.