The mystery bicyclist in orange: Charlotte says goodbye to Tin Can Ann

Virginia Ann Jetton allowed Wesley Johnson to snap this photo of her one day in 2001 at the corner of Central Avenue and Briar Creek Road. “We crossed paths and I asked if I could take her photograph,” says Johnson, who works in film production. “I think it’s an iconic picture.” Jetton died July 15 at the age of 73.
Virginia Ann Jetton allowed Wesley Johnson to snap this photo of her one day in 2001 at the corner of Central Avenue and Briar Creek Road. “We crossed paths and I asked if I could take her photograph,” says Johnson, who works in film production. “I think it’s an iconic picture.” Jetton died July 15 at the age of 73.

To some, she was Bicycle Annie. To others, Tin Can Ann.

To probably even more, Virginia Ann Jetton likely had no name, but they noticed her: A woman who wore bright orange outfits and rode her bicycle on the streets of east Charlotte for hours each day, from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Every city has physical landmarks, and people like Ann Jetton are a city’s human landmarks, impossible to miss – especially in a city, such as ours, that’s not prone to eccentricity. Just seeing them is an experience we hold in common: small moments that bind strangers to a time and a place.

So when news of Jetton’s death July 15 at the age of 73 spread on social media, hundreds of people posted on various platforms with memories of her, from seeing her riding her bike, collecting cans in their neighborhoods, to brief interactions with her in restaurants or record shops.

“I remember her riding down Central and Kilbourne. She always had cans. We wondered where she lived,” one Facebook poster wrote.

“I always wondered if she was homeless,” wrote another.

So numerous were the questions and so few the answers that lifelong Charlottean and retired oncology nurse John Michael Craig drove 25 miles to attend her funeral in Cornelius. He had never met Jetton, but Craig’s curiosity led him to be one of 18 mourners who gathered at her grave to share memories.

So who was Virginia Ann Jetton?

A tragic accident

She was the oldest of three girls, born and raised in east Charlotte. Mom was a secretary and dad was a colonel in the Air National Guard, and when Jetton (jet-AHN) was 2, says sister Peggy Ayers, the family lived in Florida where her father was helping open an Air Force Base.

“She was born as normal as you and I,” Ayers says. “But what happened, it was a tragic accident.

“Ann loved music from the very beginning. Mother was giving her a little sponge bath because it was hot, and a song came on the radio that Ann started singing to,” she says. “My mother reached over to turn the volume up, and Ann tumbled out of the sink.

“Within a couple of weeks, she started having seizures and autistic behavior,” Ayers says. “They did the CT scans and determined that she had damaged the ... part of her brain that does reasoning and compromise and those kinds of things.”

Jetton was sent to boarding schools for the developmentally disabled, coming home during summers and holidays where she’d reconnect with her two sisters. Sister Jane was six years younger than Ann, and Ayers was 12 years younger.

“She had a childlikeness about her,” Ayers recalls. “We would play games and she could definitely be on my level. She loved counting. We both enjoyed music together.”

Once she became an adult, Jetton moved into her own apartment at the corner of Central Avenue and Briar Creek Road in east Charlotte. She subsisted on government disability benefits, Ayers says, and the money earned by turning in all those cans she collected. She also occasionally held small jobs, such as working in the laundry at a hotel. All together, these gave her money for life’s necessities and her greatest passion: collecting records.

“She never got her driver’s license – she wasn’t able to do that,” Ayers says. “But she would go everywhere and anywhere, from sunup to sundown, on that bicycle to buy her records.”

The orange clothes that were her hallmark – puffy jackets in winter, short-sleeved tops in summer – were not so much a fashion choice as a safety precaution, Ayers says. In the 1970s, Jetton was hit by a bus at a busy intersection. She suffered leg injuries, and after recovering she began wearing orange so she would be more visible to motorists.

Another huge part of her life, Ayers says, was compiling lists: names of trees and flowers; boy names and girl names, copied out of old phone books she would collect, some from faraway cities. She filled notebooks with lists of homonyms. She loved the public library’s main branch, where workers would let her spread her books out and leave them there overnight so she could come back the next day and continue her lists.

“She would have made a wonderful secretary,” Ayers says.

‘That’s how famous she was’

For as many people as she saw out riding her bike each day, Jetton’s close friends were few. Ladies from various churches would pick her up on Sundays and take her to services, and do-gooders who ran into her around town would sometimes slip her a few dollars or offer to take her to a restaurant for a bite.

