Bill, the covids, and 2021
January 2, 2021 § 14 Comments
“I had a bike,” he said, “but it got stolen.”
“Yeah. I loaned it to a friend and somebody stole it from her, or she didn’t want to give it back, or something.”
“Yeah. You know, my dad died at 52 and my granddad at 56. I’m 62, outlived ’em both and it’s because of that bicycle.”
“How do you figure?”
“Even though I’ve been living on the streets for six years I’ve gone everywhere by bike. It keeps you a lot healthier than you’d be if you were sitting down all the time. That’s my fear of living in an apartment, that I’ll stop moving and just sit there, do nothing, and die.”
“Is that why you live on the streets?”
“No, actually I’m trying to get a place. I have a caseworker who’s supposedly going to to have an apartment for me in the next few weeks, but I don’t believe it. In the meantime I’ll keep living here.”
His name was Bill, and he lives in the small encampment on Lomita Blvd. by the 110. I had stopped to chat, given him ten bucks, and was going to continue onto Long Beach after we stopped talking. “How is it living here?” I asked.
“It’s fairly chill but lately a bunch of kids have moved in, trying to make it like a gang, but I’m not having any of that.”
“That’s good. And good luck with the apartment.”
“Yeah, and thanks for the ten bucks. That’s going to help.”
“Sure. It’s not really from me, anyway.”
“Well, if you come across a really cheap bike with gears, a 19 or 20-incher, you know where to find me.”
I rode on, thinking about how bikes can change your life, extend it, and how they link people together. It seems like no matter who I speak to, eventually they comment on my bike and start talking about theirs, or about the bike they used to have, or about riding in general, like Kirk in Houston who gave us all the stats on the Ride the Rockies Fondo. “It’s got 29,000 feet of elevation,” he had said. The guy knew his stuff, though he lived under a freeway …
A lot of people were killed, and many others were devastated by the covids in 2020. It ripped through homeless communities as well as through communities of older, vulnerable people. And it tore up economic livelihoods of people who were never even infected. I’ve not kept up with the “news,” but my guess is that we’re going to have a lot more covid, death, and disruption before we have less. Anyone expecting a silver bullet in 2021 might reconsider.
In other words, instead of looking at how things are going to get back to normal, maybe we had better think about how to take what we’ve got and adapt to it. In that way, 2020 was a very fortunate year for me. In January, before the pandemic was acknowledged, I was already getting a handle on some profound emotional and mental issues, i.e. anger, that have been clawing me on the back all my life. That led to the formal breakup of my 32-year marriage, simply because virtually all of the relationships I had were in some way functioning or being driven by that very deep anger created in early childhood and continued on through the rest of my life. Whether alcohol or the competitive group bike ride, anger was in the driver’s seat.
Oddly enough, the crisis of the pandemic coincided with this personal crisis and created either a prison or an opportunity, and I think that this prison/opportunity scenario has played out for tens, if not hundreds of millions of other people as well. The prison is this: Because of the pandemic, hunker down, double down on what you already have even if what you already have isn’t working. The opportunity? Do the thing or things in your life that you have always told yourself you’d do “If only.”
2020 and the covids were for me the erasure of “If only” and its transformation into “Now’s your chance.”
As a friend put it related to cycling, “If you haven’t been able to get fit during 2020, you’re never going to get fit.” His point wasn’t that you’re never going to get fit, but that the pandemic gave millions of people who chronically complain about their health and fitness the ONE THING that they claim not not have, that is, the time to work out, ride a bike, hit the gym, make better lifestyle choices. Because emotional prisons take a lifetime to build, and because they have a comfort all their own, after a certain point you can’t do anything with the key even when it’s handed to you. It’s why people who, after making their pile, keep making a bigger pile. As Brian Keller put it, “Too much is just enough.”
One of the hardest things about mental problems is that they are mental and therefore they direct the physical. Anger is this way. When you are angry, it’s difficult to respond to challenges, conflict, adversity, fear, sometimes even happiness, without using anger as some mode of communication or behavior. And of course anger begets more of the same. So for me, the pandemic became an opportunity to escape the patterns and people that consistently and reliably triggered the anger. Whatever emotional issues you have, this part of your problem is identical to mine: Your brain continually responds to the stimuli around you, and you surround yourself with stimuli to create those reactions. It’s a cycle of familiarity and pain, and, unless you can break it, of helpless unavoidability.
That’s why I took the pandemic as a chance to do something I’d always wanted to do–a walkabout by bike. Just go somewhere. Not be tied to a place and not have a destination. Not have a schedule and not have anyone or anything to answer to. Camp out under the stars and see if the mysteries of the ancients were as mesmerizing today as they have been since the beginning of human thought. Figure things out for myself without the usual coterie of people and places, all ready to push me back into conflict, argument, anger. Lie in my tent and recite Chaucer and see if the words are as beautiful there as here.
And the beauty of the situation was that so many court hearings had been converted into virtual ones, along with depositions, meetings, and all of the other things that, as a lawyer, had bound me to the geography of Los Angeles and the South Bay. With a laptop, a phone, and an Internet connection, I gambled that I could still work and at the same time take advantage of being off the chain, out of the cage, sprung from the prison. As Chaucer wrote, “Unhardy is unseely,” which simply means that the un-brave are unlucky; you have to take risks if you want good luck.
