Sacramento’s sidewalks are no place for bicyclists

The fellow at my athletic club was outraged. He had been involved in a bike accident on a sidewalk adjacent to the state Capitol in downtown Sacramento. A stupid pedestrian, he said, was yakking away on his cellphone, not watching where he was walking, and collided with his bike.

“I have as much right on that sidewalk as he does,” the fellow said self-righteously to his buddy, who nodded sympathetically.

In fact, this clown had no right to be riding his bike on a crowded sidewalk in Sacramento’s commercial and business district. The pedestrian who was zigzagging in rhythm to his phone conversation was yet another victim of self-entitled bicyclists waging guerrilla warfare on our city sidewalks.

The City Council is to review a plan tonight that calls for pedestrian-only signs on crowded sidewalks. On blocks where cyclists are allowed on sidewalks, bikers would have to yield right-of-way to pedestrians and give them an audible warning when coming up from behind, the Bee reported. Failure to comply with these rules would lead to a $25 fine for a first offense, $100 for a subsequent offense within a year, and $250 for additional violations.

Unfortunately, the proposed rules give city staff plenty of leeway to decide when and where to put up no-biking signs, the Bee reported, and city officials have not given any specifics.

Into this vacuum has stepped Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central city. He wants to water down the fines. More ominously, he plans to introduce an amendment that would require the city manager, first, to prove bicyclists pose an actual danger on sidewalks to be designated as pedestrian-only and, second, to show that nearby streets are safe for bicyclists.

“That makes sense,” declares a Bee editorial calling for “balance” in reconciling the conflict between pedestrians — including toddlers, elderly folks and the handicapped — and bicyclists who feel entitled to whiz down sidewalks because they feel unsafe on city streets.

In fact, there is no “balance” to be found in this problem, as I wrote in a blog two years ago. Sidewalks are meant for pedestrians. Speeding and weaving bicyclists are a clear danger to those on foot. Hansen’s amendment is a purely obstructionist measure that would expose pedestrians to continued daily danger, especially in the crowded downtown and midtown areas.

As a bike rider myself, I know the danger of Sacramento’s streets. The city has been slow to establish bike lanes and other safety measures, and for that Hansen and his fellow council members are to blame. But instead of fixing the real problem, Hansen wants to throw it on the backs – legs, faces, hands and hips, too – of pedestrians.

The City Council should declare that all city sidewalks are for pedestrian use only and continue looking for “balance” between vehicular traffic and bicyclists on our city streets. If bicyclists want to legally appropriate sidewalks for their use, they should be required to prove they pose no danger to pedestrians.

Let the burden fall where common sense tells us it belongs.

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On the wisdom of leaving old love letters alone

20160720_093447I can’t get myself to throw away some old love letters I have stored in the garage, even though I have no interest in rereading them. The oldest go back 50 years to my college days. They reflect several long-term relationships that were complicated by separation and distance. All came before I had the sense to get married – for the first time — at the wise age of 55.

The letters, in their original envelopes, are stuffed in a two-drawer file cabinet along with scrapbooks, photos from grammar school, press clippings from the Long Island Daily Press and unpleasant communications from my draft board in the Vietnam War era.

To say I have no interest in rereading the letters isn’t quite accurate. That suggests an emotional indifference to their presence, which isn’t the case. Fact is, my defenses go on high alert when I see them, as though the letters are a near occasion of sin. I shut off the temptation to immerse myself in the past. I don’t want to revisit the good and the accusatory, the sweet and the sad, in their original form.

Part of me isn’t thrilled with this reaction. I subscribe to Socrates’ view that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. I have analyzed the psychological dynamics of past relationships with professional guidance. My emotions no longer sneak around behind me and whack me over the head, as one girlfriend put it. A backward glance over traveled roads might be revelatory.

Yet it doesn’t feel right to be reading letters meant for a different me. The women who wrote them had someone else in mind, and the emotional context is long gone. What good would it be for the 70-year-old me to revisit the thoughts of my 19-year-old California girlfriend as she considers moving back east to be with me?