One day in the 1980s, Lisa Hand ran into her at the Salvation Army on Central Avenue and felt a tug in her heart. She approached Jetton, introduced herself, and the two exchanged contact information, she says.

And for the next 30-some years, Hand fostered her friendship with Jetton, calling her on the phone, taking her out to eat or to the movies.

“She was eclectic, electric, fluorescent, an orange moving star. That is what she was,” Hand says.

“She was such a Charlotte icon that when I would pick her up and take her out to dinner, we would walk into a restaurant and I felt like a ’50s movie star. Every single face turns and looks at you and for a few minutes, the restaurant kind of pauses,” she says. “They’d say, ‘That’s the bicycle lady.’ Your spine would straighten up a little bit, that’s how famous she was.”

Inside Jetton’s apartment, Hand says, thousands of vinyl records and LPs lined the walls, with narrow paths between stacks of records and a piano that sat in the middle of the living room. A Victorian armchair was where Jetton would sit and watch her 18-inch black-and-white TV. Even her Day-Glo-hued clothing was organized on color-coded hangers.

She turned a spare room into an office, with a desk and stacks of list-filled tablets, alphabetized and written in perfect penmanship. She had a wooden pointer stick, magnifying glasses and fluorescent-colored tabs to categorize and organize her lists.

But for all her organizational skills and physical energy, the brain damage Jetton suffered as a child presented challenges that would have made it impossible for her to hold down an office job, Hand says.

“It wasn’t easy all the time,” Hand says. “She had a one-track mind, and you could not interrupt her. If you did, it was chaos. She had to keep on that thought process until whatever she was thinking about was through.

“But she was so smart about so many things.”

Queen for a week

About 10 years ago, Ayers says, she made the decision that she could no longer be her sister’s legal guardian. Care was turned over to the Department of Social Services.

Jetton had medical issues, Ayers says, and DSS believed she was at risk living on her own and riding her bicycle. So she was sent to live in an assisted living facility.

Hand kept up the friendship, visiting Jetton and bringing her to her home every year for the week of July 4 – Jetton’s birthday week.

“We would do everything she liked,” Hand recalls. “In my carport, I would set up tables and we’d spread her books out and she’d go out and sit there in the morning. We’d turn on the Beatles and swing music.”

The highlight of the week, Hand says, would be a trip to Symphony Park, by SouthPark Mall, to listen to the Charlotte Symphony play.

“Sometimes you think, ‘What is it you could really offer someone? I’m not a millionaire. What is it you can really offer someone?’ ” Hand says, through tears.

“Sometimes just offering someone a choice is tremendous in their life. Just a choice. ‘Annie, how would you like your eggs this morning?’ I knew the answer. It was fried, over easy. With a cup of hot tea,” Hand says. “When you’re in a home and you have no choice ... Just to have someone give you a choice, for that week …” Hand trails off.

Two years ago, Hand says, Jetton was no longer able to spend her birthday week at Hand’s home. Her walking was unstable and the assisted living staff decided, Hand was told, that she should be in a wheelchair. So Hand would visit Jetton, bringing her clothing and other goodies and keeping her company.

She was moved into hospice care at a skilled nursing facility in Mooresville not long ago, say Ayers and Hand. On July 15, Ayers says, a nurse wheeling her back to her room after an activity found that she had stopped breathing.

She died peacefully.

Saying goodbye

News of the death spread fast online.

John Michael Craig, 71, saw the announcement on the “Charlotte NC – The Past and Present” Facebook page, and although he’d only heard Jetton’s voice once, at a bookstore in Cotswold more than 40 years ago, he attended her funeral.

“She sounded like just a fascinating person and so many people saw her,” Craig says. “I was always amazed about where I would see her, out bicycling, all over town. I wouldn’t see her for months or years, and then she’d turn up way out on Fairview.”

The morning of July 22, Craig joined family and friends gathered in a Cornelius cemetery to say their goodbyes.

Hand rushed to leave home the morning of the funeral, she says, frustrated because she couldn’t find a Beatles recording to play at the gravesite.

But after the ceremony, she found a Tony Bennett tape in her car that she realized had been Jetton’s. She pulled her car up to the gravesite, opened the doors wide and turned on the music: Bennett, singing a Beatles classic.

“Something in the way she moves...”