Good morning! Many of you who followed the adventures of Gary, Bob and I as we rode the Southern Tier have implored me to keeping posting on 82rpm, and yesterday I witnessed something that has stuck with me all through the night and into this new day. So here I sit in my favorite chair with my second cup of coffee riding shotgun, mildly intrigued by what may appear on the page as I pound out my inept two-fingered dance upon my trusty laptop.
When I finally arrived home around May 4th, I had no idea if I’d want to get back on a bike anytime soon. A large part of me seemed poised to let it all go, as in becoming more sedentary in my day to day existence, a way of ‘being’ I’m wholly unfamiliar with. I wasn’t going to go full “couch potato,” but maybe, I considered, it was finally time to slow down and quit raging against the dying light in all that I did. It was so good to be home, and as I relaxed into each day I found myself being more centered and aware in even the most trivial and mundane tasks. It felt right, but after a while it didn’t feel like me, and I soon found myself hungering to get back out in the wider world. My legs, and specifically my knees, have carried me on myriad adventures all over the planet, but at this point they can no longer be relied upon to scamper or competently balance in situations beyond walking on relatively flat and solid terrain. But oddly, these same legs and knees are powerfully capable when married to the drive train of a bicycle, and so it was that I found myself back on a bike, my trusty single-seater this time, piling on the miles yet again. I’ve been riding bicycles on and off since I was five years-old, but it wasn’t until I returned from the Southern Tier and had time to reflect, that I realized I’m a bike rider, and not merely a human who sometimes rides bikes.
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Like the rest of the nation, we here in San Diego are experiencing an extreme heat wave relative to what’s “normal” for this time of year. So yesterday morning I left early to beat the heat and went for a ride along a bike path that I’ve ridden many, many times, a forty-mile out and back, relatively flat route that traces the contours of San Diego Bay. To get to the starting point I drive about ten miles and park in a gravel lot at the Sweetwater Regional Park. The path travels from that point to Coronado, Ca, and the first mile or so is squished between the 805 freeway and city streets before eventually escaping the urban landscape as it parallels the Sweetwater River, which flows into the bay and becomes part of the Pacific Ocean.
Within that first mile, in that area that is squished between the freeway and path, is a homeless encampment. Blue tarps hang from the shrubs and become roofs, feral cats and the occasional dog run free and dart across the path, and the residents of this encampment are often out walking along the path, always carrying something in old black-garbage bags or maybe pushing a shopping cart piled high with their treasures. I say “hi” as I pass them, although most never make eye contact or return my greeting. But occasionally one of these locals will say “hi” back to me, perhaps because I’ve become a semi-regular part of their world and am not perceived as a threat. There has always been a sense of order to this place, the inhabitants just wanting to be left alone to live their lives without interference from the surrounding society, and I respect that and appreciate their apparent trust that I’m not there to upset their apple cart. Yesterday, though, was the day that everything changed.
In this country, the issue of unhoused individuals growing rapidly in numbers can be found in almost any city of consequence. San Diego has been grappling with this issue for years, and it’s reaching critical mass as it collides with affluence and the perceived entitlement that such affluence carries. The mayor and city council are trying to tackle this issue by allocating funds for public shelters, but they’ve also drawn a line in the sand, and as of a few days ago these homeless encampments are now deemed to be “illegal” and will thereby be done away with. The thinking is that the residents of these encampments will be placed in the public shelters, with or without their consent it would seem, and this will fix the associated problems. It’s a difficult and complex issue, and I don’t have a better answer or suggestion to offer, but this tactic seems fraught with failure as those folks who have chosen to live on the fringes of mainstream culture don’t seem to be good candidates for putting up with such actions.
It was already hot as I settled onto my bike saddle yesterday morning, my body warm and primed for the ride ahead, sunlight dappling the path in front of me as it found its way through the large Sycamore trees lining my route. Here at the start, the path s-turns a few times and then enters a tunnel under a road, emerging on the other side to climb a small hill. As you crest this small hill, the encampment begins on your left and stretches out for a quarter mile or so. While I was in the gravel lot getting my shoes and checking that I had everything on the bike, I had heard sounds off in the distance, and I absent-mindedly assumed it was the sounds of chains saws or wood-chippers, and didn’t really think much more about it. As I approached the tunnel, the sounds grew louder, as if they were coming from somewhere just in front of me. I automatically slowed as I entered the tunnel in anticipation of something unexpected. The bearded man who would have normally been in the tunnel, the individual who was always there sitting with his back leaned into the tunnel’s dank sides, the fellow human who would always grunt his greeting as I passed by, wasn’t there, but his meager possessions were. Hmm, strange, I thought.
