There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Times have changed since Washington City Paper last checked in on Jerry Williams (“At Home With the Bicycle Man,” 9/18/92). Of course, it was a miracle he was alive even thenliving in a metal-and-plywood shed less than a mile from the Anacostia River near the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, eking out an existence repairing bicycles for the neighborhood kids. For more than a dozen years, he’d somehow survived in the woods, repelling attackers, starvation, and hypothermia.
But six years later, the worldeven the Districtis running out of space for outcasts squatting on government land. For most of Williams’ run, the city was a garden of strange delights. You never knew who might be lurking or living around the next corneror, in Bicycle Man’s case, the next tree. But in the Prussian-themed late-’90s version of D.C., every last piece of land must be put to rational use. Word on the street has it that the days are numbered for Williams, shacked up in a sizeable compound with an AstroTurf yard surrounded by tidy Alice-in-Wonderland heaps of bicycle parts scavenged from all corners of the city.
I hike back into the woods behind Kenilworth public housing after a recent anonymous tip to City Paper warning that plans may be in the works to demolish Bicycle Man’s house and replace it with a landfill. It turns out that a Fort Lincoln construction company has surveyed the area surrounding his abode and is working on the plans. Today, there’s a new chain-link fence circling the area where his shack used to be. It doesn’t look promising.
One of the neighborhood kids directs me to a break in the fence on Kenilworth Avenue, but there’s not a print in sight on the snow-covered path leading to Williams’ house. As I duck under a fallen tree, I start to feel foolish for even entertaining the thought that he might still be here, after all these years.
Until I’m right in front of it, the rusted gray steel of the shed blends in with the trees. But once I’m close in, I can’t miss Williams’ front yardimmaculately cleared of snow by a broom leaning up against the house. There’s the tower of bicycle frames behind it, dozens of them stacked up like pop art in front of a tree.
Poking his head out of his screen door, Williams starts talking away, as if he’s making chitchat with the postman in Bethesda. Yes, he’s heard the rumors about his house getting demolished for a landfill. Still, he doesn’t seem worried. Williams explains that the land around him is nothing but swampjust a thin layer of dirt holding back rivers of water. “Right here is the only halfway-safe place,” he says, pointing to his island of property. He jokes that he could build a moat around his castle, and it’d fill up in no time.
Williams would rather talk about kids and bikes than discuss his future. “They still keep coming to get their bicycles fixed. Like I said, bicycles keep ’em out of trouble for a while,” Williams says, leaning in his doorway with a cigarette cupped backward in his hand, keeping him warm. He’s wearing a green Champion T-shirt and haphazardly buckled brown pants, looking gray and thin, but not frail.
For someone living in such a precarious spot, he seems to have had very little happen to him. Only the names of the kidsand their bikeshave changed. The ones who used to come by now return with their own kids. “They growed up, they got their own cars, and they gotta fix their kids’ bicycles,” he says. Williams has an ambivalent attitude toward those older customers. He loves tinkering with bikes, of course, and he needs whatever cash people will give him. But he doesn’t like their getting dependent on him. “I say, ‘Why you can’t fix the bicycle?’ I used to give ’em a whole lotta lectures.”
Recently, Williams discoveredmuch to his disgustthat a bunch of kids were bringing him their moms’ bicycles to fix, claiming they were their own. “It took me a while to get hip to that,” he says. “I gave ’em the blues for that.” About 15 of the older kids have motorcycles now, “and they don’ know a thing about fixin’ ’em,” Williams says. “They all want to know, do I fix motorcycles. Well, I say, ‘Boy, I don’t fix no motorcycles. I fix bicycles.’”
Williams rattles off frame sizes and brands of bikes he’s recently salvaged as if he’s talking about found treasure. And he notices every detail. The kids’ bike seats aren’t as good as they once were, he says. “The seats were thicker. They had better shocks….orange seats, pink seats, black seats.” Also, some of the kids wear all sorts of crazy padding these days, he says, remembering one boy who showed up in full-body protective gear. “I told him, ‘If you fall over, you ain’t going to be able to get back up.’”
