William P. Denison, a 23-year-old self-proclaimed “super-sophomore” who is in year three of his five-year college plan, studies history.
His favorite time period to learn about is the nation of antiquity — the height of the Roman Empire. He enjoys bike riding, dancing at music festivals and singing gospel music. After he graduates, his dream job would be to work as an archaeologist.
But for many New Paltz students, Denison is simply regarded as “Boombox Guy” — that guy with the long hair who cruises across campus and town on his blue and yellow bicycle, blasting jazzy tunes from an old-school boombox perched on his shoulder.
Currently on his fourth boombox, Denison rides a Specialized Crosstrail 2014, a hybrid that is equally adept at grass and pavement. It’s easier to balance on — a key component, as he rides with no hands most of the time.
Cycling a minimum of 10 hours a week and a maximum of 30, Denison plays mostly blues and old school R&B, though he takes his audience into consideration, choosing to play jumpier, more upbeat music when he rolls past drunken crowds on a late Friday or Saturday night.
An enigma to many, Denison is not shy to share his story, or the chain of events that led to him evolving into the notorious identity many have heard of, if not seen themselves.
Denison grew up in Glen Cove, Long Island, and at the age of 19, his parents kicked him out.
After more than a month of living on his own, Denison was struck with good fortune when his friend’s father offered to let him live in their attic above the garage for $25 a week in February of 2010.
The attic, unfinished, poorly ventilated and devoid of heat and electricity, was home to Denison for six months, his only company a variety of insects.
At one point, his friend’s dad offered Denison a radio so the space would seem less “drab,” and ran an extension cord up into the room.
“Eventually the idea of the radio and the cycling, which was such a present part of my life already, intersected,” he said. “I kinda just got the idea. I didn’t see it anywhere, and everyone knows about the concept of walking with [a boombox].”
Denison was known for his cycling and boomboxing long before he transferred to New Paltz in September of 2013.
“When I did start [riding around with a boombox] on Long Island, it was definitely noticed. Especially in Nassau County,” he said. “But I didn’t receive the kind of attention I do here. It was a very different dynamic.”
Denison said every now and then, his Long Island peers recognized him, but the sheer size of the community compared to that of New Paltz and the fact that people knew him as Will before “Boombox Guy” resulted in virtually no public disapproval.
“I didn’t expect the reaction I got here, especially the negativity and the [New Paltz Confessions] gossip forum thing. It all seemed like people here liked to gossip so much that when I came around, it was like a big juicy piece of fruit that just fell off the tree, and everyone wanted to eat it,” he said. “And I feel like on Long Island, it was less a big deal. It was like, ‘Oh, he’s that kid, oh no I know him, that’s Will. He’s kind of crazy, he’s eccentric, but he’s a nice guy.”
Denison said he expected to get attention for it, but that it wasn’t his prime motivation.
“The main reason I do it is because it’s fun, it makes people smile, it makes people dance, it makes me happy and it take my mind’s attention from all the stuff I’m worrying about and focuses it on not dying, not letting the C.D. skip and making people happy,” he said.
He said it is not just for him — it’s for the people he rides past as well, hence why he doesn’t use an iPod — a question he’s frequently asked.
Denison said riding with the boombox is both cathartic and therapeutic, primarily because of the social anxiety he has grappled with his entire life. Being recognized as the guy riding with the boombox caused people to notice him and gave them a reason to initiate conversation with him, forcing Denison to socialize when he would have simply avoided social situations otherwise.
“It eased me into [social situations] because usually the reaction was positive because I was ‘that guy [with the boombox].’ They were ready to give me the benefit of the doubt. I was kinda pushed into social life, it was my indirect way of pushing myself,” he said. “It made me think, ‘Most social situations are going to be positive, so stop worrying, stop thinking that everybody hates you.’”
And many of the reactions have been just that.
“A very common positive reaction is being told, ‘You’ve made my day, you made my day better, I was having a crummy day and then I heard you. I get excited when you ride by bedroom window, I look out and try to find you,’” he said.
But the negative reactions Denison experiences at New Paltz outweigh the positive ones, with the majority of people who criticize him, anonymously and through social media, addressing his character in their claims — arguing he is egotistical and/or addicted to the attention.
“So people say something nasty about me [on “New Paltz Confessions”], I respond to it, and then I am accused of being egotistical for coming out as being, ‘I’m the boombox guy saying this stuff,” he said. “Even if you decided in your sense of pragmatism that it was a bad idea to respond…you know that stuff would bother you, if people were saying that about you.”
Denison admits he has fun getting high-fives and being ushered to the front of the keg line at parties when he’s recognized as “boombox guy.”
But those reasons are far from why he does what he does. When he reveals to people his main motivations for riding with his boombox, he is rarely believed, “as if the only reason anyone ever does a high-profile thing is for the sake of being high-profile.”
Denison said the source of the insults are what disturbs him more than anything — his scholarly peers.
“If you are gonna insult me in some jock vs. nerd way, I am not going to care. But it hurts the most when the people who should be my fellow intellectuals are against me. People who endeavor towards intellectualism, who I should have concurrent goals with,” he said. “Members of my college community, not just jerks who come here to get wasted and throw beer cans at gay people. It’s different. And I’ve never encountered that before. I’ve never encountered the type of adversity I encounter here.”