“What you see on the freeway is just what there is,
a funeral procession of the dead,
the greatest horror of our time in motion.
I’ll see you there tomorrow!”
Day One, Monday, July 10, 2017
As we sit in a group listening to speakers outline the upcoming week – I find myself sitting next to a big window looking out across Royal Street. It is the usual narrow French Quarter lane – two stories – balconies above. I should pay better attention to the speakers but my eyes are drawn by the parade of sweating tourists moving by on the sidewalks. Some of them look into the window at all of us sitting there – confused looks, “What are these people doing in there?”
As I glance across the street I see an old man struggling to lean a bicycle against the wrought iron post supporting an overhead balcony. He had a red milk carton full of crap strapped to his bike – a sign of a serious bicycling homeless person. After he managed to lean the bike, he turned, stretched out, curled up, and went to asleep on the sidewalk. The tourist parade continued unabated. They would point at him as they passed.
It is almost like his location is marked on their tourist maps – “Unconscious Drunken Man with Bicycle.”
A few minutes later another odd man with another bike walks up and starts talking to him, “Hey! You’re sleeping on Royal Street! Do you need an ambulance?”
In a split second this disintegrated into shouted curses, “Fuck you!”, “No! Fuck YOU!” – over and over. I didn’t look up because I was writing the start of this thing here. But I heard a clattering and crashing – the two were now fighting.
(This all happened after I had already started on this subject or I would have written about something else.)
When I write I feel a need to explore the thin membrane between the comfortable everyday world we move in and the unimaginable terror of the chaos that rules on the other side.
This drunken bicycle guy lives right on the membrane, stretching it thin – crucified on the border between the tourists of the French Quarter and the trackless void beyond.
When I looked up, everyone had moved on.
I guess now they will have to change all the tourist maps.
“After you find out all the things that can go wrong, your life becomes less about living and more about waiting.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Choke
I was walking through downtown Dallas with a group of folks doing a photo walk – everybody with their cameras dangling, strolling, shooting – when on a bench in Main Street Garden Park I saw a tattered spiral notebook. I picked it up and saw that it was full of writing.
There wasn’t much time, everyone else was moving on – so all I could do is skim through. It was full of nice handwriting – page after page of misery and despair set down in cursive. I briefly thought of taking it with me so I could read it completely – maybe learn something.
But I didn’t. That didn’t seem right – the owner might come back for it. So I snapped a quick photo of the first page and set it back on the bench, exactly where it was.
I am at Austin Street Shelter, I’ve been here since March 23 with a couple of detours. They say it will be at least 6 more months before I get an apt. I hope this works out. I’m tired. I’m old.I need a place to call my own. I’m not interested in any relationship with men ever again. I’m thinking I might buy a trailer. I’m gonna start saving all I can…
While we were lost in Downtown New Orleans trying to find a place to park before the Tulane homecoming game we wandered by a little park, Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall. A good part of the open grassy area was covered by a motley encampment of multicolored nylon tents. My first reaction was to think this was where the city had allowed the homeless to gather. After a few seconds of thought I figured out what this was. I said, “Hey, this is Occupy New Orleans.” Then we were past and I found a parking lot nearby.
After the tailgate party and the game we walked back to the car as the sun set. This time we went right by Duncan Plaza and I asked Candy and Lee to wait at the corner while I loped over a little grassy rise to see what was up.
The Occupiers has set up what looked like a lending library in a park gazebo and beyond a few men listened to some guy yelling into a small public address system.
There didn’t seem to be very many folks there. Even though it was early Saturday evening I didn’t see enough people to fill a tenth of the tents. I guess without television cameras, press, or anybody watching at all the enthusiasm waned. I would have liked to have stayed at least long enough to try and understand what the guy was yelling about, but it was getting late and Candy and Lee were waiting on the sidewalk. I snapped a couple photos and left. As I was walking some guy asked me if he could take my picture with his camera phone.
We walked to the car and left. The Saints were playing the Indianapolis Colts the next day at the Superdome and a line of RVs and chartered buses were filing into the downtown parking lots. They disgorged thousands of fans wearing the familiar gold and black of Saints fans – walking into the restaurants that shovel out New Orleans’ famous cuisine. The sound was swelling from the jazz clubs as we drove the darkening streets out through the Garden District to meet up with some of Lee’s friends for dinner.
