Homeless People…

Pretty weird photo, huh?  The R.I.P. at the top of the rather random-appearing graffiti looks a little morbid, I suppose.  Everyone knows what it means, right?  “Rest in Peace.” So someone croaked.  And someone remembered it well enough to scrawl something on a concrete traffic barrier.  It’s just graffiti though: so what?

I’ve been car-free now for over four years.  What that means, as defined by me, is that I no longer use a motor vehicle to go to work, run errands or do other stuff I did with a car.  During the course of a week, I typically ride about 200 miles, most of it to and from work.  Rain or shine.  And because I live in sunny South Florida, I ride 12 months of the year. For better or for worse.  Whether I like it or not.  It’s been an interesting journey, it has.  One of the things that makes it so interesting is the people you come across during the course of the day.  Motorists, pedestrians, fellow cyclists, and of course homeless people, who are quite abundant in this land of sun and fun.

Most of my commute is on regular paved roads, but there are sections that are reserved for pedestrian, equestrian and non-vehicular traffic: multi-use paths, if you will.  An almost- nice one runs along the New River Canal, near Interstate I-595.  It’s called the New River Greenway, and starts at an area near the Everglades where a female jogger was killed and eaten by an alligator a number of years ago and ends in a rather faceless suburb of Ft. Lauderdale.  A 13 foot wide swath of freshly poured concrete it is, and it runs for just about 12 miles or so.  The surface is beautiful, the scenery is nice, the alligators are almost friendly, and on occasion, you can see a bald eagle grab something to eat from the canal.  What ruins it is the crossings every mile or so where trail users are forced to cross 6 lanes of traffic teeming with motorists who would just as soon run you down for the act of daring to use their street; another topic for another time, methinks.

Police or law enforcement never patrol the New River Greenway, and folks can pretty much do as they please.  And they do: after dark, you will find hookers, johns, wanna-be gangbanger teens, pinheads, pillheads and various other sundry characters.  Homeless people too.  Most are harmless, but some are not.

Homeless people in Florida usually don’t have to worry about freezing to death, but I’m sure a number of ’em are done in each year by hypothermia, which is a very real possibility during the first few months of the year.   They sleep at night, sometimes in the bushes, under bridges, on cardboard in the grass, and of course in the beautiful picnic shelters erected along the greenway.  Sometimes they will actually sleep right on the pavement, and pose a very real hazard to early morning commuters who ride in the pitch black darkness.  One morning I almost ran over a fellow who was squatting right in the middle of the pavement taking a dump.  I turned the corner, and there he was for me to see, in all his glory, turds steaming in the cold morning air as they hit the sidewalk.  Yuck!

The alligators in the water never seemed to faze these folks, as they continued to sleep where they did.  When there were several homeless people sleeping in close proximity to one another, I guess the big reptiles would leave well enough alone.  But on many occasions I have seen a good-sized gator languishing in the canal, directly across from a homeless person sleeping in a picnic shelter, perhaps waiting for an opportune moment… or not.

These homeless folks all appeared to be cut from the same cloth: haggard, dirty, high, drunk, insane or a combination thereof.  Every once in a while one would yell at me, or throw a rock or stick at me because they thought I should ride in the grass, not the pavement, but most just left me alone.  And I did the same in return.  Sometimes, if I saw a friendly face with a somewhat lucid countenance I’d say “hello,” but more often than not I’d just ride by.  A couple folks I’d actually stop and converse with, if I had time.  One of these went by the name of Alabama.

I never knew his given name, first or last.  Folks called him Alabama because that’s where he came from, and I guess he liked the name too, so that’s who he was.  He looked older than his age, as all homeless people do, but I reckoned he was a good 10 years younger than me.  My wife actually met him first, as he used to panhandle at the corner of Flamingo and SR 84, an intersection she went through daily on her way to work.  A good looking kid, he didn’t appear to be a crackhead or methhead, just someone who couldn’t stay away from the sauce.  He was always polite, said please and thank you, was intelligent and really pleasant to talk to.  And he could be quite a charmer!  From time to time Alabama would take up with one of the ladies living in the nearby trailer park, and stay with them until he’d worn out his welcome.  Then, Alabama would return to the greenway for a while, and live with the other homeless people who had befriended him.

