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A bicycle built for good

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Pedaling the joybox though Chelsea

One man’s quest to do good for Flint

Story and photos by Dan Ezekiel

This August, Ann Arbor musician Mark “Mr. B.” Braun and a team of helpers will pedal a 400-pound bike-piano contraption from Flint 240 miles to the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula, swim four miles through the Strait of Mackinac with the piano-bike floating on a boat in tow (I’m not making this up), then play a concert at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. All to raise money for the kids of his childhood hometown, Flint.   

This scenario might seem improbable to most people, but B (that’s what I call him) isn’t most people. Improbably, he’s done this kind of thing before. 

While others anguish about the condition of once proud and busy Flint, and especially the kids who live there, B is doing something. His audacious plan, the Sprint4Flint, is a fundraiser for YouthQuest, a nonprofit that provides after-school meals and academic enrichment for 1,500-1,700 Flint kids.  

In full disclosure, I’m one of the cyclists who will pedal the piano-bike to the Straits, and I’m raising funds, too.

B grew up in Flint. On a gray January day, he and I spent an afternoon in his hometown, touring YouthQuest sites and visiting places he remembers from childhood — now diminished by decades of industrial abandonment, depopulation and disinvestment. 

To a first-time visitor, Flint looks like a smaller version of Detroit, featuring a revitalized downtown, with offshoots of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and a spiffy new hospital building. Then there is that dirty brown Flint River, source of so much recent misery, flanked by neighborhoods of dilapidated wood frame houses and vacant lots where homes have been demolished. Most of the faces we see here are black.

Looking at the boarded-up house where his father spent his childhood, B reflects, “Every facet of life in Flint has become more difficult  since the 1970s, when GM began its pullout from the city. The tax base has deteriorated grossly, dozens and dozens of schools have closed. Both my parents’ elementary, middle and high schools have closed. My elementary and middle school have closed.”  

B challenges me to imagine what it would be like if the Ann Arbor school where I taught simply disappeared. “It’s unimaginable that Forsythe would just go away. They might build a new building — but to disappear, there’s no way. That’s how we (Flint residents) felt about our schools, but they are just gone.”

Some schools, however, and lots of kids, remain. B and I drive to the International Academy of Flint, home to one of YouthQuest’s 15 after-school programs. We meet up with YouthQuest staff, including Program Director LaKeitha Givens. A tireless mother of four teenagers, she manages 120 staff and “so much paperwork!”  

“It’s a struggle,” she says, “but we make it work.” 

After handshakes and introductions, we’re guided through classrooms hosting various after-school clubs.

In every club room, the students look relaxed and happy. They greet the staff by name, with beaming smiles, comfortably and cheerily accepting white adult strangers in their midst. As a career educator, I soon feel that YouthQuest is a fine cause to support.

In STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Club, elementary students make “Galaxy Pancakes.” Matthew and Malachi, 10-year-old twins, and friends Demetrius and Jamilah, plan and show off their galaxies. Malachi’s is called “Moneyitristic.” (“It’s a cross between ‘money’ and ‘characteristic,’ but I don’t really know how to spell that.”) Jamilah, who just moved to Flint from Texas, is designing “Cakdo.” (”It means cake dough.”) I ask myself, who knew kids are still moving to Flint?

“There are five planets, pink and green, shaped like cakes,” Jamilah informs me. “They look and smell like cakes, but you can’t eat them, because they have tiny little rocks. The planets bounce up and down but never crash into each other.”  

LaQuonda Hammons, who directs YouthQuest’s program at the academy, told me that two retired educators plan lessons like the Galaxy Pancakes. The lessons are meant to be a bit outside the box, but they support the curriculum taught at the school.

I ask Derrin, 9, what he likes about the after-school program. “It’s very fun,” he says.  “We learn more stuff.” Demetrius chimes in, “We have fun, play games, play with our friends. We come every day, but not Fridays.” As I leave the room, the first Galaxy Pancakes are sizzling on a plug-in frying pan at the front of the classroom.

