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Antonio Morales sits on his bike, staring vacantly in the early-morning light. He gazes past the South Miami Avenue Bridge at the enormous unfinished condo tower, alive with dozens of workers. He holds his hard hat against his chest and idly spins one of the pedals with his foot. Morales, like the others, rose at 5 a.m. and rode his bike downtown from his home in Little Havana. Unlike the men he's watching, he has yet to find work today.
"It's been a bad month," he says quietly. "They turned off the electricity in my house. Estan malas las cosas. Things are bad."
Morales is one of Miami's class of invisible bikers — laborers, the elderly, the working poor, immigrants who come from countries where two wheels are still the dominant mode of transportation. The city's bike activists tend to be affluent and middle-class, easy to peg as any other latte-fueled crusaders. But head across the tracks — anywhere west of Biscayne Boulevard — and it's obvious the people to whom bikes matter most aren't Miami's upper crust at all.
Morales, in his sixties, is short and thick, with jet-black hair that is just beginning to gray. He came here from Nicaragua 20 years ago and has worked construction ever since. He has never owned a car — "It costs three or four thousand dollars for a good one, plus there's gas," he says dismissively — but perks right up at the mention of his bike. "I use it for everything, everything!" he says, proudly pounding his palm on the crossbar. "Come on, let's ride together!"
At the next construction site, Morales points at a small mountain of bicycles past the gate before parking his against the fence and wandering inside. He emerges a few minutes later, shaking his head. The same thing happens at the next site, and the next. By 9 a.m., Morales figures he has been to every work site downtown.
He quietly sticks his hard hat into his backpack and pulls out a baseball cap — a silent sign of defeat. He suggests breakfast and leads the way through downtown and back to the bridge. Riding the sidewalk the entire way, he threads precariously between obstacles, human and otherwise. When I hop the curb onto the street to avoid hitting a slew of pedestrians, he looks startled.
"Careful!" he says, inching his way forward in tiny, almost stationary maneuvers. "It's dangerous in the street!"
Neighborhoods like Little Havana, Allapattah, Overtown, and Liberty City abound with bikes, and as Morales heads west on Flagler, he passes scores of them — elderly men and women pedaling heavy-framed adult tricycles loaded with groceries, lumber, fishing equipment.
Ricardo Ochoa, who owns the Cuba Bike Shop at 2930 NW Seventh Ave., arrived two decades ago from Colombia. He worked for most of that time as an accountant before taking over the shop five years ago. Working with bikes, he says, showed him a different America.
"You know, this business makes me upset, because fixing bikes, I see the poverty, man," he says, absently tinkering with the brakes on a rusty BMX. "I see these people from Overtown with these bikes. I can't believe the extent of the poverty. Here, to be a poor person, you need a car, a cellular [phone], all these things. In other countries, if you're poor, you're just poor, that's it."
Bogotá, the capital of his birth country, has implemented a highly integrated citywide bicycle system. Every Sunday 70 miles of the city's streets are closed to automobiles for the benefit of bicyclists and pedestrians.
Ochoa's theory is that cars have isolated Americans from each other, especially in Miami. "Here people drive all the time, and it makes them lonely," he says. "It's like a cloud of loneliness hanging over the city."
In the parking lot behind the Walgreen's at Flager Street and NW 12th Avenue in Little Havana, Pedro Gonzalez stands, his bike beside him, arms elbow-deep in a Dumpster. He turns from his work as if receiving a visitor in his office. "How can I help you?" the tiny, wizened man says pleasantly, his rubber-gloved hands still clutching a reeking bag of garbage.
Next to him is a children's mountain bike, ridiculously small, even for him. From the handlebars hangs a basket as big as his torso, containing maybe 12 aluminum cans. Gonzalez, 79 years old, collects and recycles them to get by. He isn't homeless, but he too has fallen on hard times. His wife recently had a stroke (a "brain stroke," he explains), so he mostly stays home caring for her. The cans don't bring much, but every bit helps: "One and one is two," he points out, waving the can in the air. "And two is more than zero."
He finishes and hops onto the bike to head home. It's a slow ride. Gonzalez weaves wobbly from sidewalk to street — the wrong way — to sidewalk again. When SW First Street ceases to be one-way, putting Gonzalez face-to-face with oncoming traffic, he is unperturbed. At the Flagler Street Bridge, he disdains the narrow sidewalk, approaching the blind point at the crest. "I'm not afraid of anything," he declares, lifting a hand from the grip and pounding it on his small, white-shirted chest. "If I die tomorrow, that's fine. Death will come when it will come."