I had met her after dropping out of college in 1965. We had a classic summer romance. But the Vietnam War had escalated rapidly, and my draft board was bearing down on me. I gave up thoughts of transferring to UC Berkeley and returned to the safety of Harvard. We wrote a lot of letters. She came to Cambridge a few months later. Things weren’t the same as they had been in sunny California. The breakup was hard on both of us.

Years ago, I used to debate with a good friend about the different ways we approached the past in our writing. He preferred to re-create yesterday as clearly and completely as possible; I wanted to look at how the past stayed alive in my head. He would recount an entire basketball game; I would reflect on why a winning shot in grade school still had significance 20 years later.

At this point in my life, I prefer to keep the raw longings and hurts of yesterday at a distance. My memories have acquired a certain patina that is best left undisturbed.

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Seeing America through different eyes

Here’s a tale of two Americas that may shed some light on why so many folks think our social system just ain’t fair.

First, we have a big bank suspected of laundering nearly $900 million for drug traffickers and processing transactions on behalf of Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Myanmar when those countries were subject to United States sanctions.

Second, we have a black man in Minnesota who was pulled over by police at least 49 times in 13 years, mostly for minor driving infractions. That’s an average of about once every three months.

The first case involves a large global bank, HSBC, and its American subsidiary, HSBC Bank USA. A congressional report issued on July 11 titled “Too Big to Jail” shows how regulators and prosecutors turned a potential criminal prosecution of the bank into a watered-down settlement that insulated its executives from criminal prosecution and failed to take into account the full scope of the bank’s violations.

The report fuels the “view that large financial institutions are not only too big to be allowed to fail but also are too significant to be prosecuted criminally,” wrote Gretchen Morgenson in the New York Times Sunday.

The second example refers to Philando Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, who was killed by a cop July 6 after being stopped for allegedly driving with a cracked taillight. The fatal shooting in Falcon Heights, a small suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, was videotaped by Castile’s girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat.

The details of the shooting are unclear, according to this New York Times story, but a number of other disturbing facts aren’t.

For example, while African Americans make up about 8 percent of the residents in Falcon Heights and several other nearby suburbs, they accounted for 19 percent of those who received tickets and 41 percent of those arrested there last year, statistics show. In addition, a recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans and Native Americans in Minneapolis were eight times more likely than whites to be charged with a low-level infraction, such as trespassing or loitering.

In reading the bank story, I thought of all the well-educated, socially plugged-in regulators and prosecutors who understood the mind-set of their counterparts at HSBC and recoiled at the prospect of labeling them common criminals. There but for the grace of God and a college education …

On the other hand, a black guy with dreadlocks driving a 1997 Oldsmobile, a big old car supposedly favored by drug dealers – well, one can understand  why that’s a threat to our social order.

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Aunt May would be rolling in her grave if she knew the old brownstone’s price

The old family home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

The old family home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

“Merciful heavens!”

That’s what I imagine my Aunt May would exclaim if she were alive and told her old family home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn was valued at $1.27 million.

I learned that  price because I checked out Zillow.com, an online real-estate data firm, after my brother sent me a photo of the spiffed-up brownstone. Gentrification has finally come to that long-troubled area.

The three-level brownstone row house at 181 Lewis Avenue is described as a 2,200-square-foot single-family home, built in 1899, with a lot size of 2,000 square feet. It is not currently up for sale. Zillow estimates it could be rented for $2,550 a month.

My family sold the house in the late 1960s after Aunt May had to move into a nursing home because of declining health. The sale price, including all the Victorian furniture, was $45,000.

Aunt May and my father had grown up in that house when the neighborhood was largely Irish and German middle- and working-class folks. My aunt, a spinster elementary-school teacher,  lived alone there all her adult life. By the end of World War II, the neighborhood had become more than 50 percent black.

