Tim Brick and his brothers Bob and John used to ride their Western Flyer bicycles past the Traverse City State Mental Hospital because the huge manicured grounds and many roads were a joy to ride, plus they had fun with the residents. Some of the 8,000 would be out on the barred-up porches and they would taunt them and they in turn would yell to them as the boys sped away…all in good fun, typical adolescent boy behavior. Their bicycles were a source of freedom and joy
John Brick did not get adequate oxygen when he was born. He seemed a tad slow but back in the 50’s there was not the technology to measure and test it. He seemed fine. But when puberty hit, John suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized- in the Traverse City State Mental Hospital , of all places! What a crazy twist of fate. The boys used to tease friends when they did something stupid and say, “What’s wrong? Are you from 11th Street College or something?” for the hospital entrance was off 11th street.
“We always thought it was funny but when your brother is a patient there it wasn’t funny anymore,” Tim admits
So their mother, Mary Jean, a school teacher by trade, went back to school to get her masters in special ed and founded a group home for adults with developmental disabilities, called Grand Traverse Community Living Center (now called the Brick Ways), with the goal of keeping them live independent but safe.
“Mom used to say, ‘We want them to be a part of the community not just living in the community.’”
Mary Jean and John are no longer with us but Tim has continued to carry on the amazing work that was spurred by their rides on the hospital grounds. Forty years ago, Tim founded Brick Wheels cycle shop. He was one of the four founding members of the TART (Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation Trails) and introduced cycling to many in this beautiful city, where over 100 miles of off-road cycling paths exist. Thousands of folks took up cycling, giving them healthier and happier and making Traverse City one of the Top 10 places to retire in all of America.
But what is extra special about Brick Wheels is the clientele. On any given day, you might see a handi-capped van pull up and the driver unload his wheelchair, then his adaptive bike. It could be 6’4” tall Steve who rides a nearly completely horizontal bike that he “pedals” with his hands cranking a wheel. Steve is paralyzed from his nipples down the result of a dirt bike accident when he was 14. He averages over 11 miles an hour on the TART trails (or paved roads around the Old Mission Peninsula). He put 1500 miles on his bike last year alone.
Cycling isn’t the only sport Steve does- he water skis, snow skis, plays tennis in a special quick-moving wheelchair…is a lot more active than most able-bodied fifty year olds.
Then there is John who became paralyzed at the age of thirty-two from a snowmobile accident. He rides a recumbent bike that he hand cranks but unlike Steve, is able to sit up.
Their bikes cost about $10,000 and they received grants from foundations to purchase them through Top End Co- who also makes wheelchairs etc. Although there are half a dozen bike shops now in Traverse City, Brick Wheels gets the lion’s share of disabled riders. Tim’s staff makes every attempt to make them feel like everyone else and caters to them.
Steve and John tell me,“We have our own personal pit crew at Brick Wheels.”
They pull up in their vans, someone surfaces from the store to assist them. They air up the tires, check the brakes, put their wheelchair back in the van and close it up. If they get a flat or need assistance on the trail, Brick Wheels is only a phone call away.
“They know us here, what we need and go above and beyond a normal bike shop.”
Brick Wheels is anything but a normal bike shop.
The other unusual clientele they have are the mentally handicapped cyclists…the folks who live in Mary Jean’s very popular group homes and independent apartments under the Brick Ways direction.
“We usually get at least eight special needs cyclists who show up every week, out of about 20 that we service,” Tim tells me. “They come in and talk, discuss sports, ask us to check their gears, investigate squeaks, even if we checked them yesterday, we still do it. Our mechanics never pre-judge. Other bike shops may not want to bother.”
“Our employees all figure it out sooner or later that the short bus stops here!”
Tim teases his special needs clients. Gives them bike gloves, other special presents they might need.
“Fast Eddie” got equipped with a trailer for his twenty-seven speed mountain bike. He cruises town picking up recyclables, which earn 10 cents a bottle or can. He has made over $300 in one day.
Eddie was born to a homeless couple and found in a box as an infant with rat bites on him and long rat claw scratches. He’s had a tough life in and out of foster care until he found Brick Ways. Tim and I visited him in the hospital where he was recovering from a bout with pneumonia.
When we walked in his room, Tim teased him about the brown iron IV drip, “What’s that in the bag, Eddie? Root beer?” Tim never hesitates to tease his special needs friends, and treats them all as if they were family, like his brother John. I asked Eddie why he is called “Fast Eddie” (on his mountain bike he named “Hot Rod”!) and he answered, “Because I’m fucking fast!”
As we prepared to leave the hospital, Eddie put his arms around Tim and hugged him hard, and teared up. He said, “I love you Tim. You’re like my big brother.”
Mom Mary Jean and Brother John are both smiling broadly down on Tim Brick.
…Yours truly had the great fortune of meeting Tim Brick last year when I was in the Traverse City area on assignment for Adventure Cycling Magazine and My North Magazine. Tim helped me plan my week long bike trip around the Leelanau Peninsula, sponsored my family with free bikes, and shuttled us. In the course of the last year, Tim subscribed to my blog, read about my life and my feelings, commented and we chatted back and forth frequently.
This June, we returned to the Traverse City area to paddle the Manistee River for another story and also to write about Tim Brick, Brick Wheels, Brick Ways Foundation and his amazing special needs clientele for another story… (the content will include parts of this blog) While we were in Traverse City, Tim put us up in his river house, took us out to dinner and then boating on Lake Michigan on a catamaran all day long. This is not the typical behavior of a person that I have been assigned to write a feature magazine story about. This is the behavior of a magnificent human being with a huge heart who clearly knows how to love ALL people and has been practicing it all his life who has become my dear friend. Like Fast Eddie, I hugged Tim Brick hard when I said good-bye because I too love him to death and have been blessed by having his life touch mine, like so many fortunate others.