Jonathan Gleich is an unlikely vigilante. He gets up at six every morning, goes next door to put eye drops in his 83-year-old mother’s eyes, takes a bath, fixes himself some rice cakes, clips a bike helmet underneath his hound-dog face and breaks the law. Every fair-weather day from Easter until Halloween, he makes the 15-mile commute from his Brighton Beach apartment to his office in Midtown Manhattan, where he’s an I.T. guy at a children’s clothing company, on his beloved Segway personal transporter. The physical act couldn’t be simpler. By tilting the handlebars to the right or left, Gleich, 49, weaves through backed-up traffic, and by leaning forward, he glides at 12.5 miles an hour past cyclists huffing uphill, while a random shuffle of Billy Joel, David Bowie, Louis Armstrong and Eminem comes to him through his iPhone ear piece. But in his wake he leaves quite a brouhaha: fuming cyclists, beaming children and cops who aren’t sure what to do.
When it first appeared on the market in 2001, the Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen, envisioned a future in which cars would be banished from city centers and the grid would be teeming with “empowered pedestrians” on Segways. Seven years later, New York City looks the same as it ever did. Congestion pricing has just been laughed down, and the battery-powered self-balanced scooter is about as common a sight on our streets as a double-tall unicycle. In 44 states, Gleich’s commute would be legal (although in some states, he’d have to stick to the sidewalk), but in New York, Seggers—as Segway riders call themselves—remain in a sort of extra-legal limbo. As a result, the number of regular Seggers in the city has fallen from around 50 in 2006 to less than ten, according to Itsi Atkins, founder of NYSegwaytours.com. Nearly all city Seggers claim some sort of handicap, since Segways can be used by the disabled—but Gleich prefers not to do that, since his only disability is his unnatural attachment to the Segway.
The first stop on Gleich’s unlawful commute is the 7-11 at the corner of Kathleen Street and Coney Island Avenue where he gets his morning coffee. If all goes smoothly, that’ll be his only stop, and he’ll hit the Brooklyn Bridge at 9 a.m. He’ll arrive at the loading dock at his Herald Square office building at 9:30 a.m. on the dot, having consumed 15 cents worth of electricity and a dollar’s worth of coffee.
But a vigilante must have his battle stories; and conversationally speaking, the best days are the ones on which Gleich goes to war with other commuters. His usual adversaries are the “spandex shitheads” —Gleich’s term of endearment for cyclists—who generally view Gleich as a “choad,” “poser,” or “lard-ass” bike-path hog. And then, of course, there’s the police.
Because the law is vague (it is not explicitly illegal to ride a Segway on the street, but the Segway cannot be registered as a motor vehicle, and it is illegal to drive a non-registered motor vehicle on the street), most cops do not ticket Seggers.
But Gleich has still managed to get himself in trouble with law enforcement. Gleich has received three tickets for an unregistered vehicle: the latest came on his way home from work on April 8. He must be the only person in the city who’s glad to be handed that orange envelope, which he sees as an invitation to, well, push the envelope. (“Maybe we’ll get a ticket,” he says hopefully over the phone, when we’re discussing a time to commute together.) He fights each one in court, pontificating on the environmental and congestion-easing benefits of the Segway, showing proof of insurance and flashing his “get out of jail free card,” a picture of him smiling between two Segway cops—and loses. The first ticket cost him $95, the second, $115.
Gleich is more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, and for that, he has earned himself critics within the Segway community, who see him as too militant—that is, if it’s possible to be militant just by riding a gliding pogo stick. He’s unwilling to pretend he’s handicapped just to appease law enforcement. (Well, he does have a handicapped Segway sticker on his bag that he got his doctor to give him for an old disability, which allowed him to ride his Segway during a conference in Las Vegas, but he acknowledges that was a last resort.) He declines to avoid the patrol area manned by the cop who has given him two of his three tickets. The truth is, he likes the attention.
To understand why, we need to take a step back to see the full Gleich. A big step back, because he was huge.
Gleich hasn’t quite adjusted to his 200-pound body; that’s because until a few years ago, his weight hovered near 500 pounds. He now gets colds often, which is why, when he rides his Seg on winter days, he bundles himself up like the Invisible Man; seats are uncomfortable, and when he flirts with women now their boyfriends actually see him as a threat. Sometimes he misses those extra 285 pounds.
“When I was fat, I was unrestricted. I went anywhere, ate anything,” says Gleich. “So I can’t fit in an airplane seat? I flew first class.” Even at his heaviest, Gleich had a job and girlfriends. His social life revolved around going out to eat—a favorite spot was Brennan and Carr in Sheepshead Bay, famous for its roast beef sandwiches. But when they came out with the Segway, he was too big to ride one.
“Put some heavy duty tires on it!” he railed. “Make an industrial model!”
Obese but active all his life, in 2003 Gleich finally developed a case of sciatica so severe that he couldn’t leave his apartment. He elected for laparoscopic weight loss surgery, a reversible procedure that alters the anatomy of the stomach to reduce food intake, followed by plastic surgery to remove excess skin. Being fat had never bothered Gleich; however, losing weight did. Eating became a regimented chore, his social life suffered, and he is now without a girlfriend. For the first time in his life, he has body-image issues. Friends are pointing out that his teeth are crooked, he has a mole next to his nose, his hair is beginning to gray—flaws that were invisible before, or at least irrelevant. “When I was fat,” says Gleich, “they were happy I just showed up!”
No longer the jolly fat guy, gregarious Gleich missed the attention that had always been directed his way. He needed a new attention-grabber, an ice-breaker that he could parlay into the kind of casual banter on which he thrives. In September of 2004, after dropping his first hundred pounds, he bought himself a used Seg (as he calls it) on eBay.
Gleich is now on his third Segway model in four years—the i2, sleeker and smarter than its predecessors (he keeps the second one at home, in case a friend wants to ride)—and if tinkering is a sign of affection, he clearly loves it all the more for having had to wait. He’s pimped it out with white LED headlights and red brake lights hooked up to an old laptop battery, and a horn that sounds like a duck being squished—efforts that won him a black leather motorcycle jacket emblazoned with the Segway logo at a Segway conference.
Once again, Gleich is that dude that little kids point after, and now it’s okay for their parents to openly gawk, too. Envision, for instance, the following scene, which takes place at around the halfway point of Gleich’s morning commute on a late March day:
An older woman creeps along the Prospect Park loop in a red two-door sedan with her driver’s side window all the way down. It’s strange that she’s going about 11 miles an hour in a 25-mile-an-hour zone; but it’s stranger still that she’s there at all at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., the park is closed to vehicular traffic. Always keen to help, Gleich makes a U-turn on his Segway and pulls up alongside the car to ask if she’s lost. “Lawst!??!” the lady screeches, her dyed black bob bobbing. "In Brooklyn? Are you kiddin’ me!?” The two native Brooklynites share a laugh at the thought. She was tailing him, that was all, trying to get a closer look at that gadget. They exchange a few more words and Gleich glides away. “That is the greatest machine I eva sawr!” she screams after him.
It’s no big deal, just one of a hundred interactions that take place over the course of a day. But add them up and you’ll see that Gleich gets as many shout-outs as a minor celebrity. Cost of Segway: $5,000. Knowing you’re constantly being noticed? Priceless.