Raised voices raise emotions. Three recent street encounters let me elaborate.
1. The good.
I stood at the junction of North End Road and Dawes Road, caught in one of those moments of great indecision, the sort that turns blood to glue, and bones to rock. It was over a rather trivial matter (it always is): whether to hurry home in order to depart again, or take my time and settle in for the evening. After some moments, with relief, I chose the latter. I turned to make my way up the road and as I did I heard a woman’s voice. It was deep, melodic and echoed off the buses. It came from a large woman in her mid-fifties who stood leaning off the kerb to be heard by the car that was stopped at the lights. I paused to observe, fearful that an angry confrontation was taking place. Fearful because it never feels good to clash like this, an angry honk on your way to work can really sour one’s mood; fearful because anger can only lead to fear.
But she wasn’t angry; she was giving directions. As the sounds turned into words I realised that they weren’t “get out of” or “what were you thinking”, they were “turn left on” and “keep going until”. My heart lifted and with it lifted off the heavy coating I had seemed to have been labouring under. The swiftness with which it happened surprised me. Having no reason to remain there I walked on and I played with these thoughts. Am I so malleable that I am twisted and changed by the chance encounters of double-strangers? (Strangers not only to me but also to each other.) Is one little moment of selflessness towards another so uplifting?
2. The bad.
I was on familiar roads in an unfamiliar seat. Replacing my saddle was the middle spot in a transit van. I was a metre above my usual road position and I felt it; it felt high. As we crossed Battersea bridge I watched cyclists skirt past us far below. I was surprised by how different the roads seemed. I, the van, was big and powerful, yet with that power came the threat I posed to others of which I always had to be aware. The gaps that look so comfortable in my cycling past had narrowed. I watched as a rider just ahead of us swerved out around a parked car. On a bike I would have found this fine; from the van it seemed almost dangerous. Well, I’ll try to remember how the world looks to such others when I return to my bike.
We stopped at lights at the same time as another van did beside us, and on the outside of him a scooter tried to squeeze past, failed, and bumped with some force into the side of van. He was fine — he hadn’t come off — but the scene exploded. Mr. Van jumped out and came storming round, screaming at Mr. Scooter even before he could see him. Mr. Scooter, in defence of himself, screamed back. It was the scooter’s fault, yes, but does this justify the tirade? As Mr. Van poured out whatever he had pent up, everybody in earshot winced. One man, as he crossed the road, made a half-hearted attempt to diffuse things, but his demeanour suggested that he wouldn’t get far. Finally the lights changed, Mr. Van, with a last yell, climbed back aboard, and as his engine chugged into life, I felt the outletting of breathes we had all been holding.
3. The ugly.
At a crossroads the pedestrian lights turned green with their “beep beep beep beep”. Crossers crossed, heads down and shopping bags in tow. One person caught me though, as I sat at the front of the line on my bike. In contrast to the quite careful, calculated avoidance of each other that takes place amongst Londoners, he was wildly oblivious of the world. Setting out from the kerb he barely made progress across the street as he careened in great circles. His thick, shabby, open coat waved out behind him like a cape. His words came in bursts. Most would have been intelligible singly, but the order in which he strung them together garbled them. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The detachment between him and here seemed absolute. I grew nervous as he came closer, both of the danger towards me his indiscriminate flailing arms might have and of what might happen if our eyes met.
He was still in the road as our lights turned green. I waited, unsure. The cars behind me did not though, they pulled past me, then him, weaving around us carefully but hurriedly. As the 207 trundled past his voice was all but drowned out. Then I too, set off past him, to continue with my day.