Life keeps on keepin’ on

Savannah Morning News column

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Maybe it’s the noise, a familiar sign of late summer when the din of cicadas is so loud you can hardly think, let alone talk to the person sitting across the table from you in the backyard (until midnight or perhaps five in the morning and those little tree critters are finally taking a break, maybe even sleeping) or keep your concentration on that book that sits in your lap.

Maybe it’s the new school bus schedules when a whole new bunch of kids with new clothes in clean new school colors are waiting on new corners with other kids they don’t know – not yet, at least – reading cell phones, waiting for buses with unfamiliar drivers following unfamiliar routes, while last year’s crowd is gone, some old enough to ride their bikes to ninth grade classes or lucky enough to walk to a neighborhood school.

Maybe it’s the traditional Labor Day weekend, a turning point of sorts in the year, not unlike New Year’s Day, when the sun sets that much earlier and some outdoor pools dare to close, when you know this will be the last time you can get a parking spot downtown that easily before the crush of art students, when despite the heat you know that another summer is over and the really, really busy part of the year is ahead and maybe if you linger around the dinner table just that much longer and go to bed that much later you can put off the onslaught of future holidays, celebrations and festivals and just breathe, just take the time to enjoy the moment. The calendar, now a little vague, a little open, will fill up soon enough.

Or maybe it was the movie I saw this week, “Boyhood,” a tour de force made over a 12-year span, following the life of a young boy (played, by the way, by the same young actor), a movie that is sticking around in my memory bank.

Milestones, it would seem, are on my mind.

It’s not hard to chalk up a few. Just looking around my own neighborhood from last September to this September I can count two new babies, at least two deaths and one divorce. I know two families who moved away (one to Austin, another to Los Angeles) and three houses that are for sale (two others have sold). I know one household that took off for what seemed like a month in Maine, another that went to the Galapagos, a third that put their money where their mouth is and traded in a traditional gas-guzzler for a battery-operated car. Stretching the concept of neighborhood, I know a brave and adventurous young woman who is teaching biology in Tanzania as part of the Peace Corps, an idea that is still grabbing people some 53 years after President Kennedy launched the program, and another equally brave woman who is starting who second year of teaching, a vocation once thought easy but now considered fraught with challenge.

I know one man who decided at age 68 to go divinity school to become an Episcopal priest. On the other end of the age spectrum, I listen to a phone message by a two-and-a-half year old singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” which, her mother tells me, shares the same melody at the ABC song (who knew?).

I know several people with relatives fighting cancer and that doesn’t count the former neighbor who is trapped by Lou Gehrig’s – a Western dude who used to wear skirts more than I ever did – a disease that will hopefully benefit from the bizarre but brilliant ice-dunking fund-raising caper that has gone viral.

The lesson of “Boyhood” lingers. We grey. We thicken. We mellow. We outgrow height-charts in houses, trade in a GTO for a family van, change our haircuts and hair color. Life, if we are lucky, moves us along.

Meet Rusty Browne: pedicab driver

Savannah Morning News column

Sun., Aug. 31, 2014

Rusty Browne did not go to business school. He did not get an MBA. College was not his thing. But he always worked. He mucked horse stalls, peeled shrimp and sold cars. He drove fish trucks. And he liked to talk business with his then-employer, Charlie Russo, the late patriarch of a three-generation seafood family that still has a big presence in Savannah. He liked tossing around possibilities. It was Russo who told him, “If you work for yourself no one will ever yell at you again.”

After nixing a couple of Browne’s ideas, Russo gave a thumbs up when the 22-year-old, whose mother, Julie Hargraves, was one of the city’s first female officers, announced a scheme to introduce a pedicab service to downtown Savannah (“This is before-the-book Savannah,” he said, referencing “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”). So Browne, who is now 45, started calling around the country and located three cabs in the Bronx. With $10,000 and a pistol in his back pocket he hitched a ride in the back of a pick-up truck to New York City. When he didn’t have the money to crate the bikes for the return trip, he called Charlie.

“Meet my friend Davy on the East River tomorrow night,” Charlie said. “He’ll be driving a fish truck.” The bikes arrived frozen and steeped with the smell of fish; Browne took the train. That was 1994.

Browne rented a one-car garage on West Huntingdon Lane for his new company, the Savannah Pedicab Company, then moved to a two-car garage on Tattnall Street, which he feared “might be way too big for me.” When his inventory reached 10 he thought surely that was the most the city would ever support. But by then he thought, “I can’t quit. I can’t sell because I’m in a bit of debt, so I might as well get more.” Even with a new pedicab company in town, Royal Bike Taxi, business has been good.

Three years ago he moved to a warehouse behind Cha Bella on East Broad Street, a building that used to house Deacy welding and paint supply. Now he has something like 40 cabs. But he’s not really sure of the number because after peddling some 10 years himself, running the business and overseeing about 1,500 employees over 20 years, Brown was smart enough to get a few managers to handle the everyday affairs. This leaves him free to work on other stuff, like building a “cabana” outside the warehouse where his workers can relax when their shift is over. It’s got a misting system, a bamboo wind chime, several fans and bamboo on the east-facing side.

“I love my drivers,” he said. “My drivers are my clients, the way their rides are their clients. I want them to feel like they work for themselves. Even though people don’t teach people how to work I’m looking for accountability, not drama.”

It didn’t take long for            Browne to see he had one glaring hole in his business plan, aside from learning how to drive the giant tricycle (“Now I know you drive it like a car. You gotta steer it. You can’t lean”): He had never before worked on bikes.

But he learned. He went to Florida to work with a fabricator, hoping to learn how to build the bikes himself. While he saw the folly in that he did learn how to weld and how to fabricate. Now he makes his own parts for the disabled bikes. In another shop on East Broad Street he makes chandeliers, door handles and oyster knife/bottle opener combinations, which he sells through seafoodhardware.com. He collects and works on old pedicabs, including a 1974 Ford Bronco he turned into a wedding cart.

“The city has changed,” he said. “I loved it when I saw the underside of it, the prostitutes, the johns, when I knew people on the street, when there was a certain ecosystem of support on the street.”

That’s when he met Louis Green, a street character known as “Popeye,” an iconic figure memorialized by the late Savannah Morning News photographer, Bob Morris. On a recent day in the “cabana,” the employee lounge, if you will, “Popeye” showed up on his bike wearing orange pants, argyle socks, wing tip shoes and glasses resting on his nose. The two discussed garlic soup, onions with hot sauce and where to buy the cheapest beets.

“He stops by almost every day,” Browne said. “We fix his bike and take care of him. I’ve known since I was 19. I love my city.”