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There was once a little bicycle shop, ordinary in every way, except for the people associated with it. Brian the owner, the employees, and many of the customers were the most interesting and eccentric people I have ever met. That's what this book is about. I have changed the location and the names to protect those involved. Everything else is true, exactly as it happened. The bike shop lasted five years before it came to a strange end. Welcome to the story of the shop and it's people.
His bike was a Cilo Pacer, a classic ten-speed bike made back in the 1970s. Cilo Pacers were always white with elegant red trim including intricate painting around the lugs that held the Reynolds 531 double-butted frame together. Yet, they were a relatively low-end bike. Made very much in a road racing style, complete with sew-up tires, they had Campagnolo Valentino derailleurs. These were almost laughable compared to the Campagnolo Record and Super-Record components found on true high-end bikes. The derailleurs were made from stamped steel parts, and very 'cheap' in appearance. At the time, many serious riders on a budget bought Cilo Pacers because they had a good frame. Components could always be upgraded as finances permitted.
William was one of the first hires after Brian, owner of the bike shop, converted to paying the mechanics on a commission basis. They got one-third of the labor charges that the customers paid. Suddenly, the mechanics in this shop were the highest paid in town, by far. Now Brian, rather than having to deal with a bunch of inexperienced misfits, could hire the exact people he wanted. The best mechanics from all the others shops in town applied.
William had the reputation of being meticulous, which appealed to Brian. Even his name was meticulous. He wanted to be called by his middle name, William; not Carl, and not Bill, or Will. But Brian didn't know that along with 'meticulous' there were some other attributes in William's personality.
William was one of the few mechanics that didn't jump ship from another shop. He had been fired by his last employer. In fact, when Brian heard that William was fired because he took a bike into the bathroom and was caught scrubbing it with a toothbrush, he figured William was just the precision, caring mechanic he needed.
Brian had grown tired of some of his mechanics' antics. There was the time he had sent two mechanics to a department store where a hundred bikes on display had been badly assembled by stock clerks. That store paid Brian $20 per bike to fix them up, and so sending his two guys to work a day in the department store would be quite profitable. The mechanics came back to Brian's bike shop snickering about something. When Brian asked them what was up, they told him. It seems one bike was missing a part - the little wedge that holds the handlebar stem into the fork. They didn't have a spare, so they grabbed some Epoxy off a store shelf and glued the handlebar stem into position. Brian exploded, sending the mechanics back to the store to pull that bike off the floor before someone bought it. He wanted mechanics with better sense, and it seemed like William had professional common sense to spare. In fact, Brian secretly hoped some of William's maturity might rub off on him.
William came to work the first day, dressed in a crisp white shirt, sports jacket and tie. Really! He put on an apron, and set right to work laying out his tools just the way he wanted them. That took an hour.
Brian wanted to see how William was with customers, so the first case was a tune-up while the customer was allowed to sit on a stool and watch.
The customer stepped off the stool a couple of times, showing William one little detail about cable routing, then another about handlebar position. In measured tones, William told the customer, "While the bike is in the shop, it's my bike. Sit on the stool and watch - just watch, no noise!" Then he took five minutes adjusting the handlebar position. After that, he had the customer sit on the bike, and equally painstakingly adjusted the seat. When he was done, the front of the seat was an inch higher than the back. This turned up seat idea was just one of William's idiosyncrasies, as Brian was soon to find out.
William was a good mechanic. Oh, he wasn't fast, but since he was paid on a piecework basis, that was alright with Brian. He did tend to clean bikes way too much. It was not unusual to see William scrubbing the handgrips of a bike after a simple flat tire repair. Sometimes he would take one of the square red shop rags, reach in, and polish a hub between the spokes for two whole minutes. The customers loved this.
William didn't dress like a banker just on his first day. Every day he wore a tie, a yellow, tan, or light purple crisp button-up shirt, and a dress jacket or at least a sports jacket. Even in the summer. And the shop was not air conditioned. Somehow, through the course of every day, he managed to stay clean. Bike mechanics do not stay clean. There's no way. But William did. He knew which way to stand when blowing out a part with compressed air. He knew how to manage a chain without ever actually touching it.
One day, Brian came in around 10am, and found William sealing the bathroom doorway. William had probably been there for a couple of hours, and he was meticulously taping plastic and foam around the bathroom door. When asked why, he said there were toxic fumes coming from the furnace of the shop next door. Upon questioning, he didn't know what kind of toxic fumes they were, or even how they might harm someone, but he had no doubt they were seeping in and that they were bad.
Since the bathroom door still worked alright, Brian let the foam and tape stay. It lasted only a couple of days until one of the other employees took it all down. We never knew who removed it, and no one wanted to ask.
One day, William simply failed to show up. A couple of days later, one of the salespeople picked up the phone, and heard William's voice. He handed the phone to Brian, who later told us that William had been incarcerated, more or less.
William was as meticulous in his eating as his bike repair. He ate no sugar, no meat, and not much of anything except celery, carrots and lots of hard-boiled eggs, as far as we could tell. He rode with us all to pizza one Friday night, and was perfectly content to sit there and watch us eat. He wasn't the least interested in the pizza. He did, however, drink eight glasses of water, and went to the bathroom twice.
William talked a lot about vitamins. He said he had one cavity in his teeth that had been there for a while, and was healing slowly, all by itself, thanks to his careful attention to nutrition.
As to being locked up, it seems that at about one o'clock one weekday morning, William wandered over to the local mental hospital, and wanted to talk to the kitchen staff about the way the patients were being fed. Only the orderlies were there at that time of night. While he was talking about the B-complex vitamins, they were very nice to him. First they listened politely. Then they suggested he go home and bring it up in the daytime, when the kitchen staff was actually there. But this seemed to upset him. He became increasingly agitated. He was convinced they were placating him, and that the food given to the patients was bad, very bad, and had to be dealt with immediately. He started yelling, until they finally suggested he might want to check himself in.
That was easy for him, since he had been a patient there before.
So there he was in the mental hospital. When I found out what had happened, I visited him. He was very worried about his bicycle, so I went and unlocked it and stored it at my house. For this he was profusely thankful. I think his bike, with the front of the seat tipped up an inch, meant more to him than anything else in the world.
After two weeks they let William go. He had lost his apartment, so he was sleeping somewhere outdoors with nothing but his camping-gear equipped bicycle for two days, and then he rented another apartment.
A couple of weeks later, Brian and I went to visit him at his new second-floor studio. It was a furnished apartment, and as far as I could tell, there was nothing of William's in the apartment but a few meticulously clean and folded changes of clothing, a shaving mug, and toothbrush.
But, there was something very strange going on. This was early winter with temperatures hovering around freezing outside. William had opened the main living room window about a foot, and had built a rather elaborate rig of cardboard tubing. He had three cardboard tubes fastened into the window opening. These three tubes bent around the window frame, and hung about six feet down the outside of the building. He explained it had something to do with the fumes coming from the furnace.
All was well for a few weeks, then William got himself evicted. It seems he called 911 in the middle of the night, in a frantic attempt to let the owner of the building know that there was a dangerous problem with the furnace. The EMTs found nothing. All the tenants were quite upset, what with being awakened to screaming sirens at three in the morning.
So William went back to camping with his bicycle. Because it was the winter season, business was slow and so William was working at the bike shop two days a week. Yet, even though he was camping, he showed up spotlessly clean and dressed every time, smelling faintly of cologne.
And again, suddenly, no William. For two weeks we heard nothing. Of course we checked with the mental hospital, but he was not registered as a patient there.
And then we found out: The phone rang. It was William's uncle, calling because he knew William's only friends in the world were his co-workers. He wanted us to know what happened. William had been hit by a car. It happened at about five in the morning. A dark and stormy night - really - and foggy too. William had been riding his bike up a slight hill on a back country road 50 miles out of town with no lights and no reflectors. He was killed instantly. The state troopers determined he had been in the middle of the road, perhaps trying to stay in the exact center between the double yellow lines.
Like the day the laundry in the clothes dryer caught fire. She called his father who told her to call the fire department. She screamed, wrung her hands, and waddled around in circles until they arrived. Fortunately, the fire didn't spread beyond the dryer. As Brian walked home from school that day, he noticed four fire trucks at the end of the street. As he got closer, he started to realize they were at his house. It seems they responded in force, in case the fire had been bigger, and upon ariving, 20 firemen grouped around one guy, who dragged a single hose in through a basement window, went 'squirt' for one second, and put the fire out.
The day Brian, at age five, caught his thumb in the electric can opener was much like that. They finally got him to the doctor who put in a few stitches, but it was quite an event, with his mother carrying on uselessly.
He hated Sunday school. His father would drop him off at the front door of the church, and drive away as Brian walked in. The pastor and some volunteers would bore the unfortunate children for two hours, then Mr. Bailey would come pick Brian up. For his twelfth birthday, Brian asked for a pocket watch. His parents never knew why he wanted that watch. Brian used it to show up at the front door of the church on time. His father would drop him off, but Brian learned to walk through the church, out the back door, and into the woods, stay there reading a science fiction paperback for the exact right amount of time, then meet his father in front of the church. When his parents finally did find out, the screaming was minimal, and the result was that Brian didn't have to go to Sunday school anymore.
Neither the mother or father had much in the way of social skills, so Brian had to learn what little he knew of 'acting right' by himself. They also let him run wild. When you see what kind of adult he became, it makes you think parents should probably be a bit less permissive than his were.
You do see some of the consequences of this upbringing in his adult life. He will try to "think" himself out of situations that can't be thought out of, and it it is easy to see that it drives him crazy. You can also see him do foolish things in public from time to time. He doesn't know how to dress. He once told me he doesn't even own a suit or tie. Just a whole bunch of T-shirts and jeans. For a while at the bike shop, he had a contract with a clothing rental company. Once a week they supplied Brian and his mechanics with five clean changes of matching brown work shirts and pants. Brian loved this, because it meant he didn't have to be responsible for cleaning and shopping for his clothing.
He wasn't great at making friends, so he had a lot of acquaintances and 'good customers.' I think this was because he is not confident around people. In the front room of the bike shop, however, he was is in his comfort zone, so he was pretty good with customers. He talked about that once, and confided in me that he was just "faking it."
The notion that if only he could "think" his way out of situations had an effect that became evident in fifth grade. Brian went into the fourth grade as an A student. Nice, polite, quiet. Something changed half-way through fourth grade. He became a comedian. He was rowdy and disruptive. For instance, on one occasion, he gave another boy a chocolate bar, but told him he had to keep it in his back pocket until after school. By then, it had melted into a big, sticky mess.
Near the end of the school year, he was asked to visit the school psychologist for a few sessions of tests. "Oh, Oh," he thought, "I've gone way too far!" The psychologist never told him what was up, but he rather enjoyed the puzzles she presented.
During the summer after fourth grade, Brian's parents got a letter from the school district. Their son had been accepted in to the Accelerated Learning Program known as ALP. So, that explained why he became disruptive! Brian's tendency to try to "think" allowed him to become more academically intelligent than most of the other students, and he had become bored with the slow pace in school. This new disruptive behavior was how he dealt with the boredom.
Brian loved fifth grade in ALP from the first day. The lessons were challenging. The teacher was strict, but not horrible. In addition to all the regular education, the children learned touch-typing, accelerated math and science, a bit of French, and music notation and performance with recorders, little wooden flute-like things.
ALP was supposed to last through seventh grade, but after two years, the city had a requirement to integrate the white and black students, and in working out the complex schedules, they eliminated seventh grade ALP by folding the ALP students into a mainstream junior high school. Except, it was not quite the local junior high school that Brian was expecting. In order to make their quotas on integration, they changed a formerly all-black high school across town into a mixed white and black, junior and senior school. How did they do that? They put all the little white seventh and eighth graders in the same school as the big nineth through twelfth graders who were all black.
You've got to remember that this was in one of the hard-core hatred cities. The parents, purposely or not, taught their children to be afraid of and even hate the children of the other color. So, they put together a bunch of big kids of one race with a huge advantage over a bunch of smaller kids of another race. Violence was an everyday occurrence.
The school building was large and old. The exterior was dark reddish brown brick, and the hallways had two-tone paint, with a light tan starting at about waist height and extending to the ceiling, and a light olive green from waist height to the floor. The ceilings were darkened, so it was hard to tell what color they were originally. The paint was peeling in places. The building had a lot of dark wooden trim. The slate stairs were worn where thousands of feet had stepped over the years.
In the first couple of days of junior high school, Brian learned where all his classes were, which textbooks he'd need to carry home, the names of his teachers. He also learned not to carry a lunchbox, and certainly not lunch money, because he'd be assaulted, and the money would be stolen from him, guaranteed.
