The Ghost Bike of Billthy

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_bike

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.

 

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Photo c/o Austin Horse, in Philly, halfway through his ride to D.C.

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.

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Image c/o Austin Horse, In Brooklyn, starting out toward DC

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.

A documentary clip of Bill in action…May he rest in peace.

 

The Best Worst Thanksgiving

     I was 23 when I decided to host my first Thanksgiving. It has always been my favorite holiday, but my parents had divorced earlier that year, so it wasn’t  as exciting as usual. Instead of going home to face the misery, I thought instead I would maybe find similarly homeless people to share the meal with.  I had been working as a bike messenger in DC, and had made some good friends. We always joked that a messenger without a girlfriend is called homeless- and since most of them were single, I thought hosting a thanksgiving meal like this should be easy.

     I let everyone know if they wanted to celebrate, we could do it at my house. Even though it looked abandoned from the outside, it had an enormous eat-in kitchen which was perfect for entertaining. The exposed electrical wiring and chipped lead paint just made it even more of a perfect setting for a gathering of misfit souls. I imagined the night would be like an Adams family Thanksgiving; set in my spooky old house, with crazy people, delicious food, and enough alcohol to forget we were all abandoned. It would be so fun no one would even miss their family.

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Photo cred. Kevin Dillard, http://www.demoncats.com

The Guests

      My boyfriend, Adam, loved the idea of not going home. Growing up his dad was in the navy, which made them nomadic, so my rowhouse was as much a home to him as any.  Also, his mom was an alcoholic, so he was quite happy not spending money to travel down to Georgia just to get in a fight. I was relieved he had agreed, because no one would come if they thought I was cooking the turkey, but Adam had once worked as a chef, and agreed to cook the entire meal for me if I would make him pumpkin pie for dessert.

     My original plan was to ignore my parents completely, but I heard my Dad wasn’t going home either, since he had to work. When I called, he said he was going to volunteer at a homeless shelter instead, and I thought if he wanted to eat with a bunch of surly strangers, he could do that at my house. So I invited him too.

     Inviting him did not fit with my plan though, and I worried how people would react. My friends were mostly heathens and atheists and my dad’s idea of a good time was reading theology while listening to gregorian chants. If he came, he would be coming straight from church which meant he would certainly be wearing a suit, and maybe even a tie. He had also sternly disapproved of my decision to become a bike messenger, and he didn’t seem especially fond of Adam either.  But the divorce had brought some fresh humility into our relationship, and he bravely accepted my invitation.

     The other problem with my plan was that my friends, crazy though they were, were not as willing to give up on their homes as I was. And the people who were going to stay home had been so abused by their loved ones they had no interest in celebrating anything at all. Like my moody, motorcycle mechanic roommate, who locked himself in his room with an 18 pack of cheap beer, and spent the whole day listening to death metal.

     The exception to this was Ed. I adored Ed, almost all the messengers I knew did. He was fairly private, but his collections of punk rock records and vintage Italian bike parts were infamous. He had the nastiest dreadlocks I had ever seen, cultivated out of a complete aversion to shampoo and hairbrushes.  Ed was also the only person I knew in my generation with a mustache, which made him look Parisian to me- like if you stuffed all of his dreads into a beret you would see him painting along the Seine. Although in real life, I could never imagine him doing something so generic.

     I was surprised he wanted to come, since we weren’t especially close, but I really admired that he didn’t back out when I told him my dad was coming.  He was a vegetarian, so he wasn’t lured by the promise of turkey.  He must have desperately wanted to eat something besides pizza. Or maybe he felt pity for Adam, not wanting his friend to be stuck alone at a table with my dad all night.  I knew his family lived too far away to buy plane tickets home, but whatever the reason, I was glad he wouldn’t be sitting somewhere sad and alone.wp-1478542963582.jpgThe Dinner

     As the meal approached I started to regret everything about the dinner. The guest list was smaller and more mismatched than I had imagined, and I quickly learned that pie from scratch was beyond my baking skills. I was so worried about being a hostess. I had no idea how to create conversation among such incredibly different people.  How could I have been so foolish to think we could all come and laugh together, and that would solve anyone’s problems? I didn’t think I had anything in my life worth laughing about right then, anyways.

     When we all finally sat down, it was everything I was dreading. The food was delicious, but no one knew what to say to each other. My dad stared at the crumbling plaster walls, and I assumed he was wondering if he should send me some money. Ed nervously assured us that the tofurkey he brought was actual food, but no one else was willing to try it.  I tried to catch Adam’s eye so he could make some adorable joke or use his southern charm to break the ice- but he wasn’t looking up and his mouth was full of turkey.  I felt horrible that I had invited everyone and expected them to get along.

     But between everyone’s first and second servings, we finally found something to talk about…what it was like to pee in a trough. It was startling for me to realize that I lived had 23 years ignorant of this humiliation. Silently I began to thank God for the ability to always use the bathroom privately, and vowed to never complain about someone peeing on the seat again. The men proceeded to enlighten me with horrifying detail; the length, the texture, the difference before and after a football game. We laughed at their experiences of fear, of dodging drunk football fans and of urine streams gone crazy. The men were equally startled to learn that, even at a stadium, women’s bathrooms always have stalls with doors, AND locks. They cried together at the injustice.  The conversation continued on this way for quite a while, until I showed everyone the pie I made. Suddenly they were all full and ready to go home.

* * *

     Years later, after Adam and I married and left DC, we heard that Ed had died.  His individuality made him so loveable, but it was also part of what isolated him. I guess being an outsider made it too hard for him to fight the temptation of alcoholism. When he passed, Adam and I each remembered this as our favorite memory of him. And surprisingly to me, my dad really loved this Thanksgiving too. I felt bad about subjecting Ed to my family drama, but I felt worse for not including him in more of our broken gatherings.  More than anything, I wished Ed knew how seeing him laugh with my dad made that my best Thanksgiving yet. Even though I was so sure it was going to be the worst.

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Photo courtesy Ed Hermanson Memorial

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     Somehow the weirdness of it all saved it. In the end, I realized what we all needed to cope that year was less like the Adams family, and more like the Velveteen Rabbit. The celebration was shabby and the people brokenhearted, but that made it more real and beautiful than anything I had imagined. I still stress out about hosting people, but now I know nothing is as important as letting people know you don’t want them to be lonely. And it’s okay if it’s awkward, because even the saddest people might find a trough to laugh about.