My day began with a car ride. Matt stowed my bicycle in the back of his pick-up truck and drove me over to the Enfield area in Austin, where I met my mom for a cup of coffee. It was a beautiful morning, cool and a little humid with a sunny Central Texas sky overhead. After coffee I decided to ride over to the former site of Freewheeling Bicycles in West Campus, where I purchased my first road bike, a 1982 Nishiki International with Sun-Tour and Diacompe components.
The little strip shopping center was razed many years ago, along with most every other small building in West Camus, and replaced with a giant residential building. But the big stones could not cover up my memories of riding up to the shop to meet my friends for another epic ride into freedom and competition and adventure.
After that I rode over to Congress Avenue where I began seeing something that I had not seen in the hundreds of miles since leaving El Paso: homeless people. Austin is much more friendly than West Texas simply because of the weather, the infrastructure, and the comparatively liberal approach to people who are down and out. I chatted with a shoeshine man named Alvin from Longview, just 36 miles away from my mom’s hometown of Daingerfield in East Texas. A well dressed woman walked by and Alvin said, “Have a blessed day.”
She ignored him. He turned to me and said these words:. “People think they have it hard, but they don’t know what hard is. People think they have it hard, but they are blessed. People think they have it hard, but they have it easy. We have it easy, brother.”
My shoes didn’t really need shining, but I tipped him $10 anyway and told him I would come back by on my way back through Austin. “Have a merry Christmas and God bless you my brother. We have it easy so let’s enjoy the day.” He had not had a customer all morning.
Two blocks up, there was a guy in a long Santa Claus hat trying to cross the street. His name was James. We started talking and he was cheerful and eager to chat. “I am going to be a crane operator,” he said. “The course costs $4000, and that is a lot of money, but do you know how much money those guys make?” He pointed to a crane atop one of the buildings being raised. “That guy makes $70 an hour. That is a fortune. Can you imagine $70 an hour? I wonder how he even spends it all. But that is going to be me next year, I promise you.”
“Are you okay for money?”
“No, but do you have a cigarette?”
“I don’t, but here is $10, you can go buy some.”
He took the money and smiled. “I am not going to use this on cigarettes, I’m going to walk across the street and get me a $10 hamburger. Man, I’m hungry. Merry Christmas.”
Sitting on a bench behind us was another homeless guy who clearly had serious mental problems. He had listened to everything and watched me give James the ten bucks, looking at the money so longingly and desperately it made me wince. I tried to talk to him but he was very deranged so I gave him a $10 bill which he quickly crumpled and secreted away in his jacket.
After that I crossed the Congress Bridge and rode to Barton Springs to visit my old friend Rick. Rick and I trained thousands and thousands of miles together, and raced together often. Rick was a triathlete as well as a bike racer, and got third place twice in the Race Across America. About twenty years ago he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he has been battling this terrible disease ever since. When you see a man who used to be incredibly powerful, strong and smart, struggling to tie his shoes or to walk or even to eat, it makes you understand how quickly life can change. We went to Casa de Luz Village and had lunch together. Rick told me this great story.
In his prime, Rick was about six feet tall and at his very leanest weighed about 175 pounds. He was a big, muscular, powerful guy and he had a quick temper. He was never a bully and he never instigated anything, but if people tried to push him around, they got his business end pretty quickly. In those days, cyclists were few and far between and it was common to have the local rednecks throw beer cans, trash, bottles, or to have them spit tobacco on you as they drove by.
One early Sunday morning Rick was training on Southwest Parkway, the road was empty, and he was minding his own business as he rode through a red light. A guy in his pick-up with his wife and kid who were a couple blocks away saw him go through the red light. The guy sped up and drove up next to Rick with the window down. The guy turned to his wife and he said in a loud voice, “Honey, that was a red light back there wasn’t it?”
“Are you talking to me?” Rick asked.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Maybe you should get out of your truck and get a little closer so I can hear you better.”