Williams still rides his own bike around town every day, scavenging for parts, although he goes out in the afternoons now to avoid traffic. And he’s always careful about where he travels. “The projects on this end I go to. The projects everywhere else, I stay away from. I ain’t be trying to catch no stray bullets.”
Even the events that should stand out start to get ordinary for Williams. A boy people called Youngin got shot in the head a while back on the basketball court. “He was never doing nothing. He was one of the kids everybody gets along with,” Williams says. “It seems like that’s how it always go.”
I have to nag Williams to get him back on the subject of whether his home will be standing next month. Trying to create a sense of urgency, I point out the pink surveying ribbons tied on trees just 30 feet from his shed. He just smiles. “The kids been moving them things around,” he says.
When Tom James’ surveying crew told him about the crazy man with the bikes in the woods, he decided he’d have to go see for himself. James, an employee of the PBS&J engineering consulting firm out of Bowie, went out to Kenilworth last summer on assignment from Fort Myer Construction, which had hired him to do a feasibility study for building a landfill there. “I was just amazed when I saw [Williams’ shed],” James says, adding that he’s a bicycle enthusiast himself. “Boy, what a collection of bicycles. I saw a nice Peugeot in there.”
James has never spoken to Bicycle Mannot last summer and not during his several subsequent visits. He just goes about his business, surveying the topography of the region. “I waved to him the other day….But I didn’t want to bother him; he seemed to have a very cozy situation.”
That situation could change after James finishes his report and turns it over to Fort Myerprobably sometime this spring. A Fort Myer representative confirms that it is hoping to open a landfill at the site. “We are always looking for places to tear out stuff and fill, and it’s a piece-of-garbage land. It’s absolutely useless,” the representative says. The company’s decision will depend on whether the fill is worth the costs attached to clearing out the trees and receiving approval from various city agencies.
The representative says he has no idea what will become of Bicycle Man should the company go ahead with its plans: “I don’t know. Does it matter? He’s living on your property.” (The representative requested that his name not be used, explaining that he’d learned his lesson from the Washington Post years ago: “I said, ‘Don’t quote me,’ but she had the prettiest pair of legs I’d ever seen.”)
Williams’ only hope may rest with his neighbors, who expect to be involved in discussions over what happens to the landincluding one proposal to eventually turn it into a community park. Arthur Jones, spokesperson for the D.C. Housing Authority, says the Kenilworth Tenant Management Corp. will look out for Bicycle Man. “Bike Man will not lose his place,” he says, optimistically.
Meanwhile, Fort Myer’s contact within city government offers no insight at all as to the future of the land or Williams. Parney Jenkins, chief of street construction and maintenance at the Department of Public Works, says the company came to him for help winning the support of local officials. He says the city has done business with Fort Myer before and calls the company “one of our better contractors.” But he claims ignorance of Williams and his home. “I have no idea who he is. I’ve never heard of him,” Jenkins says. “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not really involved in it….Who owns the land?”
The ownership of the land under Bicycle Man’s house is up for debate. James says that his map suggests Williams may be on National Park Service propertywhich would mean he’d be outside of the landfill. But Stephen Syphax, a resource management specialist with the National Park Service, is not so sure. Syphax says he looked into the question several years ago and concluded that Bicycle Man was not on Park Service property, but he adds that he did not do an official survey.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist George Harrison looked at the land in January after PBS&J requested that he determine whether there were any “waters of the United States” in the area. (His answer was no.) Harrison says Williams’ house is “most definitely” included in the acre of land the construction company wants to turn into a landfill. Harrison has no jurisdiction over the issue at this point, but he says he did enjoy exploring Williams’ territory. “I admired his handiwork,” Harrison says.CP