The first sighting was yesterday afternoon, in the grassy median of a busy six-laned throughfare. There were two bikes, two adults and a girl. All three people looked tired and disheveled. The adults were walking the bikes while the little one with blond, scraggly hair sat atop the seat of one bike. They trudged in the tall grass of the median, skinny, forlorn and purposeless.
My other sightings were of single adults, either riding or walking their bikes: a dark man in dark clothes peddling down a residential street, a frumpy woman, holding the handlebars at she stood at an intersection and yet another man, white-haired, riding along a sidewalk.
Just a few years ago, the wheels of the dispossessed were limited to stolen shopping carts. This is still the more common occurrence. Winn Dixie carts piled with grubby refuse, tin cans and glass, grey bags hanging from their sides, the collectibles of street people. Shopping carts served as a functional transport rather than as personal transportation.
The entrance of bicycles into the habitat of the dispossessed certainly changes their lives. They have speed and mobility, no longer confined to distinct neighborhoods or even street parameters. Likewise, this vehicle raises them from the street, at least in a physical manner. Soles touch rubber pedals instead of concrete surfaces. This small ascendancy may have a symbolic effect in their consciousness, and certainly changes the image of the downtrodden.
Long considered the ticket out of poverty, mobility seems not to have affected these distressed members. After all, they are still without a shelter, still exposed to the elements, still jobless, and still surviving on the fringes of society. It could be argued that the bike has lowered their opportunities. In substituting the shopping cart for a bike, they have given up a means of income – the ability to stockpile refuse and recyclables for resale. The metal contraption served as a protective device for the homeless, a barrier of sorts, and because of its size and bulk, the likelihood of its theft was lower. The bicycle cannot reproduce any of these functions.
What the bicycle has changed is their visibility. Those who fall below the poverty line are now more frequently visual to more of us – those fortunate enough to rise above that line. While we travel our usual routes in our household cars, the beggars on bikes parallel our movement, peddling slowly on the sidelines.
Will that increased visibility alter their predicament? So far, it seems unlikely.