As I slowly rolled up the small hill, I encountered a bevy of big trucks and equipment, police vehicles and a small army of Bobcats, those machines with scoops on the front for digging and scraping the earth, and I came to a stop. The Bobcats were in the area where the encampment had so recently been, scraping and pushing the small trees, shrubs and blue tarps into dusty piles. Men with chain saws were hacking the bigger limbs into smaller pieces, and other men were feeding these into two big wood chippers. The police vehicles had their lights on and windows up, presumably with the air conditioners on to keep these “keepers of the peace” comfortable and somewhat removed from the mayhem outside their doors. No feral cats, no small dogs, and nary a single resident of this once tranquil community could be seen anywhere, the erasure of any evidence of their existence well under way. I stood there straddling my bike feeling culpable somehow, that maybe I should have been a better advocate for this community that I had been passing through like a ghost on so many occasions. Where had these people gone?
One of the workers, a young man with brown skin and unkempt, sparse tufts of beard, a young man who looked much like many of the residents he was helping to displace, waved me on. I clipped in and did as instructed, his sunglasses masking any glints of humanity his eyes might have contained. He had a boss, his boss has a boss and so on...all doing what they’re told.
The day was bright, the wind off the water rife with smells and possibility, but for the entirety of the next 39 miles all I could do was think about how the small city and its people that had become so familiar to me, no longer was. There had also been several smaller encampments along this route, each of them a little farther away from the path, and they too were suffering the same onslaught, as if the city had declared war on them, everything they owned piled high into dump trucks. The path can be busy with walkers and scooter riders, fellow bike riders and the occasional small motorcycle, and I wondered who among them might be feeling the same as me, that we had started a war without a clear resolution in sight, no exit strategy beyond remove, demand compliance, and dominate...
At the halfway mark, a wooden bench on a boardwalk across the bay from downtown, my 20-mile refuel and reflect point, I sat and looked at the tall buildings of the city, the locals and tourists passing by, the many Navy ships adorned in haze-gray languishing pier-side before their next mission, sailboats and power boats populated by people who have enough money for such things in a place that always stops me just long enough to appreciate my good fortune in calling it home. I’m lucky, I thought, so damn lucky given the times I’ve made horrible decisions and done amazingly stupid things. And that’s the thing I can’t figure out, really...does it all just come down to luck or who draws the short straw in the game of life? Sure, I worked hard over the course of my adult life, and I fell into a profession that provided for my family and I quite well without any planning whatsoever. The second time around I married my best friend and was blessed with great kids who’ve become wonderful adults with their own awesome families. I’ve owned several homes, have traveled the world and for the most part have enjoyed robustly good health. My childhood wasn’t perfect, but I never suffered abuse or went without food or shelter. The platform I was given to launch into my life was solid, and in spite of my bungling along the way, I have realized many of the benefits of living in America. I was lucky.
The 20-mile ride back to my van was more of the same, me deep in contemplation as the miles and placid scenery flew by, my thoughts focused of the equation of life. Roughly 2 miles from the end, I passed a man going the other way pushing a shopping cart filled with his things. He seemed to be traveling at a frantic pace, although that might have been my projection given my state of mind in that moment. I looked at him, hopeful that our eyes might meet and that somehow I could convey my condolences and solidarity with his plight, but he chose to keep his gaze toward the ground as he moved toward his uncertainty. And what, really, could I possibly offer him, as how could I really and truly understand his situation having never taken a single step in his shoes??? A few minutes later I arrived at the site of the former encampment. Everything that had so recently been, a place that had teemed with life in ways most suburbs never will, was gone, the trees and shrubs disappeared to reveal light-brown dirt scraped clean of any and all evidence. The people, their cats and dogs, erased...and so it goes.
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