Saturday, October 31, 2009

Drifters or Grifters?

So I was riding my bike home on Wednesday night, minding my own business -- as always -- when I passed through a group of homeless people who have been hanging around this part of the bike trail for the last few weeks.

Now that I think about it, they could have been hanging out there for years. The city just extended the bike path on Alaska Way near the football and baseball stadiums (stadia?), so I've only recently been riding that new section, which just happens to be near Pioneer Square.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Seattle, Pioneer Square is an old and beautiful section of Seattle that's famous for (1) Elliot Bay Bookstore, (2) the underground ruins, (3) live music hopping, and (4) crime and homelessness. Unfortunately, crime and homelessness is on the rise in Pioneer Square, as evidenced by the fact that Elliot Bay Bookstore will be moving to Capitol Hill soon.

Anyway, a number of Pioneer Square ragamuffins have been making their way down to the bike path that runs under the Aurora Bridge and hanging out in a certain area, forcing cyclists to slow down and weave through them.

On Wednesday, as I was making my way through the crowd, I noticed a homeless guy look at me and then start riding ahead of me in the same direction. I was musing about why the guy decided to hop on his 45-pound mountain bike, and why he was riding in the middle of the path, and whether I should pass him on the left or right, when all the sudden he slammed on his brakes and turned his bike sideways.

I slammed on my brakes and t-boned his chain stay, barely pulling myself out of an endo. When I glanced at the guy for a reaction, he had a funny look on his face, as if he were trying to look sorry but was secretly disappointed. A few of the other loiterers approached the scene of the collision, and a woman was yelling, "Are you OK? Are you OK! Are you hurt?"

Something felt wrong. The last time I'd been in a situation like that was in Barcelona, when two guys hopped on the subway in front of me and started jostling each other unnaturally, which led me to think that they were trying to pull something over on someone. As it dawned on me that that someone was me, I turned around and noticed that a third guy had opened my fanny pack -- which was filled only with tourist maps and a bike lock* -- and was trying to pull out the coiled bike lock. I grabbed the other end of the bike lock, hopped on the subway, and won the little tug-o-war as the train pulled away.

* I have been using the coiled Avenir bike lock since 1989. Still works great.**

** Footnotes are frequently distracting.

Anyway, as I was standing next to this homeless guy I had crashed into while a woman behind me seemed overly concerned, I had one thought -- get the hell away from these people. No apologies, no demands for apologies, no lectures. Without saying a word, I hopped on my bike and rode off, even though the front fender was scraping against my wheel. I spent the rest of the ride home wondering whether this was a dopey accident or a lame scam.

I still don't know what that was all about. When I was riding home on Friday, I thought about skipping the new section of trail where the homeless loiter and just riding on the Alaska Way shoulder, but I was too curious. I rode along the homeless section on the night before Halloween with my head on a swivel, riding over leaves that may or may not have been covering cracked vials, used needles, and burnt spoons, looking for a person dressed in rags to jump out at me.

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