One Arm Bandit: Little Wings, Big Things
Photos and words by Ryan Le Garrec
François is what you would call in French a “fonceur”.
Literally, the word means “fast guy” but it’s more of an expression.
It evokes enthusiasm, determination, well, a lot of will and positivity,
and I couldn’t think of a better way to define this guy.
He won’t take no for an answer. From anyone. He is driven.
At the beginning, he was the first messenger working for Hush Rush, that another François created. He soon took the project by himself and managed to develop it into a real company.
But of course, there was hassle along the way. Collaborating for instance with Take it Easy, the merciless food delivery start-up that went bankrupt after getting millions in investments, leaving messengers unpaid all along the streets, bike shops with massive invoices on the wait. It died in the egg and gave companies the idea that express messengers were maybe overpaid. But François kept his chin up and his head down like a “fonceur”. He was hooked anyway, the job meaning so much to him. Take it Easy came back with an electric bike looking like a fixie and selling like hot breads, investment floating in again like nothing ever happened and no one seems to care. I guess that’s the difference between money driven ventures and small passionate ideas with an organic feel and honesty. Ideas don’t die, they don’t even need a rebirth from their ashes, cause they have little wings, invisible wings and they attract good things. A great amount of luck, happy clients and a growing team of smiling punks!
In any other field, you’d get a network, networks share interests. In the messengers world you’ll get a family and families share more than interests, they share values, morals and love. François grew a large family through travels and competitions. E.C.M.C. and W.C.M.C. are not really competitions as much as they are a get together, not really conventions as much as they are big parties. Messengers from all over the world gather in one town, shred the streets, compete in a closed to traffic location and party all week long! He didn’t miss many of these, and his contagious smile wasn’t unnoticed, as for his exceptional skills on the bike.
So of course he placed a bill for Brussels to host the next E.C.M.C., and because the town is hosting the Start of Le Tour de France a week later, they gave him more than he could even hope himself. A main race is usually on the borders if not outskirts of town, but in Brussels it will take place in the historical centre, Le Mont des Arts. The king, himself, will have a good view on the race from his palace window and a lot of tourists selfies will be bombed by messengers flashing through. Well he wanted to organise one of the most beautiful messenger competitions ever, he wanted to give his Family the best race he could and he might just achieve that, cause good things come to wings!
So that’s the story up to here but back up a few years, 14 to be precise.
“yeah I think 2005,
I was about to turn twenty.
I’m having a small party at home,
in the countryside
where I grew up.
Friends come by train,
I have to go get the last one coming in at the local station.
Very bad idea I had
to take my brother’s quad.
I was not allowed to take it
but I had ridden it a few times, I could handle it.
It was not really legal so I used small roads.
My friend had never seen me riding that thing
so I was showing off a bit.
What I didn’t take into consideration was my friend’s weight,
he was a chunky kind of guy.
Comes a turn and am going a bit too fast,
the quad loses traction on the gravel,
the back starts pivoting and we’re now skidding on that turn, perpendicular to the road,
inside the turn.
Suddenly, I don’t understand why the quad gets traction again on the road.
We are sideways, so it just goes straight off the road and into a tree.
I don’t know how fast we were, but fast enough, or too much.
When I hit the tree, am hitting it very slightly on the right.
My helmet hits the tree very hard and goes into my shoulder
so deep it sectioned all my nerves on the side of my neck going down the shoulder, but I remember none of that of course.
We are laying there. I’m unconscious and my friend’s got nothing.
He’ll just have tendinitis.
And he has no idea where we are given he is not from there,
so he calls my house and tries to explain to our friends how to find us
but it’s in the forest, on a small road…
Later, eventually, we get found,
I’m brought to the hospital.
Commotion, nothing broken, surprisingly.
But my nerves are split”
Snooze the alarm, wash yourself, brush your teeth, make coffee, jump in your jeans, close the door, go to work, check your emails, do something, have a break, eat something, get back at it but no wait! One second, backtrack to the start and now do all this again, with just one arm, just one hand, five fingers and one thumb. Put on your socks and try to lace your shoes up with one hand. Yes, everything, almost everything needs to be re-learned. To tie up your shoelaces with one hand is like doing it for the very first time again, but harder. In the crash, François lost his left arm, he lost a kidney too, and some air bubbles got stuck in his lung. So that next day, life has just started again, and it’s ugly. At first. Maybe for a second. Or a bit more.
