Mental Health Day:
When you call in sick to work. But you really just want to take a day off and chill out.
Once, I really enjoyed sleeping. It’s La petite mort, nowadays. But back then, was a personal affront if some part of the sun’s rays somehow snuck through a gap in my apartment’s light defenses. How dare it awaken me from my joyful state. The word ‘apartment’ really doesn’t fit, though, and I should amend. The term denotes “…a suite of rooms forming one residence, typically in a building containing a number of these.” I didn’t live in that. I guess, you could say it was a ‘studio’ I rented at the time.
Okay, it was a converted garage…make that a small garage…attached to my landlady’s house. But hey, it was my place, and in the beach city of Santa Monica, CA. So what my last place of residence as a single person was just 400 square feet in total. My future bride would later claim it was so tiny she had to step outside to change her mind. At least it had three distinct rooms. A kitchen, a bathroom and one living slash entertainment slash bedroom zone. That latter distinguished by its lack of a drain.
Back then, only two things got me up early. Work and cycling. The former for obvious reasons. Something had to pay for all these ‘luxuries’. The latter was the active passion of mine before I married. Being on the street on my road bike (skinny tires, bike shorts, shaved legs and all), putting in the miles across the southland, my place of meditation. Basic transportation now and then, too. A zen state achieved via sweat and balance, to say nothing of a little exhaustion.
Even if my place was teeny, it still could hold two road-racing bikes. One French and American…hey, their flags had the same colors. Just in different order. With spare wheels, bike accessories and tools, along with everything else I owned. Which, as you can guess, wasn’t much. Typically, I was training for weekend events with other cyclists. Especially when weather got warmer, as well as riding my two-wheeled steed to and from work to save on gas.
But back to this particular Monday. As much as I liked my vocation at the time, some days, and they always seemed to land on the first day of the work week, I dreaded returning to the job. Hence the need for the ‘mental health day’. This was one, except it was anything but ordinary.
Monday Monday, Can’t Trust That Day
YES! A day off. Well, I did call in a semi-sickly voiced excuse. With a tinge of guilt, but certainly without regret. I’m selfish that way. Now did I stay in and sleep, or head out somewhere on my lithe, spoked steed? I’ve pondered what would have happened if I’d gone with the first option. Maybe, it would have been worst than what occurred. Some serial killer may have ventured by that morning, rung the door, but moved on since no one was home. I’ll never know.
I got up and dressed in my cycling jersey and lycra shorts — the article of clothing most unique to bicyclists since they have a chamois strategically placed to… ahem… cushion the ride. Got down my TREK (the lightest bike with the aluminum frame) from its perch, and pumped up the tires to the correct pressure. Filled and loaded my water bottles with electrolyte solution to the frame, grabbed my helmet and gloves, and off I went.
The usual 40-mile circuit I did on weekends for speed training, my goal. Headed up to Montana Avenue, caught San Vicente east (it had a bike lane), to cut through the westside VA grounds before turning north onto Sepulveda. In Spanish, there’s an accent on the “u” which would make it seh-puhl-ve-duh. If you pronounce it with the accent on the second “e”, rather the “u”, locals are instantly aware you’re from out of town. Anyway, sliding on one of the major thoroughfares of Los Angeles. A street just about every Angeleno has crossed or been on, at one time or another.
Both based on screenplays by Robert Towne, by the way.
Sepulveda Boulevard stretches over 42 miles across our well-known (read infamous) urban sprawl. From the north end of the San Fernando Valley, where Jake Gettes got stomped by cheated orange growers in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, all the way down to the outskirts of Hermosa Beach in the South Bay. Not far from the overlook Lt. Nick Frecia gazed from as he maneuvered Jo Ann Vallenari to her sandy rendezvous with best friend Dale ‘Mac’ McKussic in Tequila Sunrise. I tell ‘ya, This Town.
Ah, but I digress.
Normally, the round-trip had two climbs worth your heart rate, what most cyclists actually enjoyed raising, which also offered some fairly fun decents as a reward for cresting each. The Sepulveda Pass (1130 ft. elevation) and Topanga Canyon (at 1084 ft.). The former a pass in the Santa Monica Mountains that connects the westside of the L.A. Basin with the San Fernando Valley. Heading west across that dale on Ventura Boulevard will eventually bring you to the latter. The boulevard, AKA State Route 27, that traverses said canyon from the valley way up and over to the tucked away community on the ocean side.
A road that winds its way down to the famed Pacific Coast Highway, landing you in between Malibu to the northwest, and Pacific Palisades to your left and southeast. The latter my way home via PCH, the same scenic highway that claimed director Bob Clark in 2007, incidentally. The whole thing usually done in just under two and half hours. On this bright and clear Spring morn, as I headed out my door, I’d never reach this point.