Block-busting tactics and white flight during the 1950s undermined community stability, and Bed-Stuy became one of the most impoverished, crime-ridden areas in New York City.  Race riots erupted there in 1964 and again in 1967 and 1968. It was the kind of place singer Billy Joel summed up this way in his 1980 hit “You May Be Right”:

 I’ve been stranded in the combat zone/ I walked through Bedford-Stuy alone.

Aunt May seemed to like the neighborhood just fine. Her neighbors looked out for her and shoveled snow off her sidewalk in winter. She would walk the five blocks to her parish church every morning to go to Mass. She got mugged only once, by a would-be purse snatcher who slugged her on the church steps. The Lord saw to it that she held on to her purse.

During the 1964 riot, my family watched the TV images of burning buildings and rock-throwing mobs with alarm. We couldn’t reach Aunt May by phone all through the night. The next morning, Aunt May calmly said she had heard a little noise before going to bed.  She had slept soundly.

When I was a kid, Aunt May would come out regularly to our home for Sunday and holiday dinners. That meant she had to walk a half-mile through Bed-Stuy to catch an elevated train out to Queens and then ride a bus to Queens Village. I would be delegated to meet her at the bus stop. She was always delighted to see me and would hand me money to buy ice cream for dinner dessert.

I wasn’t so thrilled when my mother decided to trek into Brooklyn to visit Aunt May. It took about 90 minutes to get to her house, and I could feel my mother’s tension as we walked through the neighborhood. My mother was always shooing me along the crowded sidewalks. Evidently, this wasn’t a place for sightseeing.

The charms of the old Victorian eluded me, although I did think the high stoop was cool. The interior seemed dark, dreary and musty. I wasn’t allowed to play outside. Time passed awfully slowly. Looking back on those visits, I guess my mother was trying to inculcate a feeling of family connectedness and history.

I don’t know what my father thought of the old house. He never went with us to visit, even though he seemed to be close to his older sister. When he became senile in his last years, he thought he was living in a boarding house. He kept a packed suitcase in his study. He said he was getting ready to go home to May’s house.

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Pursuit of athletic fantasies can be costly

“At what point do you have a fantasy versus a dream?”

That was the question posed by a father who had doubts about his son’s ability to play Division I college basketball.

“At some point for him and all these other kids, he’s going to have to have a reality check,” Jonathan Lack said. “He’s going to have to make a decision on whether he wants to keep playing at a D-III level or stop playing.”

Lack made his comments to New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden, who was writing a piece on a basketball camp hosted by the Yale men’s coach, James Jones. More than 150 players attended, most of them high academic achievers and each one hoping to catch the eye of a member of Jones’ staff or the more than 60 Division III coaches there.

Lack’s son, Noah, who described himself as a “skinny white guard,” graduated from high school in May and will spend a year at a prep school in New Hampshire beginning in the fall. He received no offers to play basketball coming out of high school but thinks an extra year could make a difference.

“I see myself playing at a high-academic Division I school or a low-major Division I school,” he said.

Another player at the camp, 17-year-old Will Ingram, said a Division III school would be fine with him. “I’m just trying to use basketball as a tool so I can get into a good school and further my education,” he said.

Whatever dream Ingram had for basketball greatness ended when he attended a tournament during his sophomore year of high school.

“I just realized that there was no way I was going to be able to compete with some of these guys,” he said. “My sophomore year is when I flipped the switch and changed.”

Ingram was fortunate that he had already internalized healthy reality checks. Many athletes, pushed by ambitious parents or silly adults who tell kids they can be anything they want to be, get their comeuppance in their late teenage years. Then they have to scramble to get the education or job training they spurned pursuing their fantasies.

The difference between fantasy and dreams can be a fine line – or split seconds on a clock. Imagine the Olympic hopefuls who see their dreams, realistic as can be, dashed in the blink of an eye or the slightest misstep on a balance beam. Despite years of training and childhoods sacrificed to single-minded pursuits of greatness, they will never achieve their goal.

For such athletes, one hopes the journey is indeed more important than the destination.

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