“I come from a small village,
you either make friends with farmers and cows or you have only very few friends.
But good friends though, really good friends.
One of my friends came every day to the hospital.
He told me recently that I never got to say bye to him at the hospital,
cause he never left before I was asleep”
And Francois did sleep a lot, most of the time, for a whole year. Heavy treatment got him snoozing most of the day and even deeper at night.
Back to that evening though:
“Straight on the spot I knew I lost my arm.
My friend had woken me up and I was telling him I had lost my arm,
and he was like ‘no it’s there, nothing looks weird, nothing broken’ but
I knew it didn’t move.
I knew it wouldn’t move.
I knew it straight away.
So it was no shock after that,
no surprise waiting for me at the hospital
anyways I’d be stoned all the time…”
Sounds tough, but a year and a half later Francois gets a training with other disabled people to learn how to be a graphic designer. That was his job at that time. There, he meets other people with other problems and he quickly realises he’s actually lucky, many have it tougher.
“They didn’t ask for any of that,
they didn’t do anything stupid.
Someone else did it to them, someone else drunk and drove,
someone else made a medical mistake,
or they had an accident totally out of their responsibility,
like at work where some machine got out of control or something fell on them.
I had no one else to blame, no one to hate,
that was my luck in a way, cause I had to accept it. Period.
It was my fault, and mine only, so I had to fix it by myself.
And then put a bunch of handicapped people together,
it’s gnarly and nasty. The jokes that go on,
the blind makes fun of the deaf who’s laughing at some guy in a wheelchair.
This also helped me quite a big deal.”
After a year of sleeping and counting thirty pills a day, François had become a morphine addict but he didn’t know it yet. He’d never ever felt the pain in his arm, he’d never ever really thought more than half a minute, a vegetable, studies interrupted cause he couldn’t help but sleep through afternoons. One day, one meeting, one strike of luck, was about to change everything. A top notch neurologist proposed a new treatment – no more pain killers, no more morphine, a couple muscle relaxants, a few anti-epileptics, keeping the sleeping pills and anti-depressants for a while. The following weekend was gonna be rougher than the accident itself.
François, for the first time, was gonna feel all the pain in his arm.
“What my mom and I didn’t know,
was how hooked I was on morphine,
proper drug addict.
What you see in those films with guys sweating and crying and vomiting,
that’s no lie, that’s how it is, for real, bloody hard.
I spent a few days in hell, days and nights cause I just couldn’t sleep anymore.
And then I came back.
Like I woke up from the dead and back to life.”
Six months in treatment, thanks to Francois’s training programme that required an internship and thanks to the internship becoming a job offer before it even started, François had a job in Brussels, a full time contract, and a flat with a friend. Get the job, get the wife, get the house, well almost. His mother was immensely proud of her son and he too got a sense of achievement.
“It was life, you know, just life, normal life, just a few months before that my life was anything but real.”
(…) The only thing that took a lot of time to stop was anti-depressants and sleeping pills.
I needed the sleeping pills more than anything. I wasn’t allowed to stop the other pills too fast but now I don’t take anything anymore. I still have a whole shoebox full of them but i don’t need them anymore.”
It doesn’t mean the pain is gone, François has what is know as phantom pains, which means the pain he feels is not real but a creation of his brain.
“I have those awful lasting pains in my hand
but my hand is totally fine,
it’s just disconnected and that something the brain can’t compute.
It sends messages to the hand and receives an automatic out of office message
but it doesn’t understand it and interprets it as pain,
it’s why I move so much and pull my hand sometimes or grit my teeth.
The pain is quite constant and so
I got used to it.
This accident changed me,
life never looked the same again.
it gives me great relativity,
things happened and I couldn’t care less.
I get over quite a lot thanks to this.
If I didn’t have this pain I don’t know if I would do all the things I do the way I do them.”
– Ok so really, you wanna feel this pain forever?
“ha ha ha…Well maybe I could get used to no pain,
but if I had the arm back,
it would be weird,
I’d have to relearn everything,
cycling for instance,
I’d have no idea how to cycle with two arms!
I’d be a mid-level cyclist again when am quite good now!
I really don’t know how I would cope with it,
I probably wouldn’t know what to do of it!”
So François has a job and brand new horizons, very bright, secured.
One day, bored by traffic, late tramways and crowded subways, he decides to get a bike, cause why not?
