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The ballad of Carl, the homeless bike mechanic

| Wednesday, November 12, 2014

We’ve all seen homeless people before. Chances are, we don’t know much more about them aside from what’s written on their flimsy cardboard signs streaked with black marker.

I come from Portland, Oregon, the City of Roses. In addition to fragrant horticultural beauty, Portland is also home to thousands of homeless. One can hardly drive through a crowded intersection without seeing a poor soul clad in a decades old rain jacket standing outside one of many soup kitchens which actually outnumber Starbucks on Portland’s NW Burnside St. For a Pacific Northwest metropolis, that’s saying a lot.

My interactions with the Portland homeless have been frequent, though I’m not sure they’ve been particularly friendly. It’s not that the homeless tend to be particularly unkind. I know several standout characters at the Holy Cross-run St. Andre Bessette House — one a diehard Notre Dame fan, another a philosophy enthusiast who designed a critical thinking puzzle based on Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.”

But cut to Oxford, a city of some 150,000, close to a fifth of them college students. Oxford, a city of limited access, centuries old stone walls, gated entrances, fenced off fields and individual college courtyards insulated by latched wooden doors and crenelated exteriors allowing for only the briefest glimpses into their interior holdings. Among the mystical Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien overtones, Oxford is a city of austere physical division and locked doors.

Yet the homeless here are some of the most boisterous and open people whom I’ve ever met — jugglers warning passersby of the coming cold spell, a guitarist feeding KFC (notoriously popular in the U.K.) to his blotched Border Collie and the man who asked if I could spare a pound, saw my empty pockets, promptly introduced himself, shook my hand and wished me “a good life” before rushing off. These are people of true grit and character. Enter Carl.

I first met Carl outside of Blackfriars College on St. Giles on a Friday evening. At the time, he was known to me only as an anonymous homeless man, cold-looking in the twilit air. He asked me if I had any change. I told him that I had none, only credit cards and a 20 Euro note. I went back to Blackfriars, but I kept thinking about the gray-bearded man. He couldn’t be younger than fifty. He was shaking in the cold, grasping a paperback which pages had long since yellowed in one hand, with a coin cup in the other. I wondered when the last time was when he had a real conversation aside from “thank you” or “spare any change?” or “god bless.” I thought about the last time I had had a conversation at all.

I returned to the bench where he sat with red hands on yellowed book, his face hidden aside from his eyes, faint points of structure in the night. “So,” I asked, “What do you need this money for?”

Carl has been selling bicycles to Oxford students for at least three years. He has been a bike mechanic, surely, for far longer than that. He buys frames and parts second hand, matches designs and wheel sizes and chains and fixes it all together into something that rides. At the time, he told me he was just trying to get his head above water. Earn back the money he’d lost from two bikes that had just been stolen from him. He needed forty dollars. I remained dubious.

But there was something about this man — his candor, his determination. Call it a leap of faith. Call it intuition. I trusted him. He hadn’t even told me his name yet, but I trusted him.

One ATM trip later and I had made a down payment on a bike. We wrote up a contract on torn paper and bleeding black pen ink. He introduced himself at last. He wanted specifics — handle bar size, frame height, tire type. I know nothing of bikes. I told him to make whatever he thought would work.

Days passed. I didn’t hear back. One of the cell phone numbers he provided on the contract was switched off. I began to doubt. Yet, in my haughtiness, I made a bet with a fellow Notre Dame student that Carl would pull through. He would build the bike. I knew, somehow.

Several days later I was walking back to St. Giles. I had to borrow another phone to finally reach him. There he was, standing alongside a black bike with golden handles and rims. I kid you not — this bike was gorgeous.

He walked with me to grab a set of lights he had promised me. He told me about the other bike builders. One stole frames and parts to build bikes that he bussed over to Cambridge to sell for twice as much. “I’m not about that,” Carl said.

I saw Carl again the other day. He told me his vendor’s license had been revoked since he had been working past the legally-allowed hours fixing the chain on one his customer’s bicycles. They took his tools. They said he needed to stay on the bench or leave.

I doubt they even knew his name.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

Contact Charlie