"Playing at Poverty", Bicycles for Transportation, Bike Commuters, Commuting, Despair, Drunkenness, Homelessness, Hope, Human Dignity, Minimum Wage, Poverty, The American Dream, The American Nightmare
“I play at poverty,” is a phrase that I often use to describe myself and my life style. I do not say it disrespectfully but rather as a humorous explanation of my insistence to commute by bicycle and my inherent frugality. My second nod to poverty, me being a bit of a cheapskate, is evidenced in my brown-bagging my lunch to work, drinking water rather than Starbucks or Red Bull and only going out to dinner about once a week. I pinch pennies pretty hard.
Bike commuters come in two large camps. The first is young people who are just starting out on the road of life and who lack financial security; the second is older folks who have very limited means and realize they are unlikely to acquire much in the way of fiscal security. The youngsters look to the bike as a tool to advancement but the majority of people my age who cycle to work do so because they can’t afford a car.
I have a car. In fact my wife and I each have cars but I have been bike commuting since 1980. Back then I was one of those youngsters chasing The American Dream. Now I am an old dreamer who rides to keep himself and his world in better shape and to have a better understanding of how the 17% of the country who fall below the poverty line lives. There are of course differences between my cycling reality and that of the disadvantaged.
I have more than one bike and all of my cycles are road worthy. Most of my commuting is done on a ten year old Cannondale cyclocross bike. Were I to have to replace it it would run a bit over a grand making it moderately priced to a cyclist but eye poppingly expensive to folks who earn minimum wage.
I do not ride a Next, a Mongoose nor a Pacific on my 30 mile commute. My bike is up to the task I give it. Additionally, I can fix a flat tire in less than ten minutes if I get one and I have the option of using my car when the weather makes biking dangerous. That’s why I say that I “play at poverty.” I have chosen my cycling lifestyle rather than having been boxed into doing something that I’d prefer not to do.
I mentioned minimum wage earners. I recently arrive in sunny Florida and was fortunate enough to acquire a job that I enjoy. The national minimum wage is $7.25/hour while Florida’s is $8.05. A minimum wage, full time employee in Florida would earn a bit over $16,000 in a year. Working part time at my new job with my ten dollar per hour decrease in earnings I will earn a bout 117% of what a Florida minimum wage earner makes so when I say that I “play at poverty” I don’t mean it glibly. My earnings are commensurate with my mode of transportation!
(Truthfulness dictates that I tell you that I am covered under my wife’s insurance and that she has a job that pays well. We also have money in the bank from saving our shekels for thirty plus years. Don’t feel too sorry for me!)
My bike riding is a window into the world of the disenfranchised. I work four days a week and every time I cycle on the Pinellas Trail and cross under US 19 via the wide underpass I encounter at least one and frequently two men sleeping there. It is their night time home and I slip as quietly between them as I can. Courtesy for all is another of my mantras.
A bit further south on the trail I come to a section in Tarpan Springs where even under the brightest of suns I turn on my high powered headlight. Why? Because in this one mile stretch I will encounter as many as four drunk men weaving their crooked walk along the trail and I do not wish to collide with them. I encounter them just after eight in the morning.
One day last week as I cycled southward to my job I saw movement on the trail that was going north. Unsure of what I was looking at it took until I was a scant hundred feet away to decipher what I saw. Four people were on two BMX style bikes. They rode two cheap Next 20″ wheel bikes and each held one adult and one child. The mama had her daughter standing on the front pegs facing her while dad had the son on the rear pegs of his bike looking forward over his shoulder. This was their transportation to school that day. (I have only seen them that single day, most of the folks that I mention here I have encountered many times in my approximately two dozen morning commutes to work.)
Commuters on bikes, homeless people using bicycles to tote their few belongings from one location to another and recreational trail users on bikes that sometimes cost as much as a brand new Nissan Versa automobile: I see a lot on my ride to work. I see poverty juxtaposed with opulence, struggle next to ease and hope side by side with despair. I may be playing at poverty but the real thing is all around. Here’s to hoping that a lack of means doesn’t equal a lack of hope and dignity.