In general, I find my bike commute to be a fairly solitary activity. It wasn’t as much this way when I lived in the Boston area, just because there were plenty of other bicyclists around me. I would occasionally bump into someone I knew and we’d ride together for a bit. But here in Hampden County, I’m usually the only biker on the road.
Of course, driving is a supremely isolating experience. People talk about being in their car-bubble while they go to work, engrossed by Terry Gross or singing an epic love ballad alongside the band Heart. A big difference for me when I’m on my bike, I can hear every singing swallow and booming bass beat and chatty Cathy on the street. In short, I’m exposed to – and a part of – the world
My bike route takes me the length of Chicopee, from the northern end with Al’s Diner and the Willimansett Bridge along suburban streets and over the Chicopee River through downtown. Once the school year started, I noticed crossing guards popping up along my route. It’s sort of like seeing the same person in the break room at work every day; at first, you don’t say much, but eventually you can’t avoid it. Not through shared interests but through repeated proximity does a tentative friendship form.
The first crossing guard to break the wall of silence that separates strangers was Bob, at the corner of Granby Road and Grattan Street. He’s the kind of guy who waves at passing school buses, so of course he started chatting with me.
Since the first time he said hi, I’ve gotten to know him in 30-second intervals. I found out that Bob is retired and lives about half a mile away. He used to be the maintenance manager at a warehouse in Springfield, but after he retired he thought being a crossing guard would be a good use of his time.
The next guy I got to know was Ricardo. I met him at the corner of Center St and Hampden St. Ricardo is less effusively sunshine and smiles than Bob, but still friendly and lights up when I roll into the intersection.
Here’s what I know about Ricardo: He is from Poland and France (I don’t know when he lived in one versus the other, though I do know that Chopin also called both Poland and France home!). Inexplicably, I believe Ricardo is a Spanish name, so I’m sure his story is much more interesting than I’ve gathered so far. He is also retired, and worked at Westover Air Force Base as a machinist making chains. I’m guessing the chains he machined were way more massive than my bike chain.
Finally, there are a couple of crossing guards at the intersection of Granby Rd and Montgomery St that I talk to less often, and haven’t really gotten to know. I don’t know their names, though I’m guessing by their age that they are also retired. My one main interaction with them was one time they unexpectedly stepped out into the crosswalk while I was making a right turn, and I had to slam on my brakes (my fault, not theirs). Since then, they’ve joshed me about being a reckless biker when I pass by.
There has been a lot of talk about social fragmentation that accompanies suburban sprawl and car dependence (see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone). Certainly, if I drove instead of biking I would have never met these folks, and Chicopee would just be a faceless expanse of post-war houses and whizzing traffic.
At first, it was kind of annoying that when I was waiting for the light to change I would have to make conversation with the crossing guards standing nearby. But morning after morning of saying hi, talking about the weather, about biking, about retirement or ancestry, they’ve become welcomed sights – friends of a sort I didn’t expect. I bike to work because it’s good for my health, for my wallet, and for the planet. Waving hi and exchanging pleasantries wasn’t something I thought much about, but it’s come to be a nice fringe benefit.
Here is a quick video of a chat I had with Ricardo: