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Arts | Law

June 16, 2011

The Unicycle Diaries

Kyle Peterson pedals his sturdy rig to modest notoriety.

Justin Adler

Kyle Petersen never figured his childhood hobby would help him land his first job out of college, become the centerpiece of his $3 million lawsuit against the New York Police Department, and earn him an appearance on The Colbert Report as the "Enemy Within." But, as you might expect, becoming a purported threat to the American lifestyle required Petersen to unicycle down an interesting path.

Kyle Petersen. Photo by Shane Perez.
“I don’t want to become some kind of unicycling pariah."

Kyle Petersen. Photo by Shane Perez.

“After graduating from New York University in 2007, I was frustrated with the job market, so one day I searched for ‘juggler’ on Craigslist, kind of as a joke,” the 26-year-old Petersen remembers. The lone result from Petersen’s “joke” query was an open position for a crowd entertainer at the baseball stadium for Brooklyn’s minor league squad the Cyclones. There, Petersen became a fan favorite as he not only sold peanuts, but also juggled the bags up and down the aisles. He also gave memorable between-inning shows as he rode his unicycle on top of the Cyclones' dugout.

Although he was hoping his dual-major degree in politics and Latin American studies would secure him a more conventional job, he was content to use his unicycling and juggling skills to gain jobs with the Big Apple Circus, where he taught his circus-skill set to children. "It wasn't a bad job, and I got to play around with devil sticks, walk on stilts, and meet a lot of interesting people," Petersen says.

Petersen often ditches the subway to ride his beloved unicycle around town, but the NYPD are not as equally enamored; they've twice ticketed him for riding his unicycle on Brooklyn sidewalks. Petersen believes he is being penalized for something that is technically not illegal. While the New York City administrative code expressly forbids adults from pedaling bicycles and tricycles on the sidewalk, it is curiously silent about mono-wheeled vehicles.

Sick of the harassment, Petersen filed a suit against the city for three million dollars. “I never ever expected to get all that money," Petersen says. "I really did it because I was upset with the police and the way they conducted themselves.”

As the bizarre suit worked its way through the courts, the press jumped on the story, earning Petersen coverage in the Daily News, Gothamist, and, ultimately, The Colbert Report. It came to an end, though, in late May, when a Brooklyn judge dismissed his case. “It was dismissed fairly narrowly on the principle that police have qualified immunity, which protects them from these types of lawsuits if a reasonable person might believe that I was breaking the law," Petersen says. He's deciding whether he wants to pursue any further action against the NYPD. “I don’t want to become some kind of unicycling pariah, and I’m not looking to make enemies either,” Petersen says. “I just want to ride around and make people happy.”

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Despite his legal troubles, Petersen continues to unicycle anywhere else he can, including the 42-mile 5 Boro Bike Tour. On longer street rides, though, he switches from his smaller-wheeled performance rig to a much bigger one that can go much faster. "I get a lot of looks and remarks from people, almost all of it is positive," Petersen says. "People are pretty uncreative, though. They either compliment my balance or make a snide comment like, 'Where'd your other wheel go?'"

Throughout his pursuit of justice, Petersen was also pursuing a Master’s degree in Spanish from Brooklyn College, a degree he achieved this spring. “I’ll focus on getting a more traditional job in the fall, but right now there’s just too much unicycle action going on,” Petersen says. Not only is he working at the Big Apple Circus and Cyclones games, he's also taking side gigs at children’s birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and parades.

His skills have even landed him an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, where he used a hula-hoop as a jump rope while balancing on his unicycle, before being judged by Letterman, his band leader Paul Shaffer, and former Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon.

Oddly enough, that’s not even the most outlandish venue he’s performed at.“The weirdest thing by far was when I performed for a 40-year-old’s birthday party, I was the first juggler, but I was followed by a juggler wearing nothing but ass-less chaps, who was accompanied by a naked midget,” Petersen says. “Those are elements I probably will never incorporate into my act.”

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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