It’s easy to get bummed out about the various obstacles life throws in our way. Even when it comes to riding a bike, an activity/lifestyle that’s supposed to be an antidote to the blues, sometimes it seems like everything’s conspiring against you. The weather, a sore tendon, a creaky back, and of course inadequate quantities of things that are 100% carbon and made of full carbon, exclusively carbon, that is.
I was kind of falling into that funk a couple of weeks ago. It was 5:00 AM and I was standing on the subway platform in Vienna, angsting about the flight that was going to be a very close call, dreading the all-day travel back home, the cramped economy seat, the jet lag, the crappy food, the bad coffee, the drooling seatmate, you know, the hard things in life.
It was subzero Fahrenheit even underground, and I’d had all I could take of the brutal Central European winter, all seven days of it. In a handful of days it had cracked me like a windshield behind a gravel truck.
Unusually, I’d overpacked and was schlepping back a couple of things that had served no purpose at all. One of those things was a super thin knit cap that had proven worse than useless against the bitter temperatures and blowing winds. I’d replaced it with a thick ski cap and was wearing it pulled as far down over my ears as it would go. My ears still stung.
The platform was mostly empty except for a handful of equally cold riders waiting for the train and a beggar in a wheelchair. He rolled from person to person, about half of whom reached into their pockets and handed him a couple of coins. Each time they doled out a 20-cent or 50-cent piece, he smiled broadly and said thank you.
Eventually he made his way over to me. “Sorry, man, I don’t have any small change,” I said, but before he rolled away I realized that I did in fact have a couple of small bills left. “Hang on a sec,” I said, fishing out my wallet. The smallest bill was five euros, about seven bucks. I handed him the blue note.
He looked up at me from down in his wheelchair as he took the money. “That’s incredibly generous of you,” he said. He was a young guy in his late 20’s. His teeth were brown, broken, and missing, and his face looked weathered, which, in this weather, was easy to understand. His legs were about twelve inches long each, shriveled little stubs.
“No problem,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“I’m down here early begging a bit. Thanks so much for the fiver; I’m good for a solid pack of smokes now. Maybe even head home, thanks to you.”
“You live near here?”
He laughed. “Not too far, about thirty minutes by train, then I have to roll for another ten minutes. Where are you from?”
“USA,” I said.
“Ah, yeah, right, I’d love to visit there someday. Whereabouts?”
“Oh, that’s cool. That’s the coolest! What do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
“Too cool!” he said. “You look like an ordinary guy with that shopping bag you’re carrying, but you must be a rich American lawyer, handing out fivers like that.”
“I am pretty rich, just not in money.”
“Oh, I know all about that,” he said. “Money can’t buy most things. But it can buy smokes!” Then he added, “Of all the places I’d like to go, I’d like to go to California most. Los Angeles, palm trees, beaches, pretty girls. It must be the coolest.”
He was dressed warmly, with thick pants, a heavy jacket, and a hood that covered his head. “It’s nice there,” I agreed, “but it’s nice here, too. Hey, you want a knit cap? It’s a surfer brand, not much use here in winter but maybe okay in spring or fall.” I dug into my shopping bag and pulled out the light green cap that my buddy Michael had given me a couple of years ago.
“Super cool!” he said, pushing back his hood and stretching the cap over his skull. “Do I look like a surfer now?” He was laughing.
“Yeah, about as much as I do.” He sat there for a minute, very satisfied, in no rush to go anywhere, and there was a comfortable silence between us. Finally I broke it. “What happened to your legs?” I asked.
“I got a cyst on my spine when I was tiny and when they cut it out my legs quit growing.”
“Man, that is tough,” I said.
He looked up at me and threw his sunbeam of a broken-toothed smile onto that cold Sunday morning train platform. “It’s not too bad,” he said. “There are so many people in this world who have it so much worse. I love Austria,” he said. “I think it’s the best country in the world.” Then he paused and looked at me, satisfied. “I consider myself a pretty lucky guy.”
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