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Umbrella Man

We’re pulling onto the main road. My driver carefully looks over his right shoulder to check for traffic. A minivan passes, and the middle-aged, portly driver visibly snaps his neck around, craning to get a better look at us. The next driver does the same. When the street is finally clear, we slip into the traffic headed down Orange Street, and we’re off.

I wish we were moving a little faster, because at this pace it’s hard to escape the stares of pedestrians and drivers alike. Riding in a pedicab is more conspicuous than I had anticipated in the everyday street scene of New Haven.

My driver has no such worries. He grins widely at each of our spectators, calling out, “You set the fare! We’ll take you almost anywhere!” This is an exhibition for him, a chance to perform as much as advertise. As we maneuver through the thick Friday afternoon traffic, he gets almost as many waves as befuddled stares.

Paul Hammer and his pedicab. Sanjena Sathian/Susannah Shattuck

“You seem to know a lot of faces,” I comment.

“Well—they know me,” he laughs.

It’s only been two weeks since Paul Hammer launched his new pedicab company, but he’s already made his mark. His signature helmet can be spotted from blocks away—it’s bright purple, with a multicolored mini-umbrella attached to the top. He explains that the helmet, like many parts of his life, melds his two great loves: bicycling and drama.

“With a side order of social justice and activism,” he adds, breaking into a grin, his mustache bristles curving upwards.

The eccentric headgear may be one reason so many people recognize Hammer on our ride, but it’s certainly not the only one; he identifies some of the folks waving as being acquaintances from New Haven’s art world and volunteer scene. Hammer wears many hats (not all of them purple) in this city, but beneath them all is the same jovial smile, the same clipped, bristly mustache, and the same energetic citizen.

Hammer is not just a pedicab driver. He is the founder of a non-profit that puts kids on bikes, a playwright, an active participant in community theater, and a volunteer at numerous community service groups across the city, from the Integrated Refugee Immigrant Services (IRIS) to the National Association of Mental Illness. Hammer seems to be everywhere – a staple of the community.

Looking at Hammer’s resumé, it’s easy to forget that, for him, service is as much personal therapy as it is a fight on behalf of local refugees or underprivileged kids. Years ago he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and in 2004, he tells me, “I made the cover of the New Haven Register.” A pause. “By jumping off of East Rock.”

The attention his suicide attempt garnered forced Hammer to grapple with his bipolar disorder. And six years later, though he is still in recovery from brain injuries sustained from his fall, he can smile a watery grin and joke about starting a support group, “The Bi-Polar Bears.”

“My commitment to working with others… that is definitely a difference in my focus since God spared my life.” And he remains grateful. As he considers the incident six years ago, his eyes are tinged with red and he tears up. “I thank God every day that I’m alive. I always wear my helmet.”

Hammer can remember his first bike ride—he’s glad he was wearing a helmet, then, too.  His first time riding, as a child in New York City, Hammer drove straight through a sprinkler. He went flying over the bicycle seat and was soaked through. Undeterred, however, he bounced back and spent much of his childhood biking around Central Park, taking in the puppeteers and Shakespeare in the Park and the zoo.

At fourteen, Hammer embarked on his first cycling tour around the northeast, pedaling between youth hostels, where he met people from all over the world.

“I’d never experienced that,” he explains. “Bicycling takes you places – literally.”

Today, we ride past the Green, Old Campus just visible across the way. Hammer has known and loved these streets since he moved to the city years ago.  After graduating from Wesleyan University, Hammer picked New Haven as his next residence because it was near both Boston and New York, where many of his Wesleyan classmates were headed. As he immersed himself in the local community theater scene, worked in the Yale Law School coding investigations, and volunteered at a senior citizen theater company, Hammer stumbled upon the Yale School of Management.

“I applied on a lark and on a dare,” he reminisces with a laugh. “I thought I’d stick around for a month or so—write a spoof on business school—but then I fell in love with the place.”

Enrolling in business school seems incongruous with Hammer’s ideals —what was a community-organizing-anti-capitalist-biking-playwright doing as an MBA candidate?

“People asked me—what’s a socialist democrat like you doing in business school?” he laughed. “But it really is a school of management.”

Even after Hammer graduated, he stuck around New Haven. Calling it the cultural capital of the state, Hammer says there’s nowhere he’d rather live and work than here. From the Schubert and the Yale Repertory Theater, to the nearby (bike-accessible!) kayaking spots, New Haven is an ideal location for Hammer. And as a community activist, it’s also perfect for him to spread the gospel of cycling and his belief in democratic socialism.

As we turn onto Crown Street, Hammer begins to chatter excitedly about his hopes for the new pedicab company. In addition to working morning and afternoon rush hours, and orchestrating pickups and drop-offs from the State Street train station, Hammer wants to start a service for the Crown Street club scene on weekends. Though he quickly adds that he’s aware bicycles won’t create world peace, it’s impossible to ignore Hammer’s ever-present idealism, his hope that even a little bit of good, clean business on Crown might help diminish the drunken brawls that occur there.

“I see bicycling like a lot of other things in society,” he says, his eyes lighting up for a moment. “It should be available to everyone.”

The business Hammer founded, called BEEEP! (Bicycle Education, Entrepreneurship and Enrichment Programs)  is the fruit of his idealism. The business’s for-profit wing manages the pedicab rides. The nonprofit side hosts cycling tours for New Haven youth, sets up tandem rides for the blind, and runs an adaptive biking program that allows paraplegics to use their hands to bike. BEEEP! lets Hammer dabble in his own egalitarian universe of equal-opportunity-bicycling.

But theater, Hammer tells me, is the arena where he taps into his most extreme passions. He recalls one of the several musical revues he has composed: “The Touring Bicycle Repair Clinic Theater.” The production toured vaudeville style—he and the actors traveled from one town green to another, bringing mechanics with them to fix the audience’s bicycles while the actors performed.

Hammer breaks into one of the songs from the show. The original composition, inspired by Pierre Lallement, who is often credited with inventing the bicycle in the 1860’s, tells the story of a man who builds a flying bicycle that eventually soars over the English Channel. In Hammer’s plot line, the man tests the contraption by flying it around the New Haven Green.

Hammer sings:

Though ’twas said could not be done by expert panels
A bicycle flew o’er the English Channel…

… So, if we take our cue from Leonardo
Think about the future hard now
Fight to win a place for bikes in the world of our children
Where it’s not a pain to take them on the train
And bike lanes and bike paths separate us from the trollies
And from the few automobiles remaining

On the way we’ll win a few
And lose some too and when we do we’ll know
That we’re not through, the myopia of a few
Won’t keep us from our bicycle utopia
Won’t keep us from our bicycle utopia”

As we ride down Crown Street, I wonder if I can catch a glimpse of East Rock Park from the Green. I think of how Hammer’s moment of crisis is at the center of his idealism, how the realities of violence and crime and streets without bike lanes encroach on his utopian vision of the city he loves.

From the top of East Rock, however, with the city stretching out in perfect miniature, you might imagine that a flying bicycle could sail over the spires of New Haven, uninhibited by gravity—and that, if you fell, an umbrella atop a bicycle helmet would be enough to help you glide safely to the ground.

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