I spend a lot of time at work sitting in my car and waiting for people to show up; janitors, engineers, owners, tenants. Whoever happens to have the keys for the places I need to get into. It’s not my favorite part of my job.
A few days ago that’s what I was doing; sitting, waiting, getting frustrated about the sitting and the waiting.
Coming toward me on the other side of the street was one of Chicago’s biking homeless on a old steel frame MTB knockoff.
There are lots of these guys around Chicago. For instance, the guy who owned the old Moongoose in the above picture. No, that’s not this guy’s bike. But the two of them could be brothers, so closely matched are their mannerisms and appearance.
There’s something different about these guys. Maybe even a couple things, or several.
Unlike the shambling variety of homeless, and the shopping cart pushers, you don’t see the same biking homeless always in the same area. They take their freedom to roam seriously. So, you don’t get acclimated to seeing any one of them like you do with some of the others.
But, it’s more than that. You can see them riding at you from a long way off and instantly know that it’s one of them coming down the road. Maybe it’s the slow, easy cadence, or the way they meander more than your average cyclist, or maybe it’s the milk crates covered in plastic bags strapped to the fronts and sometimes the backs of their bikes, or perhaps the sometimes wobbliness of their riding. Maybe it’s all of that, or none of it. I’ve never really stopped to ponder it.
I’d never seen this one before, at least not to the point where I remembered him at all.
When he was maybe two car lengths away from me, he looked over, saw me sitting in my car, and swerved smoothly to the opposite curb. He laid his bike down so that it was two-thirds in the road, and then walked toward me like he’d been waiting to see me.
He pantomimed smoking as he approached, “You got a cigarette?” he was asking.
I pushed the button to lower my window, allowing the a/c to leak out of the car. “Nope, don’t smoke.”
He continued walking toward me. He was maybe two inches taller than me, sandy-haired and broad. “That’s ok. Hey, I wanna talk to you for a minute.”
Yay me. Another homeless guy who wants to breathe booze in my face for five minutes.
I must have one of those faces that says, “Unload all of your besotted street wisdom upon me. Please. Pretty please. Pretty please with a cherry on top,” because this isn’t uncommon enough.
Before I get further into this I want to make sure I don’t paint too bad a picture of him. He didn’t stink, in fact he seemed clean. He did not even smell overwhelmingly of booze, just a little. Considering that it was about 1 pm, late in the day to be sober for Chicago’s homeless, he really was doing ok. He’d even shaved in the last twenty-four hours.
He stuck his fist out to be bumped. I obliged.
“This is a beautiful day, isn’t it?”, he said as he leaned his forearm onto the open edge of my window.
“Yes, it is.”
“Oh, hi, I’m Jimmy, by the way.” Another fist bump.
It went on like that for a few minutes.
I maybe should have been thinking, “This is a cool guy. He isn’t acting crazy. It’ll be fine.”
But what was actually going through my mind was, “He’s gonna try to snatch something, or he’s gonna hit me and snatch something, or he’s gonna spit on me and run away.”
He was in my space, talking too close, making small contacts. Fist bumping about every thirty seconds.
He kept talking.
“Do you know that Jesus loves you?”
“Uh huh. I’ve heard that, Jimmy. Thank you.
“Welp, it’s true. He does. And so do I.”
“Ok, thanks, Jimmy.”
He missed or ignored the patronage in my tone, and I felt just a little asshole-ish for allowing it to come out.
Then he stuck his hand out, open. It was half again the size of mine. “Here, take my hand.”
I tried not to sigh. I’m pretty sure I failed. But, I took it. I took his hand and we locked our fingers around each others’ thumbs in kind of a Bro-power-handshake thingy.
“Now, look me in the eyes. Important things shouldn’t be said without eye contact.”
I thought, “Please, Jesus, if you reeeeeeeeeally love me… ”
I looked into Jimmy’s eyes. They were medium grey and surprisingly clear, hardly any little red blood vessels showing at all.
“Has anyone ever looked you in the eyes and told you that they love you?”
To my relief he didn’t actually say that he loved me. I made a point of not mentioning this failure.
“Sure, Jimmy. Yes, they have.”
“Well, good. Everyone should know that. Everyone should hear that.” He said, not letting go of my hand.
I thought, “This locked hands thing will either be better or worse for me when he goes for whatever it is he has planned.”
I waited without listening while he kept talking, rambling, not always making sense.
“Can I have my hand back, Jimmy?”
“Not till I say what I have to say. Now, look me in the eyes again.”
Right, eye contact. Again. Fine. Whatever it was he had to say this time, it mostly blew by me like a breeze. I just wanted my hand back and Jimmy to go about his business.
A few minutes later he released his grip.
I’d been waiting for the person who was supposed to meet me for way too long, which had nothing to do with Jimmy. I picked up my radio to call Debi in my office. Jimmy seemed to take this as his signal to split.
He stood up and backed slightly away, still talking. I can’t tell you what he was saying, it was all white noise to me by that point.
I said, “Bye, Jimmy. Thanks.”
Then he turned, picked up his bike, threw his right leg over the top, and rode away with a half salute and a little wave.
About the author:
Bikezilla is the handle for Tom Schaller, a professional in the varmint control industry and a crack interviewer of personalities in the world of cycling. His writing can be found here and on his blog, “Bikezilla: Ride the Puddles.”
At four years old, before he could read or write, and before he could ride a bike, Bikezilla wanted to be a writer.
He figured that if he couldn’t write stories, he’d tell them.
For instance, he told his mom that he’d hold his new baby sister while she (mom) ran into the house for a moment. Then he dropped that very same new baby sister upon the ground. Not on purpose, but still he dropped her. She cried, mom came running, he got yelled at. They’ve hated each other ever since.
Some things are just meant to be, and she was meant to be a brother.
Sometime later he wrote a series of short stories based a Peter Gabriel’s “So” album. One of his sisters, no not that one, loved them. Knowing that he was supposed to suck when he wrote his first stories he also knew that she was a lying ho bag. It did not matter than she read and reread those stories many times. She was a liar. And so they also came to hate each other.
Thusly did Bikezilla wander through his life, leaving a black trail of dysfunction in his wake. Until Lesli Cohen found him digging through a McDonald’s dumpster for food and said, “Come, sit in that corner and eat your maggot covered dregs, and write for me, away from all the Wangdoodles and Hornswogglers and Snozzwangers and rotten, Vermicious knids.”
Right, she quoted Willy Wonka. Bikezilla didn’t get it, either. But he came and he ate his picked-over trash and he wrote and life was. It just was.