Friday, April 16, 2010

Melvin and his electric motor (Earth Day, Spirit Lake, Idaho)




SPIRIT LAKE — Melvin is a tricycle ninja.
Pass him at the Post Office and by the time you pull up to the pumps three blocks away, exit your car, lift the cap and insert a card for the inevitable $40 debit, he's on his third lap around you like a porpoise in a silent sea, quietly getting closer.
The tricycle he rides is sweatless.
Park yourself on the thick, Schwinn seat, twist the throttle and the front wheel engages.
"I had this made in China," he says.
The motor is in the front fork and wheel assembly.
The back two wheels aren't powered.
"They just keep your butt from dragging on the ground," he says.
He invented the electromagnetic motor and hopes to market the idea in the land of Uncle Sam.
It's charged by 4 lunchbox-size batteries that don't smell or make noise and it cruises at 40 mph.
"I can go to Post Falls and back in two hours and it will cost me all of about a quarter," he says.
Melvin lives in Spirit lake. An ex-logger, ex-contractor, ex-construction guy. At 58, he resides in what the kids here call the old folks place: A band of single level apartments by the elementary school that get snow loaded in bad winters, and stay cool in July.
He broke his back a while ago and survived a major illness.
When his cards turned up, he began tinkering with the idea of a vehicle that costs little to operate, but can travel a great distance on a pittance.
His brother is married to a Chinese girl, he says.
She helped him find a company overseas to make the motors that he attaches to old bicycle frames, or better, three-wheelers.
It's being used in China, he says. Right now. As we speak.
And here too, in the land of limited vision.
He tried getting the motor manufactured in the U.S.A. but ran aground: Too many regulations, too little creativity, and the myopia.
"It's like dealing with a band of blind troglodytes," Melvin says.
His hair is white like a Nike logo, He wears black slip-ons, tube socks and sweats. His shirt pocket needs an engineer's pen.
From behind wide-framed glasses he is Albert Einstein without the sweater, but with a similar mode of transportation.
A modern version. Down-scaled. The same intent.
A while back he approached a Spirit Lake landmark. The pile of old bicycle frames in an overgrown city lot alongside New Hampshire Street made a mound four feet high and 12-feet in diameter. The metal mound was shaded by a lilac bush and bumped against a failing elm.
It was the remnants of a bicycle repair business on the same block as a Western-style facade, two-story apartment building that is in danger of drawing attention by a Hollywood production crew, or Tom Waits.
He approached the man who owned the bicycle hill and paid him $10 to pull whatever frames he wanted from the heap.
"This town needs a bicycle shop," he says.
That's in the future. For the time being he will make another electric model from bike frames he has welded.
His three-wheeler is entered in the town's Earth Day celebration.
"I'll win, hands down," he says. "No one has anything like this."
The flat black prototype he rides is bare bones, he says. But it's a lot faster than previous renditions.
"It's like a Lamborghini," he says. "But, I don't need to push the gas pedal all the way to the floor."

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