Esther Deaver — known to many locals as the Bicycle Lady — looked settled in for the evening.

She picked an out-of-the-way spot on the sidewalk fronting a shopping center in Ardmore. The sun had just set, but a soft light lingered and the pavement still radiated heat. She sat down and took her shoes off.

Esther had removed some of her meager belongings from plastic bags and spread them out. A plastic drinking glass, some laundry soap and a rather large magnifying glass sat next to a container of chili, some candy and a bottle of Gatorade — her evening meal.

Recent social media reports had surfaced about the one thing that means the most to her: a pink bicycle with a distinctive banana seat. Throughout the years, that bike — or more accurately, a succession of them — has come to both identify and endear her to thousands in this city.

And now, if shifting Facebook accounts and updates were to be believed, it had gone missing. Some kind soul had already replaced it, bless his (or her) heart, but Esther was still thinking about the old one.

“I haven’t found it yet,” she said. “I’m still looking for it.”

Efforts to help

By now, a lot of people know — or think they know — Esther’s story. But sifting truth from the many stories can be an elusive, delicate exercise.

People are genuinely curious, and an overwhelming majority care about her well-being. Many would like to help, but aren’t quite sure the best way.

A handful of efforts through the years, no doubt well-intentioned, have cropped up. A charitable foundation was even set up with the N.C Secretary of State’s office in 2010. But no paperwork has been filed since its articles of incorporation were registered.

Different merchants and store employees in the area she frequents make it a point to check in. Beat cops and hospital workers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center keep their eyes open, too. No doubt others stop when they see her to speak or offer a cold drink and a hot meal.

And why wouldn’t they? Though she never asked, Esther has become part of the fabric of the town. Stories about how she got here — as well as a couple unflattering nicknames — have abounded.

One had it that she was a school teacher who’d lost a child and wound up homeless. Another claimed she’d come from a well-to-do family, but had some struggles with mental-health and wound up living in the back of a bread truck.

The part about the bread truck is true. She lived in one parked on McCready Street in the early 1980s.

As for the rest, the short and verified version is that Esther is from Onslow County, never married and never had children. She came to Winston-Salem with a church group — a sister said in 2010 that she was going to sell Bibles — and opted to stay. She gradually lost touch with her family.

“Esther, she needs to be in a home,” said Juanita Peterson, her oldest sister in 2010. “But I don’t think she’ll go. She made her choice, and she can be stubborn.”

Attempts to reach Peterson last week weren’t successful.

Esther is nearly 80 now. Her health isn’t the best, either. She said that her heart sometimes “causes her to go to sleep” but she always wakes up.

“My time in Winston-Salem is about up,” she said.

Outpouring of concern

Social media accounts drove the desire to check in with Esther. Reports surfaced Tuesday on Facebook that some heartless jerk had stolen her bike.

Predictably, that inspired an outpouring of concern for Esther and a tempest of spleen toward the perpetrator — real or imagined. “Who would do such a thing? To her?” asked a passerby at Cloverdale.

Esther said her bike had been taken. A store manager who checks on Esther several times a week posited Friday that she thought it had just been mislaid. The manager asked not to be identified; corporate types could exact a price for speaking without express permission.

Different Facebook posts reported at various times last week that it had been found or possibly replaced.

Whatever the explanation, Esther had with her a new bicycle. Someone had presented her with a new one. “I got it at (Publix),” she said.

It doesn’t yet have her preferred banana seat or high-back sissy bar, but a friend — an owner at Ken’s Bike Shop — is working on that. It’s hard to not want to help when stories circulate about someone victimizing such a kind and guileless soul.

Esther has her difficulties. Obviously. But anyone with a pulse and an ounce of compassion would want to look out for her.

So if you see her, and she’s feeling amenable, say hello. Ask how she is, and if she appears in distress, call authorities. They’ll know what to do.

Esther isn’t getting younger.

We can keep a collective eye out for her without smothering her. We can let her live — the way she chooses. It’s the least we can do.

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ssexton@wsjournal.com 336-727-7481 @scottsextonwsj

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