In order to make all this compulsory integration work, the school system had a contract with the city transportation service to bus all the kids back and forth. Brian rode past his local high school, to which he could have walked in 20 minutes, to an outdoor transfer station downtown, and then to his school on the far side of town. The ride took 90 minutes each way.
On the bus, Brian was assaulted again and again by older children who hated him for his skin color. He learned to walk sometimes, and at others to stay very near the back door of the bus, pull the cord, and get off at the next stop whenever trouble was brewing. Sometimes it took him three hours to get home, by the time he got through the transfer station and caught the next bus. To complicate things further, this was Ohio, not Hawaii, so Brian - and all the thousand other kids in the same situation - had to endure all this along with winter conditions.
One time in a typically full bus with twenty children standing in the isle, a boy pointed a broken bottle right at Brian's chest, demanding pocket change, as usual. He actually stabbed at Brian, but his winter coat took all the punishment. Another time in the late spring, a boy pointed a knife at Brian. Brian immediately did the absolutely wrong thing: He grabbed the knife out of the boy's hands, and threw it out the open bus window. Oddly, the boy, and his circle of friends, were so shocked that they just sat down, as Brian pulled the cord to get off at the next stop. Brian tells me he doesn't know how he didn't cut his hand. He remembers that he grabbed the knife by the blade. He thinks it must have been quite dull.
All the teachers had long ago given up on actually educating their students, and gym class was the worst of all. The school was a large one, so gym class was over 100 boys. Some of the things that happened there make no sense. According to Brian, a typical gym session started with all the boys going to the showers for 15 minutes. Then they'd go outside in shorts and white T-shirts, even if it was 50 degrees outside, and play an inning and a half of softball, with no instruction from the three gym teachers, who stayed inside. The softball was all about standing around, because there were well over 30 people on each team. Then a bell sounded, and all the boys went back into the showers for the remaining 15 minutes, where the teachers then lined them up, and inspected them carefully, sending the occasional boy back into the showers for more cleaning.
And the boys had to swim naked. It must have been one of the last schools in the US to require that the male children swim naked. Like most of the other kids, Brian found it weird and intimidating, but also like the rest of the kids, he complied. Again, there was pretty much no instruction, and minimal supervision, with scores of children in the pool. On one occasion in the pool, one of the older children told Brian he had to meet him outside after school for some sort of sexual thing, and if he didn't show up, this boy's whole gang was going to kill him.
So Brian dropped out of gym class. Interestingly, no one noticed. There was no official backlash at all. No letter, no guidance counselor, and Brian continued to get a B+ for gym on his report card.
The teachers were more like untrained peacekeepers. Since they didn't know how to keep peace among angry high school students, they mostly made themselves scarce. For instance, lunch periods were mostly unsupervised.
Toward the end of the school year, the classrooms became very hot because the old school building did not have air conditioning. The civil unrest magnified. One day in second period lunch in the cafeteria, another fight broke out. This was not uncommon. A white and a black child would get in a fist fight, and a hundred other students would form a circle around them, egging them on. Sometimes three, four or more students would be in the fight - girls were involved almost as often as boys. On this day, something different happened: The fighting turned into a full-scale riot, involving hundreds of students. Lunch trays, drinking glasses, lunch boxes, and chairs were flying everywhere. Brian was there. He saw one girl stand up, and an open back chair caught her right in the head, and swiveled around her neck, taking her to the floor. A very angry, very large boy was walking down the isle with his fists clamped together, strongly swinging both arms in unison, knocking everyone out of his way. He hit one boy who smashed the side of his head into the corner of a table. Brian never saw that boy again. As the horror became clear, a large, frantic mass of students pushed, shoved and struggled to get out the exits. They were in such a hurry, they jammed up in big frustrated piles, and it took quite a while before everyone got out, and the emergency personnel could get in.
The riot made the national six o'clock news. It was only a verbal report. There was no footage, only a still picture of the outside of the school, because no one there had a video camera. This happened a long time before smartphones came into existence.
Brian developed something soldiers get: shell shock, more technically known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD. It still affects him today.
Eighth grade went the same way, and ninth grade promised to be no better. Brian received his class schedule a week before school was to start. He threw it away, and showed up at his local high school, claiming he had no schedule. He told me later that he had no plan to deal with the time when the authorities would figure out what happened, and was practically shaking in his shoes the day he showed up at his local high school, the one within walking distance. But he went ahead with the lie. They told him he could pick the elective classes he wanted, until the scheduling problem was sorted out. Being 14 years old, he didn't pick what you might think were the most logical classes. Instead, he picked his classes so he'd have to go up and down stairs the least number of times.
And he waited, knowing full well that the authorities would figure out what he had done, and clobber him. Guess what? It never happened! They never caught on, and so Brian remained a student at Jefferson High school for the entire year. Unfortunately, Jefferson had also become integrated, and so the problems were essentially the same, except reversed. The white kids were senior high-schoolers, and the black kids were in the junior grades. There was considerable unrest, although being a bit older, and white in the traditionally white school, Brian was less affected. But it was too late. He was shell shocked. Brian was no longer an A student. All his accomplishment at ALP was ruined. Always looking over his shoulder, figuratively and literally - he was no longer able to concentrate on his studies. He dropped out of Geometry because he figured it would look better on his record to drop out than to flunk. His other classes weren't going much better.
The atmosphere at Jefferson High was also heating up as summer approached. Brian says that he experienced the strangest, scariest coincidence in his life toward the end of 9th grade. He was sitting peacefully in third period lunch, and another riot broke out! It wasn't quite as severe as the incident in the school across town, but it too, made the national six o'clock news.
Also toward the end of the school year, an interesting piece of paper was passed out in all the homerooms. Brian read his copy with disbelief. The city school system was trying an experiment patterned after successful school educator A. S. Neill's Summerhill school in England. It was to be called School Beyond Boundaries (SBB). The idea is that this small high school would have no teachers. The eleven staff members would be former teachers who would now be called counselors. They would guide the students in learning whatever they wanted to learn! The city of 500,000 residents were all potential teachers. In other words, if a student was interested in fashion design, the counselors would find people in the city who were working in fashion design, and set up an arrangement where the interested student could volunteer and study under the expert. If interested in car repair, s/he could learn in a gas station, for instance. The basics would be met because the students would be shown the relevance of math, history, English and so on in their pursuits. A student learning wilderness survival skills would be encouraged to do a mathematical analysis of the flora, write reports about experiences in the woods, and so on. The page went on to say that it was being presented to all the high school students in the entire city and maximum enrollment for SBB would be 174 students.
Brian was delighted! He knew this was the only way to save his school career. But he was also freaked out by the maximum of 174. He knew he absolutely had to get in, and was sure there would be a huge waiting list. Brian got home as soon as he could so he could show his mother the page. He was very concerned that she'd say "no," that it was just too unconventional. Instead, she said, "We'll take it up with your father." When his dad got home, he signed the agreement! Brian thinks in retrospect, they knew how messed up his education had been, and they too, knew this was the only way out.
The next morning, Brian went to school a half-hour early, to be first in line to present the signed paper at the school office. He was convinced the line would be hundreds of students long. But there was no one there. The office was 'business as usual.' It turns out that not all parents were like Brian's. They couldn't believe that SBB would be any good for their kids. When school started in the fall, the enrollment was short by 25 students.
In SBB, Brian studied photography by auditing classes at the community college. He loved that because he got to spend time in the college darkroom. He also studied automotive technology. This was accomplished under John Matheson, an amateur car racer who built his own Indianapolis-like cars from scratch. Brian also enjoyed that, although it lasted only a few weeks. John was rather busy, so Brian was mostly unsupervised. During the short apprenticeship, John had Brian assemble a metal lathe that was in scattered pieces on the floor, and learn how to use it.
By this time, Brian was more interested in bicycle technology, but car repair was just fine with him, too. Brian was slowly turning his parents' one-car garage into a little bike shop. He started doing free repairs for the children in his neighborhood, and enjoyed trading parts with his buddies. One of his friends, Garret, had started riding with the local bike racing club. Brian admired Garret, and although Brian didn't think himself fit enough for racing, he enjoyed the mechanical end of the racing scene.
As an aside, I'd like to mention that Brian's lack of fitness was probably due to the way he ate. Thanks to his parents, he thought a diet that was primarily soda, candy bars and snacks was normal. For a while, his mother supplied him with seven boxes of Pop-Tarts per week. No wonder he didn't have enough energy to participate in racing.
Another aside: Although 30 of SBBs first students were seniors, the school had not decided on a way to graduate them at the end of the year. The school was trying to be very democratic at first, giving students and staff equal voice in decision-making. Most of the initial Wednesday afternoon 'town meetings' were devoted to working out a way to certify graduates. Just weeks before the end of the first year, they decided that in order to graduate from SBB, a student would have to adequately complete three tests. The student would have to read a newspaper and be able to comment intelligently on the content. A student would have to be able to repair a toilet. And finally, a student would have to present a thesis project focusing on a topic of the student's choice.
At age fifteen, Garret got an under-the-table job at a local bike shop. No matter that it was more about dusting the bikes on the sales floor and cleaning the bathroom than actual bike repair, Brian was jealous! He would have loved to have a job in a real bike shop.
But such was not to be. No other bike shop wanted to hire a fifteen-year-old. So Brian had to content himself with his little garage operation, building bikes, rebuilding the same bikes, over and over, and doing the occasional repair for a neighbor.
Brian wanted welding equipment. He knew that would expand his horizons. But at fifteen, he wasn't legally able to sign the papers necessary to rent welding tanks. He had the money, since he had started charging money for his bike repairs and used parts. But no tanks. Finally, he talked his mother into signing the papers.
Brian had read books on welding, but had never actually lit a torch. The day the tanks arrived, he hooked everything up, the gauges, the hoses, and the torch itself. He tried on the goggles, and adjusted the elastic strap. Then came the big moment. He had to light the torch. An experienced welder knows how insignificant that is. You just open the valves, set the gauges, and light it. But Brian sat there sweating for a half-hour before he got up the courage to light the thing! When he finally made his first attempt, he used too little pressure. It lit for a split second, then extinguished itself with a loud pop! After a shaky ten minutes of rebuilding his courage, he raised the pressure and tried again. And voila, he had a flame!
Brian practiced, and practiced. Soon he was making all sorts of weird bicycle thingies ranging from home-made unicycles, to a 90-speed bike. That's right, he welded a 6-speed cluster onto an internally-geared Sturmey-Archer 5-speed hub, and hooked it all onto a bike with a triple chainwheel. This bike had four shifters. First gear was so low on this bike that just setting a foot down on a pedal would cause the front wheel to jump an inch into the air. Taking the concept of overdoing things a bit further, Brian added a third caliper brake.
One day, riding the 90-speed bike past Jefferson high school on the way to a SBB meeting, Brian heard one of the students revving an engine for all it was worth, evidently driving fast down a back street in first gear to impress the girls. Next thing Brian knew, he was flying through the air, landed with a thump on his back, and skidded several feet down the road. The kid in the car had been looking at the girls, not the road, and hit Brian! It turns out Brian was OK, just frightened. His jacket was worn almost all the way through at one elbow. Another few feet of skidding, and he would have had a serious elbow injury. The kid driving the car got out immediately, and was so shaken by what he had done, that his pants were soaking wet. Brian noticed that the rear wheel of his bike was badly bent - but not unrideable, so he asked the driver to pay for it. Brian asked for, and received $20. He was actually satisfied with that, because when he got home, he just spoked another rim onto the wheel, and all was well.
When Brian was almost sixteen, he asked for a job at a local car repair shop, a small operation with room for four cars inside, about twenty cars in a junkyard out back, and two mechanics, one being Frank, the owner. This shop specialized in British cars, especially Land Rovers. They sold new Land Rovers also, and kept an inventory of two new cars in stock. Frank told Brian to come back when he was sixteen.
He arrived after school on his birthday, and was hired on the spot. On that very afternoon, his first task was to remove the engine from an MG sports car. Again, without supervision. But he managed to perform the task without difficulty. Once the engine was suspended in the air on a chain, Brian asked Frank where to put it. Frank pulled out a wooden creeper and said to set the engine down on that. What Brian didn't know is that this creeper is what the other mechanic, Tom, a big, black-bearded, burly guy, used to roll himself under cars. While Tom was having a smoke out back, Brian did as he was told and lowered the engine onto the creeper. It creaked a bit, and then shattered, while the Frank laughed and laughed. Tom got back from his break and was about to snap Brian's neck but at the last second Frank stepped up and said he told Brian to do that. Some joke!
At the end of that first day, Brian was proud as a peacock. He thought of himself as a real car mechanic. He was also covered in black grease from head to toe. The shop did not provide overalls. In fact, they didn't even have lifts. Evidently, to pay for his new Land Rovers, Frank had sold his lifts, so all repairs under cars had to be done with jack stands and creepers.
