There used to be a guy we called the headless horsemen that tucked his head in his jacket and went down Petronia Street. Somebody threw a rock at him and that was the end of that,” said James Chapman from a lawn chair outside the home his father built on Chapman Lane.
When the visitors arrive in Key West, they expect to meet a “character” — one of those quirky people that inhabit this weird little town. Better still, if he or she has a long memory to match. Locals will tell you that James Chapman fills the bill.
He can remember what Key West used to be like. For example, he said he attended Fredrick Douglass High School, an all-black school, and never set foot in a mixed race learning institution. He knows the exact location of the well under the home he was born in and where the outhouses used to be. He remembers when no white man stepped foot in Bahama Village expect one … Ernest Hemingway.
“I knew him well. He used to come to Bahama Village to shoot dice. When I was about 12 years old I was swimming in Ernest Hemingway’s pool. He came out drunk and told us to get out. We said, ‘Why don’t you come over here and make us?’ He said, ‘Okay, you can stay in another hour.’ He was a really cool guy,” said Chapman. “He hated cats, though.”
People around town know Chapman and wave to him or stop by for conversation at his place on Chapman Lane.
“I consider Mr. Chapman a good friend. Heck, he’s a friend to everyone he meets; one of the nicest human beings on the planet,” said photographer Ralph DePalma.
He is known best for his music-thumping tricycle, covered in brilliant bright lights he changes periodically. His son Mike said every extra dollar he has goes into the cycle he’s been riding for more than 10 years.
“The bike is very important to him,” Mike said, then his voice choked with emotion. “He is a very giving guy.”
Chapman is 75 years old and has two stents in his heart. He said he gave up cars about the time of the first surgery because he didn’t want to risk having a heart attack behind the wheel. Enter the bike.
He has shelves full of lights, toys, sculptures and figurines that are changed out regularly on his cycle creation. There is also a collection of various batteries he uses for all the lights. Underneath all that are two marine deep-cycle batteries, an inverter, a car stereo, speakers and hundreds of CDs he changes to suit his mood when he makes his ride down Duval.
The bike’s musical capabilities grew out of an experience he had while playing loud music on his scooter more than a decade ago.
“A lady came up to me and said ‘I have been searching for you for two weeks. You are the guy who plays the loud music with the scooter … It went in through my front door and went through the entire house,’” he said.
Chapman thought he was in trouble, but soon realized that was not the case.
“She told me her mother has been bed ridden for 15 years and she was dancing and moving for the first time. It was a mission from God to make the cycle and positively impact people’s lives,” Chapman said.