PRINCETON: Charlie Wine cycles through life trying to be friendly

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Charlie Wine is a 76-year-old, “happily retired” engineer, a guy who grew up in New York City and today lives in a modest home on Hamilton Avenue.
But for many in Princeton, they know him as the white-bearded, Santa Claus-like figure in sunglasses riding a Trek bicycle and waving to passing motorists.
“It is not a political wave, it’s not a religious wave, it’s just being friendly,” he said from his living room on Friday. “I don’t expect people to respond. I try to be friendly to everybody.”
“You could think of it as a gradual change in social attitudes,” he said, “from a New York attitude where you got to be first and if you can push someone back that’s good, to a much more relaxed and friendly suburban Princeton attitude where I don’t have to get ahead of anyone.”
When he goes to the store, he will get his share of people coming up to him with the you’re-the-guy-on the bicycle greeting.
“It’s delightful when a little kid sees me, particularly in December, and points and says, ‘Look, Santa Claus,’” he said. “It does no harm to smile at the kid.”
His current bicycle, the one he has owned for around the past seven years, has two satchel-like bags on either side of the back to hold his groceries when he goes shopping. He keeps a spare bike in the garage, near a 1965 Ford Mustang parked inside.
He bikes every day for about an hour, although he is quick to add he is not “insane enough” to ride in heavy rain or snow. Mr. Wine can be found riding through the woods at the Institute for Advanced Study with “great regularity,” in his words.
Mr. Wine grew up about five blocks north of the old Yankee Stadium in the south Bronx, on 167th Street. On a wall inside his house is a black and white photo from 1941 showing him as a boy with his mother, father, grandparents, two aunts and an uncle.
He attended the City College of New York and became an engineer at what used to be RCA on the other side of Route 1. He worked there and at the successor companies from 1959 to 2002, a span when he commuted most of the time on two wheels instead of on four.
“I almost always used the bicycle to commute,” he said of a something that became a habit. His route to work was along Harrison Street, over Lake Carnegie and into West Windsor.
Since 1973, he has been living on Hamilton Avenue, in a part of town that he chose because it was conveniently located for someone who wanted to use a bike rather than a car to get around.
“There is a sense of independence that I am not dependent upon maintenance of a car. It is a freer thing,” he said.
Due to turn 77 in a couple of weeks, he said there is an image “of people who get old and their heart shrivels up like a prune and they drop dead.”
“And I have been aware of that issue,” said Mr. Wine, who sees bicycling as a form of moderate exercise on a regular basis.
Through the years, he has had his share of accidents, like the time a car made a right-turn directly in front of him. “So that was a broken collar bone,” he said gesturing to where the injury occurred. He plans to keep riding until his health prevents him from doing so.
“My specific plan is to continue my cycling and my lifestyle until some organ fails and I cannot,” he said. “I don’t know which organ’s going to fail, but as long as I can, my plan is to continue.”
As he prepares for his Friday morning ride, Mr. Wine parts and gives an unexpected visitor a firm handshake. But he has a thought or two for the car driving public.
Mr. Wine does not mind if people wave back to him on the roads. But one thing he asks.
“I don’t want to sound unpleasant,” he said almost apologetically, “but it is not a favor when somebody approaches from behind and blows a horn, even though it is a friendly gesture. I don’t need people coming up from behind and blowing a horn.”