03 April 2007

Bike Station

  • Apr 3, 2007

Bike Station

As you probably know (if you have looked at my profile, or spoken to me for half an hour) I've had a lot of jobs. About 25 in fact, of about 15 different types, ranging rather widely.

I can't remember one in which I have enjoyed the commute to work as much as the commute home.
And not just because of the 15 mile bike ride at 2pm through sunny Berkeley and Oakland, around the lake, along the "bike boulevards" in near perfect weather.

Today, I took a few extra moments before someone left with their bike to cut off the end of a used inner tube. I had noticed their headlight was too loose for the handlebar, and I made a shim out of the piece of tube, and now instead of pointing straight down, her headlight points forward. Which means its just a little less likely that she gets hit by a car sometime.

The majority of our customers are commuting to work everyday by bicycle. Our service (my mother thought it funny that I refer to the shop as "our" after my 2nd week) helps them to do it. It means they don't have to take the bike on a crowded train, convince their employer to provide a secure place to store it, or worry about someone stealing their wheels or handlebars or lights or whatnot when its locked up.
Quite a few of them don't have cars at all.
I used to not have a car. I remember crossing a 4 lane divided highway to get to the laundry mat in the snow. In this culture, not having a car is a major sacrifice - it is pretty much THE major sacrifice. I see a big difference between someone who spends a little more to get a Prius, and someone who could afford a car, but instead relies on bicycle and public transportation.
Yesterday there was a guy here with that extend-a-bike thing, with a sign on the back advertising hauling. He said his most common cargo is groceries. I have to admit a bike beats bio-diesel on environmental impact any day.

I had not really ever thought about just how much I have picked up from my years of doodling about with my own bikes, and occasionally those of friends and family. I've been called by other mechanics at my shop for advice. Of course, most people wouldn't have taken apart a 3-speed internal gear / hub before. I got that old women's Raleigh from Joe's basement that one time, and rode that heavy old thing up Shane Dr to Berlex. When it stopped shifting right, I fixed it. I thought nothing of it at the time. I didn't realize that most people would either take it to the shop, junk it, or just live with one gear. I didn't think of the potential of making it worse, of loosing parts - not that I haven't done those things.
The first wheel I tried to true (and probably the second) I took form a slight wobble to completely tacoed, totally folded over, and irreparable. My first "10-speed", I disassembled the gears to figure out how they worked. I couldn't figure out how to put them together again, and ended up just tying them off in my preferred gear.
Fortunately, all my irrepairable mistakes have been on my own bikes.
The 10 year subscription to Bicycling magazine certainly helped. And reading the Nashbar catalog every month. working alongside Larry or Joe and pretending to know what we were doing. And of course, more than anything, hating to ride the bus with my classmates in junior high and not being able to afford repairs. Eventually people started asking me for tune-ups, neighborhood kids, classmates, family; and this way I was exposed to different types, different makes, different years, different quality levels.

So today, I've been at the shop a little over a month, and I haven't worked on something I wasn't familiar with.

Yesterday right when I got to work (1 hour by bike) there was someone waiting for me. The manager had the morning shift, and he doesn't do repairs, so he told the customer to wait for me to get in.
She mainly wanted a flat repaired, and "if there's time" the rear brake made functional.
It didn't shift at all in front, shifted poorly in the rear (she thought her 10 speed was a 3 speed, because thats all the range she was getting), the rear brake was frozen, the front barely touched the rims, both tires were awful, the front literally disintegrating on the bike, and the left crank had nearly an inch of play at the pedal.
It was scary that someone would be riding this (because of the brakes especially).
I quoted her $37 - including the cost of the front tire; she declined having both replaced.

I fixed every problem. I was worried about the crank because it was an obsolete design, but we had the same part on one of our junk salvage frames in the back corner. It was reasonably quick, nothing too complicated, no specialized tools or anything, but it was stuff the average lay person wouldn't know, even if they fix their own flats and lube their own chains.
When she picked it up, she had a fully functional bike. Smooth pedaling. Quick stopping. Easy climbing.
I try to notice when the brakes are loose on a bike I'm working on. Its pretty common. When I tighten them, that's maybe an accident avoided. I try to give each one the care I would my own (well, no, better than that. My own get neglected. I spent one of the slow days here finally doing long awaited maintenance on mine.)

