Roadside insurance claims: Blood money
Summer was an overripe melon that year; it dropped heavily and without warning and flattened everything beneath it.
But that wasn’t unusual, here in Taipei: seasons don’t slowly fade into each other in the subtropics; you can’t watch the frigid sleep of winter wake and yawn and transform itself into the new growth of spring. It’s more precipitous; one day it is cool and cloudy, the next it is fiercely hot. And don’t expect the joy that accompanies sunshine in more temperate climes; nobody here is rushing out to gleefully soak up the summer warmth — the sun is an enemy: avoid it.
Let’s not get carried away; this enemy, big and yellow, is mostly benign, and does little more than subdue the commuters and residents as they slog their way around this vast city. It saps their strength and leaves them overcome with lethargy. The sun, however, is cunning and quick to find any fleeting frustration or annoyance inside such a listless mind and bring it instantly to the boil. Behaviour then becomes erratic and unpredictable. I mean, those stupefied citizens can suddenly go crazy out in the summer sun. And that just adds another deadly variable to the already combustible practice of pedalling the streets of Taipei.
I’ve seen more blood at right-side intersections than I have in any butcher’s shop; and if you are approaching one on a bicycle and don’t want to have sawdust thrown on your leaked bodily fluids, leave stains on the tarmac: Glance behind. Bicycles here survive at the bottom of the wheeled food chain, the slowest and the easiest prey for any of the bigger vehicles, the drivers of which will cut you up and leave you bleeding and think nothing of it — especially at a right-side intersection.
When alone, people behave differently — popular psychobabble pins it on restraint — and drivers, sealed in their metal boxes, far from the prying eyes of friends and neighbours, allow that unbridled self to rear up. Wait they might — if old Mrs Chan is watching. Give way they will — if the boss is on their tail. But alone, behind their tinted windows, the pretence of dignified behaviour can be abandoned as the truer, deeper self arouses and anything becomes possible. The results can be bloody — especially at right-side intersections.
Time is the other factor: nobody in this frantic metropolis has enough of it, especially those predatory, unfettered drivers waiting for a slow-moving cyclist to make it across a right-side intersection. They’d rather leave blood on the road than waste their seconds doing that. So glance back.
That quick look over my left shoulder has become a life-saver, a way to stay alive at the bottom of the wheeled food chain, and I dutifully performed it this hot Thursday morning and even caught the driver’s eye: I knew he was there and he knew where I was. That’s usually all it takes.
Taipei is flat, topographically perfect for pedalled transport, of both the two and three-wheeled kind. Tricycles are the mainstay of an assortment of rag-and-bone men and rubbish collectors, mostly poor, dishevelled, old army veterans — Chiang Kai-Sheck’s surviving cannon fodder. Bicycles? nobody uses them. It’s an image thing. Here in this oriental tiger, amidst rampant consumerism, status is defined by material: and a lowly bicycle loudly proclaims that you are nothing. Worse than nothing.
Occasionally I do see a middle-aged woman cycling, with her child strapped on somewhere, precariously, usually above the back-wheel, or on the crossbar, even on the handlebars. And sometimes I cringe as a geriatric rattles by on a rusty old piece of junk, its mechanical decrepitude rounded off with whistling brakes where the rubber has long since worn away and stopping is achieved by metal on metal — fingernails on a blackboard. But generally, even by most mothers and grandpas, the bicycle receives scant regard. Or scorn.
The turning was upon us, the sun was beating down, and, after our eye contact, the driver, in his long white-backed Mercedes, pulled up alongside to see if he could slip by, quickly turn right. He was feeling polite, I thought, because he fell back behind. He must have realised that he couldn’t make it without spilling blood, but that doesn’t usually stop them; so, yes, polite — that or old Mrs. Chan was sitting in the back seat. ‘Thanks,’ I muttered and rode on; the sun beat down. And then he lost it: the heat was too much and was frazzling his brain; he was running out of time, running late; or he was simply alone, unrestrained, and could do whatever his instinct pushed him to do. He lunged at the steering wheel and swerved right, clipping my back wheel with his shiny, chrome front teeth. Of course I hadn’t expected such a manoeuvre; they usually attack from the front, where at least you can see the disaster, unfolding, unstoppable, before your eyes. But for some reason this predator had taken his prey from behind and I was caught, spilling forwards as my bike crunched into the jaws of his long, white-backed Mercedes.
Manoeuvring through Asian traffic is a skill that comes with observation and practice.
Observation was the easy part, for this amateur anthropologist. Watch, take note, and learn. Just forget the explanations — if you want to keep your sanity, that is. Maniacal driving, you will see, is not restricted to any single group — say, young men, high on testosterone. It’s not even the preserve of males: you should see my landlady cut and carve, screech and shunt; it would put you to shame.
