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.