We walk by the Chess Club, where high schoolers grapple with the Game of Kings. It looks like any school you could find anywhere, except this is Flint. The school has refrigerated water fountains, but they are unplugged; every drop of water students drink here is from a bottle.  

Kim Meszaros, YouthQuest team leader, recounts: “Last year, we took a field trip to Port Huron. There were water fountains in the park. The kids asked, ‘Is this OK? Can we drink this?’ That’s when you realize how this has affected the kids.”

Our next stop is Durant Tuuri Mott School. It’s an old cinder-block school with long, dimly lit hallways painted institutional gray-green and lined with lockers; the place is instantly familiar to my Baby Boomer eyes. One display case holds photos from a visit by Hillary Clinton when she was first lady. Cheery bulletin boards display winter-themed student art. 

Again, we’re led in and out of club meeting rooms. The Computer Club learns how to build an app. The Creations Club (which began as the Pinterest Club) makes slime, using corn starch. The Fashion Club is making duct-tape clutch purses. Triniti, 7, pretty in pink, her braids in huge plastic bows, stops cutting tape long enough to tell me she loves reading and math.  

In Sports Club, a gaggle of boys and one girl — still dressed in school uniforms of polo shirts and slacks — enthusiastically play floor hockey. There are more kids than sticks; those without sticks sit patiently in folding chairs at the edge of the room, waiting for Coach Cody Dawson (captain of U-M Flint’s hockey team) to call them into the game.  At 6 p.m., they’re still on their best behavior, as they’ve had to be since early morning. 

B and I had spoken of our own free-range childhoods on our way to Flint. In the 1960s, we had few organized activities outside the school day, just played with our friends in neighborhood lots till Mom called us in for dinner. How different from the regimentation these Flint kids experience all day. However, as B notes, “There’s no alternative for these kids, there’s no other safe place for them to go.”

B left Flint after high school to attend U-M, where he toyed with architecture and law before finally “majoring in boogie-woogie” and dropping out. Since then, he has followed the lifestyle of many Ann Arbor musicians, playing gigs in the evening, keeping body and soul together with a day job as a finish carpenter.  

At 6-foot-2 and “an eighth of a ton,” B played semi-pro baseball; he says his tombstone will list his name and “RHP” (for right-handed pitcher). In his 20s, B envisioned inventing a bicycle capable of carrying a piano, which he could pedal on tours from town to town.  

He approached famed Ann Arbor bike builder Mark Nobilette with this idea. “I thought he was nuts, pretty much,” Nobilette recalls, “and I pooh-poohed the idea, so it didn’t happen for a very long time.”  

Nobilette moved to Colorado, where he now owns a bike shop, and started working for Steve Meyer, founder of Main Street Pedicabs. He learned it was possible to build a bike with a platform that could carry quite a bit of weight.  

“It took Mark (Braun) calling me up again 18 or 19 years later to get me to say ‘Yeah, we can do this,’ and we made it happen,” he says.

In 2009, Nobilette built a $10,000 contraption that consists of a bike towing a platform that carries a full-size upright piano. At the back of the platform are two “dummy hubs” to which two additional bikes are attached, making a total of three bikes moving a 400-pound musical payload. B named it the Joybox Express; “joybox” is Jazz Age slang for piano.  

B has led three weeklong bike tours across Michigan, stopping and playing gigs along the way. Then, in 2014, he tackled a more ambitious trip: “The Mississippi River ride was 1,840 miles,” B recalls.  The trip  from Lake Itasca, Minn., to New Orleans took three months. Imagine the astonished looks on motorists’ faces as they passed the rolling instrument lumbering along in the slow lane.

B says he’s pedaled the Joybox Express more than 3,000 miles. Each tour has raised funds for B’s twin passions, arts and sports programs for youth.  

