Gritty in Pink

In a quest for fame and fortune, a unicycling superhero battles the stigma of a troubled past.

When groups of office workers walk through the Financial District at lunchtime, they tend to do it in step. Their leather shoes make dull, simultaneous thuds on the wide sidewalks. Their arms swing in unison.

This everyone-moving-the-same-way phenomenon is in full effect on Market Street one weekday afternoon when something fast and pink flashes by in the crowd's collective peripheral vision.

As people turn to get a better look, they are confronted with a hovering, crooning creature who moves like nothing they've seen before.

Paul Trapani
Maxfield slips into the Pink.
Paul Trapani
Maxfield slips into the Pink.
Pink Man heads to San Francisco.
Paul Trapani
Pink Man heads to San Francisco.
Maxfield dreams of “pinking” the world.
Paul Trapani
Maxfield dreams of “pinking” the world.
This is nothing, Pink Man says, compared to a 200-pound guy he once carried.
Paul Trapani
This is nothing, Pink Man says, compared to a 200-pound guy he once carried.

A man. On a unicycle. In a pink, hooded unitard.

The unitard clings tightly to his body. Fastened around his neck is a small silver cape, which picks up on a breeze as the man swings his unicycle from side to side, explaining in a sing-songy voice, "It's a lotta fun, but someone's gotta do it."

The man pirouettes through the alternately amused and alarmed bystanders, flapping his arms like a giddy flamingo. Some stare in amazement. Others scramble for cameras. One woman runs to him from across the street, screaming, "Pink Man! Pink Man's here!"

Yep. It's Pink Man, the singing superhero, who is said to have come from Galaxy mmmm (it's in the 13th dimension) to save people from boredom and depression. He does this by "pinking" cities all over the world. "I pink, therefore I am," he explains.

Pink Man has never let a fan down. Ever. At the woman's call, he spins around, pedals straight at her, and gathers her up in a big, pit-stained hug.

"Get on my shoulders," he says. He jumps off the unicycle and squats down in the ready position. The woman steps back, terrified. He stays crouched and gives her a playfully impatient look until she slinks toward him, and just like that, she's up, riding Pink Man, who climbs back on his unicycle. He raises his arms and takes her hands in his, and then they go racing down the street.

Upon their return, Pink Man kicks the unicycle away, lands on his feet, and lowers the woman safely to the ground. She's giggling uncontrollably, and adrenaline has her jumping from foot to foot.

This is the kind of reaction Pink Man and his creator and alter ego, Michael Maxfield, live for. Maxfield dreams of someday becoming famous and financially solvent as a reward for bringing Pink Man's unique brand of joy to people's lives, and there are signs he may be close. The superhero has been the subject of countless news stories, starred in commercials and documentaries, and even found a famous sponsor in Bay Area game designer Will Wright.

Pink Man loves attention, and he's always up for appearances in the press, but there's one part of it he can't stand. Every time Pink Man starts making the news, uncomfortable facts about his past resurface. They have a tendency to make smiles disappear.

On a Tuesday morning in an East Bay house, Maxfield is preparing for the transformation. In his upright, human form, he stands just five foot seven. Cropped salt-and-pepper hair traces his bald spot and frames an otherwise youthful visage. His expressions often have a comic, Jim Carrey–like elasticity, and his sprightly demeanor belies his Earth age. He was born the same year as Barack Obama — 1961 — a date that reads, he notes, the same upside down. Maxfield finds this, and many things others might chalk up to coincidence, cosmically significant.

Today he's a little on edge, clearly torn about the presence of a reporter and photographer. Maxfield likes the attention, but he doesn't like to be thought of as a self-promoter. "Can you imagine Batman allowin' this?" he asks, dropping the g like everybody else from his hometown — Leominster (Lemon-stuh), Massachusetts.

He hesitantly shows the small guest room he's been staying in, which, coincidentally, is painted light pink. An array of full-bodied pink unitards are strewn about, suggesting he may have been having a hard time choosing today's outfit. He owns five pink suits right now, each with different hues and quirks. The fluorescent one has a small hood that sometimes allows an ear to slip out. The fuchsia one has too much material in the fingers. Maxfield really wants some new suits.