And that makes me happy. Knowing my customers are a little safer and have a better, easier time riding. I give a lot of advice, answer questions, and let people know when I don't know the answer. Sometimes people think that there's something wrong when really they are just, say, using the gears wrong. How do they know but that someone tells them? Sometimes I do minor adjustments for free, I don't even tell them, i just see something needs doing, and do it, and put the bike away. And they will come back and the handlebar is wrapped properly, the brakes work, the valve has a cover on it.

The Bikestation is non-profit. I'm sure our salaries are far more than we take in in repairs, sales, and late fees ($3 a day after the first two days). We only exist by subsides by BART (our service is primarily to their passengers) and grants, donations, and memberships in the Berkeley and East Bay Bicycle Friendly Coalitions. We charge $6 for most small simple adjustments, brakes, shifters, dérailleurs, chain clean and lube. $10 for a flat includes the price of a new tube. Repairs not on the list I have discretion to make up a price.
Its nice working for a non-profit, just in principal.
Especially a non-profit doing something which has personal significance. I've been a cyclist since I was about 10. That's when I first became obsessed with the independance it granted. At first i wasn't supposed to cross the street, limiting me to around the block.
But I did cross the street.
That was on Grasshopper.
And soon I was figuring out on the map that I had rode SEVEN MILES!!!
And then the next year I was riding to Adams every day. I was the only one at the entire school. Mine was the only at the rack. I got 6 feet of chain from Ace hardware so I could lock both wheels.
On my first Univega, first bike I learned to use the gears on. A road bike, sized for kids, but well made.
When Larry saw I was still riding that thing in High School he got a friend to give up one of his many unused bikes. It was a Univega too, a touring model, with a super low granny gear, fenders (which I promptly removed), bigger, but way lighter, because it was made of chrom-oly steel instead of high-tensile.
I rode that to school the next 4 years. I rode it to school even after I got my license and my camper van (the happy van, or the mystery machine, depending who you asked).
Then, after Joe's unexpected insane offer, I rode that bike to Mexico City, partly with Joe and Kim, partly on my own (or with people I met on the way for a few days).
Then I flew home, and I became a bicycle messenger, and I used the same bike.
Alex pointed out the ad for the $400 Carbon fiber racing bike - it weighs 20 lbs, I still have it, but the Univega always got more road time.
When I lived close enough to bike to work, I rode the Univega.
When I went to the carnival, and then to NYC, it came with me. I used it as a messenger in New York.
And I rode it to work today.

When i was younger, i felt superior in a way to the driver around me. I was healthier, in better shape, less lazy, and not polluting the air or using gasoline. Today i have a motorcycle, and while 60mpg is relatively good, its still burning fuel, so I can't quite claim to be so righteous anymore.
But we do all know that our driving, (our meaning the US, and soon also China) is the primary use of oil and the primary source of air pollution. It seems increasingly likely that those will be the most destructive of human activity.

And this one little thing, the bike station, facilitates about 50-75 people a day not driving. My work makes their sacrifice a little easier.
And that makes having to go in to work a little easier.

Not to mention that I have had the time to write this entire thing while actually at work. That I am even allowed to access MySpace. It is completely laid-back, more than any place i have worked. If I have no repairs to work on, am not actively parking a bike, my time is my own.
I am given autonomy, as well as trust. When I can't find vinyl tape, i take some money from the cash box, lock up, and go buy some. When I go to the farmers market I am entirely on my own. I open, I count out change, I work the day, I balance the cash log, and lock up again. There is nothing at all stopping me from pocketing 1/2 the transactions, we don't track inventory, we only issue receipts if the customer specifically asks; but I don't - and I have never been doubted.
In fact, I often divide my tips, half for me, half for the donation bin.

In a way I feel bad about going forward toward a real career.
I am good at what I do here. Its a great service we provide.
It doesn't pay enough to be a long term thing. Especially not at 14 hours a week. I want to be a park ranger. I just wish I had found out about this, applied here a long time ago.
Maybe they will get lucky and I'll get turned down by both CA Fish and Game and Oakland PD Ranger division. Then when I apply to EBRPD and where ever else, or go back to school, they will have me another 6 months or year or so.
Yeah. I hope that doesn't happen
I am very glad, at least, that I had the opportunity to work here.

Its 9pm now, time to lock up.

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