TOP OF THE ROCK -- June 21, 2009
By Kyle Brazzell
The ghost on the corner: A tale of two bikes
When Cynthia Shavers’ car broke down on Friday, June 5, she had no way of knowing that the failure of the compact, champagne-colored coupe would, two days later, turn her husband, Christopher, into a martyr.
Needing transportation, Christopher took to riding a bicycle that Cynthia would later describe, somewhat wistfully, as “antiquey,” as though the outmoded curves of the vehicle — wide-wingspan handlebars that gave name to a mustache, chrome wheel hubs arching like surprised eyebrows — had been a harbinger of an ending way of life that nobody had thought to read.
The Shavers home sits a few blocks off Roosevelt Road, along the western boundary of the sprawling Calvary Cemetery. From there, on the evening of Sunday, June 7, Chris Shavers had faced a circuitous but not impossible route in finding himself pedaling east on Seventh Street, in the Stifft Station neighborhood, toward Woodrow Street.
By the time of the late-night television news, the riderless bicycle, preserved in a crumple behind crime scene tape but visible to curious onlookers, sent neighbors sensitive to cycling rights home to their computers to speculate. Had the city suffered another bicycle casualty?
The police report would fill in some details: According to a witness, the driver of a pickup truck rounded the corner at Woodrow in a hurry to beat the light. He dragged Shavers about 30 feet before stopping to inspect the source of an impact. Then he called for an ambulance. Shavers’ obituary told the rest — wife, three kids, age 26 — too old to be biking for play, too young to be biking no more.
The following Tuesday, Cynthia and her sister-in-law, along with a few other relatives, gathered at the corner of Seventh and Woodrow to rest Mylar balloons and teddy bears — all in red, Christopher’s favorite color — on the sidewalk.
It would be another week, Christopher’s burial in between, before the street memorial would take on the conceptual quality of an art installation, courtesy of a bicycle painted entirely in white that seemed to materialize there at the corner overnight, no clue as to its depositor.
Cynthia Shavers dressed her husband in red and black and laid him to rest on Saturday. When she revisited the memorial the following Monday evening, the arrangement was just as the family had left it, balloons, bears, candles, a photo of Christopher on which Cynthia had written, “RIP, my love.”
But by rush hour the following morning, there was the all-white bicycle, an inscription of its own — “A Cyclist Was Killed Here.” Chris Shavers had taken on meaning beyond domestic mementos of loss, even if it’s unlikely that, in life, he had thought of himself as a “cyclist,” the way bike-lane boosters and helmet comparison-shoppers do.
“A guy doesn’t have to dress up in Lycra or ride a fancy bike to be a cyclist. He was still one of us,” said Tom Ezell, of the Arkansas Bicycle Club and an officer with Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas.
Reluctantly, Ezell revealed himself as the memorialist who crept to the corner of Woodrow and Seventh streets this past Tuesday morning carrying a bicycle he had fished out of the back of a barn on his property and spray-painted white.
Each morning, Ezell drives from Scott to North Little Rock, parks his truck and then bikes to his job in the Northshore Business Park. He keeps a supply of what he calls “project bikes,” useful for parts or tinkering back to optimal function when a need arises. The project bike he conscripted into memorial service for Chris Shavers originally came from a police sale in Columbia, Mo.
Technically, its arrival at the corner of Seventh and Woodrow was one of the city’s first episodes of the “ghost bike” movement. A ghost bike, painted an ethereal white, is placed at the scene of a cyclist’s death, whether the deceased was known among a city’s active biking constituency or not. The color scheme — or colorless scheme — is meant to be “very stark, very plain,” said Ezell. “Like a ghost sitting there on the corner.”
Of course, every ghost has its temporal precursor, the body the spirit once occupied. It took a few days for the police department to relinquish Chris Shavers’ actual, antiquey bike back to his wife from the evidence locker. She took it home and turned it, too, into a shrine. The white paper tag marking its police inventory still dangled from one of the handlebars, which had been pretzeled in the accident like a breadbag tie.
Cynthia recovered only one of her husband’s sneakers, a black Nike Air Jordan, which she attached to one of the bike’s pedals and placed in it a red rose that was beginning to blacken into velvety decay. To the seat she fastened a pair of gold-plated hands, clasped in prayer, surrounded by more red flowers.
When she learned of the ghost bike, left at the memorial by a stranger, Cynthia Shavers drew her hand to her mouth absent-mindedly and smiled a half-smile. “That’s nice,” she said. “I like that.”
By Thursday morning, the plaque with the golden, praying hands and red flowers had been transferred from Chris Shavers’ home to the corner of Seventh and Woodrow, where it rested above the seat of the white bicycle as a kind of meeting of memorials, a brief flush in the cheeks of a ghost.