Yesterday, while going to the recycle dumpster next to the alley with my plastic bottles, I heard someone behind me. “You throwing those away?” he asked politely. I turned around to see who was talking, and it was an old black dude, who looked like a homeless person. I knew he wanted my plastic bottles, but that’s not what caught my attention, it was the guy. The guy who stole my bike years ago.
I worked in one of the offices across from Capital Park and for many years at noon I’d grab my ball, hop on my bike and ride the few blocks to Roosevelt Park to shoot hoops with the regulars. I wasn’t a star or anything, but for a little guy, I could hold my own and had a decent hook shot. Back then it was eat, sleep, and play basketball.
Three years ago, I reluctantly decided to hang up the old high-tops. As the saying goes, the handwriting was on the wall. It seemed I was always playing with injuries. As I got older though, a little sprain or muscle pull took weeks to heal. I knew my body couldn’t withstand the physical pounding much longer, especially on pavement, so I wisely walked away before serious injury took me down.
About fifteen years ago my main transportation was my bicycle. I’d ride it to work downtown, and more importantly, to the park every day during lunch. At the park you’d get all kinds of characters dropping in for games, stateworkers, students, unemployeds, riff raff, the works. A loud, smack-talkin mix.
Warren was this black guy about thirty years old who was part of that downtown b-ball crowd. He was bigger than me, and an excellent basketball player. Warren was a quiet, easygoing guy and always a good sport. Basketball etiquette on the streets is not something dismissed lightly. Play hard, but at all times, good sportsmanship is solid gold. I’ve found most of the time, that the real character of a man shows in how he plays the game.
I think I’ve played basketball in every park in Sacramento. I’d get on my bike and pick a different one all the time. Like McKinley Park, Land Park, SouthSide Park, anywhere there was court with unbent hoops and a net, I’d show up. I liked the sound of the ball as it bounced on the pavement. I could feel the calming rhythm, get inside it. Only someone who plays a lot knows what I’m talking about. Basketball was life.
One day while playing downtown, Warren asked to use my bike for a quick trip to the store. As a rule I never loan my bike to anyone. But hey, this was Warren. His game was good, so he was good. I bought this bike from a garage sale a few years before, and spent about a hundred dollars fixing it up. It was a sleek black speedster on skinny tires and attached to me like an appendage. I loved that bike.
We played a couple more games, and still no sign of Warren. Before leaving, Tim, one of the regulars asked where my bike was. “I let Warren borrow it to go to the store and he hasn’t come back,” I said frustrated. Tim looked at me funny then said, “Warren borrowed your bike?” He shook his head like he knew something I didn’t. “Dude ain’t comin back,” he said, then walked off. The realization was sinking in, but I still couldn’t believe it. Not Warren, he’s my friend.
Finally, a few weeks later I saw Warren sitting down at a bench next to the basketball court watching a game going on. I walked right up to him and asked, “Hey man, where’s my bike?” He looked at me as if he honestly didn’t have a clue, then remembered. “I came back, but you was gone,” he said, “Don’t sweat it man, I’ve got it at my place over across Broadway at the CV Circle projects. Just come down there and get it.” I didn’t like that idea, but really wanted my bike back.
I wrote the address he gave me, holding a slither of hope. I caught a ride after work and went down to Warren’s house. When I got there, the place was a mess. Dirty clothes everywhere, very little furniture, and holes in the wall. A scary-lookin dude answered the door and led me to the back where Warren was sitting on a small mattress on the ground, empty cans and bottles everywhere. “Hey Warren, I’m here for the bike.” He looked up, surprised to see me. He didn’t look like the Warren I knew. He looked out of it, and didn’t even attempt to stand.
Warren told me truthfully where he lived earlier that day, but never really expected me to go there. I’d called his bluff. Why not, I grew up in the projects of another town, so that didn’t phase me. He gave me his word, and I believed him.
He looked up from the mattress with a glassy-eyed haze, and apologized. “Sorry man, I’ll get you another one, promise.” I looked at him, at the room we were in and finally got it. There never really was a bike anymore. That was long gone. These were desperate times, and my bike was low on the survival list. “No, that’s cool,” I answered, while backing out of his room, “I’ll see you at the park some time.” That was the last time I saw him.
Fifteen years ago, Warren was a physical specimen of a man. He reminded me of a young Charles Barkely, the basketball player. Today, the man holding two large sacks asking for my recycle bottles, was someone else. He’d aged badly, shrunk two sizes, and wore dirty clothes. He was still courteous and respectful, like before, but life had mauled him good. The startling thing though, was his eyes. Cold and empty, but clear.
There was a flicker of recognition, but we let it pass. I pretended I didn’t recognize him, and he did the same. What was I gonna say, “Remember me, you stole my bike a long time ago?” Fifteen years of hell had crashed through Warren since then, and left this ravaged shell. “Sure man, you can have my recycle bottles.”
He didn’t act like someone who needed pity, or a handout. No, he was working, and there was determination, a sense of pride in the way he went about it. I admired that. Somewhere back there, a truce was called between his demons and the last days of living.
The summer sun was already blazing, and Warren still had a lot of ground to cover. He hoisted the sacks on his shoulder, walked away, and never looked back.
© Charles Mariano