Felix Carroll: These wheels mean freedom


PITTSFIELD — Bike Man? Yeah, sure, they know of Bike Man. He pulled into the pockmarked drive beside the homeless shelter off North Street nearly a year ago with a trailer loaded with used bicycles.

"You guys need some bikes?" he asked.

Heck, yeah, they needed some bikes.

Bike Man? They know of him up at the women's shelter off West Street, too. He's the reason that young mother right now is pushing her infant in that super-styling baby tricycle stroller.

They know him well at the Christian Center on Robbins Avenue. He's the reason Ezequiel Hernandez and dozens of others have transportation to and from work — bicycles they can call their own. Yeah, Bike Man first pulled up to the center several years ago.

"You guys need some bikes?"

Free bikes. No questions asked.

"He's awesome," says Deb Vall, the Christian Center's assistant director.

"If you see him, tell him we all appreciate it," says Robert Kemp, a resident at Barton's Crossing, the shelter off North Street. "Thank him for all of us."

But, but — who is this Bike Man?

Somebody said he brings his haul in from Dalton. Someone else described him as tall, wears a baseball cap. Someone else thinks they might have his phone number.

Punch the numbers in, and a man answers.

"Is this Bike Man?"

It depends.

He doesn't want anyone getting the idea they can start dumping bicycles on his front lawn thinking it's for a good cause. Yes, he's Bike Man, but on that condition.

Take the road into Dalton, turn there and there, and head down a tidy cul-de-sac, and he's waiting in his driveway. Well past 6 feet tall, trim, a retiree with a shy smile, it's Bike Man: the giver of some 700 or more bicycles — and counting — to those who otherwise can't afford them.

Stumbles on late-life calling

His birth name is John A. Mason. To confuse things, he goes by the nickname "Dallas." He used to ride rodeos as a kid. A horse once kicked in all his front teeth.

"Look at this," he says, displaying a mouth crowded with machine-manufactured pearly whites.

Bike Man, Dallas — he leads the way into his garage that doubles as his bicycle repair shop. He wastes no time explaining the system he put into place a few years back after he first found a few bikes at the dump and stumbled upon a late-life calling.

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See right there, that's what's called a jawhorse. It stabilizes each bike while he's working on it. Look up there: a pulley. Once a bike is overhauled, he hoists the bike through a trapdoor that leads to a loft.

He pulls upon a cord to unfurl an attic ladder. "Follow me," he says.

Up in the loft, two rows of two dozen bicycles lean lazily against each other, a motley mob, ready to be ridden. Adult size on this side. Kids size on that other.

Once the weather warms up, he'll lower them all back down to ground level, load them onto his trailer and deliver them to the Christian Center and to the shelters. Then, he'll work on more bikes.

Go ahead and pull upon the hand brakes. Listen to them snap back. Pinch the tires. Check out that derailleur, coaxed back into shape. A bounty of bicycles, their reflectors secured, with names you've heard of (Murray, Huffy, Fuji) and names you've never heard of. Some he has rendered anonymous by means of black-colored, 99-cent spray paint, just to spiff them up.

The tall man shrugs. "What the hell, why not?"

Kindness has limits

To be sure, his kindness has limits. Dalton taxes are on the rise. He's on a fixed income. He has therefore dutifully maintained a bike repair budget of about zero, not counting the spray paint. He scavenges. He mixes and matches parts. He's continually astounded that people throw away good bicycles. Maybe a chain is rusted, a tire flat, a gear cable needs tweaking.

Before he makes his deliveries, he jots down each bike's serial number to give to the police. If a bike is hot, Bike Man needs to know.

There's a Mrs. Bike Man who goes by the name of Fran. Together, they have three grown daughters and four grandchildren.

What else? He grew up on Dalton's Grange Hall Road, one of 11 siblings. His very first bicycle — as well as all subsequent boyhood bicycles — may or may not have been obtained in the dark of night from the former Squire's junkyard on Hubbard Avenue.

A Grange Hall Road rite of passage entailed a big kid putting the little kid onto a bicycle and shoving him off down the level road, over and over until the little kid found his way with balance, gravity and momentum. Eventually, the little kid pedaled toward the vanishing point, toward freedom, toward Guernsey's for a hot dog, Plunkett Lake for a swim, toward the rest of his life.

'Thankful' for Bike Man

John became Dallas. Dallas wore cowboy boots and got banged up in local rodeos. Dallas took a job at Beloit out of high school and carved out a successful career fixing and selling paper refiners. He was so good, a corporate helicopter once landed right over there in front of his house to scoop him up for an emergency repair somewhere far away.

He retired in 2009. He's 76. His hands remain calloused.

At the Christian Center, they speak of all the children who've been presented with their very own bicycles, courtesy of Bike Man. Their eyes wide, their mouths agape, the children hop on and tear down Linden Street the way children are supposed to do.

Cheryl Bassett, the site manager at Barton's Crossing, says the bikes provide her adult residents with free transportation to get to their jobs, run errands, or go for a ride to clear their heads. She bought a bunch of locks. Residents sign the bikes in and sign out.

Robert Kemp, 47, a recovering addict taking shelter at Barton's Crossing, puts Bike Man up there with all the great things to happen in his life beginning six years ago, when his three daughters gave him an ultimatum: "It's us or the drugs, and you don't have five minutes to think about it."

These days, they text their father "good morning," which makes the mornings good. And he'll soon be starting a housekeeping job.

He sees equally good evenings ahead of him. After work, he'll sign out a bicycle and coast up North Street, fast. He'll hop the short curb by Zucchini's Restaurant and pedal-pedal-pedal to the banks of Pontoosuc Lake, where he'll take a deep breath "just thankful for the air in my lungs."

Felix Carroll can be reached at felixcarroll5@gmail.com.


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