It didn't take long after we'd moved here, to notice him. It seemed every time we made our way up the inland highway, on our way to visit the market, we'd see him. It didn't matter what day of the week or, for that matter even what time of day it was, he always appeared in the same place -- alongside the right hand side of the road, just around the bend that curved left after Hickey Ave.
You couldn't miss him; he was far from your typical recreational cyclist. It is common in these parts, to see middle-aged yuppies dressed in the latest designer cycling gear, peddling their way back to good health after a decade of bad choices, but he was different.
There were times when he'd be riding a rickety two wheel bicycle, with a wicker basket that had seen better days attached precariously to its rusted handlebars. Other times, he'd be on foot, occasionally holding out his thumb, hoping for a ride.
His face was grizzled from a lifetime of sun and wind, and on his chin he sported a long snow-white beard. It made him look like a modern day Rip Van Winkle or a misplaced mystical wizard far from the pages of a child's fairytale.
The metallic red helmet, his constant companion, was sometimes perched atop of his head, or slung across his chest as if it were a shield of a battled warrior. His bike looked as if it had been lovingly rescued from a garage sale rather than purchased at any of the high-end cycle shops that pepper the Island.
It became a habit to look for him, each time we drove that particular stretch of highway, and we were rarely disappointed. His presence, although predictable, was eerie, and made us feel as if we’d stepped into some surreal looped scene from a cult horror flick.
The sightings eventually became an inside joke as we started to make up backstories for him; filling in the missing pieces for this man that had become a constant presence in our world. We took clues from his appearance and his mannerisms and actions and eventually we ended up convinced that our back story was his reality.
When we saw him picking pop cans from the roadside one day, we assumed that he was somewhat of a transient in need of the recycling rebate in order to be able to eat. In the end, we also ended up being frightened of him, assigning him the character traits of random hitchhikers we’d seen in the movies, where they’d end up killing the unassuming good Samaritan that had stopped to offer them a ride.
We, however, were proven wrong. So very, very wrong.
On a recent trip to the local supermarket, we picked up a copy of a free local monthly magazine. Being fairly new to the area, we had come to depend on it to share hiking information, local event dates and general background information on the community we were learning to call home.
As my son loaded the groceries into the trunk, I took the magazine into the car with me, to browse while he finished his chore. As I opened it, I saw his face.
Our phantom cyclist.
He was standing beside the same well worn bicycle and metallic red helmet we’d become accustomed to. The only thing different was that in this photo, was that his rough, wind worn face, was broken by a wide smile. The face that was staring back at me didn’t seem so ominous now that it had eyes that twinkled and laugh lines etched deeply into face.
As I scanned the article, I learned much about the man we had crossed paths with often. This man, that we’d pegged as a homeless, psychopathic monster to be avoided at all costs, wasn’t transient at all. He had a family, a rather large one. He was a devoted grandfather, and had retired from working a lifetime as an engineer on the railroad. He was far from desolate, he had a healthy pension, and a home to call his own.
And those cans he was picking up? Well, the magazine article was written to share his one man crusade to beautify the world. Since he retired, he walked or biked the same route, almost daily, picking up litter that had been tossed out of passing cars. He’d collect the discarded bottles and cans as well, putting them inside the wicker basket he’d attached to the handlebars of his bike, taking them home to sorting bins. He’d take them into the recycle depot occasionally, trading them for cash that he would put aside, and then once a year he’d donate the proceeds to local children’s charities.
Well, there went the perfectly good movie of the week scenario we’d created out the window. The truth was though, his story made me uncomfortable. Not because I don’t like benevolence but because now, I had to face some rather disturbing truths.
I’d always fashioned myself to be an defender and promoter of diversity, accepting and welcoming of people from all walks of life. This man’s story wasn’t told by the clothes he wore, or where he walked or what kind of transportation he used, it was told by his actions - the way he lived his life.
And not just this man; but every person I make contact with.
It reminded me how quickly we can create a persona for people in our minds, sometimes by something as simple as the person’s name. Not all women with the same name as the neighbor up the street are busybodies and not everyone who picks up a can from the side of the road is a mass murder hiding from the police in upstate New York.
Now when we the man walking along side of the road, we wave and smile. He’s not so ominous anymore, as she smiles and waves back at us.
There’s only one thing nagging at me now, though.
I wonder what kind of back story he’s fashioned about us?