March 03, 2009

Being Friendly

Years ago I used to go running in the mornings with my buddy Jay. Both Jay and I are from small-ish towns on the east coast; towns big enough that you don't know everybody who passes you by on the street but small enough to feel like you do. So when somebody does pass you by on the street, you tend to say something to them. Like "hello."

Jay and I both live in Los Angeles now and, as I said, we used to go running in the mornings. We live in Santa Monica which is about as small town-ish as you can get in Los Angeles. There are tree-lined residential streets and kids and families and local shops and people who you think would be friendly in that small town type of way. And when we'd run in the morning, Jay and I, we'd often see other people out on the street. Maybe they were running, or walking, or taking their dog out for a stroll. As we passed them by, we'd both tend to say something to them. Something like "hello." Or sometimes even "good morning" (though it usually came out as "mornin'" which is a much more Andy Griffith way of saying things)

The odd thing about the Los Angeles crowd is that, more times than not, we never got a response. Sometimes we'd get a murmured "mornin'" in return (though in less of an Andy Griffith tone and more of a Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino tone). But more often it was either a blank stare or just plain completely ignoring us. It baffled me. It baffled both of us. It baffled us so much that we decided to make a game out of it. We called it "Being Friendly."

I'm sure you can probably guess how the game went, given the name. But just in case, here's what happened... whenever I (or Jay) went out for a morning run and saw somebody else on the street, I'd blurt out a very happy "Hello!" or "How are you!?" or even "Good Morning!!" And then I'd wait for a response. I'd wait to see if there was a smile, a nod... even a chhat-ptewie in my general direction.

But, alas, there was nothing.

Maybe they think I'm crazy for being so nice, I thought. So I tried to tame down my greeting. But still, no response. I tried different words, different tones, different intonations. I tried saying hello far before I approached and tried it just as we were passing. I tried wearing lighter colored clothing, then darker colored clothing. I ran faster, then slower. I shaved, showered and combed my hair. Still, I rarely ever got a response.

After about a year of this, Jay and I had enough data to file our conclusion: people in LA are not friendly. And this "Being Friendly" game was just that... a game.

19 years later, or more specifically, last week, I was forced to question this hypothesis. You see, I was out on my Saturday bike ride and got six waves.

There's this unspoken rule among cyclists - actually, it's not quite a rule, more of a recommendation... There's this unspoken recommendation amongst cyclists that when passing by another cyclist you acknowledge them in some way. Even if you're riding in different directions on the opposite sides of a four lane thoroughfare, you still acknowledge.

Everybody has their own form of cycling acknowledgments but there are three major categories we all fall into: Nodders, Finger Lifters and Wavers

The Nodders
This is arguably the most popular form of cycling acknowledgment, probably because it's so gosh dang easy. It's also, arguably, the safest form of acknowledgment, primarily because you don't have to risk smashing your face into the ground by lifting your hands off the handlebars. Basically, it entails meeting eyes with the approaching cyclist and nodding your head at them, like you're in a James Bond movie and giving some sort of secret code to the card shark before you pull up to the poker table and win all the money from the bad guys.

The Finger Lifters
Finger lifting is not a highly popular form of cycling acknowledgment, primarily because it's tough to notice. Then again, maybe it is popular and I haven't noticed. Either way, it's kind of like a wave but without lifting your hands off the handlebars. The finger lifting only occurs with one hand. If you lift fingers from both hands at the same time, it's less a form of acknowledgment and more like a pathetic version of the Macarena. Proper Finger Lifting is most often accomplished by using the hand closest to the opposing rider (usually the left hand). Finger Lifting can be done in a number of different ways. It may be only one finger that is raised - this is usually the pointer finger, hence the name "Pointers" for those that utilize this method. You can also give the two finger salute ("Peacemakers"), three fingers ("Treys" or "W's"), four fingers ("Thumb Hiders") or all five fingers. Either way you do it is fine. Most likely the other person won't see you acknowledging them anyway, so whatever makes you happy.

The Wavers
The Waving method of cycling acknowledgment is pretty straightforward. Basically, you lift one hand off the handlebar and wave. This is, by far, the least common form of acknowledgment, especially in LA. Getting a Wave is the cycling equivalent of meeting a stranger for coffee and having them hug you when you walk up. It's warm, personal, friendly and oftentimes a bit off-putting.

Like the many forms of hugging, there are different types of Wavers. On the one side are the slightly subtle folks, who lift their hands only a few inches above the handlebars and send over a cold, heartless salute. On the other hand, there are the overly excited folks who throw their arm high up in the air and wave their hand frantically as if they'd been waiting their entire lives just to see you ride by on your bike.

I usually don't pay too much attention to how people acknowledge me when I'm out there on the bike. I tend to mix and match the different forms of intra-cycling communication depending on my mood and don't really give a hoot one way or another what other people do. In fact, it's so varied out there on the road, that I rarely pay attention to how people acknowledge me unless something weird happens.

Last week something weird happened. It started with the first person waving at me. The way they were smiling and throwing their arm about, even though they were four lanes over, well, I figured they must've known me personally. So I started giving that wave and smile that you give to people you're friends with. I started to yell "How are you?!" over the sound of traffic in the way you do when you're happy to see them. And just as I got out the "How ah..." and just as I was mid arm shake, I realized I had no clue who that person was. I mumbled the rest out in a bit of shame. I wanted to wave and acknowledge, but I didn't want to look like a fool in the process.

A few minutes later I got another wave. Then another. Soon enough there was even another.

What the hell is going on?!

I normally don't count the waves of acknowledgment that I receive on a ride, but by the time it got to four I knew something was crazy. Maybe the planets have gone kerflooey. You know, maybe Mars is in Uranus or something like that.

And when I got to the fifth wave of the ride, I figured I was being punk'd. I looked around for Ashton Kutcher but couldn't find him. (actually, I was looking for Demi Moore, specifically, I was looking for Demi Moore in "Striptease", but I didn't find her either.)

When the sixth rider to wave at me went by, I knew it was a special day. I knew that times had changed. Los Angeles had suddenly became nice and pleasant. And after 19 years in this place, I realized I can finally stop playing the game "Being Friendly" and I can just live it.