And then you see him: Music Man, riding his tricked-out “boombox bike” along Georgia Avenue near Howard University.
On this cold March afternoon, Music Man, a.k.a. George Whitlow, 65, is pedaling along on one of his eight bicycles. This one has a homemade speaker and CD player system in a box rigged up on a rack on the back; red flashing lights surround the boombox.
He rides over to Columbia Heights, parks in the square near the Giant supermarket across from the towering Target and lets the song “Celebration” flow over the neighborhood. Some young people tug off their ear buds. Heads start bobbing. Celebrate good times, come on! Commuters lugging grocery bags and rushing home after work stop to take it in.
“He just makes me feel good, and this city is so stressed out right now — about the budget, about jobs,” says Aleecha Adams Jackson, 47, who stops to dance with Whitlow, now off his bike and playing another Chuck Brown hit, “Blow Your Whistle.”
Music may be at its most powerful when it’s a communal experience, face-to-face and after a long day at work, Whitlow says. He calls his daily outing “happy hour for Washington.”
Every city has its eccentric characters. New York has the Naked Cowboy, who roams Times Square wearing only his cowboy hat, underwear, boots and guitar; he also performs weddings. Austin had the Thong Man, a late peace activist and three-time mayoral candidate who became the embodiment of the city’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan.
And Washington, not famous for its weirdness, has Music Man. His goal is to get hyper-scheduled, ambitious, uptight D.C. to get loose and listen to music — together. His high season is spring and summer, when his audience stays longer. Sometimes, he’s invited to play at block parties: a DJ on wheels.
“People have a lot on their minds,” he says, bobbing his head to “Sexual Healing.” “But when they listen and dance together, they can really lay back after work.”
He first started rigging up his bikes with boomboxes a few years ago when he noticed all the iPods. He wanted to bring people together, listening to the same music, D.C.’s music.
Whitlow wants us to interact, away from a computer. We date online. Watch movies on our smartphones. Go online to do “mindful meditation.” We sext.
“I think those are antisocial,” Whitlow says.
Although some passersby find the volume of his music — “loud and real loud” — jarring, his theory that music played on the streets can help spread some momentary happiness seems to be working.
On this evening, Kyle Washington, 22, an aspiring hip-hop artist who pays his rent making lattes at Starbucks in Arlington, has just gotten off the Metro at Columbia Heights.
He stops, listens to a few bars of “Jungle Boogie” and pulls out his ear buds. Then, he breaks into the Robot, his face affecting a blank stare before he busts out laughing.
“I just love this guy. D.C. needs him,” says Washington, who recently moved from New York, and adds a quick Moonwalk and roll of his arms. “He’s this cool, old-school dude who makes everyone happy.”
Whitlow’s a big champion of playing the favorites of black Washington: go-go music, funk, the Jackson 5.
He’s lived off of Georgia Avenue for more than 40 years, outlasting the gentrification. “Everyone likes this music,” he says. “White. Black. Old. Young. Plus, it keeps the spirit of Chuck Brown alive.”
Whitlow’s rail thin with bulging calves. He won’t discuss how he constructs the small stereo systems for the back of his bikes: “I don’t want any copycats.”
He hasn’t owned a car in more than 20 years.
“Bike riding was always my favorite hobby, because it keeps me fit,” he says.
That means he’s almost always dressed in biking pants, a North Face windbreaker and, sometimes, a Redskins knit cap.
Retired from his job at a printing press, he now earns extra money working as a bike messenger.
Inside his crowded apartment, he parks all eight of his bikes in the living room, along with 20 different helmets, dozens of CDs of soul and funk music, stereo parts and tools to fix them all.
And how does Mrs. Music Man feel about this decor?
“I don’t mess with any of his stuff,” says Jenny Johnson, his wife of 43 years.
They have two kids and seven grandchildren, whose photos line their living room walls.
“He plays his music to help with stress, too,” she says. “He found a way to combine bike riding and music. Everybody thanks him on the street.” They kiss before he rolls out.
Standing outside, Renebeni Tez, 45, a construction worker from El Salvador who lives in his building, waves hello.
“He just keeps us going,” Tez, says, laughing. “There he goes, our Music Man.”