• Fri July 12 2013
  • Posted Jul 12, 2013
Graham Johnston is a Des Moines bicycle shop mechanic whose voice is a dead ringer for actor Nicolas Cage.

It’s no impersonation. Johnston’s real voice is so uncannily Cage-ian it got around town. People ask him to recite lines all the time.

I handed him a line from Cage’s cult comedy classic “Raising Arizona,” when the actor played hapless panty-hose-headed grocery store burglar H.I.

“I’ll be taking these Huggies,” Johnston recited, “and whatever cash you got.”

It held Cage’s pronunciation, his slight drawl, his tone. Check out the movie clip at 1:20 to compare.

What emerged as more interesting than this vocal coincidence is Johnston’s own life.

The bicycle mechanic at Boulevard Sports off 42nd Street is 38 and has never had a driver’s license or owned a car. He rides his bicycle everywhere, in case you are proud of yourself for riding yours across Iowa for seven days on RAGBRAI and need humbling.

That’s decades of nothing but transport by leg power.

“I don’t spend money on car payments, car insurance or gas and it saves me $5,000 a year, which allows me to work for smaller amounts of money,” Johnston said. “I don’t feed the gas tank, I just feed myself.”

He’s a confirmed bachelor who prefers to call himself “unencumbered” because he uses words like that.

In fact, he talks a bit like a professor, as if he was the blue-collar Cage penning an erudite letter to his wife in “Raising Arizona:”

“Tonight, as you and Nathan slumber, my heart is filled with anguish … But the events of the last day have showed amply that I don’t have the strength of character to raise up a family in a manner befitting a responsible adult. I say all this to my shame.”

Johnston explains his sophisticated articulations.

“I grew up the son of an editor and I studied Russian language and literature,” the former Roosevelt High School and University of Iowa student said. “I took too many literature classes. I didn’t think you could take too many, but it turns out you can. Who knew?

“So I’m a student of Russian with no degree, with no car and no girlfriend. If that’s not a selling point, I don’t know what is.”

Johnston landed at the bike shop in May after years in food service. Decades of in-home service on his bicycles made him an adept mechanic. He also has numerous warnings and tales of bicycling.

There was the time in 1995 he decided to bicycle down a steep stairway on the UI campus and came crumpling down to the bottom face first, blood all over, with his eye socket shattered and the optic nerve in his right eye shot. He’s been blind in that eye since, but was happy he survived, which doctors said he shouldn’t have.

He’s been toppled in parking lots and in 2004 was hit by a car, breaking his nose and jaw.

“It has caused me to modify my behavior,” he said.

He can lecture on proper chain maintenance but doesn’t come across as a scold, this founder of the popular Des Moines poker run race Cyclo De Mayo and good-time Charlie with a handlebar mustache.

“Originally, I grew it to stick it to the man in my old job where I was required to trim my facial hair,” he said. “And I ended up with this great ‘stache. Someday the fun will wear off, I guess.”

The fun wore off the Nick Cage thing. For a while he kept a supply of lines ready to recite when folks noticed his voice but, “It made me look like an idiot.”

“I don’t think much of it. It’s not very creative. It’s like people calling me Graham Cracker, like I’d never heard that before,” he said.

His mechanic partner teases Johnston that he began sounding like Cage after his various biking-related head injuries. Johnston denies it.

More interesting to him is the vast volume of bicyclists with improperly inflated tires, clocking out right at 6 to pedal wherever he wants, unencumbered and free, without having to steal Huggies.

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