Once Brian got home, it took him an hour to get somewhat clean. His hands were still stained dark. The next day, same thing. Brian was happy, but came home very dirty. And again the day after that, he required an hour to get only somewhat clean. Now, he wasn't sure he liked car repair so much. Especially since his back and one shoulder was bothering him from struggling to line up a heavy transmission under an old Bentley.
It took Brian two weeks to figure out car repair, at least Frank's way, wasn't for him. When he quit, Frank said he saw that coming, and thanked Brian for trying.
A couple of years passed. Brian entered his senior year at SBB. About a week into the school year, Brian was riding his bike past a store for rent. He took down the phone number, and when he got home, he impulsively called and asked for details. The store was indeed for rent. Yes, a bicycle shop would be fine there.
Brian never thought it through. He signed the lease. But he was still in school! What had he done? Worse, after paying the rent and deposit, he only had $400 left, plus a handful of tools, his welding equipment, a few boxes of bike parts, and six used bikes.
That wasn't enough to start a bike shop, and Brian knew it, so he started a fix-it shop, specializing in bikes. And, he dropped out of school. Of course that's not recommended for people who are still in school. After all, high school is free, you might as well take as much as you can get!
The store had been a witchcraft supply store, believe it or not. The former renters painted the floors and ceiling black, with little reflective stars. One wide rickety table was left in the back of the store, with a hundred paper bags containing various herbs.
At first, Brian couldn't even afford paint, so he started out in a store with black floors and ceiling. Thankfully, the walls were white. He did put together a wooden display counter, dividing the store in two. There was the 'front room,' and the 'back room.' The front room was small. Just enough room for people to bring things in for repair, and to display Brian's half dozen bikes. The back room was mostly empty except for a single workbench, a pegboard proudly displaying Brian's tools, a pile of boxes, and his welding tanks. He made a paper sign for the windows, got a cardboard box to hold cash, and he was in business.
Lucky for Brian, the neighborhood had a lot of foot traffic. I don't think Brian had figured out that foot traffic would be a necessary ingredient for starting a store with no advertising budget.
Repairs came in starting on the very first day. A woman brought a lamp with a frayed cord. A couple of guys actually hauled in a washing machine that needed a new timer. A set of dining room chairs came in that needed to be re-glued. And, one bicycle! It had a flat tire.
On the third day, a bearded fellow wearing slightly tattered blue jeans and a T-shirt came in with a Kirby vacuum cleaner. The vacuum was running slow, noisy, and sparking. Originally, it was worth a lot of money, but now it was at least 15 years old. Brian checked it out. It would need to have the commutator turned, and new brushes (little carbon items in the motor that conduct electricity to the rotating portion) would have to be made. Brian reluctantly told the fellow it would not be cost effective to fix it. The man said, "But how much?" Brian said, "If you really want that fixed, it would be $120." The man, who Brian assumed certainly wouldn't have the money, and would be much better off finding another vacuum for perhaps $10 at a garage sale said, "Sure, go ahead. The upstairs maid likes this vacuum."
Brian started the fix-it shop in the autumn, a couple of weeks after school started. It didn't take long for him to figure out he'd have to come up with a way to heat the place. There was not yet any money for electric heat. The store did have an old fashioned chimney, so Brian welded up a wood stove out of a 55-gallon barrel, got some stovepipe from the hardware store across the street, and he was all set. Except for something to burn. Brian had no firewood.
That problem was solved by the owner of the hardware store. He had volunteered to demolish a neighbor's garage. His one expense was going to be hauling the wood to the landfill. He hauled it to Brian's store instead. Brian burned the wood all winter, paint and all.
Being seventeen years old, Brian didn't think about how the neighbors might like having burning paint fumes permeating their neighborhood. He just went ahead and did it. He was like that. He just did things. He was almost autistic in a way. He didn't seem to notice other people. Especially their needs and desires. But it was also part of his success. Nothing was a problem.
By December, he had gone to the city offices and was official with all the right paperwork. He contacted some bicycle wholesalers, and got their catalogs and secret price lists. He was actually a few dollars ahead, so he placed his first ever inventory order. He bought $200 worth of bicycle accessories, in quantities of one or two each, just in time for the Christmas season. It turns out no one bought any of the accessories, but the general repair business saw him through the winter.
One day in early spring was particularly sunny and warm, and on that day, Brian sold four of his six used bikes. Bicycles with bent wheels, flat tires, and needing tune-ups started coming in for repair.
At first Brian had quite a juggling act getting the parts in the nick of time to complete repairs on schedule. In the evenings, he often rode his bike over to another bike shop to buy what he needed, paying nearly the full price. The other stores typically gave him a 10% discount.
Spring turned into summer. Brian put up a sign saying he was buying broken bikes, and he fixed them up for sale. He did a lot of repairs. His friends Garret, Sam and others would visit from time to time, but the store was still all Brian.
I was his first customer-friend, to the extent he made friendships.
There was a young woman or two in his life, but he didn't talk much about them, and they didn't seem to last long. I don't think they could relate to his 'come hell or high water' personality.
In mid summer, Brian was proud to announce he had purchased six new bikes from a wholesaler. But what stupid bikes! When they arrived a week later, I couldn't believe what he had purchased. He had one child's bike, one junky bike that you could buy for less than he paid wholesale at Wal-Mart, and four entry-level bikes that were one notch better than you get at the department stores. OK, those four were OK, but the other two weren't going to sell. It turns out they didn't. That one low-end bike stayed in the front room gathering dust for two years.
Fortunately for us all, Brian was taking mental notes. His next bicycle purchases, which came only weeks later, were better bikes. He also started filling out the store with a good variety of parts and accessories. One day, I noticed a new paper sign in the window: It was now "Brian Bailey's" Bikes. No longer "Brian's Fix-It Shop."
Brian was becoming swamped. He started to hate the telephone, because every time it rang, it took him away from the repair work. He was working ten hours a day, at least. In desperation, he tried to hire me! I was just barely smart enough to decline.
He ended the season with two professional mechanics that he did manage to hire. As winter approached, he did not have enough money, or work, to keep them on. Brian had had a great first season. He had $10,000 saved up to get through the winter. He also had 20 pairs of cross-country skis.
He planned to rent the skis in the winter, but that didn't go so well. The few people who rented the skis often brought them back damaged. But what did work was selling skis, boots, poles, bindings, wax, and all that goes with cross-country skiing. He also got a two-square-foot glass display case, in which he put a dozen assorted Swiss army knives.
The above picture was taken a year or two later. That's the Swiss army knife display case, just to the right of the woodstove. That wasn't the main stove. That one was a decorative one he had installed in the front room. You can see the top of a unicycle leaning against the case. Notice the Campagnolo display just above it. Because it was a high-theft neighborhood, Brian quickly learned to keep all the inventory in the back room, on shelves behind the counter, with one of each accessory wired to display boards on the walls. People would ask for this and that, and Brian, and later his salespeople, would get the things from inventory shelves in the back and bring them up to the sales counter.
Those Swiss army knives sold as fast as he could reorder. Just before Christmas, he had sold 300 knives, and was now stocking multiple copies of each of 47 models. And a couple of bikes sold for Christmas, as well as some locks, fenders, carriers, and bicycle repair tools.
People kept asking whether the shop could do downhill ski tune-ups. One of the reasons Brian was successful in business is because he listened to his customers and tried to provide what they wanted. Brian knew a fellow who had worked in a sports shop that sold bikes in the summer and skis in the winter. This fellow, Sid, worked with Pete Silverman, an inventor of household electronic gadgets who had made millions. Pete was also an avid downhill skier. He worked a couple of days a week in the ski shop as a part-time ski mechanic, just to have something interesting to do - certainly not because he needed the money. He liked tinkering with ski bindings, and spent quite a bit of time on the sales floor, just being a sort of minor celebrity.
One time many years earlier, Pete was caught in an avalanche, and spent more time than he would have liked getting back to safety. He made it, obviously, but not without frostbite damage to one hand. The hand looked and worked normally, except he had no feeling in that hand. This made it difficult to do work with screwdrivers and drills and such things, but he managed OK. But every now and then, he'd stab his hand with a screwdriver, or drill a hole in his hand, and wouldn't notice until someone said, "Hey Pete. You're bleeding!"
So, Pete recommended Sidney Crossburg to Brian. The arrangement Brian and Sid made was that Sid would run his own ski tune-up and repair business out of Brian's shop. Brian called it "workbench rental." Sid would pay $80 per month to do the downhill ski work, and could keep all the money the customers paid.
On his first day, Sid brought some waxes, P-Tex candles, an iron, scrapers, belt sander, and his various tools of the trade. Brian put another of his famous paper signs in the window advertising downhill ski repair. From the very first day, Sid had work. Ski tune-ups were coming in. So that evening, Sid went out and bought himself a nice pair of cowboy boots. Looking good was important to Sid . He was like so many of us in the world: When he had money, he spent it. Brian saw a disaster on the horizon, so he reminded Sid several times that he was expecting the bench rent to be paid on time the next month. Guess what? When the time came, Sid didn't have the bench rent, so Brian threw him out.
Despite the one-month foray into ski repair, Brian made it through the winter. He even managed to paint the black floor, so now it was industrial gray, and the formerly black ceiling was now white. During the next several years, the shop grew and grew. At one point, Brian built a partial wall between the front and back rooms. Then a year later, he tore the wall down. In the newspaper, it was reported that Brian Bailey's Bikes was the fastest growing business in town. I don't know how they came up with that statistic. They probably just made it up.
Brian invested in all sorts of tools. At first, he didn't think they'd get much to use, although they did get used considerably. Initially he bought them for show. He said dial indicators, big air gauges, drill presses, and equipment of all sorts impresses the customers, and that's good for business. He ended up getting two metal lathes.
The big one got quite a bit of use. The little one was set up for one silly operation: cutting the ends off over-long kickstands. As you can imagine, there wasn't much use for that operation.
The big lathe, normally an expensive piece of equipment came to Brian as a sort of windfall. He couln't yet afford the price of a new lathe, so he started asking many of his customers if they knew of a used lathe for sale. One day, a twelve-year-old boy said, "Yes, my grandmother has one." The boy couldn't remember any details. Brian assumed that the lathe was probably an old wood lathe, something he couldn't use, but just in case, he called the woman. It seems her husband had passed, and she just wanted to clear out his workshop. The machine was indeed a metal lathe, in good condition, complete with a wide range of accessories. She wanted $200 for the whole set.
He also bought three pneumatic repair stands. I have not seen any before or since, and I don't have any idea where he got them. They were actually antiques. Almost all modern bike stands are opened and closed manually.
These had big concrete filled bases with small foot-pedals. You could step on one side of a pedal, and the air-powered jaws would close around a frame tube or seatpost. Step the other way, and they'd let go. The stands made very satisfying "huh" sounds when closed on a bike, and "Shhhh" when opened. All the mechanics loved these. Sometimes, the mechanics would play around, tossing wrenches, brake pads or bolts onto the other mechanics' footpedals, hoping to release a bike, which always scared the hell out of the mechanic who's stand had been released. The mechanics generally managed to catch the bikes before they crashed to the floor. One day, Brian dropped a little 8mm wrench on his own footpedal while he was tightening a bolt. He caught the bike by the chainwheel, which left a series of punctures in his palm spaced exactly 1/2-inch apart. After that, he welded sheetmetal guards above all the footpedals.
The repair stands were rather monstrous in a way. The jaws closed with tremendous force. As Brian found out, they were capable of crushing a bicycle frame tube if the air pressure was not regulated. He soon learned to set the pressures to 60 PSI and make sure all the mechanics clamped only seatposts, raising seats temporarily if needed, and put rags between the jaws and the seatposts. It always seemed to me that someday a mechanic would catch his hand in one of those with dire results, but it never happened.
Brian moved the sales counter back several feet so the front room was larger and the back room was smaller. The mechanics didn't mind, because Brian expanded into two apartments upstairs, using them for storage and a rental repair shop. He also expanded into the basement under two stores. For that, he needed Steve Juneau.
Sandy-haired Steve grew up in Juneau, Alaska. Yes, he was part of the founding family, but didn't manage to inherit any money, so he worked as a carpenter. He was delighted to get a small indoor job in the winter. Brian had worked out arrangements to use the basement under two stores, but had no access. The only stairway was under a trap door in a hallway leading to upstairs apartments, between the bike shop and the shoe repair store next door.
Steve's job was to build a ramp in the back room so bikes could be wheeled from the sales area, through the repair area, down the ramp, and into storage, where Brian had installed hooks to hang up to 140 bikes by their front wheels.
