By Edysmar Diaz-Cruz
Published July 20, 2020
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In a strange way, homelessness can sometimes feel like a break from civilization, an extended vacation of sorts that makes bills and responsibilities a distant memory. It has been this way for Mark Sheldon for so long now that thinking about the real world is overwhelming.
Sheldon, 62, admits he’s grown complacent and somewhat lazy in his homeless years, though he keeps busy fixing bicycles at his shop in Dignity Village. He’s come to be known as “The Bicycle Man.” It amuses him. He wears the title with pride.
A welder by trade, Sheldon accumulated bike parts over the years and opened a shop where he does repairs. He owns 41 bikes that are ready to be sold or exchanged. He doesn’t charge much — no more than $20 — and paints the expensive ones in camouflage so they don’t catch the eye of late-night looters.
He got his first bike when he was 5 years old and finds joy in knowing he plays a significant role in helping others obtain reliable transportation.
“It’s powered by you,” he says. “You go as fast as the wind. It’s freedom.”
Sheldon’s skin is tan and leathered from pedaling long afternoons in the sun. Wafts of gray hair sit on his head and the wrinkles on his forehead glisten with sweat. Tattoos of faded skulls and chains wrap both of his arms all the way to his calloused hands, usually smudged in grease.
Sheldon’s handmade shelter in Dignity Village is surrounded by scavenged bike parts. Rusted bike frames line up against a wooden fence. Each tells a story of its previous owner. One bike has a rather large distance between the pedal and the seat, which means the rider must have had long legs. Sheldon suspects it may have once been used to race in the Olympics. This one is not for sale.
For some of Sheldon’s clients, bikes are the only way to get around Gainesville. The nearest gas station is a five-minute ride and Walmart is 30 minutes away.
Sheldon’s latest client, a slim 58-year-old man whose blonde dreadlocks spill out of a red bicycle helmet, is on the search for a bike part. He arrived at the homeless shelter seeking help finding a job. Fixing his bike could be a key first step. So, he went to see the Bicycle Man.
“I’m one step above homelessness,” he says. “I’m sleeping on an air mattress with a hole in it.”
On some days, Sheldon helps out a friend, William “Bill” Henderson, 54, who also runs a bike shop at his campsite in the woods. Sheldon has been teaching Henderson the art of bike maintenance.
“He’s one hell of a fabricator,” Henderson says. “He does the high-end stuff.”
On this day, Henderson hopes to finish a bike he’s been building to impress a woman.
“She gets all nervous and jittery when she sees me,” he says with a gleaming smile.
For Henderson, bike repairs are less about making money — he’d be lucky to make $1,000 in a year repairing the bikes of homeless folks — and more about passing the time. He enjoys his shop in the woods and the thought of moving into a house makes him feel claustrophobic.
“I’m not ready to get a job,” he says. “Not because I’m lazy, but because [I] can’t handle it. I don’t want to start paying bills again. Right here, I’m at peace.”
In the woods, he can hear the birds chirping. The rustling of the trees in the wind calms him. His two plump cats, Pumpkin and Buddy, love to explore.
Neither Sheldon nor Henderson feel ready to take on the world again. But that’s not to say Sheldon doesn’t long for the past. He thinks about the mobile home he shared with his wife before they separated. In September 2017, he was forced to leave it behind when Hurricane Irma felled a tree that demolished it. He sought refuge at GRACE Marketplace and has remained there since.
“I miss my TV, getting up from bed, opening my refrigerator, making myself a sandwich and yelling at my neighbors,” Sheldon says. “I’ve been using a port-a-potty for two years.”
To escape what sometimes feels like confinement, Sheldon daydreams about traveling. He relishes the rush of adrenaline, whether it’s from peering over the Grand Canyon, bungee jumping from the Eiffel Tower or scuba diving in crystal-blue waters.
But, above all, Sheldon seriously considers opening a legitimate bike shop with Henderson, one which will give him a real income. And if he saves enough money, he’ll blow it all on a Harley Davidson.