Bicycle Man has no bicycle, and without one he's just Dale. Tiny Dale with tiny features on a small head that sits like a bearded softball atop an almost nonexistent body. He's a three-dimensional stick figure hidden under an oversized black windbreaker and greasy black jeans.
He's been bicycleless before. Sixteen times in the last four years, Dale's bikes -- all named after Mary, a Circle K clerk he's befriended -- have broken down or been stolen. Mary XIV, for example, was taken when he was by the rail yard. He parked the bike while going "to the little boys room" behind some bushes, and it was gone when he returned.
His most recent bike, a $300 Mongoose (the first nicer brand he's had) vanished from under his nose. He was standing directly in front of it at the Urban Ministries before lunch, when a fellow street person jumped on the bike and took off down the road. Some of his earlier bicycles -- the Wal-Mart-brand bikes, Roadmasters or NEXTs -- just fell apart. Axles broke, tires blew out.
But you wouldn't know Dale's bikes were junk to look at them. He removes the cheesy brand labels, spruces up the bikes with surplus end bars and quality peddles that he purchases at Lucky Cycles on Camden Road, and spends most of his days polishing the bikes with his secret formula.
A polish expert, Dale once refinished gun stocks for a living and he confessed three of his secret concoction's ingredients: polyurethane, Teflon and gasoline. When he has a bike, he spends his days sitting on a bench in front of the Starbucks on Tryon Street, polishing the two-wheeler, while his friends Marcus (a Santa Claus look alike) and Manic Matt (who "talks at 60 miles per hour") sit nearby, reading or writing.
Dale's bikes look so nice a police officer once hassled him for having it. The cop believed the bicycle was too expensive for a street person to legally possess. Fortunately, Dale kept the faded receipt in his fanny pack and could prove ownership.
Originally from Kannapolis, Dale speaks in a Carolina drawl that rushes over no syllable. "People are always hollering, 'Leave that bike alone, you're going to rub all the paint off it,'" he says. "A couple people, it just got on their nerves."
Dale and Marcus are relatively new to the streets, both victims of structural unemployment. Marcus, a former mill worker, left his job to care for his sick father. In the course of two weeks, both his dad and girlfriend passed away. Devastated, Marcus wandered the Charlotte-area countryside for a year, sleeping in the woods and struggling to find enough food to survive. About a year ago, he made a six-day trek from Denver, NC, without food.
Dale was in the printing business before computers took over the industry. Then he spent 10 years in security but eventually became a casualty of downsizing. (Now, one of his three sleeping spots in Charlotte is amid a pile of signs in a parking deck across the street from a deck he once patrolled.)
Dale says most people enjoy his company because he usually has something funny to say. He jokes around with the bicycle cops and tries to get them to trade bikes with him.
Because Marcus and Dale are in their mid-50s, have gray hair and speak slowly, they've amassed some respectful younger followers. One admirer, Eric, looked like Jesus and sometimes even thought he was the Messiah. With some beer in him, Eric would share Vietnam War stories with Marcus and Dale. The problem was, Eric was in his 30s, far too young to have been in 'Nam.
"He liked hanging out with us because we're so laid back," says Dale. "He also thought we were wise. [I said to him:] 'You're crazy. We so laid back, you could bury us. Wise? If we were wise, we wouldn't be out here.'"
Dale is known on the streets for another skill. He's the best at locating partially smoked cigarettes in the city (a trick known as duck hunting). He keeps the butts he's fished out of ash trays in a plastic baggy smudged with crumbled ash. Some of the ducks look barely smoked; others couldn't have more than three hits left. He doesn't smoke menthols but picks them up anyway for Marcus. One of the smaller ducks he pulled out of his baggy had a thick magenta lipstick ring around the filter.
"I like these the best," he says, lighting the butt. "They taste better."
Outside the Wachovia building downtown, Dale shows me his technique. Panning his fingers through an ash tray with the quick-twitch dexterity of a speed paper filer, he scoops the keepers into the back of his palm, while continuing to pan with his fingers. People sometimes ask him if he's trying to kill himself. "You can't get anything from it," he says before adding, "except maybe hepatitis." For awhile, acquaintances would bother Dale to share his ducks, which baffled him because ducks aren't particularly hard to find. That inspired Marcus to create a term for bums who bum from other bums -- a hummer bummer. The term has caught on with many of Charlotte's homeless.
"Now we use it for everyone on the street," Marcus says. "It's lost its negative connotation. We're all hummer bummers."
Since losing his bike, Dale has had a hard time maintaining his spirit. "Without it, I don't know what to do," he says sullenly. He shows me what he's resorted to in order to fill the void. Reaching into his back pocket he pulls out a foot-and-a-half-long club -- a chair leg he's whittled patterns and the word "reality" into. "It's just a backscratcher if anyone asks," he says with a chuckle.
Drew Hager of Lucky Cycles says Dale is frequently in the shop, spending hours perusing the sparse shelves. "He was pretty depressed about [losing the bike]. It's his livelihood," says Hager.
Hager actually recovered Dale's $300 Mongoose bike. After it was stolen, Hager had alerted all the city's bike messengers and told them to be on the lookout. A part-time messenger himself, Hager eventually spotted the bike downtown and contacted a policeman who recovered it. But the bike was damaged. The derailer, the part on the back wheel that puts tension on the chain, was bent. Now the unraveled chain droops and drags on the ground. With the discount Dale gets at Lucky Cycles it will cost about $45 for the part and labor. To Dale, that's still a sizeable price tag and he has nothing to do but bide his time -- and walk -- until he can round up the funds.