Ghost Bikes – Somber and Symbolic

Two days ago, Marc and I lost a dear friend that holds a very special place in both our hearts. He was a mutual friend that Marc and I both knew in our adolescence, 10+ years before we met each other. I knew him first as the hyper skateboarding kid in youth group who shared my fascination with Hot Topic. Marc knew him as the equally hyper fellow hard-core loving teenager who showed up to all the same Cypress shows. We then both reconnected with him years later when Marc followed up on a Craiglist roommate ad when he moved back down to New Orleans and guess who opened the door? Our old friend.  Although life had taken all three of us in slightly different subcultural directions, we shared a love of bikes and the city of New Orleans that we called home.

This friend was one of eight people and two dogs (one of which was his) that died in a fire in an abandoned 9th ward warehouse. The group was squatting there for the winter, and the fire started when the barrel they were using to burn scrap for warmth fell over.

Last night Marc and I just lay stunned in bed, trying to make sense of everything. Like so many deaths in the transient / homeless community, there was no formal funeral for our friend. Many of these folks either have no family left or are so estranged from their family that no link is left to even inform them of their passing. There is no money for a funeral or burial plot among their friends, so they are left seeking alternative means of memorializing. The one thing that brought me a small amount of comfort about losing my friend was knowing that his tall bike, the one he was so proud of and that Marc helped him build, had been turned into a ghost bike.

Traditionally, ghost bikes are the biking community’s way of memorializing a biker who was killed in a street accident. They paint the bike white and lock it to a street sign or telephone pole near where the accident occurred, in the same way that people put crosses and wreaths near the site of a car wreck. If someone is in a bike club, however, such as Black Label or Rat Patrol, and/or has a bike that is iconically theirs, their friends may turn that bike into a ghost bike as a way of paying homage even if the person didn’t die in a bike accident. This was the case with our friend, who rode one of the few tall bikes in the city. He had welded both a fleur-de-lis to the frame as well as a crescent wrench, which he said was in honor of Marc. We’ve been told that the bike has been painted white, signed by mourners, and hung on the wall at the St. Roch Tavern, a bar that we all frequent.

ghost bike in NYC

From the very first time I heard about ghost bikes, I thought they were a beautiful tradition and haunting symbols. I had no idea it would be so soon that I would see a ghost bike made in my own community. I haven’t quite felt ready yet, but Marc and I plan on going to St. Roch some time this weekend and signing the bike. I imagine it will be hard at first to see it on the wall every time we go to the bar to hang out, but on the other hand, I’m really happy that our friend’s memorial represents the thing that I saw bring him the most happiness and sense of self-worth in all the time that I knew him: building bikes.

Here’s to you, S. You were a helluva welder, a first-rate rider, and an even better friend.

Nikki

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