Used bikes and library cards

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“When I ride my bike, I can go anywhere I want,” the man said. “I can point my bike to the east and pedal off in that direction. I can turn around and go west. I can bike north or south; no one can stop me. When I get tired, I can lay down on the grass and look at the sky. It’s so beautiful.” That’s about as basic and ordinary an expression of the joys of bicycling as one can imagine.

But this was also a statement about freedom and healing, for the speaker was a client of Saint Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), established by Governor Perpich, which celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday in 2010. He was speaking to the center’s storied “bicycle lady,” Cynthia McArthur, who had just repaired and returned to him a bicycle she had previously scrounged, shaped up, and passed along to him.

“He was overjoyed,” she remembers. “‘If I had a home,’ he said, ‘I’d invite you in as if you were my sister.'” If this man is like most of the center’s new clients, he will have had two family members killed or disappeared and three others besides himself imprisoned and tortured. Among the Center’s 2008 clients, 36 percent of them had been detained/imprisoned two to three times, 11 percent four or more times. The average length of their longest detention/imprisonment was 294 days. This client, as it happens, had been imprisoned for twelve years – not hard to envision the joys he took from bicycling freely.

Cynthia gathers her bikes from a variety of sources, haunting the annual spring and fall neighborhood cleanups, securing donations from community members, even working out parts at cost – or swaps – from Sibley Bike Depot, Grand Performance, Boehm’s, and other local bike businesses.

Like Cynthia’s volunteering, much of CVT’s work is invisible. No signs outside identify its two clinics. Thousands of people pass by these large, ordinary-looking, well-maintained Victorian homes every day without guessing that they are world-renowned centers that have treated thousands of Twin Cities’ residents. Counting the center’s several clinics in Africa, CVT has served more than 25,000 people, “putting the soul back in the body,” as one client summed up her healing process.

I was recently reminded of the joyful expression of unlimited possibilities that the bicyclist experienced when I encountered another client who was stunned to learn that Saint Paul’s libraries are free. “I stay here?” he said, a question at first. He had received his card and wanted to know if he had to take the ride back home I was supposed to give him. When I realized he was asking permission to stay at the library instead, I said he could do what he wanted, knowing he could walk home on his own. “I stay here,” he said, repeatedly, all the way to the library door, bidding me good-bye and thanking me again and again. “I stay here; I stay here; I stay here,” a preference and a celebration of his new status, a holder of a Saint Paul library card.

So it is with simple possessions easily taken for granted: a used bicycle, a humble library card. They point to infinities of possibility. Rudy Perpich, Jr., home on break from law school a little more than twenty-five years ago, had some sense of those possibilities when, as a member of an Amnesty International chapter, he said to his dad, “You’re the governor; you could do something about torture.” The rest is history; possibilities are still multiplying.