Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mad Props Vol. 12

Bruce Johnson: Lover of people, nature, and Edward Abbey books.
-photo by Ari

Here was a man who fooled everybody that thought he was looney. Everyone from soccer moms, corporate dads, ambulance drivers, police officers, smug cyclists, and the village of Downers Grove, Illinois were victims of a personality that exemplified humility and cradled enlightened individuality. Bruce was both an enigma and simple. Bruce was a paradox.

He could be seen on the hottest days and the coldest nights riding his Novara touring bike pulling a Burley trailer splendidly outfitted with colorful plastic butterflies on springs. He was always in his standard outfit of black t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. He occasionally wore hats too. My favorites were the one with fake boobs on the front, and another that looked as if a duck had impaled his forehead with wings jutting out of both sides.

Other than the hats and usual ensemble, Bruce wore no other articles of clothing. No gloves. No jacket. No pants. And, absolutely no socks. Ever. He had a disease that had swollen his ankles and couldn't comfortably wear shoes or socks. In the early days, we had nicknamed him "Ankle Man", which was perhaps something of a mockery at the time, but came to be a term of endearment.

Bruce often hung out at the Starbucks on Burlington and Main in Downers Grove. This was back when it was a cool place to hang out with good people and well made drinks. He would talk aloud while reading the newspaper sometimes, sighing "Ohh boy...", or "Did you hear about this...?" Some folks would venture into conversation, others would pretend they didn't hear, most would ignore him. It seemed Bruce's appearance and uncommon cordiality would cause those who were uptight or prudish to become uneasy. The kids knew better, though. They hadn't yet succumbed to the veneer of frigid banality and fear of anything improvised.

My most memorable moment with Bruce was in that very Starbucks. I had raced down in Dixon, Illinois and crashed badly, but was well enough to drive home. I hadn't eaten and it was quite hot for a two hour drive home in a car with no air conditioning considering the condition I was in. I stopped off at the Starbucks so I could get a drink as well as clean out my wounds a little better.

As I grabbed for my drink at the counter, I suddenly became dizzy and fell into a heap on the floor. I had fainted. As I came to, it was the beak of a duck that had impaled Bruce's skull that I awoke to. He told me to relax and lay still until the ambulance got there and announced to the small gathering of onlookers "I saved his life."

I remember one of the medics taking me away in the ambulance commenting that Bruce was "crazy". Unfortunately, the village of Downers Grove believed that too. They evicted him from his home where he cared for his schizophrenic sister in-law. The reason they gave was because the grass was perpetually "too long", thus condemning his home. Bruce's claim that it was a "prairie" didn't wash with them. They wanted him out. And with that, out went the both of them.

I'm not sure where his sister in-law went, but Bruce mentioned he might go to northern Wisconsin. Presumably to be where some people were not, and he could sing the University of Wisconsin fight song aloud until his heart was content.

Mad Props, 'ol' Bruce. We hardly knew ya. And, Downers Grove is a lesser city for it.


The King said...

Eating within 30 minutes after a hard/long ride...... you could have avoided this encounter.

Ari said...

As a photographer I am so happy to have snapped the elusive photo of Bruce. I hope to run into him one day and just have a blast chatting with him.
What a character!


Anonymous said...

I visited Bruce in Madison, WI around 2001. (He was a proud graduate). He used to email me quite a bit but I haven't heard from him in years. The last I heard the "peoples republic of Madison" was paying to fix his ankles.

PS It wasn't his sister, but his sister in law that he cared for. She is still somewhere in the DG area as far as a know.

-- Geoff

strangelife said...

Geoff- Thanks for the correction and update. I heard he may have moved back to the Madison area, but had never had it corroborated. Let's hope all is well with him.

Ari said...

Thanks for the update. I would like to see and chat with Bruce once again.

Geoff said...

I got an email from Bruce!

UW-Madison Grainger Hall, business library, right across the street from home

6 April 2008 Sunday

Hi Geoff

I am still here in Madison embedded on the UW-Madison campus living in the same building I did as a senior (1963-1964). I am a block from the Chemistry Building. I am a mile west of the Capitol.

I went to the annual UW-Madison Science Expeditions Saturday. I have been laying around listening to Air America Radio today. Sam Seder is on now (

Anonymous said...

"dupe d doo, look at all of the penguins off to the Sears Tower"

strangelife said...

Geoff- Great news. I'm glad he's closer than I realize. I hope on my occasional travels to Madison I encounter him. It's been a loooong time.


Geoff said...

chop chop little penguins! You can write to Bruce at Bruce could be an internet celebrity. Somebody go up there and interview him and his roommates and put it on YouTube! One of them is still riding out the crash of '87! I hope to burn out with that much style.

Do you know where margarine is going to get that extra electron? FROM YOU!!!

Geoff said...

Lois. His sister in law's name was Lois. She talked to the TV.

Anonymous said...

Hi people. This is Johnson (see photo) reporting from Madison, Wisconsin. The East Coast HPV Competition is here this weekend. Google "HPV competition Madison". I am going to check out the vehicles at the Monona Terrace Convention Center today -- Friday April 25. The races are Saturday and Sunday. What excitement.

strangelife said...

B. Johnson- Damn glad to have ya and hope all is well. Amazing this internet thing for situations such as this...

Anonymous said...

The presentation protion of the HPV (human powered vehicle) 2008 Challenge was Friday April 25 at the Monona Terrace Convention Center. I talked to Leonardo Black, a materials science student from the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela for about an hour. The Latin Americans have a Latin American HPV Challenge in Venezuela again this year. I went to the endurance race Sunday (April 27) morning on the UW-Madison campus, lot 60. Missouri Science and Technology won that race again this year. They have a fast HPV with hard rubber wheels and a tough aerodymanic fiberglass shell. They competed in the West Coast HPV challenge the week before in Reno, Nevada. The Missouri people averaged about 7.2 meter/second (16 mph) over the 65,000 meter (39 mile) course Sunday. It was curvy with a fair number of crashes by many the two wheelers. The race took about 2.5 hours with pit stops for changes of riders including one girl rider per team. I got all psyched up and order a copy of Bicycling Science by David Gordon Wilson (MIT Press 2004) last night. I used to read the 11982 edition in the 1990s. Wisconsin had the slowest HPV in the endurance race. It was all hand and arm powered, no legs and designed for grocery shopping -- a utility vehicle. Wisconsin has not been in this competition for about 3 or 4 years. Iowa was the only other Big Ten team. It was very windy Saturday at the airport. Two wheeled HPVs with a shell kept getting blown over including the Missouri S&T HPV. It was good at taking the wind head on, but not from the side. The wind gave them problems in Reno also. They dropped to second place this year. They won both east and west coast challenges last year. The HPV Latin America Challenge 2008 course in Maricebo, Venzuela has a course that looks like one used by Grand Prix race cars. That event is this September.
Gabby Johnson