This is a ghost bike. If you’re looking, you will see them around cities marking the places where cyclists have died. Car crash fatalities have crosses, piles of flowers, pictures, and ribbons memorializing a life lost on the road, and cyclists have this. It’s simple. Just an old, busted bike, chained up at the scene of an incident, spray painted completely white. They can be found worldwide, wherever cyclists die, and there’s a cycling community in mourning. People say it’s to raise awareness for drivers, to help remember to share the road with bikes, but people who don’t ride often don’t understand, or care, what the bikes are for. For me, they stand as a bleak reminder of how vulnerable cyclists are, that a car doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly, and that friends can easily die tragic, preventable deaths.
This is Austin Horse. He’s a New York City bike messenger, adventuring cyclist, winner of a few world bike messenger championship races, and based on all accounts given by mutual friends, a decent human being.
Once upon a time he had another friend that was named Bill. He was also a New York bike messenger, as wild and scrappy as his long beard, which had helped earn him the nickname Billthy. He had a serious case of bikelust, and was cherished for his presence at the back of the RAGBRAI pack that cycles across Iowa every year. He was a brother, an uncle, a father, a friend to many, and also, by all accounts, a decent human being.
One day, Bill woke up feeling ill. He dealt with it, as most grown ups do, but he didn’t feel any better. At this early point in the story, he could have gone to see a doctor, received some medicine, and been fine. Or maybe had a yearly check up, where the doctor would’ve told him he couldn’t heal without treatment. But he didn’t see a doctor, or have physicals because he couldn’t afford them. He took a risk, and assumed that like whatever maladies he’d experienced before, it would eventually go away. Instead it became worse, and then unbearable. Bill finally went to the hospital, but it was too late. What had started as an ulcer had perforated, then turned into sepsis, commonly known as blood poisoning. At 52 years of age, on February 1, 2015, Bill died. From an ulcer.
If you met Bill you might think he was an uncommon person, but stories like his have become so common to me that it holds no surprise. DC messengers I worked with have also died young from treatable conditions that went untreated, cancers that weren’t detected early enough, or chronic conditions that weren’t properly cared for. These weren’t bad people. Despite whatever personal baggage they may or may not have had, they worked hard and were usually willing to drop what they were doing and run a package. Even if the whole city was under a foot of snow and even the US Postal Service was closed. Typical of bike messengers and other working class people, Bill couldn’t afford preventative care because he was uninsured, even with medicaid expansion, and even with subsidies in the marketplace. For many in this position, survival does not allow sick days, because hourly pay is how food finds its way onto their table. Illnesses come and go, but the need for income remains the same, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth.
Austin thought Bill’s death needed a ghost bike. He was a cyclist, and this was a tragic, preventable death, common to many messengers, and it warranted some public awareness. But where would it be displayed? There was no crash sight, or landmark to place the blame. So Austin decided that in honor of his friend, and to advocate for universal health care that might have saved him, to make Bill’s ghost bike mobile. Instead of a random ghost bike, he would bring Bill’s actual bike which was already white. He would ride it from Bill’s home in Brooklyn, in his hand, by his side, all the way to Washington D.C and up to Capitol Hill. Austin and Bill’s bike rode the stretch all this week, while the senators were debating behind closed doors legislation that would affect the future for millions of Americans like Bill. He took the bike and Bill’s story to the people in congress, hoping to remind them that what they’re creating is not just a bill. It’s a way to change people’s stories. It‘s a chance to give them life.
Austin is an experienced cyclist, but riding a long distance in this way is no small task. Any amount of riding with your hand on someone else’s bike is awkward. I’ve ridden bikes that needed repairs to a shop about a mile from my house. It was unpleasant. It threw off my balance and slowed me down. I’ve also ridden the distances Austin traveled each day. It hurts. Not just in your legs, but in your palms, your wrists, your back, and your butt. Being able to let go of the handlebars to sit up and stretch your wrists and wiggle your back is just about the best thing ever. Being able to have both hands on your own handlebars to adjust your weight or get out of the saddle is probably the only thing that might feel nicer. You can’t do either of those things if you have one hand on someone else’s bike.
It was a noble gift to Bill’s memory, to take a piece of him back out on the road, and to share his story with people who don’t understand what it’s like. Often we make this debate about penalties, taxes and money spent, but we leave out the friends we’ve lost, and how they suffered.
There are definitely problems with the system now. It costs more than a monthly house payment to insure a family like mine, even with my husband’s employer subsidizing it. At different times my husband or I have remained uninsured because we’re healthy, and it was cheaper to pay the penalty and for the occasional doctor’s visit than it was to buy insurance. But through that I’ve watched my husband go to work with chronic back pain for months at a time, and suffer through things like strep throat and the swine flu without antibiotics. Even when we are insured, the polict we had was so crappy it would only pay for something if you were about to die. Even though the bill was created to help people like us, I feel people’s frustration with the Affordable Care Act.
I’m fine with fixing the problems, looking at the legislation again and even repealing the parts that don’t work, but not with forgetting that all people need affordble health care. How many people have to die from small complications before we are willing to negotiate around this issue? I wish I was wise enough to speak into the future and calm everyone’s fears about the possible solutions and how they might work best for our country. I wish I could say, beyond a doubt, what measures we needed to take to ensure that greed and corruption won’t triumph at the expense of the vulnerable and less fortunate.
I know we all have our strong opinions about what should be done, and that there are no perfect answers, but the answer can’t be nothing, nor can it be looking back to the time before the ACA with fondness, when millions more were uninsured. This is not just a bill, it’s people’s stories and so we need people like Austin out there, sharing the ones that people can no longer share for themselves. Because it’s friends and family like Bill who are lost in ferocity of this battle.
It has not been effective for us to yell, argue and growl at one another, while we forget that we are capable of empathy and understanding. We need more stories. So we can understand about the family who’s son was saved from addiction and mental illness because it was an ACA provision to include substance abuse treatment. So we can hear about the family that is already swamped with insurance payments, and dreads a trip to the ER because they have no room in their budget to also pay down the deductible. Tell people this story, or your story, or the story of your own friends. We need them. That’s what the debate should center around, because nobody ever sold the child to save the farm and because we need to find a way to treat something as simple as an ulcer.