Pedal pushers

Kevin Burns heads down Church Street on Monday toward the rickshaw stand at North Market and Church streets. Burns, 24, is in his third year working for Charleston Rickshaw Co.

Pedicab driver Kevin Burns has one of the sweatiest, most physically demanding jobs in Charleston. And he loves it.

"It's the freedom you have," Burns said Monday, pedaling up King Street. "You're not inside; you're not clocking in and out. You're an independent contractor, so you pretty much do what you want to do."

Burns, 24, said he likes to work 17-hour days on Fridays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Already tanned and with sun-bleached hair at the end of May, he has seen his fair share of scorchers.

"You need to take down one of these in a day," Burns said, pulling a sweating 3-liter water bottle out of a compartment under the passenger bench.

He also has had some fascinating nights, with barhopping passengers baring their souls and -- sometimes -- the contents of their stomachs.

"You hear everything; you see everything," Burns said.

Burns, a recent College of Charleston graduate, is in his third year working for Charleston Rickshaw Co., whose pedicabs all bear a Nationwide Insurance advertisement under their front passenger guardrail claiming, "The World's Greatest Rickshaw Drivers in the World!"

Charleston Rickshaw owner Sean Nemitz built many of the pedicabs himself. He said the guardrails were a recent addition, partly to help older passengers get in and out, partly to create more ad space.

The company's 25 drivers set their own hours, charging $4.50 per person per 10 minutes of riding. When they call it a day, they return to the garage and pay a percentage to the company.

Nemitz, 25, worked three years for the company before taking over as owner four years ago. He still tries to ride three days a week.

"You really do feel like you're going to die sometimes, but you've just got to pull through," Nemitz said.

Back at the garage, down an alley on King Street, there is a fearsome mural on an inside wall: A grim reaper is mounted on a snarling horse-cum-pedicab, with bits of gore splattered around and a banner reading "Ride or Die."

Nemitz and Burns agree that it's hyperbolic, but it captures the pedicab-driver ethos.

Burns gave the example of a fellow driver who was hit by a car last year at the intersection of Calhoun and Meeting streets. Burns said the friend had a chunk torn out of his leg in the collision, but rather than call it quits, he went on to start his own pedicab company in New Orleans.

During Spoleto, Burns said, tips tend to be less generous. Still, with summer come the most lucrative months. He said he'll go almost nonstop some days, eating nothing but Powerbars on the go.

"You try and scarf down a sub at some point in time, but you're on fumes," Burns said.

"It has its peaks and its valleys, you know?"