The story goes Alabama had a decent job and a wife, until one day he caught her cheating on him.  The marriage fell apart, and so did he, putting his life back together with the help of a whiskey bottle.  Things went from bad to worse, and he eventually ended up living along my bike commute.

One day, as I was waiting to cross the road, a homeless woman whom I’d spoken to on several occasions asked me “did you hear about Alabama?”  I told her I had not, and she replied “he’s dead.”  I asked what happened, and she said “he was found dead in the canal the previous week.  The police said he was probably drunk, hit his head and fell in.”  I said that I was sorry to hear that, and I was sad.  The conversation continued for a while, and the woman opined she thought he was murdered by a fellow Alabama had a disagreement with, who also disappeared around the same time he did.  No way of knowing for certain, I offered my condolences and continued on my way.  Shortly thereafter, the homeless woman would vanish as well.

And that’s it; nothing more.  My wife was saddened to hear  about Alabama, and I watched the news for the next couple of weeks for more information about what happened, but nothing.  Gone without a trace.  Until one day I spotted the graffiti, scrawled with his name, date of death, and what I presume to be his nickname (Alabama Wama) given by those who knew him best, along with the name “Griff,” possibly the name of the person who created a monument to his friend on the spot where he once earned a living.

Rest in peace Alabama, you are not forgotten.





Monday Morning!

So here I was, Monday morning, ready to roll.  It wasn’t so bad, really: I planned to ride on sidewalks, which are legal to ride upon in Florida, and multi-use paths to get to work, a mere 12 1/2 mile trip each way.  So I put some stuff in a little tiny backpack I got for free somewhere, and headed out.  No tools, no pump, no patch kit, just my lunch and identification credentials to convince security to let me in the door when I arrived at my final destination.

All went well for a while, until I got my first flat tire.  Hopped on the bus with my bike, rode next to smelly people and arrived at home.  After a short snack, I commenced to fix the tire.  I knew how to do it because I had ridden bikes in my youth, and as kids we were always messing with bicycles.  As we got older, we played  with motorcycles and cars.  Anyway, when I left for work the next day I had tools, pump and a patch kit, ready for the next flat.

What I wasn’t ready for was how unsafe sidewalk riding really is.  Even though I became more adept at negotiating the terrain and operating my bike, as the months rolled on close calls with cars entering and exiting parking lots and careless pedestrians were becoming more frequent.  I had a bicycle when I lived in Chicago which I occasionally used to ride through some of the large cemeteries on the north side, but to get there I rode on the sidewalks, because I was afraid of riding in traffic.  Now I was afraid of riding on sidewalks, so I began, baby steps of course, to ride in the street.

There were designated bike lanes along most of the route I took, so I began using them. Over the next year I became more comfortable riding in the road, as a part of traffic.  I felt safer, more confident, and enjoyed commuting more.  I became aware of concepts such as taking the lane and proper positioning of the bike in intersections before, during and after red lights and so forth.  While most motorists gave me no trouble, there were a few who were looking for someone to bully, both men and women.  And when someone went out of their way to be mean to me, I let loose.  Really.  I mean, c’mon, I am a big, strong 225# guy who can take care of himself, and some little twerp half my age (or his really rude mother) is going to bully me?  Not a chance.  So they got it back.  Bad.  And you know what?  They backed down.  They really did.  I figured if someone was going to jump out of their car and attack me, I could just ride away.  I suppose it’s best to ignore folks and keep on moving, and I’ve tried to do this.  But sometimes, folks need to be treated the way they deserve to be treated.

I am a little more selective about who I lash out to these days, but from time to time I still find it necessary to remind people they will have to find someone else to pick on.  Sometimes folks get a little hot under the collar, and these days, rather than calling them out of their car to make good on their threats, I usually just say something like “I’m going now, if you bother me again I’ll report you to the police” and ride away.