I ask B for a story from the Mississippi River trip, and his eyes light up. “On the second day of the trip we were in Bemidji, Minnesota, making a presentation at a high school.  At the end, a girl approached me, guided by her boyfriend, and I could tell she had something important to say.”

She told B it had been her brother’s dream to ride the length of the Mississippi, but he had died. She asked B to achieve her brother’s dream, and gave him her brother’s allergy-awareness bracelet.  

“I know in modern schools you aren’t supposed to do this,” says B, “but I gave her a huge hug, and I kept the bracelet on the handlebars right where I could see it every second. When I would see an 800-foot hill, I would look at that wristband and I would tell myself, ‘We will not quit, we will make this.’”

Returning home after the huge Mississippi River ride, B felt somewhat lost and purposeless. He needed a new project, and decided to create a benefit for YouthQuest.  At first, he considered raising funds for Flint and Detroit kids simultaneously. Realizing this might be too ambitious, other members of his team convinced him to focus on Flint.

“I grew up there,” B says. “Seeing the long, slow decline there since I left, and the issues around fresh water, we wanted to do something for Flint.” Sprint4Flint’s volunteer executive director, Stephanie Hale, found out about YouthQuest, which is sponsored by the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce.  

When the Joybox Express approached YouthQuest about a fundraising ride, the organization’s staff didn’t know what to think. “They investigated us,” B says. “When they found out that we do what we say, they immediately came on board.”

Previous Joybox Express rides have been leisurely slow rolls, with time built in for impromptu “drive-by concerts” for anyone who looks like they need a day-brightener. 

But the Sprint4Flint ride will be Pony-Express style, with new riders each hour, biking around the clock from Flint to Mackinac City. At that point, champion swimmer Jim “The Shark” Dreyer, who has swum across all five Great Lakes unassisted, will take the lead.  He’ll head up the swim that pulls the piano-bike in a boat, Jack LaLanne-style, to Mackinac Island.

Apparently pushing a full-size piano down the road for hundreds of miles, without benefit of internal combustion, is just too ho-hum this time around. “We wanted to do something dramatic, something difficult,” Braun says, crediting local musician Khalid Hanifi with the concept of the sprint.

First public fundraiser

YouthQuest is owned and funded by the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, which in turn gets much of its funding for the program from the Mott Foundation. YouthQuest costs about $50 per child per week, about $3 million per year overall, according to the Flint chamber’s Brandon Morgan. The Sprint4Flint is YouthQuest’s first public fundraising campaign. 

The effort is snowballing. At a concert at his home last fall, B and Elder Robert Moore, an organ-playing Flint pastor, traded secular and sacred tunes, rocking the audience and raising more than $6,000. 

Selma Cafe, Ann Arbor’s local-foods breakfast pop-up, resurrected itself for a benefit and raised more than $1,000 one snowy morning. Ann Arbor school kids have already raised hundreds more through bake sales for the kids just up U.S. 23.

B sees the Sprint4Flint’s healing energy spreading far beyond Flint. “I have a lot of friends and colleagues that feel bruised and damaged by the election process we’ve just all gone through. Some are really concerned about the state of the country going forward.”

B speaks about his project with a fervent, almost religious intensity.  

“My take on this is let’s each find a way to improve the space we inhabit, and the Joybox Express is my way of doing so,” he says.

He gets a distant look in his eyes when he discusses the sprint. It’s as if he believes that by challenging his no-longer-young body to pedal a piano hundreds of miles, he can help heal Flint, and maybe our country as well.

“If you go to a U of M football game, you’re possibly sitting with 50,000 people who have different political views than you hold,” Braun continues, “but you’re all pulling for the same team, you’ve all found something you can agree on, even if it is inconsequential.”

“The Joybox Express is similar, because the issue of greater opportunities for kids is something almost everyone can agree on. We are trying to let our efforts be the catalyst for opportunities for these kids.” 

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