Taylor Ahlgren was on his way to a People-Protected Bike Lane protest on the afternoon of Sept. 13, when he witnessed a terrible collision. A driver of a car hit a cyclist as he passed on his bike through an intersection near Howard Street and Van Ness Avenue, critically injuring him.
“I heard a loud screech and a loud thud. I looked up and saw this person and bicycle flying through the air. I think I shouted ‘oh fuck!’ and started sprinting over there,” Ahlgren said, describing the scene. Trained in first aid, he started life-saving efforts. “I just remember when his pulse came back. He started coughing a bit.”
After several panicked painful minutes, an ambulance arrived and swept Russell Franklin, 56, away.
Ahlgren was left at the scene, but he couldn’t shake what he’d just witnessed. Following a lead that Franklin had been taken to UCSF, Ahlgren biked over there to check on him. When he arrived, they told him he would have been taken to San Francisco General Hospital, so he biked over there, miles across the city. But with no name or personal relation to the victim, he wasn’t allowed any information. Ahlgren later found out he’d arrived at General about 30 minutes after Franklin died.
Being with Franklin in what Ahlgren later realized were his some of his last moments had a big effect on him. The trauma of witnessing the incident combined with the mystery of the victim’s identity was hard to process. When the press released his name, Ahlgren googled “Russell Franklin,” but came up with nothing. The media had almost no information, and he had no leads aside from the intersection on where the collision happened. With nothing else at hand, he went back to the scene.
“I must have talked to 160, 170 people who were just passing through the area,” he says. “Of those, two people that I talked to said they know him.”
Armed with a little hope that he was a neighborhood regular, Ahlgren then introduced himself to a group hanging out outside a Cash n’ Carry. He ended up talking to them for two hours. While there, he found a valuable clue from one Wilton Woods: Franklin was on Facebook.
When he got home, Ahlgren looked up his profile and messaged every single one of his friends — and got three responses. They told him Franklin was a regular at the Hole in the Wall, a dive in SoMa frequented by an older gay crowd. He paid a visit, and this is where he hit gold.
“I was locking my bike up outside, and saw this guy walking by. I don’t know why, but I just said ‘Hi. Do you happen to know Russell Franklin?’ It was kind of out of the blue, but I took a chance. And he said, ‘yeah, that was one of my friends.’ That was Charles Weber.”
Weber and Ahlgren chatted most of the evening, and the missing pieces of Franklin’s story came to light. He was a long-time resident of San Francisco, and had been a regular at the Hole in the Wall since it opened more than two decades ago. He struggled with occasional depression, but always rode his bike when he was happy. He often wore tie-dye, and enjoyed playing pool. Weber connected Ahlgren with yet more people important in Franklin’s life, and at a memorial Ahlgren organized Wednesday at the site of the collision, many of these friends gathered together, some meeting each other for the first time.
“He loved riding his bike. That’s how I could always tell he was in a good place,” said Richard Aguilar, who owns a small flower business that occasionally employed Franklin. “There would be times when he would seclude himself, and that concerned me. But when I saw him riding his bike I always felt that he was where he wanted to be. It was a huge part of his life. At least I know that he was in a good place, and not dealing with the various demons that haunted him throughout his life.”
Daniel Amaral was particularly close to Franklin.
“He got me through a lot of hard times in my life,” Amaral said. “One of the things that brought us together was music. I lost my sight in 2005, and I met Russell in 2008. I was dealing with losing my sight and recovering from being a drug addict, and those two things don’t usually come together very well. But the one thing that made me happy was going to concerts, and he’d describe them to me.”
Richard Hammar, who lived in the same building as Franklin, said the lobby was filled with flowers in remembrance of his neighbor. On Wednesday he brought armfuls of them to lay at the base of the ghost bike.
“I just knew him a little bit, he’d always smile and say hello,” he said. “Everybody who knew him just knew he was a sweet, sweet man.”
With the mystery of the man in the street solved, it’s time for Ahlgren to move on. But the efforts he made in the wake of Franklin’s death will have a lasting impact; he told his story at an SFMTA Board meeting, highlighting the trauma these incidents can have not only on victims, but witnesses. The intersection has since received valuable, life-saving upgrades. And, he managed to connect Franklin’s friends during a time of tragedy to support one another. He also wrote an obituary for Franklin in English and Spanish.
“I didn’t know him, but just like any San Franciscan he deserved all the love in his final moments,” Ahlgren says. “He should be smiling, riding his bicycle on the streets tonight, and it’s a real tragedy that he’s gone.
“In talking to more than 200 everyday people walking, biking, and scooting at the SoMa Mission border, I learned that low-income communities of color seem to be disproportionately impaced by our unsafe streets, but their voices seem not to be heard,” he added. “I am now looking for ways to effectively engage this population in advocacy for faster, more impactful upgrades.”