It took Steve two days to complete the project. The ramp was very professional, excellent in fact. It made the shop so much more 'professional' as customers would see their bikes being wheeled into a separate storage area, and when they came to pick up their bikes, salespeople would come wheeling the bikes back up the ramp.
On the day of completion, we had a sort of party, and being all young, we did get a bit rowdy. It started with a large diameter log that Brian had rolled into the middle of the repair area, next to the antique wood stove he had purchased earlier that winter. The wood stove was appropriately named "Alaska No. 14."
There's the Alaska No. 14, with Carter, who you'll meet later, finishing a custom frame held in one of the pneumatic repair stands, before it gets sandblasted and painted.
The log was used for splitting firewood with an axe. No one thought it was weird that this was done indoors, or that wood chips were sprayed all over the entire repair shop.
The mechanics claimed they were as good with a hammer as Steve. Then some of the salespeople chimed in that they were good with hammers also. So an impromptu contest was created: Against a stop watch, each contestant had to run down the ramp, grab a 16-penny nail out of a bag, bring it back up the ramp, and pound it into the log. They each did this three times. Steve won handily. That led to a water war. Somehow, we got started by filling various tools, sprayers and whatever we could find with water, and spraying or dumping water on each other. Soon, not only were all of us soaked, a couple of surprised customers inadvertently got wet, but a good bit of equipment and inventory got wet also. Then, Johnny Red, another fellow you'll meet later in this book, grabbed a can of spray oil, and added that into the mix. Before our little celebratory war was over, the shop and personnel were a wet, oily mess. But we sure had fun! Weeks later, we were still wiping oil drips off the occasional bit of inventory.
At one point, I asked Steve why he wasn't still in Alaska. It seem he had a cabin way out in the woods. One cold winter day, he came back from a hunting trip and found someone had broken into his cabin. The only thing they took was his wood stove. He hit the road, one thing led to another, and he ended up here.
A few days later, the ramp attracted us into another contest. A mechanic had accidentally dropped a bent rim (outer ring of a wheel with no spokes) down the ramp, where it then rolled into a wall and crashed with a surprisingly loud ring. Carter announced that he was sure he could make a louder noise. "Go for it," we sang out in unison. He took a length of bicycle frame tubing, and pressed a pneumatic hammer with a chisel against it. Then, we were off and rolling. The mechanics all had ideas as to how to make the most noise. It turns out running an industrial vacuum cleaner outside of its container isn't all that loud. What's loud is how Brian won the contest. He took a huge armful of old steel handlebars, and threw them down the ramp.
An industrial vacuum figured highly into the week following the construction of the ramp. Tony, the owner of the shoe repair store next door, was an elderly gentleman, who had been in the same business, in the same location for forty years. At some point, many years ago, he had a large industrial vacuum installed in the basement. In his shop, he had a horizontally mounted shaft about ten feet long which turned a large assortment of sanding and buffing wheels. This arrangement was hooked up to the vacuum system so that all the dust created would be carried away into the basement.
I'm sure it worked great for years, but in time, the system rotted away. The vacuum still worked, and it carried dust away from the shaft machine, but it simply piled it up all over the basement. By the time we got that ramp made, the basement was two feet deep in dust from wall to wall. We filled two full-size pickup trucks with bags of dust.
Expansion continued. Brian set up a paint shop on the roof, and a sandblasting room in a hallway behind another store.
As Brian Bailey's Bikes grew, the knowledge grew. It went from being an ordinary neighborhood bike shop into being a 'pro' shop. This means that all the racers, serious tourists, and bike aficionados did their business with our shop. Brian carried a full line of Campagnolo equipment, racing clothing, and all the right stuff. Much of the inventory on display in the front room wasn't even intended to sell. For instance, Brian purchased a Suntour sprocket board that had all the individual sprockets from a rear wheel, in every tooth size from 13 to 36. Those sprockets seldom sold, but they looked great - very professional.
There's the Suntour sproket board, at the very left edge of the picture, behind the main sales counter.
He also bought some weird bikes, again, just for display. He had some unicycles, some recumbent bikes, and a replica penny-farthing. That's the old fashioned kind of bike with a huge front wheel, and a little back wheel.
From time to time, one or another of us would take that monster out on the side street and ride it around a bit. They're very dangerous. To get started, you have to push it along, put one foot on a peg near the rear wheel, then jump, essentially launch yourself into the seat. At this point, you catch your feet up with the pedals, and pedal hard, so you can build up speed, and stop wobbling. If you don't make it in time, you crash in a big heap. Stopping is also a precarious affair. You can't just lock on the brake. Do that, and you'll be pitched forward like a cannonball. The best way to stop a penny-farthing (in case you ever have to know), is to jump backward off the saddle, and land with one foot standing crosswise on the back tire, so your foot jams in the fork and locks the back wheel in a skid.
Speaking of skids: So far as I know, Brian holds the record for world's longest skid. One day, he put 120 PSI in the back tire of a road bike, took it to a flat dead end street, and got up as much speed as he possibly could. He then leaned far over the front wheel so there was almost no weight on the rear wheel, and locked up the back brake. He went 374 feet. The back tire blew out 50 feet before the end. He might have gone farther, but he was laughing so hard, he fell off.
The shop was selling hand-built frames by Colnago and other prestigious manufacturers. One day, Brian ordered the raw tubing and bits and pieces to make a custom frame. It took him several weeks, but he completed the frame and it came out alright. He built some more for friends, including Garret, who placed second in the state road racing championships on it. He also started building a whole weird series of mountain bikes. None were conventional. Then he started in on unicycles. It turns out there is quite a market for custom-built unicycles. Brian, and a few of us could ride one. Some of us could even ride six-foot tall unicycles. But when Brian was commissioned to make a nine-foot tall unicycle, all went well until someone had to test ride it. Everyone was afraid. Finally, Brian himself tried it out. He climbed up on the roof of a VW van along a chain-link fence at a tennis court. Finally, sitting up there jittering for a while, he took it for a quick figure eight, proclaimed it OK, climbed back down, and that was that.
One customer ordered a convertible unicycle. It had one seat, pedals and crank assembly, one wheel and fork assembly, and three interchangeable middle sections, with matching chains. Install the smallest middle and chain, and it was a 4.5-foot unicycle. The middle one was six-foot, and the tall version was eight-foot. The original idea is that the owner wanted a regular six-foot unicycle that would collapse so he could carry it on a bicycle. The idea evolved into the triple-version.
Another unicycle that Brian built just for his own amusement was a unicycle that had three wheels. The lowest wheel contacted the ground. There was a wheel above it, and a top wheel to which the pedals were attached. These wheels worked like gears, but instead of having gear teeth, the tires just rubbed against each other. As you can imagine, the middle wheel turned backward. This was one of Brian's few failures. He couldn't get enough traction between the tires. Most of the time, it worked fine, but a quick movement could cause the tires to slip, and that made it unsafe.
Then Brian made some ultimate wheels. These are unicycles with no seat, and no frame. Just pedals mounted on a wheel. It turns out they aren't all that difficult to ride, as one of our mechanics later proved. Will, the shop daredevil, could never let a challenge go unmet.
Most people take two or three weeks to learn to ride a unicycle. Will climbed on while leaning against the fender of Brian's Land Rover (an old used one Brian purchased from Frank, his former employer). He just sat there for literally ten minutes, sort of rocking back and forth - getting a feel for it. Then, suddenly, he rode away from the car all the way down to the end of the block.
So, when an ultimate wheel was presented to Will, he did the same thing. He stood on it while hanging onto a fence, and just rocked back and forth for a few minutes. Then he rode away as if he always rode ultimate wheels. The hardest part of riding an ultimate wheel is owning one. You don't just pick one up at K-Mart.
The trick with an ultimate wheel, until you really get the feel for it, is to use a large diameter wheel, perhaps 26 or 27 inches (700mm), and put electrical tape, or something slippery along both sides of the tire. Your lower legs become the bearings. You trap the tire between your legs, and let it rub, so it doesn't flop over to one side or the other.
Brian started getting more and more orders for custom frames. In his early frame building days, he was delighted. But later on, he grew bored with it. He figured that if he raised his price from the industry standard to nearly double, the number of orders would go down. In fact the opposite happened. People don't know how to tell the difference between a good custom frame and a great one. The only distinction they have to gauge is the price. And the people in that market all want the best, so they end up buying the most expensive ones. Orders doubled.
He showed Carter (who you'll read about later on), how to build frames. Carter became the resident framebuilder, while Brian spent more time on the really custom machines, such as specialty bicycle trailers, circus bikes, and recumbents.
One winter, Brian taught basic bicycle repair as a way to generate money in the off-season. This went over well, so in subsequent years, he'd teach framebuilding to six people at a time. This was quite lucrative because Brian charged money for the course, sold the raw materials for the frames, and then most of the students bought everything to fully equip their new frames.
Just as Brian was starting to realize that the guy going back and forth in the truck was trying to kill the guy laying in the snow, the driver stopped the truck, got out, and started jumping on the guy in the snow. He had big boots on, and was jumping right on the guy's head.
Brian didn't really understand the scene, but knew he had to do something fast. Still carrying his shovel, he walked over and shouted, "Hey, what's going on?"
At that point, all in one smooth motion, according to Brian, the guy reached into his open driver side door, grabbed a rifle off the gun rack, and shot Brian.
Brian fell to the ground, confused. At this point, the driver, realizing what he had done, collapsed sideways on the driver's seat, holding his head in his hands. This is where the brave neighbors came into play. They had all been watching from the relative safety of their front porches. Now that the driver had subdued himself, several people surrounded him. Some others attended to the guy in the snow, who wasn't seriously hurt.
The rest of them surrounded Brian. In just a few minutes, several more neighbors came out, and there was a thick circle of people around Brian. He looked up, and told them to leave him alone - he was fine. Then he told them someone had been shot, and what were they all doing looking at him? It took quite a bit of convincing before he could believe that he had taken a bullet. He did notice that he had some pain in his knee. At the time, he attributed that to somehow bumping himself in the knee with his snow shovel. He said it felt like the way your elbow feels when you hit your funny-bone. He tried to stand up, and was able to hobble up on one leg. And then he noticed that there was blood soaking all the way up to his hip, and dripping off his pants cuff. Since he was in shock, the voices sounded muffled, distant. He vaguely remembers someone in the distance frantically yelling out, "�Call 911". Then came the sound of the siren.
On the way to the hospital, he passed out. When he awoke, his leg was immobilized, and people there told him what had happened. It seems the guy driving the truck, and the guy laying in the snowbank were brothers. They had been drinking and had an argument. The driver somehow pushed his brother out the door. That's when the repeated jamming into the snowbank started happening and when Brian came along.
Brian had been shot with a 22-caliber hollow-point bullet, fortunately at a grazing angle. The surgeons had removed a small portion of his kneecap. The good news is that a hollow-point doesn't carry much weight, and so the damage can be light. The bad news is, it fragments upon impact, so can cause painful and long-lasting consequences.
Brian recovered quickly. He was able to run his bike shop by the spring season. The only thing that bothered him is that his bike riding days were over. Anything over five miles and his knee would swell up. He could still commute on a bike just fine, but no more racing, no more touring. "No problem," Brian said. "I never won any races anyway, and have always enjoyed bicycle technology more than actual riding." That's true. I knew him before, during the recovery, and after, and he always was much more interested in fixing and customizing bikes, than he ever was in riding.
Rick was an organic miller by trade. His mill was tiny, and manually controlled. He did not have the big, automated milling machines that the huge flour companies have.
One day Rick came in with his face quite red, as if sunburned. Except it was winter, and had been cloudy for days. Brian asked him what happened. Rick said, "Oh, just another explosion." Rick explained that his whole job is about adjusting the distance between the rotating millstones. If too far away, the flour would come out sandy. If too close, the stones tend to overheat, and with all the flour dust in a mill, that can be explosive. Seems the explosions were harmless enough, just a brief flash, but still, we worried about Rick.
Rick struggled through the entire course. He wasn't all that good with a hacksaw, grinder, or painting equipment, either. But in the end, he had a good frame that he had built himself. Rick didn't make a whole lot of money, but he did spend what it took to fully equip that bike with the best hubs, derailleurs and so on. He even took a wheelbuilding course from Brian and built his own wheels. (He was much better at wheelbuilding than framebuilding).
Finally, his bike was all finished, and it looked great!
It was Spring, and the weather was good enough to do a little tour on his new bicycle. He rode up through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and into Canada. He had a wonderful few weeks. He told us of one occasion in which he came alongside another bicycle tourist. The two of them soon stopped at a roadside picnic table. They had a wonderful conversation, even though Rick spoke only English, and the other fellow spoke only French. I asked what they talked about, and Rick said he had no idea, but they talked for an hour, each in his own language.