The bike-about worked. Constant, often extreme physical exertion coupled with the hard work of finding a place to camp, cooking my meals from a camp stove, and doing all of this amidst extraordinary natural beauty winnowed out so much emotional chaff, junk I’d been carrying around for no reason other than to carry it around. Unfamiliarity, loneliness, struggle, fear, and of course exhilaration, strength, confidence, and conviction have a way of forging new perspectives even when done from the saddle of something as conventional as a bicycle. People talk about “pushing the envelope” but it’s not until you actually do it without the umbilical cord of home, of safety, of the familiar, that you begin to bump up against the edge of that which is new.
The pandemic enhanced all of this. Places were empty that would normally have been packed. Finding food and shelter was challenging when, without the pandemic, it would have been a cinch. I’m one of a few people in the last hundred years who has stood alone in Yosemite Valley, with no cars or other people, in the middle of a brilliant summer day. It was work and risky to get there, and indeed several people advised me not to, but unhardy, apparently, really is unseely.
No better example of risk and reward can I give than the stars. With each movement farther from Los Angeles, the skies became clearer and the stars became brighter. The less comfortable, the harsher the environment, the more beautiful and transparent the night sky became until, one cold night in West Texas, walking down the blackest street in Fort Davis with her hand in mine, I could look up and see for the first time in my life the true colors and contours of the Milky Way, a place so bright and strewn with stars that the sky looked literally polluted with starlight.
Those stars aren’t available for the person who drives, or who flies, or who takes a stargazing trip. Those stars are only there for the person who starts in the city where the night sky was murdered decades ago, and who then moves, slowly, from degrees of night, first no night at all until, over the course of weeks or months, he finds himself in the center of a blackness so perfect that it allows the stars to shine as bright as street lamps, to quite literally light the way. This transmutation, from the blindness of too much city light to the perfect vision of perfect darkness, is what “the journey” is all about. It’s not the thing you buy on a Trek tour or that you see from the bow of a cruise ship, it’s the glittering shimmer that you only fully appreciate when you have to struggle to see it, and the more people who counsel you to stop, to come back, to give up, to do it with less discomfort and risk, the better.
There was more on offer than stars. There were also people on offer, most strangers, many homeless, but others who were friends, family, loved ones who saw with compassion rather than judgment. This was the other pandemic opportunity, the chance to go slowly enough that rather than pushing mindlessly from waypoint to waypoint, I actually had the time and peace of mind to let my guard down and talk. Because talking, when done with mutual interest and volition, is one of the purest forms of communion that we have, and like so many other things, has been subjugated to social media “talk,” to the “talk” of television, the “talk” of hate radio, the “talk” of message boards, the “talk” of anonymous voices on the Internet, in short, to a hundred kinds of “talk” that involve everything except two humans looking at one another in person and, you know, talking.
A few of those talks were profound, like with George, the homeless man in Oregon, who said this about responsibility: “A few responsibilities are good and necessary, they make you a better person. But most are needless burdens that only make you miserable.”
A few of those talks were sad, like the successful businessman in Washington who was literally counting the Mondays until he could retire.
A few were hilarious, like the homeless person who explained why Trump was the best president ever.
But all were real conversations, things that could never have transpired had I not taken the proffered key and walked out of the cage, or had I punted to the safety and laziness of #socmed.
Shucking off my anger, or most of it, and doing a bike-about had an interesting effect on others, too. Some friends retreated, some ran away pell-mell, but others appeared with olive branches and words of reconciliation and love. Some recognized, as have I, that our very existence is privileged, to say nothing of our social, economic, or ethnic conditions, and that part of taking a journey such as this is an admission of that privilege. As one person asked, “Is this guy just play-acting at being homeless because he can, because he’s a white guy who has money?”
The answer is yes in this way–we are all play-acting. All the world’s a stage per Shakespeare, but we are also, per Chaucer, all pilgrims: This world is but a thoroughfare full of woe / And we are pilgrims, passing to and fro. And the privileges of gender, ethnicity, residence in the USA, and the economic security of a job and bank account mean that no foray into the world can ever be a true walkabout, passing though five thousand miles of Australian bush with nothing but your wits and a digging stick.
Within the play and the pilgrimage, though, we can stake out our own legitimate values, beliefs, needs, and resolutions. Even a white lawyer guy with a bank account feels pain when you slice his finger open, and even a white lawyer guy with a bank account can move through the day, the week, the month, the year, leaving the people he meets feeling better and feeling glad they ran across him, just as he can make them feel worse. This reality, that no matter our status we are all humans and we can all affect those around us, has driven some people away and has caused others to open their wallets, or at least to read along and see what happens next, because even the craziest, unhappiest, most miserable critic still wants to know how the story ends, not because he cares about the story, but because this story, like all stories, is an allegory relating back to the story, itself an allegory, that we construct for ourselves.
How does the story end? Well, then.
Of course there’s so much more. It would take a full-length, very boring book to detail the rivers, the streams, the magical camp sites, the bitter cold, the world’s worst food, the world’s finest cuisine, the exhaustion, the fitness, the tenderness in a shared sleeping bag, the pitter-patter of sparkling sunlight on a running brook, and the infinity of other wonders that I experienced outdoors on a bicycle, lugging around my life on bike and back like a touring tortoise. Inside all that wonder, though, there was a nugget I’d suspected I’d find, and find it I did.
Here it is: The time is now.
And if you run across a 19 or 20-inch bike with gears, let me know.