Harlem’s Unicycle Man Keeps Peddling

By Paul Smith on Oct 18th, 2011

Calvin Wright (left) and fellow unicyclists rode through the African American Day Parade. (Photo by Paul Smith)

It’s the perfect morning to ride a unicycle. “Not too hot, not too cold,” says Calvin Wright, stretching outside his Manhattan Avenue apartment. His neighbor, Milton Johnson, watches from the steps, unfazed by the sight of an extremely tall 56-year-old whizzing down the block on one wheel.

“Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been riding that unicycle,” says Johnson, shaking his head.

Wright recently began working as a Midtown limo dispatcher, following two years of unemployment. He works night shifts, leaving mornings free for his daily cycle from West 117th Street to Harlem Hospital on 135th Street and back. It’s a demanding 2.5-mile journey. “Unlike a bike, there’s no coasting,” says Wright. “You’ve got to keep moving.”

He knows “every cranny in the street, every vendor,” and makes the pilgrimage regardless of the weather. “When it’s 20 degrees, I wear two pairs of sweatpants, two sweatshirts and a windbreaker,” he said. “I’ll put baggies on my hands, because plastic makes you sweat. Then I put em into gloves, so by the time I finish riding, my T-shirt is soaking wet.”

While today’s autumnal temperatures require only a fleece sweater, sweat glistens on his forehead after five minutes. His ankles piston up and down. He rides on one leg for four blocks, and often goes backwards, screeching to a halt inches ahead of traffic. “I like it when the lights stop,” he says, impatiently hopping on the spot and jingling his keys. “That means it’s showtime.”

Blame the 9 a.m. start or the dazzling sun, but Wright isn’t quite stopping traffic this morning. He blends into the Lenox Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard commotion, but his maneuvers do turn heads. An occasional van toots its horn, a tourist snaps him with her camera opposite Sylvia’s restaurant and an elderly man waiting for the bus applauds and cheers, “Black Man, do that thang. Hallelujah!”

Around 125th Street, Wright encounters a dip in the road and topples. But he lands on his feet. “If you fall off your horse, you get back on,” he says. His vintage Schwinn-brand cycle, with a 24-inch wheel, has withstood two decades of scrapes.

Outside Harlem Hospital, newspaper vendor Keisha Patterson has watched Wright peddle by for five years. “I always admire him,” she says. “I just call him the Unicycle Man.”

Last month, Wright assembled a crack team of one-wheeled riders for his neighborhood’s African-American Day Parade. He enlisted old friend Abdul Wright on a 6-foot cycle and Kenneth Smith and Kip Anthony Jones from the Bronx’s King Charles troupe. The clan zipped around the Labor Local 79 float, performing tricks to the delight of the camera phone-wielding crowd.

Wright met Anthony Jones and Smith the previous month at the New York Unicycle Festival, when 50 cyclists crossed the Brookyln Bridge in an eye-catching spectacle. The popularity of stunt cyclists, like Vancouver-based Kris Holm, has inspired young enthusiasts. Wright hopes to take the sport to middle school gym classes, and to promote his healthy lifestyle. He’s currently drawing up business plans.

Wright remembers when his pursuit was first fashionable. In the 70’s, King Charles ran a Bronx unicycle club to keep neighborhood children out of trouble. Wright didn’t attend, but at 13, learned to ride at his cousin’s house, with Harold and Gregory, his younger brothers. “We took turns in the hallway, holding on to the walls and trying to ride without falling,” says Wright. “We realized your balance is your waist and your arms are like the wings of an airplane.”

Soon he was hooked, rocking back and forth, spinning circles, attempting jumps. He would descend the 12 steps of the World Trade Center plaza and play basketball while seated on his saddle. “The only thing I’m unable to do now is to stop and pick up a quarter,” he says.

For some, the sight of him on one wheel evokes nostalgia. “Guys tell me, ‘Man, I used to do that years ago,’” he says. “And I say, ‘I never stopped.’”

“Calvin’s more eager than I was,” says his brother Harold. “For Calvin, it’s like walking.”

Wright’s soft-spoken, polite manner gives way to an excitable exhibitionism when he discusses his passion.

“In the ’hood, I’m a bonafide celebrity,” he says. “When I put on my hat backwards and get on my unicycle you will not think that I’m 56,” he says, flashing his six-pack. “My doctor told me, ‘Mr Wright, I don’t know what it is, but the shape you’re in, you could live to be 103.’”

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