I remember in the mid eighties when the White Rock Creek trail was built here in Dallas. The city was installing a new massive water line along the creek and they decided to construct a concrete trail along the top of the pipe. This was a new idea at the time – the trail was too narrow and poorly designed in many parts – but it was wonderful. I lived near the lake and after work I would ride my bike to the lake, around it on the White Rock Lake Trail, then up and back on the creek trail – a total of about twenty five miles – almost every day.
I was young and in good shape and the ride was a blast. I still remember the thrill of flying across the city without the worry of being hit broadside by a pickup truck. I loved riding after work because I could speed past the packed up and stopped rush-hour commuters on their crowded freeways. It was the best of times.
Since then I’ve been an advocate for hike and bike trails – and the city has come a long way. Now, I’m more of a spectator than anything else… but I do what I can.
For years I have been following the building of the Cottonwood Trail – a hike and bike trail that runs from Richardson down under the High Five Interchange at Highway 75 and LBJ 635, then south through Hamilton Park until it connects up with the White Rock Creek Trail. This is an important connector trail, enabling bicycle commuters to pierce a large part of the DFW metroplex by connecting long existing trails through areas of heavy traffic that are otherwise impassible by bicycle or on foot.
I attended a lot of meetings when the High Five was being constructed, because it was affecting the commute to work of thousands of employees at my work site. During the presentations of the enormous, expensive, and complicated plans for ramps, frontage roads, and levels of access I noticed a thin green line snaking down along the creekbed in the maps and diagrams. The legend said the green line was a “hike and bike” trail.
In true government fashion, when I would ask about the green line, they would stare at the diagram and say, “I have no idea what that is, we’ll check it out and get back to you.” I never heard from anyone. I had to wait years until the thing was finished and then park my car and walk down there.
Sure enough, beneath the massive construction, there was a hike and bike trail. A beautiful trail, wide, landscaped, lit, and carefully designed and built to all the newest specifications. There was only one problem with this trail. It went nowhere. It dead ended at each end of the massive interchange – truly a road to nowhere. They weren’t able to get the cities that bordered the interchange to commit to connect up with the trail.
For years this strip of pavement was the best homeless shelter you could imagine. I would visit it every now and then and the number of tents, campfires, and piles of sleeping bags near the broken-out lighting fixtures in the shelter underneath the ramps grew and grew.
Finally, the wheels of progress turned and after half a decade or so the trail began to reach out from either end of the High Five. Videos – Going South, and Going North. I checked up on the progress, encouraged that the trail finally gave a safe bicycle route to the campus where I work.
There was one piece missing, though. The final little bit that connected the trail with the White Rock Creek Trail (the main spine of the trail system that runs through this part of Dallas – the one I enjoyed so much a quarter century ago) was missing. They were taking forever to finish the thing.
Now it is done. And today I had a couple hours to pack up my bicycle and try to ride along the thing.
I packed my crappy old bicycle into the trunk of my car and drove down to the Forest Lane DART station to hop on the final part of the trail. I bought this bike used for ninety dollars almost twenty years ago, so it’s not surprising that I’m having some trouble with it.
The engine, of course, is the worst. It’s old, worn out, and generally gone to shit, but I’m stuck with that. Otherwise, the seat is breaking apart and the derailleurs don’t shift very well any more. I did some work on the front shift levers, moving the adjustment knob to try and get the shifting to improve, but it didn’t seem to help.
I hopped on and headed off. The heat is a little less toxic than it has been, though it is still horribly dry here. Right away I was having trouble. It was a struggle to pedal and my legs were aching and my breathing a chore. I was beginning to feel a little spark of panic – it wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
Then I realized that I had been turning the wrong adjustment knob when I was working on the front derailleur. I had been tightening the front brake by mistake, and it was dragging the bike to a stop.
Fixing that helped a lot – though for the rest of the day I was panicked and tired.
At any rate, I had a good time. The little bit of trail seemed anti-climatic after all the years of anticipation, but that’s that. I wish the thing was there when I was riding all those years ago… or, really, I wish that I could ride like that again.