Upon his return, some friends threw him a party to celebrate. While partying, the bike was outside on the porch of his friend's house. During the party, someone came along and stole Rick's bike.
One Friday over dinner, Brian bragged about his three Judys. I cannot verify how true this is, but knowing Brian, it is probably 100% accurate.
First their was Judy Cramden, a tall brunette woman who didn't smile much. I met her, since she stopped by the bike shop from time to time in the second and third year. She seemed so serious. When she spoke, it was very careful and articulate, with a slight Virginian accent. Brian seemed to like her very much.
Later we found out he proposed to her, but he changed his mind a couple of weeks later when he saw a picture she had painted. She was a very good artist, and was in college to become a medical illustrator. The picture was of her beloved dog. The terrier was facing to the left. Her head and neck were true to life, almost photographic. But as your gaze moved to the right, you noticed that her shoulders and chest dissolved into ribs and muscle. By the time you got to her belly, it was all intestines. Her back toes were just bones. This disturbed Brian very much, and he called off the engagement.
That was the last we saw of Judy Cramden.
It was shortly after that when Brian left on his bike for Florida. (This was the year before he was shot in the knee.) He relates that one evening he was standing next to his bike on a busy sidewalk, looking up at a fleabag hotel over a bar in a small town in North Carolina. It was the only place he could stay that night, and he wasn't looking forward to it, because he saw a sign in the window of the bar saying, "Elks Meeting," scheduled for that very evening. He knew he wouldn't get much sleep. He had just ridden 100 miles. His muscles were tight. He was tired. He felt an odd sensation on his right calf. Almost as if someone was gently squeezing it.
In fact, someone was. A beautiful blond had kneeled down behind him and was feeling his calf. When he turned around, she said, "I just wanted to see what it felt like." That was Judy Baker, although she called herself "Tuesday." She invited him to spend the night and the next two days at her farmhouse. He says he was tempted to call off his trip and stay there forever. But as you know, he didn't.
Later that very same year, he met Judy Doblinski. Not tall like Kathy Cramden, but quite short, and a bit heavyset. Although her name was eastern European, she had strikingly Asian features. She had a very captivating smile on the rare occasions when she did smile. She was a serious flute student at the university. Later, Brian told us she was a sexual monster, much to his joy at first, but after a few weeks, he decided he was done with Judys, ready to move on to women with other names, and evidently more moderate sexual appetites.
The next day he didn't feel any better. In fact, he was worse. He went to the doctor who did some tests, and told him nothing. A week later Sean was even worse when the test results came back. The doctor and the lab had found nothing. The doctor suggested Sean come into the hospital for more tests. Sean couldn't come in. His hands were too sore and stiff to drive his car. He called 911 and took an ambulance ride. He stayed in the hospital for two weeks, while he just got so bad that people had to bring him everything, and even hand-feed him. Finally, the doctors had a diagnosis, maybe. They figured Sean had arthritis. Evidently, some forms of arthritis can affect people of any age. He had it in his hips, his knees, his shoulders, his wrists, and his fingers. Essentially everywhere.
Out of the hospital, they bought him an electric wheelchair, but he couldn't use it. It hurt too much to get out of bed. He developed bed sores, so the insurance company got him 24-hour nursing. The nurses turned him over in bed every few hours.
Sean became very familiar with reruns of Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies and the Hill Street Blues.
As you can imagine, that did not satisfy him. Two years after the basketball game he made a life-changing decision. He was going to resume a normal life. He didn't know how. He didn't think it was possible. But it was either try or die.
So, on that fateful day, he got out of bed. It took an hour. It took two more hours to get back in bed, but he was determined that the nurse wasn't going to help him. The next day, he did it again. Out of bed. Into bed. A day's work.
The magic became evident a week later. He was able to get out of bed, walk a couple of wobbly steps, and get back in. With less pain!
A couple of weeks after that, he was able to lean his bike against a chain-link fence, and climb on. Oh, he couldn't ride it anywhere, but he was happy as a lottery winner just to sit on his bike.
And then he could ride it! He was able to go a block to a friend's house. Stopping was inelegant. He just let himself fall off on the lawn. He crawled to the door, and was invited in.
Another year went by, and Sean was able to get on his bike unassisted, ride 50 miles, and stop properly any time he wanted. He started playing basketball again.
When I met him at age 28, he was perfectly healthy, as if it had all never happened. I knew some of his friends, who said it was all indeed quite true.
It seems she had been riding in traffic a few years earlier, and a car pulled out of a driveway, right into her path. She swerved and missed the car, but fell off the bike, hiting her head lightly on the curb. It was a sufficient bump that she passed out, and was rushed to the hospital. She had had a concussion. No big deal.
Except something was different. She was having a heck of a time listening to people. If there was any sort of talk in the background, perhaps another person, or a TV running, she could not hear what was being said. And she started noticing other symptoms.
She could no longer go shopping. She'd go into a store looking for something, perhaps a box of laundry detergent. What she'd see is all the boxes of detergent at once. If there were six brands and a hundred boxes on the shelves, she saw them all as a sort of clump. She couldn't, absolutely could not, pick out just one, no matter how hard she tried. She couln't even imagine picking out one.
She was unable to select one item from many in a wide variety of situations. This had gone on for three years, so it was no doubt permanent. Obviously, this profoundly impacted her life.
As time went on, Brian started making custom frames, and taught the skill to Carter. Carter became very good at making frames, and in time was our resident framebuilder. Later, he became the shop manager as well.
We visited Carter's apartment from time to time. It was not particularly fancy. The only evident opulence was his $20,000 stereo system. To me, it looked like any old stereo, but my friends who knew better were blown away. Interestingly, it didn't even sound that great. I was expecting a richer, fuller bass.
He'd host occasional mini-parties for the employees and best customers of the shop. Carter provided snacks and sparkling cider. He wasn't a drinker, and neither were most of the bike shop personnel.
He had a bike with a burgandy-brown frame he made himself. It was outfitted with nice components, but not the very best. Oddly for a bicycle mechanic, he had a nearly new car, one of those new-fangled Volkswagens. I kind of think of that as a 'girlie' car, but a self-assured man can drive one just fine, as Carter proved.
During the fall and winter that Brian rode his bike to Florida, he left Carter in charge. A couple of weeks into his vacation, Brian called the shop to see how things were getting along, and talked to one of the mechanics. The guy was complaining because there wasn't any air. It seems Carter decided to overhaul the air compressor. It didn't need overhauling, but Carter just wanted to take it apart and put it back together.
Carter, although generally conservative, would go off on fliers like that from time to time. He'd just do what he wanted to do. Like coming in at 11am. He knew full-well that the shop opened at 10am, but he just wasn't going to show up that early.
One day, Carter showed up even later. It seems he had a little car trouble. He had pulled into a freeway rest stop, having taken a leisurely morning drive, but his car didn't turn off. Or more specifically, when he turned it off, it started up again. The starter motor just didn't want to let go. He figured that it would be bad for the system to just let the starter go and go, so he figured out what to do. Since the car had a manual transmission, he parked with the bumper touching a tree. Then he turned off the key, and let the starter motor do its thing with the car engaged in high gear. The car just harmlessly pushed against the tree. And kept pushing, until the tow truck arrived. By then, it was too late. The starter had burned out, the bumper was dented, the battery had melted down into a puddle, contaminating the engine compartment with corrosive acid, and the insulation had melted off the cables. The car was still under warranty. VW gave Carter a new car.
This isn't the worst car story we heard in the bike shop. One of our good customers was a college student. Her parents bought her a brand new compact car. It was a front-wheel drive with a manual transmission. The car was scheduled to have its first 3,000-mile oil change, and she was all set to take it to the shop. However, there was another college student, a guy who wanted to impress her, who told her he could change her oil, and it wouldn't cost a cent. She was reluctant, not the least of which was because this fellow was not really her type. But it seemed to mean so much to him to impress her that she let him go ahead. So one Saturday morning, they're in the parking lot next to her dorm, and he took out the oil drain plug. The oil poured slowly into a pan, and she asked, "It's kind of thick, isn't it?"
He replied as if an authority, "That's the way it's supposed to be."
He put the plug back in, changed the filter, and then poured four quarts into the engine. She drove for a few blocks and the car quit running. She figured it was warranty problem of some sort. A tow truck came and took it to the shop.
It was not a warranty problem. It turns out her friend had removed the transmission drain plug, not the engine plug. He removed all the transmission oil, and put four quarts more into the engine than it was supposed to handle. So, her new car's transmission burned itself up, and the engine blew its seals. The repair bill would be over $6,000. No one had that kind of money, so she bought a bicycle.
Back to Carter. We never did find out how wealthy he was, but one day, I got a glimpse. Being a trusted friend of Brian, I had free reign of the back room, where all the repairs were done. I noticed Carter's checkbook laying on the workbench when he left for lunch. I'll admit I was a bit naughty, but I couldn't resist just taking a quick peek inside. His balance was $178,000. I have no idea how much more he had in savings, investments, property, and who knows what.
Carter had one more unlikely feature. He had an upper-class English accent. That was not particularly surprising, until we discovered that his parents had normal American accents.
A week later, the man was back. He needed another bike. Again, he quickly selected it, paid for it, and declined a lock. Brian tried to give him an inexpensive lock, but the man would not take it.
This happened two more times in the course of a couple months.
The fifth time the man appeared, he wanted to know if he could have a bike today (Tuesday), but pay for it on Thursday. Being such a good customer, Brian said "Sure."
Thursday came and went. Another week went by. Finally, Brian decided to go to the man's apartment and collect in person. I went with him. We walked up to the door and Brian rang the bell. The man answered after a moment. Brian said hello and was polite, letting the man know that if he didn't have all the money, a small payment would be sufficient for now. The man said he didn't have anything. Brian said, "Hey, I sold you the damn bike because you said you'd pay me on Thursday."
At that point the man exploded, but not in the way one might expect. With wide and wild eyes, he yelled back with "HOW DARE YOU USE THE LORD'S NAME IN VAIN?!" We were rocked back on our heels, and it took a moment to wrap around what he was talking about. Finally, it became clear that Brian's use of the word damn is what set this fellow off. He looked more angry than anyone I have ever seen. We quickly backed away, figuring that a man this insane might be truly dangerous. Brian never did collect money for this fifth bike.
What he wanted in life, so far as I could tell, was involvement with the bike shop. I think his version of heaven would have been to have a job as a mechanic in the shop. Unfortunately his manner made quite certain that Brian would never hire him in a million years.
Jeremy's first tactic was to spend as much time on the stools at the front counter as possible. It bordered on ludicrous seeing him try to find reasons to stay in the shop, and waste the salespeoples' time with idle conversation. They weren't having it. They resoundingly ignored him as they took care of real customers.
It was around this time that Brian instituted the rental shop upstairs. Anyone could come in and for $15 per hour, they had access to a fully equipped bicycle repair station. Of course Jeremy spent much time in the rental station. But that didn't hold his attention for long, because Brian instructed the personnel to stay out of the rental station as much as possible, since customers working on their own bikes would buttonhole the mechanics and salespeople for instruction, which was not cost effective. Since the salespeople and mechanics were all paid on commission, they weren't about to spend time up there, anyway. So, customers had to struggle through repairs themselves. It wasn't so bad, because the repair station was outfitted with some repair manuals. Most of the customers were bright enough to successfully finish whatever repairs they started. Sometimes, they'd pay a mechanic to fix whatever mess they made. Jeremy was one who had to pay a mechanic to finish from time to time. He'd just go crazy and take something deep apart, without knowing how to put it back together. He's the one who taught Brian to close the rental repair station two hours before the main store, so customers would have time to get their bikes back together.
Sometimes, when the rental station was occupied, Brian would let people come work in the main bike shop. He did not prefer this, because the rental customers would invariably slow down the mechanics. A couple of times, Jeremy worked in the back room with the mechanics. One day I watched Jeremy for a few minutes, and noticed he was doing everything he could to appear to the customers in the front room - who could see into the back room - as if he were 'one of the guys.' He was trying to joke around and look like he belonged, but by the way the mechanics ignored him, frowned, or were slow to respond, it was painfully obvious that he really didn't fit in.
Speaking of painfully: One day he was working on his bike downstairs. This seemed odd, because I distinctly remember Brian telling Jeremy that he was no longer allowing anyone in the downstairs shop other than the mechanics. It was even more odd, since I was pretty sure no one was upstairs. Brian was out to lunch, and I didn't want to say anything, so, as usual, I just hung out.
