Seen in San Francisco: An interesting day

You might notice my ‘Roll of 28’ picture today isn’t exactly inspiring. Well, you’ll have to cut me a break, because on my way in to work I was running kind of late, and on my way home from work I had to stop and take some time out to try to prevent an older woman bus driver from being assaulted. Or, to look at it another way, to try to prevent a bus driver from goading a young, extremely agitated guy into hitting her and getting his life dramatically more fucked up than it already was.

I have witnessed a certain amount of screwed up shit in my life, and I haven’t always done as much as I thought I could have to prevent it, so I’m going to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back for this one. Bear with me a little?

So: I’m riding the bus home. We pull up to a bus stop, and the doors open, and then I hear the squealing of brakes. And, shortly after that, I hear raised voices, and the bus driver gets off the bus, and everyone else in the bus starts getting off through the back doors and heading back to the next bus, which is already pulled up right behind us.

Now, I’ll digress for a moment to tell you what I think probably happened here. Bear in mind that this is speculation, but informed speculation.

It seems that there was a bicyclist riding down the middle of the right lane. There’s a bike lane on that road, but it’s shared with the bus stops, which makes it seriously dangerous to use if there are any busses around, so it’s hardly surprising that he was in a traffic lane. Nevertheless, it’s really easy to miss a bike in the right lane if you’re merging over.

So, we have a bicyclist. And we have several young people, say 18-ish, in a car. The car merged over, not seeing the bike, and the bike swerved to avoid him (barely), which leaves the car in the right lane and the bicyclist in the bike lane, inches from the car and probably inches from the bus on the other side. And the bicyclist made some unfortunate gesture, which may or may not have, intentionally or accidentally, involved his hand going into the passenger-side window, where it may or may not have actually struck the woman in the passenger seat. We’re talking VERY close call here, and therefore VERY tight quarters.

Here’s where things get hairy. I admit that I don’t have a good idea of what happened. However, I do have a good idea of the amount of time it happened in, and I also have a good idea (from what was being yelled) of what each side seemed to think happened. My best guess is this: the car and bike were going close to the same speed as they got past the bus. The driver wanted to pull over (possibly so he could get out and yell some more), so he stomped on the brake to let the bicyclist go by, and then turned his car… at the exact same time that the bicyclist slammed on his own brakes, not wanting to be stuck next to a rather volatile guy in a car. The net result is that the car was going maybe fifteen or twenty miles an hour when it plowed into the bicycle. Bicyclist fell off but probably wasn’t struck, and was apparently fine (or so he said, and there was no evidence of blood and he was walking around and not limping so I’ll take his word for it), but the bicycle was certainly mangled.

Okay. So, like I said, that’s speculation. All I really know is, the guy in the car hit the bike, the guy on the bike fell off, and the guy on the car got out but didn’t do anything else aggressive.

So I get up to the front of the bus at about the same time that the bus driver gets back on, followed by the bicyclist. Standing at the door of the bus is the couple who were in the front seats of the car, and they’re yelling at the cyclist and the driver, not yelling abuse but, well, yelling ‘their side of the story’. It’s pretty obvious that they’re terrified, because they’ve just nearly killed someone in an auto accident, and they’re trying like hell to make it not their fault. Natural human reaction, though not especially helpful.

The cyclist is just standing there, looking a little shell-shocked and not saying anything. The slight smile on his face probably wasn’t helping, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t ‘smug’ so much as it was ‘holy crap I just got hit by a car and I’m still in one piece’.

The bus driver, on the other hand, is yelling right back at the driver. Something along the lines of, “I SAW WHAT YOU DID, YOU TRIED TO MURDER HIM, YOU TRIED TO RUN HIM OVER, YOU’RE A MURDERER.” And blah blah blah. (There may have been something about the police arresting him. I kind of tuned her out.)

Yes, that’s really helpful. Let’s yell that in the face of a teenager who has just exchanged heated words with someone, and then nearly killed that person, probably by accident, and who consequently has around a gallon of adrenalin washing around in his system. If you were looking for a way to goad someone into hitting you, you couldn’t have found a better one.

Fortunately, it was pretty obvious that things weren’t quite to the tipping point yet. I got up there and asked the bus driver, ‘Do you really think you’re making the situation any better by yelling at him? Why don’t you call the police?’ It took a bit of this to get her to stop, or maybe she just got tired of yelling straight into my face since she couldn’t see the couple through me, but in any case, she stopped and picked up her bus-phone thing. And then, with her no longer yelling, I turned around and worked on the couple, saying something along the lines of, ‘Look, I know this is totally fucked up, but you’ve got to calm down. The more you run around yelling before the cops get here, the worse it’s going to look for you. If you’re calm and you can tell them what happened when they get here, they’re a lot more likely to believe you than if you’re yelling.”

I’m not sure how much of what I said they actually processed, but something must have been persuasive, if only the fact that the bus driver wasn’t yelling any more. They stopped yelling themselves, and even stopped trying to talk to the bus driver and the cyclist at all for a minute or so. And when they did come back and start again, they were obviously still agitated, but no longer in full fight-or-flight mode, and the volume had come way down. And I started talking with them, you know, ‘look, he walked away from it, you didn’t kill anyone, just chill out and it’s going to be okay’ stuff.

And then the bus driver puts her hand over the phone and starts yelling at them again… same stuff, “I SAW WHAT YOU DID!” Jesus, there is just no helping some people. Is that what she thought I was there for? To stand between her and this guy so she could continue yelling him?

I turned back to her but, for the first time since the whole thing started, I didn’t have any idea what to say, and just stood there with my mouth open, staring at her. Well, I’d like to say that my glare was enough to get her to stop, but it’s probably more likely that the police asked her something on the phone, or maybe she just ran out of steam on her own, but whyever it was, she stopped. And she hadn’t succeeded in escalating things again.

And just as I’m turning around to talk to the couple again, probably all of three minutes after I first got involved and maybe 90 seconds after the 911 call was placed, the cops got there.

To be clear: I never at any time felt like I was in any real physical danger. Things never escalated to the level where an obviously neutral innocent bystander was going to get hit. But I really do think that without my help, that bus driver might have managed to goad someone who was already terrified and furious into doing something really, really stupid.

He had an excuse: he was young, and he had just been through an incredibly traumatic experience. What the hell her excuse was, I will never know.

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4 Responses to Seen in San Francisco: An interesting day

  1. Matthew says:

    When are you posting the Corgi pictures you promised?

  2. M.C. says:

    Having seen some of those viral Muni fight videos… I think you probably did a good deed by speaking up. Good thing SOMEone on the scene was willing to be calm and reasonable! And glad that nobody was seriously hurt…

    • Adam Lang says:

      Me too. Sometimes people just need a little reminder that things don’t HAVE to escalate. And I’m glad I was in a position to administer one effectively.

      I’m doing a lot of thinking about how I could tell that I wasn’t endangering myself… because I was absolutely certain that I was in no danger, despite the wound-up guy. I want to make sure that if I do this again, I don’t misjudge the situation and get myself assaulted… or, at least, I want to minimize the risk of that as much as I can. It’s really interesting to sit back and try to analyze the kind of emotion-cue reading that most human beings (and other animals) do by instinct.

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