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.
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.