Today he'll be wearing just one, he explains, because it's warm out. Underneath, he'll be sporting a light pink thong, which he dangles from one finger, chuckling. He asks for some privacy, then slips into his outfit, but covers it with jeans and a Michigan State sweatshirt. He wants to spare the neighbors. Almost ready to go, he gets the sense that something is missing. "Oh, my cape," he remembers, and fetches it from the dryer. No one likes a wrinkled cape.

He then retrieves his unicycle from the garage while explaining that there have been issues with it. The seat has become loose and cockeyed, so it's a little bit off. "Just like me!" he says, bulging his eyes for effect. In the back of the car on the way to the Lafayette BART station, Maxfield removes his pants and sweatshirt and begins to get into character, making faces at himself in the rear window. He isn't nervous about performing, he says, but there's something else that's always in the back of his mind. What if somebody knows?

As one of nine children, Maxfield was the family exhibitionist and musician. "Mike followed his own path," said his brother, Peter, the only family member whom Maxfield wanted interviewed. "He's unique with a capital U." The others, Maxfield says, don't understand his life choices: "Last time I went back there, I slept in my car in my own hometown."

At 13, Maxfield discovered a unicycle languishing in the family cellar, and tried it out. The learning curve was steep, but soon he was able to pedal it around the neighborhood. He was a sensitive, talented kid, but at school he never felt popular, and by 19, he had tired of Leominster. He packed a few things, unicycle included, and caught a bus to San Francisco.

Once here, he took odd jobs and experimented with acid at Grateful Dead shows — not a great idea, he says now. He and a buddy then moved to Oregon, where he lived in a tepee, became interested in the New Age movement, and wrote and performed songs at Rainbow Gatherings and drum circles. During one unforgettable drum circle, he noticed a beautiful woman sitting across from him. Her name was Myrica. They were married in 1984, and moved to the outskirts of Cave Junction, a small town in southwestern Oregon.

The couple raised four children — Raya, Telos, Lily, and Orion — on 29 acres of land by the Illinois River, and Maxfield maintained the property for its owner. He and Myrica formed a music duo called Myrichael Way, but their gigs didn't pay well, so Maxfield also worked selling vacuums, digging ditches, and clowning on the unicycle (he called himself Jester Max). Near the family's home was an idyllic, isolated swimming hole, and friends often brought their children over for nude bathing.

"It was all very harmless, until something turned inside me, and I started acting weird," Maxfield wrote in his autobiography, which he's been working on for seven years. He says his behavior at the time was totally unacceptable. He won't discuss the details, he says, because he doesn't want to cause additional harm. But newspaper accounts reveal that by 1991, Maxfield had admitted molesting three young girls. Two were the children of friends, for whom he babysat. According to the newspaper story, after the girls fell asleep, Maxfield lightly touched them. When they began to stir, he became horrified by his actions.

In agony over the incident for two months, he finally summoned the nerve to drive to San Francisco for a support workshop, where he told others what he had done. On the way back to Oregon, he considered driving off a cliff, but says a single thought kept him going: "I imagined going on Oprah to speak out to perpetrators, to call them forward to get help."

Upon his return, Maxfield gave a tearful, trembling confession to his wife and the girls' parents. "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," he remembers. The adults expressed both anger and compassion, and one of the fathers even held Maxfield. It was decided that the town should be informed and that Maxfield should turn himself in to police, although the parents of the girls did not press charges.

Although Maxfield hoped to salvage his marriage, a distance crept in after his confession. Myrica wanted to stay in Cave Junction, but he believed people there thought he was a monster. Although he began private and group therapy and attended a sex addicts' meeting, he eventually fled to Seattle, where he spent long days in a friend's basement, depressed and crying.

Then, for the first time in more than a decade, he returned to Leominster and confided in his youngest brother, Andy, with whom he had always been close. Andy, who had muscular dystrophy, used a wheelchair, so the brothers often took "four and one" rides via wheelchair and unicycle. Maxfield also spent many therapeutic hours dancing on his unicycle to Enigma's "Return to Innocence."

