If you're a passenger on a rickshaw, "people will gape," warned Rick Carter, who recently started a pedicab company based in Oak Park. "Just touch your pearls, smile and wave."
Pedaling down Lake Street, Carter pointed out a man inside Caribou Coffee at the corner of Oak Park Avenue who was staring at the contraption with a confused, awed look on his face. With a wave, his "what the heck is that" stare transformed into a grin.
"He was having a pretty mundane day" until the rickshaw came along, Carter said.
This is what Carter calls the "smile generation factor," the somewhat eccentric but special nature of rickshaws that makes people grin. Even motorists are more polite to him when he's pedaling a pedicab, Carter said.
When he got laid off from his job at the Shedd Aquarium in December, Carter decided to use his extra time to start a rickshaw company.
"I think most of us have dreams," he mused. "We get so caught up in regular life that we never do them."
A jack of all trades, he has also been an actor, a jeweler, a limo driver and a tour bus captain.
Why a rickshaw company, of all things? "Why not?" Carter said.
He saw the vehicles all over the TV coverage of the Athens Olympic Games and figured that if Olympic sponsors Yahoo! and NBC were making money off of it, he could too. Besides, it's in his nameā"Rickshaw "Rick" who "Carts" people around.
For the uninitiated, rickshaws and pedicabs are person-powered buggies. The 12 rickshaws making up Carter's fleet are nearly all pedal-powered, except one under construction that is pulled by a '65 Honda motorcycle.
Some load in the front and some load in the back. Some are faster, like the intricately detailed little rickshaw from Taiwan, and some are slower, like the big two-seater, which is designed for the more wide-hipped American bodies.
All are shipped to Carter from various exotic countries via eBay, the online auction site. It's true that you can get anything off eBay, Carter said.
Carter quoted three "F's" in explaining why he drives these pedaled buggies: fitness, fun and finances.
"It's low-impact cardio for me whenever I do it, and I get paid," he said.
"I love that I'm outside, using my gift of gab," he added. A former double-decker tour bus operator, Carter has perfected the art of talking while operating a vehicle. Because he lives in Oak Park, he'll show non-natives the landmarks or chitchat with those who already know the area.
He also likes that pedicabs don't pollute. It's a subtle environmental statement, he said: "I believe in the ripple theory, if you have enough ripples it makes a wave."
Carter has just begun his publicity run. Look for toy rickshaws loaded with his business cards in hotels and restaurants around Oak Park.
Branding is important, too. He rides different rickshaws around town in an effort to spread the word. He has even recruited a few other rickshaw peddlers to help run his fleet.
Between rickshaw rides, Carter's "real job" is as a Realtor. One of his many goals for his budding company is to show people houses as they recline on his rickshaw. Other goals include building an advertising market for the banner on the back of the rickshaw, employing other pedicabbies, obtaining a rickshaw he can pull while walking and perhaps even turning this venture into a full-time job.
Successful pedicab companies have taken hold in New York, London, Tokyo and Chicago, and the vehicles are growing even more popular in Europe and Asia, Carter said. He thinks it will catch on in Oak Park as well, because of the village's bike-friendly, architecture-obsessed personality.
"I feel it's a very Oak Park thing to do," he said. Oak Parkers tend to be savvy in alternative transportation and "Oak Parkers, more than most, understand the value of relaxation."
And for those who may feel slightly guilty at having someone else do all the pedaling as they sit back, see the sights and feel the breeze in their face, Carter said they should give up their "American guilt."
"This is my business, I make the choice," Carter said. "Guilt does you no good."
Rickshaw Rick's is online at www.rickshawrick.com. Rickshaw rides are $10 for under 15 minutes, $20 for under a half-hour, $35 for 45 minutes and $50 for an hour. Rick Carter also does tours, parties, and an all-day charter service. Contact him at (773) 771-3922.