Morning’s chill had dissipated fairly quickly. Myself thoroughly warmed up as I bisected the Veterans Administration’s cemetery grounds on one side and the 405 freeway the other as I headed up the boulevard. The goal of the climb being Sepulveda’s tunnel that sat atop the pass. Achieving the destination brought you, your lungs, and legs relief from the effort of attaining the small but striking summit on two wheels.
Should be said I was never a great climber. Rarely did I ever lead a pack of cyclists up a hill. Now, descending was another matter. The ground lost to the better climbers heading up was regained and surpassed on the downhill. Rarely did I touch my brakes on open, zigzag descents. Stepping hard on my outside pedal as I leaned into turns. Accelerating as I went till reaching the bottom of the gradient. I loved the speed and the skill it took to handle the curves. Somehow hold on to the last of the receding traction of skinny tires. Not thinking of the pavement quickly moving underneath.
Once passed the tunnel, the valley-side of Sepulveda promised a serpentine slope ahead, which brought a smile…normally.
The first turns diving down were wide open — all the crowded, almost standstill, car traffic (heading to work) on the opposing side of the road. I reckon I was approaching 40 miles per hour in the rightmost lane, when on my periphery a white pickup, one with a matching color camper shell on its bed, passed me on the left lane. No biggie. Hardly any traffic on our side of the boulevard. Though, I thought it strange once passed the driver changed lanes over to mine. I’d maneuvered safely with other vehicles on these streets many times through the years. L.A. always a car town.
Then the brake lights appeared. Not suddenly slamming on like a driver would do purposely a couple of decades later to a set of bicyclists, but definitely done for a reason. I’d find out soon enough as I touched my brake lever in response and leaned the bike over, to be nearer the curb. To safety, I mistakenly thought. Figuring that if he/she continued to slow (I hadn’t spotted the driver, much like Dennis Weaver’s character in Duel) I’d pass them. Except, I never did. The pickup off its brakes as it came up along side. Then back on the gas as it matched my speed.
I remember I thought it strange for a quick second, which was all the time I had really, as the vehicle began to pull itself to the right. Then I began to realize the driver’s true motive. Now I really began to brake — unlike a motorcycle, one can’t accelerate out of trouble on a self-powered bicycle. Slowing my only hope to get me away from along side of this miscreant. Then the truck began to slow once more, too. Again, matching my deceleration to keep me and the bike in-between it and the curb that crept ever closer.
Knowing you’re in trouble is different than thinking it. Doubt never bares its disbelieving face in such circumstances. Only thing left for me was to reach the sidewalk close at hand, I decided. No driveways to duck into, though. Not this high up in the pass. Had to jump for it. But what was an everyday cyclist maneuver in normal terms was anything but, here. Fingers braking, eyes darting between the truck, the curb and the sidewalk moving passed, let alone the power poles intermittently flying by, all occurring as I readied the bike to make the leap. One that had to be made as I decelerated. A first. Hopefully, not my last.
Then I felt the nudge of the pickup’s side and any clean opportunity went by the wayside as my wheels left the boulevard.
Every cyclist comes to learn, it’s not if but when, you crash to roll with it. That and thank God you wear a helmet and gloves. Take quick inventory of your parts when you come to a halt, too. I did. I’d suffered plenty of road rash before this, and it was far from the worst. Bleeding only a bit, but nothing broken. I’ve tried to imagine how I looked sitting next to my bike on that sidewalk this day. How’d it must have looked from the side-view mirror of that truck. The one now stopped twenty yards ahead of me. He/she/it was admiring his/her/its morning work, damn it!
No words came from me as this sunk it.
The driver sitting in stuck traffic a few lanes over, though, had plenty to say. Yelling out his driver’s side window, directly at the reprobate now idling a few car lengths from each of us, that they’d just run someone off the road. That got them, the unseen driver, out of their glee, and the pickup quickly sped down the rest of Sepulveda’s decent. The concerned driver asked about me next. A compassionate gesture that somehow dashed what quickly came into my head after realizing what just happened. The portion Lex Luthor’s father espoused to his son (done to perfection almost ten years earlier by Gene Hackman),
“People are no damn good...”
The guy, who was around my age, even offered to drive me to medical care, call the police once there (in this pre-cell phone era). I thanked him, but ultimately turned him down. Convincing him I was better off than I looked. What would I report anyway? Noting a license plate, “…in all this excitement…”, as Harry Calahan would say, only happens in the movies, I learned. No, I could still ride. My bicycle functioned, though with a few, new scratches. I’d come off the pass on my own wheels. All the way back down to the only emergency room I knew well and trusted to salve the abrasions I again wore as a cyclist. Now with a newly survived perspective.
So, after all said and done, ended right back at the same medical center I normally would have worked that Monday, anyway.