He sometimes pedaled around the town, occasionally doing a pole spin or dancing at red lights. Maxfield was excited when the Worcester Telegram wrote a story on "unicycle man" that ran on his birthday, with a big color photo on the front page. He was then asked to be the mascot at his old high school's Thanksgiving football rally. He dressed as the blue devil on a single wheel, and the lead cheerleader sat on his shoulders. The unpopular schoolboy inside him had a field day, he remembers.

The positive attention started to make Maxfield feel better, and eventually he moved to Eugene, Oregon, to be closer to his kids. There he worked as a smoothie man at a juice bar and as a bartender at a strip club, where he observed the techniques of pole dancing and applied those flirty moves to his own work. Although he was still performing as Jester Max, he didn't like it when people said, "Look at the clown." He wanted to become something unprecedented. On the hunt for a new unicycle persona, Maxfield looked through a catalog of costumes and stumbled on a photograph of a pink unitard. Yes, he thought.

The suit arrived two weeks later, and as Maxfield slipped into the watermelon-pink Lycra for the first time, it felt exhilarating. Out on his unicycle in the streets, he was a huge hit. People laughed and smiled at him, and at one point somebody yelled, "Hey, Pink Man!"

"Why be blue when you can be pink?" he hollered back, thinking, That guy was right. I am Pink Man.

The singing, unicycling superhero quickly became a phenomenon in Eugene. Some girls made him a silver cape, and though Pink Man purists objected, it soon became a signature accessory. Pink Man got media attention, led parades and festivals, and was eventually invited by the manager of the Portland Pride, a professional soccer team, to perform at games for $150 an hour.

On October 13, 1995, Eugene's biggest daily paper, the Register-Guard, ran a front-page story on the Pink Man. It seemed everybody read it — including the residents of Cave Junction. Some clearly felt a self-confessed child molester shouldn't be getting so much attention, so they called the paper and accused it of "glorifying a freak" and endangering children. When reporter Beth Hege asked Maxfield about the accusations, he confirmed them, saying he had "touched a fire that burned him for life." The next day, another story, "Troubled past catches up with popular 'Pinkman,'" detailed the incident with the sleeping girls and added that there had been similar events involving a third girl several years earlier. Maxfield said he didn't want people to be too quick to judge him. "I'm not saying that to dodge what I'm responsible for," he told Hege. "I have dealt with it with as much integrity as I could."

After that, Maxfield couldn't stand being seen in public. He was worried that his family in Leominster might read about his past, so he called them and told them, one by one. He confined himself to his room and cried. He says it's times like this that have cured him of any thought of repeating his mistake.

Slowly, with the support of his then-girlfriend, Emily Vander Tuin, Maxfield's embarrassment began to fade. Then one morning he awoke to detectives banging on his door. They had a search warrant, and told Maxfield and Vander Tuin to sit on the couch while they searched the apartment. A boy from Eugene had told police he was sexually assaulted by Pink Man in December, although Maxfield says he wasn't in the city when the alleged assault took place. The cops took all Maxfield's pictures and journals, but found nothing incriminating.

Maxfield believed that the people of Eugene would never look at him in the same way, and decided to flee. His departure would become part of a pattern of highs and lows that would characterize the next decade of his life. Pink Man would show up somewhere and wow everyone. His past would resurface. And he'd move on to a new city of strangers.

From Eugene, he moved to Los Angeles, where he believed his past wouldn't really matter. Soon after he arrived, local media began to notice Pink Man, and Maxfield began to wonder whether he might break into celebrity circles. When a reporter from the Los Angeles Times approached him, he worried about what might come out, but agreed to the story anyway. "It was the L.A. Times, for cryin' out loud," he says. "I couldn't say no. That would be ridiculous." The paper published a glowing profile, but just after it ran, someone from Eugene called to alert the paper of Pink Man's past. The editors decided, to Maxfield's enormous relief, that his history was not newsworthy.

It seemed things were looking up, especially when Maxfield began making connections with L.A. celebrities. He claims to have befriended Malcolm McDowell, and says Martin Short once called him a genius. He read in In Style magazine that Mary Steenburgen's son dressed as Pink Man for Halloween. As proof, he has the magazine in a giant folder with hundreds of newspaper clippings and other Pink Man paraphernalia.

