Mistaken for homeless

A funny thing happened on the way to the bike shop today. We were waiting at a red light to cross Aurora (here, if you’re curious) when a guy in a big truck hung a U-turn to pull up behind us. He opened his car door to lean out and address me.

“Can I give you five dollars?”

I figured I must have misheard him, but couldn’t reconcile the words into something expected like “Do you realize your kid’s backpack is dangling off your bike?” or “Is there a troll nearby?” (as happened earlier today, in Fremont).

At my puzzled, “Uh, what?” he spelled it out for me.

“You’re homeless, right?”

I was mystified and replied, “Sorry, I’m confused. Why do you think that?”

He explained it was the kids on the bike and he didn’t mean to embarrass me. Though, ya know, he didn’t have his glasses on. But really, were we OK?

I assured him we were OK, thanked him for checking in on us, and no, I wasn’t embarrassed. At this point I was starting to freak out about this guy in a big truck driving around without his glasses, but my husband is trying to convince me he was just trying to put my mind at ease. Hopefully I’ve helped change this guy’s perception a bit. I’m working on a more engaging and educating response for next time.

Do we look homeless?

Do we look homeless?

Maybe it's the snowboard jacket blankie?

Maybe it’s the snowboard jacket blankie?

Of course I had to see if this is *A Thing* and found this article by Joe Kurmaskie, the Metal Cowboy in this Bicycle Paper article, Before My S.U.B. Was A Status Symbol:

“Which would help more, clothing or money?”

I was so thrown by the question that I paused to let it compute. Was she asking if I needed charity? To a writer of some standing in this town? An author with his own bike rack in front of Powell’s Books? A man in the process of hauling donations to his kid’s school?

She shook her head, as if to dispel the insensitivity of her question.

“I’ve offended you. Take both.”

She handed me the bag of clothes before I could react. There was a $20 bill on top.

It’s nice to have company.

And I should admit I’ve been called homeless before–by friends. Completely different.

Twenty minutes later we arrived to G & O Family Cyclery where I immediately related the story to Davey Oil, Tom Fucoloro of Seattle Bike Blog, Kelli Refer, and Adonia Lugo and asked for an honest opinion if we looked homeless today. They assured me it was him and Adonia made a joke about his having forgotten his “glasses of classism”.

Heh, now I realize under all our layers the kids were both wearing their Hobo Inn t-shirts.

Life in a box...a fancy Bullitt bike box

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13 thoughts on “Mistaken for homeless

  1. I liked this, not because of Mr. pickuptruck’s ignorance, but b/c it really speaks volumes about how some ppl. see others on a bike. Sad, but at the same time it does give a chance to reach out to the “caged” masses and let them know there’s a revolution at hand.

    Nice post!

    ~tyler

    • Thanks Tyler! I wish I’d done a better job at reaching out in this particular instance, but I ,know I’ve made a positive impact on others. And it goes both ways–I tend to flinch if someone in a big car or truck addresses me, though I didn’t this time for a change :)

  2. I flinch too. It’s natural, I guess. Reminds me of a time when we were riding home one dark rainy night. Big pickup behind us, then pulled next to me and rolled down the window, preparing for the worst I thought, ‘here it comes…’ And the nice old guy driving just wanted to complement us on being visible with lights and reflectors. :).

    • Aw, that’s a nice story. On the one hand, it’s natural to be scared of the big, dangerous, dehumanizing vehicle, but I think I’m unfairly prepared to be criticized. I’ll work on that :) Your story makes me think of Elly Blue’s The Art of Yelling, though it’s not quite the same thing.

  3. Funny! I think I too would have been speechless.

    We were treated like homeless people on our bike tour in SoCal last summer, although no one offered us money! A family on bikes NOT dressed in lycra meant some sort of economic disparity. People avoided eye contact and sometimes crossed the street to avoid us!

    The experience is odd but I think it helps us (and especially our kids) have compassion for *all* people. We talked about perceptions a lot on that trip. And stereotypes. And how you treat people. After it happened to us a few times, we went our of our way to strike up conversations with actual homeless people (the people we sometimes crossed the street to avoid). They’re just like us. And they deserve the same amount of respect that we do.

    • What a great lesson, Anne! My kids decided he was making a joke so I missed out on our learning moment. I wonder if my “inappropriate for biking” skirt made an impression on him? Though I’m still convinced he should have been wearing glasses and were were just a surprising blur of three sad souls on one bike.

    • I do not get the Lycra phenomenon. You wear it, you’re an athlete. You do not wear it visibly, you’re a instantly classified lesser member if society based on several trivial aromatic, auditory, and visual indicators.

      I admit I do this to some degree as well, but it is more like flagging for me.
      – Someone with metal fenders and wool clothing is probably a randonneur.
      – Someone wearing full raingear is probably a bicycle commuter.

  4. We see often people with bikes who appear homeless (piles of recycling and/or luggage on the bike, packing up a sleeping bag in the morning, etc.) when we’re riding through Golden Gate Park but haven’t yet been mistaken for one of them. Maybe it’s that I’m usually dressed for work? What a weird experience that must have been. And I’m also thinking: a Big Dummy isn’t exactly the kind of bike that someone could trash-pick–that’s a perfectly honorable way to find a bike, but good luck finding something so distinctive.

    • That was one of the thoughts that sped through my mind: “*This* nice bike?” One of my theories was that our proximity to seedy Aurora Avenue influenced his thinking, but your Golden Gate Park routing gives me pause. Also, I need to stop thinking it had anything to do about *me*.

  5. Interesting. Mr. Truck made a nice gesture, but maybe he could have said, “Are you doing ok? Do you need any help?” Bluntly offering money to any stranger is awkward.

    I can’t recall ever receiving direct judgement (good or bad) for looking like a poor, homeless, DUI bike dad, but I’m sure some have held their tongues. Once when Mrs. TBR walked to work in icy/snowy weather, which was easier/safer than driving, her co-worker asked in astonishment, “But you DO have a car, RIGHT??”

    • I think I would have been more confused had he not spelled it out for me–I would have assumed my tires were low or my off-key singing had him worried for my sanity.

      As a wimpy native Southern Californian, I am scared of driving in snow! I’d much rather bike or walk. We lived in Las Vegas for two years before moving here and no one ever stopped me on my bike, but twice while walking with the baby I was asked if we’d run out of gas.

  6. I receive regular friendly complements from homeless guys in our hood on my bike’s cargo capacity (many of whom pack impressive amounts of stuff onto all manner of bike contraptions). Also, inspired by you, we’ve taken to zipping the toddler into an old enormous winter jacket … my husband is only slightly ashamed to be seen with us in that get-up, ha ha.

    • Here, too–many homeless guys are quite taken with my big bike. Lots have dogs and I suspect they’re imagining them seated where the kids go :)
      Yay for big jackets! Although, I have to admit after this incident I’ll keep an eye out for a classy-looking used rain poncho or two.

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