Paralyzed Drag Racer Marcus Culvert

Perhaps there is nothing in a healthy person's life that could prepare him for an adulthood wracked by intense pain and heart-wrenching disability. Religious faith can help. Loving parents, family, and friends can cushion such a blow. But when all is said and done, a young man who lives hard and fast until he loses the use of his legs is left to figure out how to greet each day, and get the most out of it.

By many accounts, 39-year-old Marcus Culvert, a musician who eight years ago was paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident, has done an admirable job of exactly that. "One thing that's allowed him to maintain himself is his self-determination," says friend and former band leader Al Lee. "He's gone through a great deal. He did a lot of suffering before he was able to see some better times. But he's persistent, and he did get grounded religiously."

Before Culvert became grounded, he was, metaphorically speaking, in flight. On a stage vibrating with kaleidoscopic light, the former body builder's muscular legs and feet would glide across the floor like James Brown, in pants billowing M.C. Hammer-style.
As his red Afro shoots skyward, he musically manipulates his shiny bass guitar, and bops his head to every funky beat. "I could dance just like M.C. Hammer and play the bass and not miss a beat,"Culvert breathlessly explains as a tape of a performance animates his living room TV screen. "I was the musical director and bass player for our group [Al Lee and Company], and we'd play Levert, Kool and the Gang, Freddie Jackson, exactly like they'd do it. But we'd do it a little bit better. The same key, the same speed, everything, just take it to another level." Knowing how to take what he's been given and elevate it seems to be the
Palisades Park man's gift. It served him well in music, allowing him to record an album and score a top 10 R&B hit after graduating from Springfield High School in 1979, where he was tapped as the school musician. It has served him well in driving. Even without functioning legs, he can still drag-race at local speedways (going a quarter-mile in 9.8 seconds at 134 mph), and can ferry doctors, nurses, and patients in his sport utility vehicle during blizzard conditions.

Taking what he's been given to grander heights has compelled Culvert to create a clothing line, Unity Wear, to spread his vision for a better world. As a man who easily makes friends and is known for his compassion, he offers fashion and a message for all: If people are united, if we have a common goal of helping one another, there should be no more hunger, or homelessness, anywhere, especially in America," he says. Culvert, a Queens native, believes what's on a person's back can influence hearts and minds. He points to how effectively celebrities have wielded influence with their fashion. His stubbornly sunny disposition, and
ever-deepening faith in God, motivate him to defy naysayers and maximize each day.

He used to do it unconsciously. In the early 1990s, Culvert was living in Japan, making several thousand dollars a month as a bass player and musical
director of a band. Moving fast -- on guitar, on bikes and cars, and through women -- kept him on a natural high. "The life of a musician is filled with gorgeous, beautiful women from all over the world," says Culvert, who was married and had a daughter while working abroad, but is now divorced. When he wasn't with a woman, he was with a racing machine. From the time his Uncle James (an auto mechanic) took him to the drag-racing track in English-town, he fell in love with speed demons. "As soon as I got there and heard that noise, I was hooked," he said. As a teen, he drag-raced on streets near JFK Airport. His uncle bought him
his first hot rod, "a 1965 Chevy Impala S.S.," he recalls with a huge grin. And his Uncle Sam (a body shop owner), with his customized motorcycle,
ntroduced him to the ecstasy of two-wheelers. In Japan, he yearned for a Kawasaki ZX7, and in due time got one. "It was black and red, with smoke
silver, my favorite colors."

One day after leaving a U.S. Army base where he worked part-time, a car ran a stop sign. Culvert was on his ZX7, swerved, and was hit by a truck. He landed on his head. He credits a $400 helmet -- a gift he was wearing for the first time -- with saving his life.
But it couldn't protect him from serious injuries. His chest cavity split. A lung collapsed. His spinal column fractured in four places. Three weeks later, he was air-lifted to a Seattle hospital. It took three months of love and prayers by his mother, Mary Ester Culvert, an Englewood beautician and spa owner, to help him pull through. He didn't want to
survive, not to live as a paraplegic. Gradually, Culvert became grateful to his mother and to God that he lived. He had always been a compassionate person, he, his mother, and friends say.And when people reached out to him after the accident, that only reinforced his desire to reach out to others. One man in particular, whom Culvert barely knew, helped him survive financially until he got a settlement from the accident. "It blew me away that somebody would come in and do these wonderful things, and wanted nothing in return," Culvert said. "I mean, he just wanted to help. I felt I had to do the same thing. I wouldn't think twice about it."
During the mega-blizzard of 1996, 30 inches of snow dropped on North Jersey.
The day after, news stations blared with calls for help to transport hospital staff and patients. Culvert had a specially-equipped Nissan sport utility vehicle, and saw his chance to be of service. "I can drive anything with wheels. I drove tractor-trailers, front-end loaders, auto-wreckers," he explained. Even so, the blizzard would provide another test. Being paraplegic was one thing. But the chronic neurogenic pain he suffers, from his chest to his ankles, intensifies during bad weather and would make his drive that much more arduous. Still, Culvert found the stamina to hop in his Pathfinder and, from early morning until after midnight, transport people to and from Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. His first passengers were a mother and her newborn. His feat was hailed by local media, and the Palisades Park mayor presented him with a certificate. "What I did was no big deal," he said back then. "I just couldn't imagine not helping anyone who needs it -- friend or foe." Culvert volunteered again to drive for the hospital earlier this month when 12 inches of snow blanketed the area. "I can't see somebody cry for help and
not help them," he said. "I think it's your duty."

Culvert's conviction inspired him to initiate the clothing line. Being a musician and a drag-racer puts him in contact with young people of varying ethnicities. He pays attention to their clothes and the entertainers who influence them. He began to talk up his idea with the young people. One of them, Yaxira Lopez, whom he met at her printing store job, encouraged him to
go for it. In 18 months, Unity Wear has grown from a line of sweatshirts and baseball
caps to a catalog of a dozen fashions, including fleece pullovers and bucket hats, jogging pants and sweatshirts. "He talks to everyone, even strangers, of any race and gender. He explains to them what he's trying to do," says Lopez, 19, of Union City. "That's how
it's getting done. It's actually clothing with a concept. It tells you once you do things together, once you unite, you can do anything."
Culvert sells at expos and through his Internet site, UnityWearApparel.com.
Although he is slowly building a clientele, filling about 20 orders each
month, he has committed to donating 5 percent of the proceeds to Feed the
Children.
 

Lopez says the peacefulness Culvert radiates in his determination to give back inspires her. "I admire his energy and his peace of mind," she says. "He doesn't give up. He's very, very determined." Culvert has slowed physically, but, still, he soars. It's just that now, his flights aren't just for self. "I think God is using me to touch other people's lives. I feel that's my purpose," he says.

Story writen by Caroline Brewer at The Record

www.UnityWear.com