Practice was more tricky. A bruise here a cut there; a little pain but nothing serious, thankfully. No screaming ambulances; no roadside mouth-to-mouth; no emergency-room blood transfusions; no re-attached limbs, resewn flesh or transplants. Not yet anyway.
The tarmac was hot: blackhot, the exposed skin of my thrown limbs told me. Those sprawling arms and legs I jerked in, like a finger unexpectedly finding heat, and I used them to struggle up. I bent and rubbed the places that hurt and watched my attacker slither from his long, white-backed Mercedes. Two veins popped out and throbbed, one at each of my temples. That’s all I need, I thought then swore, quietly, in the local language. I was looking at two bulging reflections of myself in the mirrored lenses that sat on the broken nose of a gangster — no doubt about it. The white-suited, tanned man at first paid little attention to me and my aching bones. He checked the front of his Mercedes for damage. He was all gold chains, oily hair, and those shiny sunglasses. He kept his grin and turned on me, nodding, as if to say, “It’s okay, you haven’t scratched the paintwork.” A second figure materialised from another door — it wasn’t old Mrs Chan. He was younger than the driver, dressed down, and servile: a henchman.
It should have been a simple thing: call the police to gather evidence and take statements, contact the insurance company, and make a financial settlement. But this is Asia, and you have to haggle.
The henchman, under orders, tried to extract my crunched bike from the jaws of the long, white-backed Mercedes. I stepped forward and with a sore arm stopped him; that’s evidence you fool, I tried to say. I looked down at the damage myself; the back wheel was mangled. I turned around to the white suit and held out my hand.
“Four thousand,” I blurted, in semi-coherent Chinese. And so the haggling began.
How did I know what to do? I have seen it many times: scooter riders, mostly, clutching their broken shoulders or bleeding heads and yelling at an angry driver. Numbers fly back and forth until the victim manages to extract a suitable wad of cash then limp, shaken and confused, to the side of the road to count it. I usually pedal on by but sometimes I’ve waited for the conclusion (or the ambulance). Now it was my turn.
The white suit laughed with derision and held up two fingers — each one a hundred. Admission of guilt should have given me some comfort; it didn’t, our numbers were so far apart. Then he shook his Rolex in my face. I would have taken that for the wheel, but it wasn’t on offer. “Late, late,” he growled, “You are making me late.”
“Me too,” I snapped. “And bicycle wheels are very expensive.”
The henchman slunk back into the air-conditioned coolness of the long, white-backed Mercedes: such a delicate negotiation could not be delegated to him. He left the two of us out under the hot sun, haggling, each with a price and neither budging.
The drama had by now drawn quite a crowd: a motley group of vultures, circling in on the scene of the accident, checking the tarmac for blood and teeth and broken bones. One of them, in faltering English, introduced himself to me.
“I’m Wang,” he leered, “I saw it happen; I’ll call the Police for you.”
Feathers ruffled as the vultures flapped, delighted that the stakes were getting higher. The white suit stopped grinning and opened his jacket then improved his offer to a thousand. Beads of sweat popped up on his forehead. Another flutter went around the circle. I held firm.
Ten hot minutes later the Police arrived. Not a squad car with flashing lights and sirens, but a small rickety scooter, upon which sat two fat officers, cartoonish, like something from a circus.
Mr. Wang tried to explain what had happened. “I saw everything,” he began — he had been passing on a motorbike at the time. “I … ”
“Who are you?” demanded one of the officers.
Wang started again to explain.
“Go away, now,” the other ordered, in a menacing, raised voice.
I was momentarily distracted, trying to protest the dismissal of my only material witness; and when I looked back, the bicycle had been removed from the scene of the crime. Now who was to say what really happened?
I need not have worried: the arrival of the police had broken the white suit. He was all nerves, coming apart, and melting in the sun. He took me to one side, stuttering, still pointing at his Rolex. He pulled open his white jacket with one hand, fetched out his studded leather wallet with the other, then pushed four crisp notes towards me. A swift capitulation, I thought.
He frowned again, as if to say, “if it weren’t for the police, I would push your head through the hot tarmac, you foreign piece of shit.”
I thanked him politely and turned around to look for the police, but they were already riding off, all knees and elbows, doubled up on their one small moped.
I sank the cash into a deep pocket and then reclaimed my broken bicycle. With both sore arms I lifted it up and without looking back at that blood-stained right-side intersection began to sweat my way through the mid-day blaze of that first day of summer.
© Paul S. Davey, 2000