Streaks were meant to be broken. In my case, the non-driving streak. My legs cried uncle in Houston, but home, such as it is, remained anchored back in Los Angles. Kristie’s car was in Austin, 150 miles up the road, and the only way we were getting back to her car was by renting one at Houston Hobby. As the renter I had to drive it, at least out of the Enterprise lot.
It felt bizarre to sit behind the wheel again, but I straightened my back, fixed both eyes firmly ahead after checking rear and sideview mirrors, placed my hands in the now-outdated 10-2 position, and eased out onto Monroe. “Wow!” I thought, as the car moved forward. “Driving sucks!”
Not having driven since August 17, 2019, I knew I would tire quickly and had to be on the highest alert so that I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. Likewise, my reaction times would be slower, my visual acuity less, and my never-especially-great skills greatly eroded. However, I’m proud to say that I did a great job, I did not get tired, and that I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I pulled into the neighboring lot, thirty seconds later, to hand over the keys to Kristie, who piloted us onto Austin and then LA.
There is nothing to say about sitting in a car for 29 hours except that it is silly. When the big city lights of LA came into view there was no feeling of accomplishment, no satisfaction, only the dull realization that I’d finally be out of the cage. Compare that with rolling into Houston after 40 days and 2,109 miles, 40 days of cold, wind, sun, pleasure, misery, uphill, downhill, barbecue, ice cream eaten on the stoop of a Dollar General, flat tires, near misses, friendly waves, funny conversations, real physical exertion, the elements, the night sky, fear, elation … no, don’t compare it, because there is no comparison. The arriving cyclist is a conquering hero, the arriving motorist or rv-ist? A schmo with a tummy ache from eating too many Shipley Do-Nuts.
As we drove into Quartzsite, AZ, we saw a guy on a bike standing on the shoulder of I-10 going in the opposition direction. We took the next exit, flipped around, and drove over to him, by which time he was riding again. His name was Mike. He was carrying 32 pounds of water on his handlebars, as well as a full load of life’s necessities on his aged, somewhat converted, hardtail hybrid. We chatted for a few minutes, gave him $20, and asked if all was okay. It was, and he even has a YouTube channel. I guess nowadays, so does everyone. It wasn’t clear where he was going, or why, but it was certainly clear how: Head down and mashing the pedals up a long-ass climb.
In town we stopped for gas and I struck up a conversation with Bill Wallace. He’d been living outdoors for years and was happy to chat, expecting nothing and quite satisfied with life. He had a big canvas roll that served as his cover/bedding, and a well-worn backpack, along with a beard and a solid pair of walking shoes. “Where you going?” he asked me.
“You can have it. That place sucks.”
“You been there?”
“Once. I walked there. Still remember walking from Jurupa Valley to Newport. And crossing over the mountains, looking down at all that smog, cars, and I thought I was going to jail … dirty air jail.”
Bill was surprised when I offered him $10, and appreciative. As we were leaving the parking lot, another guy ambled by, heading towards a group of homeless people congregated under a tree next to a sign. I gave him $10 but didn’t have a chance to chat. “Thank you!” he fist-pumped and whooped. “Taking this home to my family!”
It feels kind of, I don’t know, cheap, just to hand out a bill and not talk, it’s not my preference, but as Kristie said, “They don’t care if you’re handing to them on foot, on your bike, or from a car at sixty. They just care that you’re handing it out.”
Which brings me to a point. I began my trip with $300 in ten-dollar-bills given to me by a friend, and since then the kitty has swelled to $2,020. I’ve only handed out $560 so far, but plan to continue giving out the cash here in Los Angeles, where the need is, frankly, endless.
In fact, the need is so endless that it makes me wonder about whether it’s worth doing at all, but of course the answer is yes. A few dollars can’t change a life (although maybe they can), and they can’t make a bad year or a bad decade or a bad string of decades good ones.
But I also know that what to me are small amounts loom large to a lot of homeless people, and those dollars come along with something even better, which is the attendant unexpected, unanticipated recognition. Because people on the street are like you and me, they crave recognition fundamentally as people. They exist and they want to be seen, just like I do. They want people to meet their gaze and not turn away, just like I do. And although few want pity, most want you to recognize how good YOU have it, and to understand that the difference between homed and homeless can turn on a single unfortunate event. Most crucially, they want to you understand that homed or homeless, they are people with hearts, minds, skills, troubles, joys, victories, and defeats.
So each small bill is a recognition of those things and it’s an acknowledgement of something equally profound: We live our lives not in years or days but in moments. And one bright moment can make a day. And the best lives are lived not in decades or years, but in days.
To each person who has given something, I’m passing it on. We’re all the beneficiaries, even if it’s only for a moment.