It is unlikely you'll read about the death of Tykeem Law in Velonews or any other major cycling publication. While the cycling press occasionally covers stories of cyclists on the losing end of confrontations with motorists, those reports often involve an up-and-coming pro on the verge of hitting the big time, or the club racer who is taken out by an errant motorist as he drifts off the back of the Sunday morning group ride. While these may be newsworthy items, little is ever mentioned about the plight of the urban cyclist.
Urban cyclists face a unique set of challenges, ones that seem incongruous to the world detailed in your average glossy cycling magazine. In the City of Brotherly Love, potholes, SEPTA bus drivers, clueless pedestrians, aggressive motorists, and taxi cab drivers with little understanding of the traffic laws are just a few of the land mines that must be negotiated on a daily basis. Couple any one of those variables with the hostility that runs rampant through the streets of Philadelphia and you'd be safer pedaling through the streets of Beirut. Riding in this city is treacherous at best, fatal at worst.
On Saturday, Tykeem and his friends were riding their bikes through the streets surrounding the Italian Market, a popular tourist destination in Philadelphia. If you're unfamiliar with Philadelphia, you may remember a scene in the first Rocky movie that was shot in the Italian Market. Rocky is on a morning training run, and as he runs north on 9th Street through the heart of the Italian Market, a sidewalk vendor tosses an orange to him. Rocky catches it in mid-stride, then proceeds to run through some of the city's many neighborhoods, culminating with his famous sprint to the top of the Art Museum steps.
Well, neighborhood legend has it that the vendor was actually throwing that orange at Rocky. Image conscious Bella Vista residents may doubt the validity of the story, but I've been living within a few blocks of the 9th Street Market for many years and I absolutely believe it to be true. But regardless if this tale is a South Philly urban myth or the cold hard truth, there's no doubt that hostility simmers just beneath the surface of this town. And in neighborhoods with a vibrant street life, especially places like the the 9th Street Market, that hostility bubbles up to surface pretty goddamn quick.
As Tykeem and his friends made their way past the intersection of 9th and Federal Streets, a car pulled behind them. The driver blared his horn and yelled at them to get out of the way. Most did, but Tykeem, age 14, was slow to react. Words were reportedly exchanged. The driver, Charles Meyers, age 18, also of South Philadelphia, pulled out a .22 caliber revolver and fired it through the passenger side window. Tykeem was hit in the side and died right on Federal Street, not far from the glowing neon of Geno's Steaks.
On my way home from work today, I stopped by Bitar's at 10th and Federal to pick up some pita and falafel. I grabbed my groceries and walked a half a block east to the make shift memorial that marked the site of Tykeem's murder. Two days had passed since his death and the hustle and bustle of South Philly wasn't missing a beat. Diners waited for their food at La Lupe a half a block away. Patrons stumbled out of Ray's Happy Birthday Bar at Federal and Passyunk, the afternoon sunlight burning their half-drunk eyes. A European tourist stood on the corner of 9th and Federal looking somewhat disoriented.
I paused in front of Tykeem's memorial for just a second, then walked around the edge in a half circle, taking note of the numerous stuffed animals and half burned candles left in his memory. SpongeBob Squarepants stared up at me from the gutter, completely oblivious to the tragedy that had unfolded near the spot where he laid. I paused for another moment and contemplated the situation. Another fallen cyclist, another young life lost. Fucking senseless.
Tykeem's death was the two hundred and twentieth murder in the City of Philadelphia since the beginning of the year. This one has affected me like no other, not even Nos. 153 and 154, a double murder that went down at 5th and Carpenter Streets, just three blocks from home on Moyamensing and a half a block from my old apartment on Christian Street. Open air drug dealing, prostitution and street violence are the norm on that particular block of 5th Street, so a double murder easily fits into the script. And after living in the neighborhood for ten years, it's easy to write off that situation as a reality of the streets. It wasn't the first killing on that block and it probably won't be the last.
But a cyclist being gunned down by an angry motorist on the streets of South Philly? When you can easily put yourself in the same scenario, that hits mighty close to home. For urban cyclists in Philadelphia, the tension on the streets is real. Every confrontation is a roll of the dice. And when you consider the fate of Tykeem Law, the odds aren't looking too good for us these days.
I'd like to think that Tykeem did not die in vain, that a legion of cyclists will take to the streets to honor his memory, joining in solidarity to retake what is rightfully theirs. But the stakes have been raised. Nowadays, righteous confrontations may find you staring down the barrel of a gun. Or worse. The murder count rises everyday and no one wants to be the next statistic. No. 221 has already happened. No. 222 is inevitable.
But I'm not ready to concede the streets to motorists and their four wheeled death traps. I'll to continue to fight the good fight to avenge the death of Tykeem, to honor the memory of all the other slain and fallen cyclists. Tomorrow morning, my commute will take me past the trash barrel fires and surly fruit vendors that populate the heart of the Italian Market. And as I do every morning, I'll take the lane and give no quarter. Bikes belong, we are hundreds, if not thousands strong. Godspeed, Tykeem. You have not died in vain.