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The city’s first streetplane is poetry in motion

by Brian Clarey

Billy the Blogging Poet had a dream.

“Things come to me in dreams,” Billy Jones says from a comfortable chair beneath the shade tree on his front lawn. “My poems, my stories, all my ideas. Especially in that time when you’re half awake and half asleep, that’s when I get the best ones. And I just dreamed up a plane.”

And there it is, the Wackemall-1: nearly 23 feet long from the propeller to the end of the trailer it pulls, with biplane wings of aluminum foil and red cellophane and a blue tailwing mounted just behind the bicycle seat over the rear wheel. It’s sitting curbside in front of Billy the Blogging Poet’s house in a quiet residential neighborhood in the east side of town.

Billy sips his tea.

It’s got a 33.5 cc engine, capable of producing 1.6 horsepower, mounted to the frame that holds about a quart of gasoline and gives it about 25 miles of travel. And if it runs out he can always use the pedals.

“It’s got pieces from 13 different bicycles, a futon, two ceiling fans and other assorted pieces of scrap metal I picked up by the side of the road,” Billy says,

He built it with his brother for about $1,000. It took three months’ worth of spare time.

“I thought, ‘What can I do with this?’ I’ll make an airplane,” he says. “It’ll be different. If all else fails I’ll get more readers for my website.”

It made its maiden flight during Greensboro’s Fourth of July parade with Billy at the helm.

“That was a blast,” he remembers. “How many times do you get to ride around in circles on Greene Street? With an audience?”

He looks like a mountain man beginning to wizen, with a grizzly beard and a hank of long silver hair tied behind his head, squinting eyes and furrowed brow.

As Billy the Blogging Poet, Jones has become something of a luminary in the Greensboro blogosphere. The author of three books maintains three websites – bloggingpoet.com, kidslaureates.com and, now, streetplanes.com – and collaborates with Greensboro blog aggregator Roch Smith on another, poetry101.com. He also teaches poetry to children for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

And until recently Jones, a former truck driver, was delivering flowers in Greensboro – a job he recently left to chase this particular vision.

“I wanted to do something for a thing more than myself, and when you’re trapped in a dead-end job, you can’t do that.”

That’s when he started teaching poetry. And quit his job.

“I drove trucks for 28 years and delivered flowers for four before that,” he says, “I just wanted to change things. I took the plunge. Besides, I’m allergic to flowers. The headaches were killing me.”

And the plane parked in front of his house – he calls it a street plane – is the foundation under his castle in the air.

He’s fastened a banner to the hitch advertising his websites and he’s been riding the thing downtown each day for a few hours, drawing eyeballs and slowdowns and lots of cell phone cameras.

“I didn’t know there were so many camera phones before I did this,” he says. “Every stoplight someone’s got a camera phone.”

While he sits there a black Kia rolls down the block and slows to look at the machine.

“See that?” Billy says.

The plan is to get some advertisers in line, banner up the street plane and let the chips roll in.

He says his poetry website picked up 1,000 unique hits on the days he rode the plane downtown. He also says he lost 10 pounds.

“I’m expecting a fight from the city on this,” he says. “They’re kind of funny about outdoor advertising.”

But, he says, the plane is street legal in all 50 states and the engine conforms to California Air Resources Board specifications.

“It’s legally a bicycle,” he says.

“I’ve been stopped by police, highway patrol’… they look it over; they call their dispatchers and then they tell me to have a nice day.”

Now a white pickup truck decelerates as it moves down Billy’s block, the driver craning his neck as he passes the Wackemall-1. Under the shade tree on his lawn Billy feels like he’s got it made.

“People love to look at it,” he says. “It makes ’em smile.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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