"The tide Britt, a 44-year-old Measuring 28 Everyone in True to character, Britt says It’s been Despite this "There’s
waits for no man," says Ron Britt as he prepares to move his vehicle, perhaps
the most unique in all of New York, at 8 a.m. on a wet Wednesday. The "tide"
is the parking restrictions on the leafy West Village block where his soon-to-be
ex-girlfriend lives, and the vehicle is the "Free Willie Nelson,"
a ’73 Dodge Travco RV whose navy and white paint job gives it a vaguely
harmonica player/handyman, explains how the name describes the vehicle’s
look, which he calls "saltwater cowboy–Orca on the outside and Western
on the inside, including animal hides and antlers." A tireless pitchman
who peppers conversations with puns, soundbites and folksy metaphors, Britt
has his phone number stenciled on the bumper and never tires of hearing from
pedestrians who saw the Willie and felt compelled to call. He’d tell you
Free Willie stories all day if you didn’t have the heart to stop him.
feet from the picket fence that adorns the grille to the wooden deck affixed
to the back bumper (where the license plate reads SEE WRLD), the Free Willie
is representative of the "art car" movement that’s more popular
out West than here: automobiles covered in grass, glass, Barbie doll heads,
etc. Britt bought it six years ago for $4000 from a pack of Seventh Day Adventists
in Wisconsin. Nearly three decades after it rolled off the assembly line, the
Travco runs "like a scalded dog," he says, and is "comfortable
as a blue jeans shirt." The gas mileage? Eight to the gallon.
New York has his 9/11 story, and Britt, originally from Roswell, NM (which makes
sense), is no exception. His starts on 9/10, the day he and a Tribeca-based
girlfriend broke up. Britt did what any man in his situation might do: he went
to the Raccoon Lodge on Warren St., tied one on and crawled off to sleep in
the Willie, parked a block from the World Trade Center. "I was sleeping
off a hangover," he recalls, "when I was awoken by the first plane
hitting the tower." Britt says he stumbled toward the wreckage, hoping
to put his handyman skills to use, then split when the first building came down.
He returned to the Willie later that night to find it covered in a carpet of
debris, every car around it destroyed. "It was like Dante’s Inferno."
He climbed in, turned the key and she sparked right up; Britt still wonders
if the Willie’s religious past helped spare her. He scooped a bottle of
ash from the roof and keeps it in the Willie.
Britt is fighting the war on terrorism in his own way. "There’s still
a funk hanging over downtown," he says of the neighborhood he calls HeroHo,
and he’s organized a two-pronged musical attack aimed at helping Lower
Manhattan get its groove back. His band the Lucky Ones hosts Monday night jams
at Rosie’s on Murray St., and he’s planning what he’s named "Re-vibe"–a
"civilian USO" effort that involves rigging the Willie with a p.a.
system and employing friends from bands like Rogue’s March, the Novellas
and the Itinerants to perform at various outdoor locales downtown. "One
stockpile of ammo that New York has is talent," he says. "My friends
aren’t construction workers or EMTs or firemen. They’re musicians,
and they want to help."
he hopes Re-vibe will attract the services of Mayor Bloomberg, area residents
like Robert De Niro and musicians like David Byrne and David Bowie. Of course,
Willie Nelson would be a logical choice to participate as well. Britt met his
idol following Nelson’s Irving Plaza gig a few months back, and the two
exchanged photographs: Britt gave Nelson a photo of the Free Willie, and Nelson
gave Britt an autographed picture of himself.
the kind of week that tries Britt’s indomitable optimism. The West Village
girlfriend and he have parted ways, meaning he’ll split time between friends’
couches and the Willie’s bed, and someone has slammed into the Willie’s
tail end, causing transmission problems. The star of last summer’s Coney
Island Mermaid Parade is being towed down Broadway as Britt mans the steering
wheel. It’s impossible not to stare at the beached whale as it ambles by,
and everyone does.
run of bad luck, Britt is upbeat as he answers the top 10 questions he’s
asked about the Willie (#3: No, Willie Nelson’s not in jail. #4: No, he’s
not in the camper, either). Why does he think Willie seems to charm all who
a wanderlust that exists in every single American," he replies, struggling
to turn onto Bond St. without power steering. "RV-dom as a lifestyle is
the American Dream."
Britt, a 44-year-old
True to character,