Brian returned from lunch, saw Jeremy, and walked like a commander right up to Jeremy and was about to read him the riot act. But he stopped short. Jeremy turned to him with a very pained look on his face. He seemed to have tears in his eyes. I was wondering what kind of game Jeremy was up to when suddenly he said in a quiet, too-high voice, "Please remove these." Then in a loud voice, he screamed, "TAKE THEM OFF!"
What in the world? At this point, he opens the palm of his left hand, and seemed to be holding a pair of vice grips. That in itself was a reason Brian would never hire him (as if there was a hope). A real bike mechanic pretty much never uses vise grips. They leave jaw marks on things - very unprofessional. But, ah. . .wait a sec. . . He wasn't exactly holding the vice grips. In fact, he had somehow managed to clamp them down, tight, onto the palm of his hand, and blood was starting to trickle out. In the blink of an eye Brian unlatched the vise grips, Jeremy screamed, and turned away, more-or-less folding in on himself.
Brian never reprimanded Jeremy, because none of us saw Jeremy ever again.
It's true that Billy Red was a good mechanic. Not great, but really good. When he fixed a bike, it stayed fixed, but his specialty seemed to be ordinary repairs and tune-ups. He never seemed to want to learn welding, machining or any of the customization skills.
I think one reason Brian liked Billy Red is that he was the lowest mechanic on the totem pole. He only worked when there was work. All the other mechanics had first pick of the schedule. Billy only showed up if there was enough work for all four mechanics. Billy was willing to take the entire winter off. So, Billy was just the man to fill out the schedule so there was never too much or too little work for the other mechanics.
The reason I was so surprised that Brian kept him on is that Billy was constantly late, and often didn't show up at all.
Billy had a hobby. He liked to bust up bars. It seems he'd go out drinking in the biker (motorcyclist) bars, and either pick a fight, or somehow get involved in a fight. Before the evening was over, he'd owe the management hundreds of dollars for broken bottles, broken stools, and once, a broken mirror. This happened at least three times that I know of.
It was not easy for Billy to pay these bar bills because his wages were already garnished. It seems Billy's drinking problem had already gotten him into big trouble. Evidently one night, when trying to drive home, he went through an underpass on the wrong side of the road, hit another car head on and paralyzed the driver. A ten-year judgment had been placed against him. Anything he made over $10 per hour was given to the guy he injured. I heard that he was on the second ten-year interval. The judgment was infinitely renewable. One day, Brian sold Billy his old Land Rover. Two days later Billy hit a lamp post, totaling the car, without getting a scratch on himself.
In time, Billy seemed to fade away, working in the shop less and less. I never found out what happened to him.
One day a woman came in and said that her daughter, Helen, is good at fixing bikes. In desperation or perhaps politeness, Brian took Helen's number. He called her, and although she had no professional experience, he was willing to try her out for a day or two and see if she was trainable. After all, she was really interested in bicycles, knowledgeable of bikes, and it was sort of a novelty. You don't find all that many women who are skilled with wrenches.
So she came in one morning. She was a great looking girl. Blond hair, slim build, her long straight hair pinned back, and sporting educated-looking glasses. She was wearing the bike mechanics' uniform: blue jeans, T-shirt, sneakers. But, she was nervous. I think this job was really important to her. She wanted to make a great impression. It seems that for many people between the ages of 16 and perhaps 35, working in a bike shop is the ultimate dream job.
But the poor thing was so nervous that she was kind of tongue-twisted when Brian handed her an apron, guided her to a work station, and gave her a run-down on how the paperwork is handled, what's expected, and so on. I remember that he specifically told her twice to ask him, or any of the mechanics (but not the salespeople), if she had any technical questions.
Helen started on her first tune-up. Fortunately for her, I think, Brian was tied up on the phone placing a wholesale order, so he wasn't watching her closely as he typically did with a new hire. She dropped screwdrivers, brake pads, and a pen perhaps five times. An hour later she was still working on the tune-up. That's not unexpected for a new mechanic. After all, they have to figure out how the pneumatic repair stand works, where the tools are, how to get parts out of the inventory. But after an hour, she wasn't even half-done. Worse, and this is the part that Brian commented on later, she never, once asked anyone for help. It's as if she was determined to do the whole thing herself without any assistance, because that would have somehow invalidated her. She just didn't get it. At this point, Brian was willing to train. He had given up on finding already professional mechanics. He would have worked with her, let her learn on company time, if she would have let him.
So finally, it was time for Helen to get Brian to inspect the bike she had tuned up. Normally, a new mechanic brings Brian over for an inspection, and Brian finds a small adjustment here or there that could be better. In fact, I have never seen him perform an inspection without finding at least one little thing wrong. Brian was always polite and empathetic about it, talking about the things he himself did wrong, or often launching into an irrelevant story to take the edge off, but still, it's intimidating for the mechanic.
But that day, with Helen, he never got a chance. You see, there is a chain across the opening between the front and back rooms. The salespeople lift the chain off a hook, wheel a bike through, then re-hook the chain. On the customer side of the chain is a sign that says "Authorized Personnel Only." In her nervousness, Helen didn't see the chain. In full view of three salespeople, two customers, a couple of mechanics, and Brian, she barreled through the opening, got caught at hip level by the chain, and tumbled right over the top, landing on her hands, and on her head. She ran out of the shop in tears. We didn't see her again, and Brian wouldn't talk about it. My guess is that he begged her to come back, but she was just too shy or embarrassed to return.
During the time Brian was having trouble finding good mechanics, he invited Sam to try out. Sam was generally mechanically inclined. He lived in a cabin behind his parents' house that he had built himself, complete with wood-burning stove.
I wasn't there to see the training period, but evidently Sam learned fast and well. He became the head mechanic in the shop within months. Because Sam was a rather quiet type, it was easy to pick on him. We could make fun of him, and he'd just smile sweetly, but in an unspoken way that reminded us that we'd better understand the limits.
To give you an idea of his quiet, and accepting ways, he went along with Brian in his Land Rover once to another city, ninety miles away, to visit a bicycle wholesaler. Once they were done, Brian got back on the freeway, but headed in the wrong direction. Sam quietly said, "Don't you want to go East?" But Brian, in his big-headed, overly-confident, obstinate way, said, "No, I'm headed the right way." Sam just smiled and said, "OK." For forty minutes they rode in the wrong direction, and Sam never said another word. Then suddenly, Brian realized he didn't recognize the landmarks.
In our teasing, we started calling him "Sexless Sam," because he had no girlfriend, and never seemed to express any interest in women. This was at a time when we were all just ridiculously girl-crazy.
Interestingly, one of the salespeople was blatantly gay, but we never teased him, at least not about that. It's not because we were politically correct. We were often pretty horrible about religion, sexuality, and so on. I think in our young foolishness we were actually quite politically incorrect. It's that Sam was just more of a target, with his accepting ways and all.
This gentle teasing went on for well over three years. Sam never seemed to mind. He never defended himself. I think any of the rest of us would have gone out of our way to say or to prove that we weren't gay.
Then one day, as normal as could be, a knock-out gorgeous woman came to visit Sam at lunchtime. This was his new girlfriend Susan, a weather reporter for the local TV station. I don't know how he met her - I never asked. Soon they married, had two children, and have remained happily married to this day.
More than once, Sam told Brian that he never, ever wanted to be a salesperson. This was kind of unusual, because after Brian switched to commission basis, the mechanics all wanted to become salespeople, and the salespeople all wished they could be mechanics, each assuming the other department made more money and had more fun.
Sam was uncomfortable around people he didn't know. I believe the word 'shy' sums it up nicely. He didn't want to deal with customers. Furthermore, he was a a bit weak with numbers. We found out later that he was dyslexic. Here's how we found out:
One day, Sam came in 15 minutes early. He had keys, and this was typical for him. Normally, he would lock the door once he was inside. On this day, he forgot to lock the door. A few minutes later a customer wandered in, and wanted a patch kit. Sam, being the only one there, figured he could handle something as simple as a patch kit sale, and handed the fellow a patch kit. It was $1.79 plus tax. I'm not sure how Sam figured out the total - $1.92. Perhaps he had heard the salespeople selling patch kits and just remembered that it was $1.92 with tax. Sam walked behind the cash register and figured out how to work it, or at least get it to open. The customer handed him a five-dollar bill. That's when Sam froze. He literally froze - solid - like a marble statue. Perhaps 60 seconds later, Brian and I walked in, and witnessed the weird scene. There was Sam, standing like a block of ice with a five-dollar bill held tightly in one hand, the claw-like fingers of his other hand on the pennies in the cash drawer. Not moving a solitary muscle, his face was morphed into a mask of terror. While Sam stared vacantly into space, the patient customer was expending great effort in attempting to teach Sam how to count change back, ". . .take three pennies. . ."
Brian jumped behind the counter, gently nudged Sam aside, and gave the customer his change. Sam recovered a moment later, but he didn't smile for the rest of the morning. Brian never told anyone. I never told anyone. And I'm pretty sure Sam never told anyone.
If you dared Will to do pretty much anything, he'd try it. One time, out in a closed sand quarry with Brian and his Land Rover, Will wanted to hook his foot on the back of the jeep, and be towed across the sand. Typical Will. Brian complied, sort of, dragging Will for perhaps 10 feet at one mile per hour.
Will later climbed dangerously high in a tree, and took a crap, watching it splat on the ground. Typical Will.
I don't know what his psychology was exactly that he seemed to have to try dangerous, crazy things, but it probably didn't help that when he was 14 years old, his mother came down with brain cancer, and slowly died before his eyes over the next two years.
Shortly after her death, someone dared Will to start up a backhoe at a street corner construction site. Will was drunk, and the keys were in the backhoe, so you can imagine what happened. In case you don't know, a backhoe is a tractor, usually painted yellow, with a arm and small scoop in the back, and a big scoop in front.
But Will, being Will, had to go the extra mile. Not only did he start the backhoe, he took it for a joy ride. It took him only a moment to figure out where the clutch, gearshift and brake pedal were. He drove it down the street, and into the woods on the far side of a freeway. He drove and drove. This was late at night, and he had been waking up neighborhoods. Someone called the cops. They chased him for 15 minutes. They kept going down dead-end streets that ended at the freeway, only to turn around, go a couple of blocks and then down the next dead end street. At the end of the street, they would look across the freeway, and there'd be Will, putt-putting along the other side of the freeway on the backhoe.
At one point, he put the front scoop up high, and the backhoe started bouncing furiously back and forth. He set it down, and it dug into the dirt, almost throwing him out of the driver's seat. He backed up, and finally mastering control of the scoop, raised it a foot, and kept driving along. He turned deeper into the woods and was headed to the city landfill. His plan was to ditch the backhoe there and walk home.
He didn't quite make it. The backhoe ran out of fuel. So he abandoned his ride, and started walking home. A couple of minutes later, the cops finally caught up with him. They asked, "Hey, did you see a guy about your height, about your weight, wearing a white T-shirt like you. . . Hey, it's you!
They arrested him, and he was charged with felony theft, driving without a license, without insurance, and a bunch of other things, but somehow most of the charges were dropped. He ended up paying a $400 fine. I think the district attorney heard about his mother's recent death and decided to go easy on him. I think Brian might have been the one that told the DA.
Will stayed on at the bike shop for years. He settled down as time went on, eventually marrying and getting a job in high tech, which is interesting, because he didn't go to college for computer science or anything else.
Josh, medium height, slightly long hair, and just a touch overweight, was the most quiet-spoken guy I have ever met. Even though Brian often invited Josh to hang around in the back room, he loved sitting around the bike shop on the stools in the sales area, just watching and listening to all the 'carryings-on.' We assumed he was a mailman, although come to think of it, he was often there at all times of the day, and we never saw him in a US Postal Service uniform.
Josh loved three-speed bikes. I don't know why. In time, he had Brian build him a custom frame and he installed the best components. But no derailleurs and all that. He had Brian put a three-speed hub in the middle of the super lightweight rear wheel.
It seems he had been a military air traffic controller, and like civilian air traffic controllers, they are overworked. The story is that he cracked up on the job and never recovered.
He demonstrated his weirdness in a variety of ways. For instance, he might dress in seven layers of shirts and jackets on a hot summer day.
He was always quick, jerky, and nervous. One day, Brian and I went to an auction where a bike shop that had failed was being sold off. Larry was there. He was having a conversation with someone, and in a typical Larry move, he took a bite out of his rolled up newspaper. Realizing what he had done, he chewed it up and swallowed it.
Larry was ranked the second best chess player in Ohio. He played a game with Brian on the counter of the bike shop on a slow winter day. Brian and Larry sat on some stools Brian had put in. The customers loved these stools, because just like in an auto parts store where customers have to wait a bit, they could sit down. And, the shop regulars loved these stools too, because they could sit around talking 'shop,' sometimes for hours.
