12.06.05

CITYCIDE:  'BIRDMAN' OF NIAGARA FALLS BATTLES BUREAUCRACY OVER STATE PARK ACCESS

By David Staba
Niagara Falls Reporter

You probably don't know the name Gary Mock, but if you've spent any time around Niagara Falls, particularly the downtown area, over the past decade, you definitely know Gary Mock.

With a tightly cropped beard and graying hair pulled back into a short ponytail, Mock looks like the musician he was until a devastating accident left him disabled and cut short his drumming days. Showing a visitor around his home, his deep voice softens when he talks to or about his constant companion and claim to local fame, a double yellow crown Amazon macaw.

The bird, mostly green with flashes of yellow, sits on a perch above Mock's TV. Unless Mock speaks to him or you watch him closely for a while, you might mistake Sundance for an ornate decoration.

At Mock's command, though, the bird shakes "hands" with his owner, spreads his wings to show his full splendor and plays dead after the trainer points his finger and says "bang."

"I've been a performer all my life and now that I'm crippled up, I've found another way to perform," Mock says.

During good weather, Mock and his bird delight tourists in the downtown area and appear at just about every outdoor festival in the city. Sundance and his predecessor, Rufus, made Mock -- or Birdman, as most have come to know him -- one of the most visible and photographed characters in the tourist area.

He has a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings, most accompanied by a photo featuring Rufus or Sundance, as well as cards and letters sent by children and parents thanking him for his hospitality.

Mock says he never asks for, or even mentions donations, though he does sometimes wear a tag saying, "Don't worry -- no amount too large." He says that, in a busy summer month, he might take in $40 or $50. When he called the IRS to ask whether he needed to report the income, an agent told him the amount was too small to bother with.

Their favored home away from home has been the natural splendor of the Niagara Falls State Park -- at least until last summer, when a member of the Parks Police unceremoniously informed Mock that the Birdman and his avian partner were no longer welcome.

The problem, it seems, was neither man nor fowl, but what they rode in on -- an electric scooter that allows Mock, who can't stand on his own for very long or move around unassisted without a lot of pain, to traverse the city with Sundance.

Mock, known as Gary Stone to local music fans during his days as a drummer with a number of country bands, including Bobby Willard and the Southernaires, made his living working construction until one day about 20 years ago, when a gust of wind blew him off a roof and into a nearly empty swimming pool.

The fall left him with a shattered tailbone. The healing process squeezed a sciatic nerve in his lower back, starting a chain reaction of problems that led to myriad surgeries, including one to remove two disks from his back and replace them with titanium imitations.

Mock rehabilitated his injuries to the point that he could get around under his own power, first on a mountain bike, then on a large 10-speed tricycle, complete with a perch for his bird. A couple years ago, though, the pedaling became too difficult and he purchased the electric scooter.

Soon after, a Parks Police officer interrupted one of his shows near the brink of the falls and told him he couldn't be there. By the time Mock explained to the crowd what was happening and fished out the street-performer's permit issued by the city, the officer was gone.

Another season came and went without incident. Mock and Sundance made the trek to the falls on most sunny days, spending four to six hours at a crack entertaining visitors, particularly those with children.

Then one day last June, an officer told him he wasn't allowed in the park with his scooter.

"The officer said, 'I don't care if you're disabled. You have to get out of the park,'" Mock says. "And he told me that if he saw me in the park again, he was going to arrest me. So I left, and haven't gone back."

Mock wanted to know how a disabled person could possibly be denied access to a state park, but his attempts to get an official explanation proved fruitless. One park worker told him that the ban resulted from kids in another park tearing up the grass by recklessly driving similar scooters around the grounds.

"I've never had an accident, I've never done anything wrong to the park," says Mock, who received a letter in 1986, signed by then-Supervisor of Park Operations George Watson, stating that he was allowed full access, so long as he remained on paved paths and observed all park rules and regulations.

He asked to meet with state Parks Department Western District Director Ed Rutkowski.

"All I got was his assistant," Mock says. "He took copies of all my permits and papers and said, 'I'll get back to you.' When he finally did, he said (of the 1986 letter), 'We're not going to honor this and you can't come into the park with the scooter.'"

So Mock spent most of a beautiful summer on the brink of the park, along the pedestrian malls and sidewalks that connect it to downtown Niagara Falls.

During the fall, Mock ran into Niagara Falls Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello and explained the situation.

"He said, 'That's an easy one -- go over to the Assisted Living Center and they'll give you a letter saying you're disabled,'" Mock says.

It proved to be another exercise in frustration. The worker assigned to his case took pictures of the scooter and said they'd have to contact someone in Albany about the matter.

That was in October. Mock's still waiting. And getting angry.

"It's a lot of red-tape bull and that's all I've gotten," Mock says, his voice rising. "I just don't understand it. I can't believe anything I've ever done would warrant anybody saying I can't be in the park. Why can't a handicapped person stay out of a wheelchair and do something that's not hurting anybody?

"Why am I being denied my rights?"

It's a good question. The Birdman of Niagara Falls deserves an answer. (David Staba is sports editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter. E-mail him at DStaba13@aol.com - www.niagarafallsreporter.com