With all the celebrity interest, Maxfield began to wonder if maybe there was a role for him in a film. Maybe one day he'd roll onto the stage and accept an Oscar. He continued to pink L.A. and gain recognition, and in the summer of 1998 he was asked to perform at the Orange County Fair, whose theme that year happened to be "In the Pink." Afraid that somebody might bring up his past, Maxfield asked for what he considered ridiculous compensation: $250 an hour. When the fair director agreed, Maxfield crossed his fingers and bought four new suits.

But the day before the fair, someone faxed the "Troubled Past" story to the fair director and the Orange County Register. Fearing swarms of reporters and hecklers might put a damper on the event, the fair director persuaded Maxfield to resign. As he was escorted out — with a full payment of $3,500 — he distinctly remembers "Accentuate the Positive" playing in the background. To this day, he wonders why the world can't understand the importance of that song. The next day's Register headline read, "Fair Mascot a Child Molester."

It's not that Maxfield doesn't understand people's anger and fear. He has kids of his own. But he wonders when he gets to move on with his life and career. He wishes people could accept that his sole aim is to make people happy. "I'm an example of what to do and what not to do, goddamnit," he says.

Crestfallen over the Register story, Maxfield escaped to Kauai, Hawaii, where Myrica and their children had recently moved. He lived there for a while, sleeping on the beach with a collection of eccentric characters. But soon enough, one of them learned of his past. He would have to move again. And again. And again.

For a decade, Maxfield bounced around the world, pinking it as he went. He pinked Houston, Berkeley, San Francisco, New Jersey, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. In Florida, he pinked Jacksonville, Key West, and Miami. He eventually made it all the way to Vancouver, Tokyo, Paris, and two towns in Germany.

Maxfield financed a small amount of his traveling with money he won in a settlement with a Danish advertising company that used his image without permission. But most of his travel has been bankrolled by generous friends and strangers, who have offered rooms and meals and plenty of financial support. He owes some friends thousands of dollars.

Between trips, Maxfield views the Bay Area as a home base. He's always had friends here, and San Franciscans have seemed largely unaware of his backstory. While Maxfield is nervous about cooperating with this story, he sees it as one final test: "If I can't be embraced in San Francisco, that's it."

Entering the Lafayette BART station on his way to the city, Pink Man is an instant celebrity. As he cruises toward the ticket entrance, people tear through their bags for cameras and beg him to wait: "Can't I get a picture of you?" "My daughter will love this." Pink Man is happy to oblige, but when he notices the time — 11:13 a.m. — he becomes impatient, because November 13 is his birthday, and he interprets this as a sign that he must get going.

Pink Man is really big on signs. He sees them everywhere, and they all point in the same direction: toward pinking. The fact that the flamingo lawn ornament was created in the same town he hails from: That's one sign. Then there's the Energizer Bunny. It's pink, like him, and it never stops. Beyond this feeling that he's supposed to be pinking, there is also the simple fact that after all these years, it's still damn fun.

After climbing the escalator out of the Powell BART station, Pink Man immediately leaves the Rollerblading reporter and photographer in the dust. He twirls his way down Market, flapping his arms, chasing pigeons, and making his signature sound, "Doo, d'doooo!" Finally he stops at a fire hydrant and pretends to take a piss on it, but loses his balance and falls off the unicycle. Laughing, he gets up and tears off, crossing streets with abandon, dipping in and out of stores and instructing passersby, "You gotta keep your eye on the pink."

He wheels by Market and Montgomery, where crowds of construction men, bike messengers, and office workers are sitting on the marble steps, eating their lunches. One fan, a bike messenger named Mike, gives him a big welcome. Mike loves the fact that somebody out there is determined to be the best part of people's days, dressed like a maniac, and not asking for money (Pink Man never does that). "There's room for him and a lot more like him," he says.

Although plenty of people are snapping photos and others are cracking up, one guy in a business suit seems disturbed. "That's uncomfortable to watch," he says. "I wasn't raised that way." When asked exactly what he is referring to, the guy says, in total seriousness, "Pink."