As time went on I found putting 150 miles/week on a single speed balloon tired coaster brake bike was great exercise.  On windy days (of which we have many here in SE Florida) I often found myself riding 9 miles or more into a 15+ mph headwind.  All this exercise makes one “Strong, Like Bull,” but really, it gets old after a while.  That was all about to change when I went to get a haircut..sidewalk-riding



The Serious Cyclist….seriously?

3G Venice Cruiser. Single speed, coaster brake: the bike that started me on my road to ruin..

3G Venice Cruiser. Single speed, coaster brake: the bike that started me on my road to ruin..

I am a serious cyclist.  Why, do you ask?  Well, I suppose because I take my cycling, and the bicycles that I ride, quite seriously.  To the rest of the world I am but a middle-aged man, riding a bicycle every day because I lost my license by driving drunk or have no job, and am homeless.  Yep, that’s exactly what people think where I live: here in South Florida, where, on weekends roads are taken over by driven athlete-like road warriors or trail-riding heroes,  zooming about, fully kitted, helmeted and armored for battle, astride bikes costing more than some people’s cars.

Not me, though.  I am a rebel.  Sort of.  Don’t get me wrong: I love cars.  I really do.  And I spent the better part of the last half century driving, fixing, restoring, racing, and lusting over them.  Oh, and paying for them too.  Got speeding tickets, I did: thirty of them over the years.  So everytime I see a big huge building that turns out to belong to an insurance company, I smugly think to myself “I helped build that!”

I never planned to become a daily cycling commuter: it just sort of happened, I guess.  A number of years ago my trusty Ford SUV gave up the ghost.  Yep, right before Christmas.  So the decision had to be made: repair the car, and spend the money I had been saving on Christmas presents, or figure out another way to get to work for a while, and ensure a Merry Christmas for all?  The choice was made, and I began taking the bus to work, for a while.

When I lived in Chicago, buses and trains were taken by people from all walks of life.  My neighbor was an attorney, and on snowy days, when I took the train into the city instead of driving, I would see him.  Always nicely dressed, complete with fine shoes and Patek Philippe Calatrava, he rode the rails daily, as did others from his social strata.  Drawing on this experience, I thought “taking the bus to work won’t be so bad; it’ll be a piece of cake.”  Boy was I wrong…

Public transportation in SE Florida is way different than it is in other cities.  Instead of people like me riding the bus I encountered mostly poor people, those who could not drive, those who were disabled and many, many others.  I saw a woman get punched, was called racial names on several occasions, and learned first hand just how unpleasant homeless people can smell in the heat of a south Florida summer.  Then one night while waiting to transfer to another bus, I was robbed.

During the course of my bus odyssey I would regularly see one of those crazy commuter-type cyclists:  you know, the kind of person who rides in the rain, wears a helmet with a mirror, and carries all his stuff to work on bags on his bike.  Not real friendly, was he, but from casual conversation I learned he held down two jobs and cycled, along with taking the bus, as a means to save money.  I call him Cycling Guy.

One morning, as I was getting on the bus, I spied a really cool-looking balloon-tired bike: no fenders, single speed, black with red rims, and-get this-slicks.  That’s right, real honest-to-goodness, ungrooved, racing slick tires, the kind that look totally worn out when you buy them.  I leaned over to look at the bike: it was bitchin’.  The driver became impatient, tooted the horn, and I got on the bus.

As I selected a seat, I saw Cycling Guy, and not seeing his usual bike in the rack, asked if he got a new bike.  He said that he did, and that it was an inexpensive bike he bought to use when he had to go places where his “good bike” might get stolen.  He told me the bike was a 3G Venice, where he bought it, and that he paid $250 for it.  I asked him how he liked the slicks, and he said they were “very grippy, even in the rain.”  Shortly after that, I had to get off at my stop.  I bid Cycling Guy a fond adieu, and resolved to get a 3G Venice on payday, which I did.  On the following Sunday, an off day from work, I rode the 12 1/2 miles to work, just like that.  Single-speed with coaster brake, you can see the bike in the photo at the beginning of this post.  It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t too hard either.  And that was it.  Monday morning, I was ready to go…