As if the dead horse couldn’t be beaten any more, I want to talk about why biking to work every day makes me more aware of my city and the complexities within it.
My commute is 4.8 miles, and is not exactly through downtown Rochester, New York. I live within the city limits, but my route actually takes me to the adjacent suburb of Henrietta. Henrietta is any urbanist’s nightmare, with 9 lane roads crossing 7 lane roads, big box stores and chain restaurants.
On my daily trip through the outskirts of the city to my final destination in Henrietta, there are so many things that only a slow-moving observer would have the opportunity to notice. I don’t see all of these every day, but I see them enough to remind me of the intricacies of my home that I might otherwise overlook.
First off, I am reminded of how diverse Rochester really is. With the massive Strong Memorial Hospital and The University of Rochester near by, I pass people from dozens of different cultures, nationalities and socioeconomic statuses. Many walk to work or take the bus, as parking is at a premium in this area.
Rochester is quietly one of the most racially and socioeconomically segregated cities in our nation. Biking through my city, passing and sometimes even briefly talking with people from all walks of life, reminds me that we live in a very diverse place, and that this diversity should be celebrated and appreciated.
My two-wheel commute takes me along a major bus line. In the morning as I bike past Monroe Community College, I see droves of young people get off the bus and head for class. Most of these bus riders are African American, likely traveling to school from the west side of the city. One time I got talking with one of these students while waiting for a stoplight to change. He talked about how he was a straight “A” student and wanted to become a lawyer for the poor and disenfranchised. He couldn’t afford a car, so attending college meant taking the bus every day.
As I ride by these busloads of students, I often think of the kid that has to get up much earlier in the day and get home later at night because he or she might not have access to a car. Still, that student is pursuing an education and trying to take those next steps toward a better life. I’ve heard so many people in my own community talk about the impoverished minorities in our city and how they “don’t want to change their situation.” They might not think the same thing if they saw these students get off the bus every morning and head for a better life.
on my commute, I get to see little hints of nature too. Every morning I see a family of groundhogs on a piece of lawn. I used to see two, then I saw the two with a couple little ones, and now they are all pretty much the same size. There they are, every morning, looking adorable as they forage for whatever it is they forage for.
Near my work, I began seeing a pair of geese hanging out near the road. A week later, I passed and saw Mamma Goose sitting in a nest on top of a manhole cover in the nearby grass. A few days after that, Mamma was in the same spot, but Papa Goose was on the sidewalk, right in my way. As I approached and tried to veer, Papa spread his wings, opened his beak in protest and chased after me until I passed. This encounter happened a few times, until one day I saw Mamma, Papa and a fleet of baby goslings bobbing about in the green grass.
Every now and then I will take a longer way to work which cuts through a wooded area. I almost always see a pack of deer, often half a dozen or more. They don’t flinch much when I go by, almost as if they’re expecting me.
Almost daily I pass a homeless person on the exit ramp off the highway, holding a sign asking for money. I’ve heard people talk about these folks as “scammers,” and to be perfectly honest I can’t confirm or deny. All I know is, I see them in the cold, the heat and the pouring rain. It’s easy to think of these folks as freeloaders, but when you’re out in the elements like I am, seeing them ever day, you appreciate the fact that one must truly feel they have no other recourse when they stand there, pride to the wind, in front of dismissive eyes, waiting for that one person who might hand them a dollar. I always try to give a couple bucks, or maybe some food I have. More importantly, I like to say hi, shake their hand and ask how they’re doing. Usually it’s a short conversation, but it’s easier to see these folks as the humans they are when you can stop your bike and say hello. One thing’s for sure, they’re far friendlier than many of the folks I see on a daily basis.
Finally, one day I saw a man waiting at a bus stop out front of a low-rent housing complex. I remembered seeing him before, he had a very distinctive look to him. He’s an employee at a local fast food restaurant where I hate to admit I am a frequent customer. He works in the back, making food… I remember seeing him back there, working away with a team of younger people.
Now I see him nearly every morning, waiting for the bus on the opposite side of the road from my commute… his grease-stained work uniform is already on. It always makes me think about how we see people who serve us every day, but our perception of them is so one dimensional. In a strange way, seeing this man come out of his apartment complex and wait for the bus to take him to his low-wage job reminds me that these folks and their struggles are real. It reminds me that every day, every person we encounter deserves our respect, for just like us, they go to work, they come home, and they figure out a way to get by.
Riding my bike isn’t life changing. It doesn’t infuse me with adrenaline or make me one with man or nature. It isn’t a single solution to the problems of my life or the lives of any others. What it does do is give me the opportunity and freedom to understand and appreciate my surroundings that much more. This feeling isn’t every day… it’s more of a general mindset that flows over you when you ride continuously over months and months. One day you realize you just start seeing things differently than people who drive to work. You begin to see the world for what it is, instead of insulating yourself from it. You experience the simple highs and lows of a rainstorm clearing into a rainbow, a cold wind giving way to a bright orange sun, the majesty of a sunrise as it banishes the darkness. You see and interact with people instead of passing them as if they are displays painted on the backdrop of your commute. You’re given the chance to connect with a diverse and beautiful population. It sounds ridiculous that anyone might need to be reminded of this, but we all do.
It’s so easy to dismiss the world happening around us. Biking to work helps remind me that there’s a really big world out there, I’m just a tiny little piece of it.