Apparently even some people who know nothing about Maxfield's history are turned off by his appearance. His color of choice, flamboyance on the wheel, and graceful dancing have a way of convincing some people that he's gay. Even in the Bay Area, some people appear to be put off by him.

In Berkeley, people have tossed batteries and beer cans at him. One day, somebody in a car leaned out of the window and grabbed his sweatshirt, and he got dragged about 50 feet. He reported the incident to the police and gave the car's license plate, but says that after the owner was tracked down and denied doing it, the matter was dropped.

Making matters worse, about ten years ago, Maxfield suspects somebody in Berkeley looked up his past on the Internet, and soon everyone seemed to know. People began yelling at him in the street, calling him a molester. Sometimes a car would pull up, full of smiling people, and he'd start to dance for them. He'd spin around a few times, and then stop and look back at the car, and their faces would all be like this, he says, giving a cold stare. "It affects me to have people think the worst," he says. "I'm a really sensitive Pink Man."

Although Berkeley has been tough, it's where Maxfield found his high-profile sponsor. One day while he was pinking University Avenue, he met a man who said he was a friend of computer game designer Will Wright (who created The Sims) and that Wright was a big Pink Man fan. Maxfield wondered if there was something to gain in that, but did nothing.

Then in 2002, his brother Andy died of complications of muscular dystrophy, and his mother died of cancer. Maxfield was devastated, and began to reevaluate his life. What did he really want to do with his talent and his passion? The answer was easy. He wanted to pink the world.

Soon after this revelation, Maxfield tracked down Wright's home number, asked him to lunch, and gave Wright a proposal. "How about Tokyo?" Wright asked. Maxfield immediately reached across the table and shook his hand.

Wright also sponsored a trip to Paris for Maxfield. "He's the only real superhero I know," he says. Pink Man's whimsy, his emotional empathy, and most of all his playfulness also appeal to Wright, who believes playing is underrated in American culture. "It has a lot of value," Wright says. "It opens possibilities you didn't see before. It can solve real problems." Wright says he's aware of some of the details of Maxfield's past, but believes the guy handled it as well as anyone could: "Other people have life stories that aren't that dissimilar, and the way he chose to deal with it was such an optimistic approach."

At the end of the day's adventure in San Francisco, Pink Man runs into a man who recognizes him from Eugene. That could be a stressful situation, but regardless of how much the man might know, he expresses delight. The idea that somebody might know Pink Man's past, but still want him around — well, what could be better than that?

When asked why he likes running into people from Eugene, he takes a long pause, then says, "It holds a special place for me in pinkin' history," and carries the unicycle the rest of the way down the escalator.

On the train ride home, Pink Man peeks intermittently at his gut in the train window and jiggles it disapprovingly. He needs to lose that, he says. He also needs a new unicycle, and some new suits. He has every intention of continuing his superhero double life for as long as he is physically able.

He once briefly considered retiring Pink Man and living a less public life — one removed from the scrutiny of his history — but that just feels like giving up: "It doesn't sit right with me to not be who I am because of what I did in the past."

With the Obama birthday connection, he believes now may be his time. There's a San Francisco–based documentary about him in the works right now, and its producers are aiming for Sundance next year. His autobiography is almost ready to go. He has other ideas, too. A Pink Man pizza-cutter. A Pink Man pop-up book. Pink Man bubble gum, with a comic strip wrapper. That way, when people are rude to him, he can toss them a piece and yell, "Blow me!"

Maxfield believes his impending success will allow him to buy his own home, and he already knows exactly how he'll decorate. He has some outstanding footage of people's reactions to his pinking, which he loves to watch again and again. There's one particular shot from Tokyo of a woman so beautiful, she could be a model. When he rides toward her, she turns to the camera with this expression of joy and awe. "Like she just saw a unicorn," he says. Maxfield wants to freeze-frame her face, and others like it, and hang those images up around his house.

There's something in those faces that Maxfield can't seem to get enough of. Sometimes they seem to be talking to him, even though their mouths are closed. They're saying just one word, one very simple word, and they're saying it over and over. It's yes. "Yes, yes, yes, yes," he hears. "Yes to what you are doing. Keep it up."

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