Larry had a three-minute clock. Brian had infinite time. Larry was blindfolded and facing away from the chess set. He had to be told Brian's moves, and called out his own moves. Larry won in twenty moves, with well over two minutes left. He then had Brian reset the chess pieces, and called out every move from the beginning from memory.
A typical statement from Larry upon entering the store might be something like this: "Brian, what would you do if your mother had a camera installed in her bellybutton, and she decided to paint your house in red and white stripes? Because, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, the Beatles are not done recording yet."
Brian and the salespeople kept the phone on top of the sales counter. One day when it rang, Larry, sitting somewhat like a vulture on one of the customer stools, snatched it instantly, before Brian could grab it. He answered "BB Bikes," listened for perhaps five seconds, then yelled "FAGGOT!" and hung up. A moment later the phone rang again. The person on the other side asked Brian, "What was that?" Brian briefly explained Larry. The caller was the sister of one of the mechanics. Brian then threw Larry out of the store. Larry spent the next half-hour trying to look casual while leaning this way and that against a newspaper vending box across the street. Finally, Brian felt sorry for Larry, and let him come back in.
No doubt letting Larry hang around the store was bad for business, but we all encouraged him, because he was so entertaining!
Brian told me later he didn't like answering the way he did, but felt it was his moral obligation to say "yes."
Before we knew it, Oliver went out to the suburbs and knocked on the doors of the wealthiest residents in town. He just told them he wanted to start a bike shop, and wanted to borrow the necessary money. He raised $60,000, and within weeks, he had started a bike shop only six blocks from Brian's store.
Oliver then proceeded to do everything wrong, which didn't help Brian a bit. First, he bought as many new bikes as he could from the wholesalers. Then he took out full-page newspaper ads and spent the rest of his $60,000 on advertising. He focused on the new bikes, not the profitable sides of a bike business, which are parts, accessories and service. He then hired seven mostly inexperienced people to sell his bikes.
With all that advertising and all those salespeople, he didn't sell as many bikes as he expected, because Brian, and the other bike shops in town, knew what they were doing, and the customers could tell the difference.
So he heavily discounted his bikes. I believe he was selling many at, or below cost. Oliver seemed to have fallen into the trap that many retailers do, which is that they confuse gross with net income. If thousands of dollars are going through their cash registers, they must be making money, right?
Once he started discounting bikes, Brian tried to explain to him how one has to make more than one spends, for Oliver's sake, and for Brian's. You see, the discounted bikes weren't helping Oliver any, and at the same time, they were wasting profitable sales that Brian could have made. Oliver seemed to politely listen, but he went right on with his television ads, and selling new bikes at a huge discount.
This might have been alright, if Oliver was also selling the more profitable accessories with his bikes. But he had all the wrong stuff in stock. Like, how does one end up with six pairs of size 13 shoes, and no 8s and 9s?
Oliver spent most of his time in his office, away from his own sales floor. He let his seven salespeople stumble all over the customers. He was a stickler for paperwork. I remember a customer coming in during one of the rare times I visited Oliver's store, and ask the price of a child's bike that didn't have a price tag. The salesman asked Oliver, who said, "Just a minute. Let me look it up." He then started digging around in a filing cabinet, but couldn't immediately find the invoice. He kept looking, and looking, and looking, while the customer politely waited, standing on one foot then the other, and glancing at his watch. After 15 minutes, the customer gave up and left. Five minutes after that, Oliver returned, saying "Here it is. . ." In any other bike shop, the salespeople would have been instructed to take a guess. Even if the guess was off by $10, the sale would have been a profitable done deal, and everyone would be happy. In a worst case, the salesperson would ask the proprietor, who would take a guess.
Strangely, anytime he wasn't in his own store, Oliver was found in Brian Bailey's Bicycles, sitting on the customer stools and talking 'shop' with Brian and the salespeople. Go figure!
We started teasing Oliver a little bit, and he took it well. Too well. Brian's salespeople and even the mechanics got down to really earnestly mocking him, punching him in the shoulder, and just getting meaner and meaner. And Oliver kept turning the other cheek. One morning one of the mechanics dragged an old tattered brown tweed recliner to Brian's shop, saying the customers would love it. It only had a few small tears in the fabric. Brian told him to get rid of the chair, which he did later in the day. But not before Oliver settled into the chair. At that moment, two of the mechanics approached, and as one, they tipped the chair entirely upside down, with Oliver in it, and pressed him into the floor. Oliver got a sprained wrist out of the deal, and everyone felt bad. We had finally realized that we were hurting him in more ways than physically.
In time, the situation balanced out in Brian's store. He was selling fewer bikes than before Oliver came along, but Brian had always made his real money from parts, service and accessories, so he was financially fine.
But Oliver wasn't doing so great. Within a year, he was $140,000 in debt. The bicycle wholesalers had extended him credit after his initial orders.
You'll never guess what Brian did about Oliver's debt. I'll tell you a little later on.
Neils was fluent in English plus four Eastern European languages. In fact, his sons, ages five and six at the time, could speak three languages, and the six-year-old was reasonably proficient in writing in English, and Romanian, or some such language.
Neils got what few orders there were in our city for printing in these other languages, but business wasn't great. To supplement, he started selling camping gear out of his store. Still, he struggled in business. Not many people wanted to buy camping gear from a print shop, and not many printing customers trusted a camping goods store to do their jobs right. Besides, Neils' inventory was out of balance. For instance, he had replacement mantles for lanterns that he didn't stock.
Neils was intelligent, but not nice. He started refusing all refunds. One time, as I was visiting in the back of his store, someone returned a raft they had rented. Neils went into the back room and stuck a screwdriver in the side of the raft. He then went back out and showed the hole to the customer. He said he couldn't return their deposit, since they had somehow punctured it. He came back into the back room with a big smirk on his face, which I was rather sickened to see, and quit visiting him. Shortly after, as I rode my bike past his shop one morning, I noticed it was totally empty. In the middle of the night he had taken his presses, cutters, paper, and all the camping gear. . . somewhere. No more Neils.
One was an ordinary mountain bike, which he played with, but seldom rode seriously.
One was a road bike with an ordinary low-quality frame that he had converted into a coaster brake bike with a front caliper brake. Brian said that the idea that's so popular in the cities of riding fixed gear bikes ("fixies") is ridiculous, just way too dangerous, as well as inconvenient. When you can't coast around corners, you can't go very fast, because when you're leaning a pedal will come around, hit the ground, and cause a spill. He preferred his coaster brake bike, and it was his main commuting machine.
Brian had put an antique Bendix two-speed kickback hub on a cruiser. The kickback is a large diameter, heavy coaster brake hub made in the 1950s and 1960s that has a planetary gear-set inside. As you ride away, it is in either high or low gear. If you pedal backward a bit, as if you were going to apply the brake, but not quite that far, it will shift into the other gear. I don't really understand what the attraction was, but he liked this bike quite a lot also.
One was a unicycle. He had spoked up a 700mm super-light sew-up wheel to an ordinary unicycle, and put short cranks on it. He could spin fast, and make that unicycle cover some remarkable distance in a short time. It was kind of like a fixed-gear bike however, in that it took a long distance to stop it. I argued with Brian more than once that it didn't make sense for him to dislike 'fixies,' and at the same time ride one in the disguise of a unicycle.
Then he had a bright red touring bike with all flat black components and trim. It was based on a custom frame he had built himself. It had a long fork rake, long frame dimensions, and was fully outfitted with panniers front and back plus a handlebar pack. This is the bike he rode to Florida the year before he got shot. Did I mention that he didn't ride back from Florida? He boxed up the bike, and came back on an airplane. I think he enjoyed Florida. He says he took a job there as a bike mechanic in a small bike shop. A couple of weeks later, they discovered that he actually owned a bike shop up north. I think they fired him when they found out.
He also had another bright red bike. It was almost identical, but it was a racing bike. It had a short fork rake, was very lightweight, and had a close range set of gears.
His seventh bike was the one I liked the most. It was a white Moulton MK IV. This is a bike that has been long out of production. It has a long, tall frame, and 20-inch wheels, so it looks like a folding bike, but it doesn't fold. It has telescopic fork suspension. The rear suspension is a rubber ball mounted between the rear triangle (frame members), and the back of the seat tube. The Moulton MK IV is equipped with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub. Garret borrowed it one day, screwed old fashioned toe-clips into the rubber pedals, and entered a ten-mile time trial. He won.
Brian also had a car which has been mentioned a few times in this book. It was a 1969 Land Rover, one of the weirdest old cars one can get. They look like Jeeps and are very primitive. No air bags. No padded dashboard, in fact. To turn on the headlights, you flip a toggle switch down. On a '69 Land Rover, the turn signals are not self-canceling. You have to turn them off after you make a turn. You have to pull out a choke knob to start the engine, and if you forget to put it back in after the engine warms up, it dies at the next intersection. There are three seats across the front, and seating for four in the back. The seats in the back are mounted over the wheels, facing each other. Finally, you have to double-clutch when shifting gears. Brian's Land Rover had a spare tire mounted on the hood, in front of the windshield. Brian had put a bumper mount bike rack on the front of the car so he could carry two bikes. For a while, the Land Rover was a light green with the paint dusting off quite severely. He had removed the roof, and left it off all of one winter. For a while, after Brian had overhauled the transmission, there was no floor, so you could look past your feet and see the road going by underneath. Finally, he put the floor back in, and the top back on. Then, Brian had the car painted a metal-flake forest green, with all black trim, and it looked just great! Later, he sold it to Billy Red. You know how that turned out.
In fact, living in an upstairs apartment on the same street as the Brian Bailey's Bikes, I was witness to two unnecessary deaths.
One night I heard a skid and a crash 100 yards south of the shop. I stepped out and saw the problem right away. On the sidewalk was a broken motorcycle. In the middle of the street was a car with a big dent in the driver's side door. Also on the sidewalk was what at first appeared to be a big bag of laundry. But no, it was a girl. She was laying an a rapidly growing pool of blood. Some passers-by came to her aid right away. I watched one lift her into a sitting position, unstrap her helmet, and lift it off. As he did so, a cupfull of blood poured out of her mouth, the volunteer freaked, backing away, and she drooped back down to the sidewalk. If she wasn't already dead, she died within the next minute or two.
Also on the scene was a man standing wearing a motorcycle helmet who was just sort of cowering against the side of a building. He was the motorcycle driver, of course.
Another person showed up after a couple minutes. It was a middle-aged lady who just started shrieking and shrieking. Several people surrounded her, and did their best to comfort her. That was the dead girl's mother.
The exact story was pieced together later on. The young motorcyclist wanted to impress a girl he saw walking down the sidewalk two blocks to the north. So, he invited her for a ride. Being 15 or 16 years old, she accepted. He put the helmet on her, and she climbed on. At that point, he took off full blast, getting up to 40 miles an hour as fast as he could. Since the street was a 30-MPH street, he started passing cars on the left, swerving over the double-yellow line. But, as he passed one car, it turned left. That, of course, was the car with the dented door. The driver was thrown onto the sidewalk unhurt. The girl, sailed head first, smashing into a concrete wall.
One evening not long after that, about an hour after dark, three teenage boys wanted to get some liquor. They figured they'd approach some adults going into the liquor store, give them the money for their booze, and it would be easy to get drunk that night.
These white boys approached a lone black man. He was tall, slim, good-looking, perhaps 30 years old. He said "No." He wasn't going to support youngsters trying to get drunk. Unfortunately, they felt this was a reason to taunt him. They surrounded him. They started yelling at him and poking him in the chest a bit. He became frightened and started backing away.
I heard the boys yelling, and came running downstairs. Not yet having learned Brian's lesson about interfering in a violent situation without having a plan, the time when Brian got shot, I ran forward. I guess I was thinking that with an attempt to sound like an authority, and with my extra weight, I might cause the boys to slink away. This was my semi-plan, even though I didn't know a thing about fighting. I was still a hundred feet away, but coming up quickly, and the boys continued to advance on the man. He backed into the street, and wham! Hit by a car. He died instantly.
Brian never liked having a liquor store in the neighborhood. We talked about that several times. I don't know if it was because the man who shot him was drunk at the time, or just because there were so many incidents involving that store.
Like the time a car pulled up in front of the bike shop. In the process, the front wheel of the car hit the curb, bounced over about a foot, then back off the curb as the car came to a stop. Ever so slowly, an elderly man with a cane climbed out of the driver seat, and worked his way across the sidewalk. He opened the door of the bike shop, walked in about fifteen feet (5 meters), and looked around for a good half-minute, seemingly confused. Then he said, "This isn't Anton's Liquors, is it?" At that point, he turned around, hobbled slowly out of the store, got back in his car, and drove away.
