Music from my iPod blares through a single, small speaker, almost drowning out the white noise of the always-on fan and my muttered swearing. My fingers are filthy, almost black, like those of a child who’s been playing in the dirt, like I’m young enough not to care again. The air in the shop smells like oil, industrial orange hand soap, and rust. I’m bent over a bike, wielding a pair of fifteen-millimeter wrenches, wrestling with a pair of nuts that have rusted onto an axle, waiting for oil to creep into the threads, wondering just how I got there.
There are the easy answers, or the smart-ass ones, at least. Wanting to do something different for my senior year of undergrad and needing a change from my job in recycling, spent sorting term papers from the beer bottles in every miserable sort of weather you can get in the mountains of western North Carolina, I had changed over to the Community Bike Shop. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
[img_assist|nid=8589|title=East Falls by Michael Morell © 2012|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=400|height=340]
Before I could even ride bicycles, my father was showing me how to fix them. He wasn’t a professional by any means, but he was handy with a wrench, and that’s good enough as far as machines are concerned. Whenever he walked his bike home with a flat tire when I was a boy, he would call me to his side as both a student and a helper, showing me how, with a pair of screwdrivers, to pry a tire’s bead free of the rim, asking me to hand him tools as they were needed. As I grew, he showed me more: how to install new cables and brakes; which screws I should turn to calibrate a derailleur; how to disassemble and grease a hub. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll never starve through ignorance.
Fixing bikes makes me happy. Back then, I would climb the steep, creaking stairs out of our basement workshop, hands black with grease, grime, and unknown gunk, smiling. I was a neat child, afraid of getting my hands dirty, but not with bikes in our workshop, where the bare bulbs overhead reflected their light off a dozen mirrors we’d found to brighten every dim corner. Even now, that stubborn layer of filth makes me feel young, whether I’m emerging again from my childhood workshop or from the shops in the mountains of western North Carolina and the streets of Center City Philadelphia where I’ve found employment.
Before we had books in common, my father and I shared bikes. I felt proud when I could do something the way he had showed me. I hoped he would be proud, too.
No, that’s not it either.
My father was disappointed by my inability to ride a two-wheeler by the age of six. He never said so directly, but I could tell. In 1944, when he was seven, he and his parents had fled their home in Riga, Latvia, never to return. He had taken his bicycle and all that he could carry on his back. Never a driver, my father found his freedom balanced on two narrow wheels. He only wanted me to have that same freedom. I, however, was content with my training wheels, wishing only for the freedom from falling.
What I found acceptable at six, when my kindergarten classmates were, one by one, announcing they could ride a two-wheeler, became an annoyance at seven, a social hindrance by eight. Even my younger friends could ride without training wheels. How was I to advance my social standing if I couldn’t go ride bikes with my friends? And yet, fear ruled me. Even with training wheels, even before, when I rode a tricycle, I had had my share of falls, but they were nothing compared to the imagined calamity of tumbling off a two-wheeler. I could break my head open. My brains might leak out through the vents in my helmet. Worse, I could skin both of my knees.
I tried to reason with Dad, asking if I could have just one training wheel removed. Nothing worked. My new two-wheeler – cobbled together, like all of my family’s bikes, from the best parts that could be found in the trash of the Squirrel Hill and Spruce Hill neighborhoods around my house and adorned with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles logo on the frame’s top tube – taunted me whenever I visited our basement workshop. It was everything that was cool for a second-grader.
The bike was both a reward and a practical consideration. At eight, I was getting too big for my training bike, my knees brushing against the tassels that hung from the ends of the handlebars whenever I pedaled. Dad knew that, sooner or later, I’d give in, and he wasn’t going to move the training wheels to another bicycle.
I did give in. Maybe some mental oil seeped in and freed me from my fear, a fear that had oxidized, and had me frozen like a rusted nut. One morning, I woke up from a dream about flying, ready to mount up and ride. Those first tentative jaunts only took me from one end of the basement to the other, but the ease with which I rode made me wonder, even then, what had been standing in my way. In that moment, I was in love. I knew my father’s freedom then.
Back in the shop, the nuts haven’t given yet. My muscles are burning and the wrenches have left grooves in my hands. I leave the wrenches hanging from either side of the axle and turn to the peg-board above the work bench, reaching for the hickory handle of the rubber mallet. The large, black head of the mallet makes it seem almost cartoonish, the sort of tool that I should pull from nowhere, but its reality is comforting. Returning to the recalcitrant bicycle, I give one of the wrenches a solid whack, making the whole bike bounce, though it’s clamped to a heavy repair stand, and shaking the other wrench loose. Another whack as the clang of the fallen wrench dies. The nut turns a few degrees. I move to the other side, picking up the second wrench, replacing it on the nut, and discarding an imperfect metaphor with another swing of the mallet.
Hilary B. Bisenieks is a lifelong Philadelphian
known far and wide (in West Philly) as "that guy with the kilt." He
recently returned north after a four-year sojourn in the mountains of western
North Carolina, where he completed his studies of Creative Writing and English
Literature at Warren Wilson College. In his free time, Hilary builds and rides
bicycles, both silly and sensible. Hilary can be found online at www.hilarybisenieks.com.