Just like the way he learnt to tie his shoe laces with one hand.
“I got bored of Stansmiths with velcros
and one day I had some time so I just tried and ended up figuring a way to tie up my shoelaces with one hand, it’s not that hard in the end.”
So he gets a Raleigh chopper cause he doesn’t know better and the bike is gorgeous.
The way back home from work that day is a blast.
“The issue came up the next morning.
To go to work I had to climb.
Coming home downhill was so easy on a chopper,
but climbing was just impossible for me at the time,
and on that bike.
Anyways, a few weeks later I got my first road bike,
a white Peugeot,
not my size at all and really not well set for me
but it changed everything,
changed my life too.”
Another start, another strike of luck, just cause François doesn’t like to take the subway and is not really into the idea of driving a car in such a congested and polluted city. And again, things go quite fast from there, those wings…
“In 2009 I went to an alley cat,
wanted to check it out,
meet the bunch,
test myself. I won it.
I couldn’t believe it but I won it.”
Soon after that he got the surname One Armed Bandit a.k.a. OAB.”
“When you are considered limited like me,
with that one arm hanging there useless,
you tend to want to prove things to others but mostly to yourself.
When I decided I was gonna ride a bike,
I decided I was gonna ride it well, hard, fast.
And I think it’s fair to say that I am known now for riding in that special way.”
At that time, François spots Kardama on the streets of Brussels. The Pedal charismatic messenger on his Bianchi Pista Concept, leaves a lasting impression on him. Riding through town all day and being paid to deliver packages, skidding and cruising or bombing the streets. What the hell, thinks Francois, this has to be the best job in the world. He’ll reach out to Kardama to work for him, but there’s not much of a need at that time for Pedal. But two weeks later, François gets mail and a proposal from Pedal. Thing is, he’s already committed to Hush Rush and he’s about to leave his job for that. Mom will have to swallow it but he is determined, he knows what he wants and cycling is basically it.
It’s all smooth sailing or literally freewheeling from then. He leaves work one day, freewheeling all the way and that’s gonna be a metaphor for the rest of his life, free, going with the flow, pushing hard sometimes but never against current… wings…
“There might be some scientific explanation
but the way I feel when I ride my bike, I don’t know, am just happy.
In the city, our job, it’s like a video game, you anticipate, you make your way, avoiding stuff and collecting things, it’s a mix of paper boy, GTA, Mario Bros and Sonic!”
“With Hush Rush, we deliver all kinds of things from big boxes to even teeth, whatever we can fit in a bag or on a cargo bike, we take it all.”
It seems, the only thing, that ever really pissed François off is pepper. He tells me grinding pepper is one of the very few things that are completely impossible for him, well with a proper grinder. And François being a pepper freak, his little one hand thumb crusher doesn’t fully satisfy him.
“Man I think I still dream of grinding pepper in those beautiful wooden Peugeot grinders you get in restaurants.
That really pisses me off. I mean I went over the shoelace issue or cooking too thanks to my girl who made me a cutting board with nails so I can stick bread or vegetables on it but Pepper, that pisses me off, that really pisses me off.”
“If I had the choice again,
I’d do the same thing,
I’d go as fast and I’d crash as bad,
I’d hurt myself exactly the same way cause I learned something crucial,
it made me see life in a totally different way,
it gave me a push.
If someone was to go through the same thing,
I’d only encourage them to believe
that anything is possible,
that nothing is over,
it’s just a new beginning
and you will only end up stronger.
Life is too short to waste it.
You gotta do those things you wanna do,
even if it might seem harder now.
Don’t wait and don’t waste a second.”
So that’s what you learn with the One Arm Bandit – that you wish you could do half of it with your two arms, be half as fast, half as good, half as strong, half as determined and fun, half as positive. You almost feel like you are wasting your life, tripping over trivial details that don’t suit you, though you accept them every day.
Somewhere along the way you compromised, you betrayed your own soul, you stopped being young, you’ve quit being bold, you sabotaged the kid inside yourself and you’ve grown to accept the rules of that adult game you didn’t wanna play. But it’s ok, it’s not over, it’s never over till it’s really over and that is what you learnt. You ain’t dead yet so go out there and start anew, kick those trash cans out of your way, don’t look back and run, stop walking, never walk again, run like a “fonceur”. Live fast and die later.
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