The guy pulled over on the shoulder and the minute he began to do that, Rick got off his bike and began taking off his cleats. Several years prior Rick had gotten into a fistfight with a redneck and although he had gotten a clear shot at the guy, he was unable to coldcock him because he slipped due to his cycling cleats. The guy had reached into the back of his pick up, pulled out an ax handle and beat Rick over the back and head, breaking a couple of ribs. So Rick knew that the first thing he had to do was get his shoes off.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I saw an extremely muscular guy sitting down taking off his shoes after inviting you to get out and tell him what he was doing wrong I would get back in my car and drive away. But the redneck was not paying attention to some very clear signals that things were about to go very sideways.
The guy walked around and came up to Rick, who simply coiled and hit the guy on the chin as hard as he could. The guy fell backward, stunned, lying on the pavement. The wife began to scream and the child began to cry.
At that moment a posse of about twenty Harley riders came by, and seeing what looked like the remnants of a fight they pulled over, swarming the pick-up driver who was gradually coming to and telling them that he had been attacked by Rick. Of course these weren’t real Harley riders, they were doctors, lawyers, and CPAs pretending to be Harley riders, so no one tried to do anything to Rick, who while listening to the guy lie about what had happened got angry all over again. Rick was also mildly disappointed that the guy hadn’t been more thoroughly knocked out with what had been a pretty clean and solid shot.
While the guy was talking and gesticulating, Rick walked up to him, pushed aside a couple of the Harley riders and punched him again, this time knocking him completely out. The Harley riders were frightened and pulled out their phones and began dialing 911.
Rick put his shoes back on, jumped on his bike and sped away, but on that early Sunday morning with no traffic, he knew the police were going to catch him immediately and he also knew that the driver’s version of events was going to become the official one and that his Sunday morning was going to end in the Travis County jailhouse.
He came to a side street that was filled with empty lots and raced as fast as he could to the end of the street where there was a small thicket. He looked over his shoulder and saw one of the Harley riders at the far end of the street, which ended in a cul-de-sac. Rick picked up his bike and ran through the woods, on the other side of which was another street that was filled with completed homes. In front of one of the homes was a woman getting her morning newspaper.
“Excuse me ma’am,” Rick said, “I was in a little bit of an accident and I kind of hurt myself. Could I come inside and get some water and maybe some aspirin?”
“Well of course.”
Rick went inside, had some water, and the woman’s husband offered to drive him home. Rick accepted, knowing that Southwest Parkway and the streets in the neighborhood were going to be crawling with Austin cops. Rick’s bike was leaning against the man’s pick-up and he walked out to move it, wearing his bicycle kit with his helmet on, standing next to the man at the exact moment that a cop car began driving very slowly down the far end of the street.
And then one of those coincidences or rather miracles in life that we look back on never understanding but knowing that it was really a miracle, happened. At the moment the cruiser got close enough, Rick dropped to his knees, and for some reason, perhaps because he was watching the cop car, the man next to him never noticed noticed Rick crouch. Rick watched the cruiser drive by through the wheels of the pick-up truck, then stood back up at which precise moment the man turned to him, never noticing that Rick had been squatting down.
“Wonder what they are looking for?”
“I don’t know,” Rick said, quickly removing his bicycle helmet, “but it sure is nice to have so much police security in the neighborhood.”
They put the bike in the back of the truck and Rick took off his jersey which prominently said “Bicycle Sport Shop” on it and which was in fact a perfect identifier because he was the only triathlete at the time being sponsored by the shop. They drove down to the intersection of Southwest Parkway, where three police cars were parked. The guy’s truck had a cap on the back, so the bike could not be seen from outside, and Rick was simply wearing his undershirt like any good redneck. The cops watched them drive away.
“You know,” Rick said to me, “that was just a morning where all of the people who had ever thrown shit at me, yelled at me, buzzed me, and abused me were rolled up into that one fat redneck trying to bully me in front of his wife and kid on the way to church. I shouldn’t have knocked him out, and it would’ve been a huge problem for me because I had a warrant out for an unpaid traffic ticket, but still, it felt really good to strike one blow, however small, for the cyclists.”
It felt even better to hear my good friend recount this bit of rough frontier justice being meted out. And as I looked at Rick’s big hands I thought that whatever kind of blow it had been, it hadn’t been a small one.