Anton hired illegal aliens for various tasks, including making deliveries for him. Brian said he couldn't imagine something so stupid. What if one of the workers was in a traffic accident? Well, something like that happened, and unfortunately I saw it. I wish I hadn't. It gave me nightmares for months.
The liquor store van was parked behind the bike shop, because there was a common parking lot there. The delivery man, a slightly chunky fellow who appeared to be a typical family man of Mexican descent, while holding a cup of coffee in one hand, opened the door and started the engine. He was still standing next to the van as he turned the key. What he didn't realize is that the parking brake was not on, and the van, with a manual transmission, was left in reverse. The engine kicked to life immediately, and the van started rolling backward in an arc, since the wheels were turned to the right. It looked like the man tried to jump into the driver seat to stop the van, but the front left tire caught his foot and as the van continued in reverse the open door bowled him over. The van continued backward, running entirely over the man's leg. Then it rolled off the leg going just a bit further until it smashed into a parked car and came to a stop. In the mean time, the delivery man who amazingly didn't yell or make any sound, was in such tremendous pain that he rolled at a high speed on his elbows about thirty feet (10 meters) across the parking lot with his leg flailing every which way. As he came up to the edge of the bike shop building, he stopped rolling and some people came to his aid right away. I'd like to say I was one of those people, but I was too paralyzed to do anything - except write about it years later.
During the following months, the man was seen in the neighborhood from time to time, first in a wheelchair, then on crutches. For a while, he had a cast on his left leg, and another on his left arm. In time, the arm cast came off, but the leg cast lasted throughout the winter. I am happy to report that finally he was spotted walking along with no casts, and very fortunately, no limp. We never did find out whether he sued Anton or not. My guess is that Anton gave him several thousand dollars to 'forget the whole incident.'
Then one day, we saw several police cars, firetrucks and an ambulance park all around the liquor store. A harried-looking policeman came in the front door of the bike shop and instructed everyone that we were not to leave the building until further notice. We tried to ask him "why" but he wasn't saying.
We figured it was another incident like at Rick's Guitar Shop across the street. The previous year, Rick moved in to a two-story house that had been converted into a commercial building, living upstairs and establishing a guitar store downstairs. Brian thought he might enjoy playing guitar, so he went over and inquired about lessons. He said what he saw there was kind of weird. There were only about six guitars, a few packages of strings, an amp or two, a couple of stools, and nothing much else. Rick pretty much refused to teach Brian, saying his schedule was already full. Rick would sit on his front porch playing the melody of "Smoke on the Water" over and over again. Not knowing anything about the guitar business, we figured this was some kind of musician's exercise or something. Later we discovered that was the only song Rick could play. And, it turned out all the 'customers' were coming to buy pot, meth, and heroin, not guitars or lessons.
Rick himself seemed like a nice enough guy. He didn't turn up his guitar too loud. We'd wave when we saw him, and he'd wave back.
One day a whole bunch of police cars closed off the street and two trucks that looked like unmarked armored cars pulled up. A policeman came in the front door and told us not to go outside under any circumstances. We heard some popping, which at the time we figured was probably fireworks, becaus it couldn't be guns, could it? It was. Seems some of Rick's customers got into a friendly neighborhood shootout. When all the police arrived, we heard no more shooting, and nothing seemed to happen for an hour. The trucks and then all the police left. We had to read about it in the next day's newspaper to find out how it ended. All the shooters were apprehended with no injuries. We never saw Rick again, and the place was soon rented out to a dry cleaning franchise.
So here were again locked into Brian Bailey's Bicycles. Again we waited an hour with no news. Finally everyone left. We were quite curious as to what happened this time. All we know is that something happened in the liquor store. Brian, I, and all the people in the shop were too shy to ask Anton what had happened in his store, but in time the story got out.
A fellow who had been drinking came into the liquor store and demanded a bottle of Jack Daniels, but had no money to pay for it. He did have a knife, however. He pulled the knife, not on Anton, but on himself, threatening to commit suicide if Anton didn't give him a bottle. Anton pressed his silent alarm while the man backed himself into a corner, in the process knocking a dozen bottles off a shelf which broke all over the floor. The police came with their full SWAT team and tried to reason with the fellow, but he wasn't having it. Finally, they decided it was time to rush the building. As they poured through the front door, the man tried to carry out his threat. He stabbed himself in the forehead. The knife was too dull. All it did was give him a little cut, which did however, bleed profusely.
A month later, to Brian's great surprise, Anton came into the bike shop and apologized for the disruption in business.
Brian wanted to do something for the neighborhood kids, but didn't quite know what. He realized that many of the kids were being raised by drunken parents who had little education, and couldn't do much for their own children. Not too different from his own upbringing. He knew that these kids are at very high risk because they grow up in an environment that kind of says, "it's all hopeless."
As you know, Brian made some unicycles. In addition to custom orders for specialized unicycles, he also made one or two junkers to play with. Since he could ride one himself, he'd go tooling around the neighborhood from time to time. Sometimes the kids would yell out things like. . . well, I can't say it here. But sometimes they might say, "Hey can I try it?" or "How do you learn that?"
Brian put a quick-release seat pin on one unicycle, wrapped the seat in a towel, and let some of the teenagers try it out. One kid was particularly enamored of the unicycle, so Brian lent it to him. Brian then constructed another one, mostly out of junk parts, and lent that to another kid. Pretty soon, he had eleven unicycles all over the neighborhood. Many of the kids, ranging in age from ten to twenty, learned to ride the unicycles, and started to get together in the afternoons on a near-by dead-end street. They devised all sorts of fun, games, and competition. Some of the kids became excellent riders, managing to go backward, ride on one foot, idle in place, shoot hoops, and even juggle or play a musical instrument while riding.
It was becoming obvious that these kids started having hope. It was as if they were saying, "Hey, if I can learn to ride a unicycle, maybe I can learn to do other things." It was as if the new 'cool' thing to do in the neighborhood was something better than just hanging out, getting drunk, talking about the opposite sex in derogatory ways, and so on.
It could have gone on, maybe really turned into something. But, by the end of the summer, not a single unicycle could be accounted for. They had been lent to people who lent them to other people, been stolen, or broken and discarded. Brian was disappointed. He failed to see the bigger picture, and did not try anything similar the next summer.
They were a weird lot. Not in appearance. Perry Coruthers, who was nineteen years old at the time I met him, looked quite ordinary, being just an inch or so shorter than average height, with close cut brown hair. He was of medium weight, without glasses, and tended to wear bluejeans and T-shirts. More often than not his clothes were dirty, because he loved repairing bikes. I mean, he really loved it. Whereas most bike mechanics are proud of what they do, and enjoy the work, Perry lived and breathed bicycles. Brian seemed to really like talking shop Perry who would drop by Brian's store from time to time and perch on one of the stools in front of the sales counter.
Perry's father, John, was just a bit taller than average, had curly balding and slightly graying hair and did wear glasses. His nose had a web of red blood vessels on each side if you looked closely. Whereas John could fix bicycles, he tended not to, leaving the repair work to Perry.
You first noticed something was a bit off when you came to their bike shop. Outside the old two-story wooden barn-like store was the usual line of bikes you see in front of bike shops. But these were all used bikes, Included in the line were some very nice vintage bikes complete with fake gas tanks and shiny chrome fenders.
Stepping into their shop, once your eyes adjusted to the darkness, you noticed that the showroom was a mess. There were opened boxes of kickstands, piles of inner tubes, a floor pump here and there, random handlebars, wheels in various stages of disassembly, and quite a bit of dust everywhere. The back room, visible behind the sales counter, was pretty much the same. There was only one double-sided repair stand, an ancient Eldi cast-iron model, and an extremely antique "bike horse." This was a low wooden affair, somewhat like a Black and Decker Workmate, but more heavy-duty. It was designed to hold bikes upside down. This dates way back to the the time when bikes almost always had wide handlebars and usually didn't have shifters or brake levers.
There was a pegboard with the outlines of tools, but only two tools remained on the board - a pair of slip-joint pliers, and a huge adjustable wrench. All the rest of the tools were scattered around the back room along with droplights (caged lightbulbs on a long black extension cords), boxes, buckets and coffee cans of parts, an open can of grease, more floor pumps, ends of cables, piles of spokes, rags made from old clothing, and tires and puffy inflated inner tubes hanging off anything that you could hang tires and tubes off of.
And in the middle of it all would be Perry, as likely working on one of his own bikes as one for a customer or for sale.
You see, their bike shop was not particularly successful. In fact, I don't know how they managed to pay the rent month after month. They did not sell new bikes. They did not sell very many used bikes. Their inventory did not include much of what people normally wanted. They did specialize in classic bikes, when they could get them. Although a classic can sell for a lot of money, they don't sell all that often.
For some reason I could never understand, they had a dedicated clientele. People would wait for parts to be ordered that were instantly available at any other bike shop. They put up with repairs being late. They bought what Perry and John had for sale more than specifically what they needed.
I talked with John once, and learned a lot. It is true that they were usually a month late on the rent. And that on two occasions they had their electric turned off for non-payment. John wasn't too much concerned with profit.
Perry was autistic, or at least he had Asperger's syndrome. His condition wasn't too bad. He could communicate and function in society. But you could tell when he would turn almost any conversation into something about bicycles. He also had a fixation on the Lone Ranger. He must have seen reruns when he was a child. Perry used a lot of terminology from that show in his conversation. Pretty much everyone was "Tonto," or "Kemosahbee". On way too many occasions, whether appropriate or not, he would say, "Who was that masked man?" or "Hi-Yo Away!"
John had been a commercial illustrator, evidently reasonably successful. His wife died of cancer when Perry was a toddler, and I believe he felt unnecessarily guilty about Perry's condition - as if it was somehow his fault.
This caused John to drop out of his work, and take up drinking. He was a quiet alcoholic - not unlike Brian's father. Seems he would stay up late in the upstairs rooms over the bike shop where the two of them lived, and drink himself to sleep. While John was drinking and staring into space, Perry would be downstairs, fixing one bike or another, or watching sitcoms on a little 9" black and white TV set.
So, John had done the whole thing, the bike shop, for Perry. That was their life. They managed to hold it together for years. They may still be there to this day.
He had spent time as a Nader's Raider. These were young lawyers working under Ralph Nader, who was famous for cleaning the world of defective products such as dangerous cars.
Carl's white mountain bike was painted from stem to stern with splotches of flat black and brown paint. He said it was a theft deterrent.
Carl utterly surprised me one day when he pulled up in his Volvo station wagon. He was wearing his motorcycle helmet! I asked him about, and he said, "You can never be too safe."
In his final two weeks, he wrote an instruction manual for how to run the department. His successor, who does have a master's degree, follows that manual to the letter to this very day, being afraid to veer away from the successful procedures Kent designed.
So Kent had no income, and college is expensive! He did the impossible. Since it was early Spring, he rented a small storefront about ten blocks from Brian's store, and started his own bicycle store. Since he had very little money, he focused on repairs. He reinvested every penny, buying inventory as he could, and his store grew quickly. Four months later, at the end of the summer, he just closed his store, so he could go back to college. He had made $17,000.
Kent is now a partner in a very successful law firm.
One was Cedric O'Connor. He was mild-mannered, tall, athletic, and as black as a person can be, probably with pure African genes. as you might imagine, he didn't speak much. He was a very patient watcher of people, of life, of everything. He had a job as mechanical engineer, and I'm told he was brilliant.
Most deaf people can hear a little bit, but Cedric couldn't hear anything at all.
One day, Cedric bought an new convertible. He got a model with all the best accessories including a very good radio. Like many deaf people, he likes to be as normal as possible, and 'normal' people get good radios in their cars. He drove it over to the bike shop to show me and Brian. We couldn't get near it. He had the top down, and the radio tuned between two stations, turned up full blast.
Then Kent told Brian about Eli Sarov. This affable guy was a bit taller than average, and a bit heavier than average, but he looked like a Greek God with his chiseled features and curly dark brown hair. Eli was a student at the college. He was studying mechanical engineering, and was quite inclined. While he didn't know anything specifically about bicycles, Kent was sure he could learn quickly. This was at a time when Brian was still desperate for good repair personnel. So he took in and trained him in the ways of bicycle repair. Eli did learn quickly, and became 'one of us' right away.
Eli was fun-loving, and didn't mind a bit when we made fun of him, just as he made fun of us. That was the nature of everyone in the shop. We were always kidding around and teasing each other.
You would think that someone who is deaf would be especially careful when riding a bike in traffic. You'd think they'd be more visually observant. But not Eli. He was always a disaster waiting to happen. I was riding with him once when a car pulling a U-Haul passed us. Somehow, Eli was aware of the car, but not the trailer. Just as the car passed, Eli moved out to the left. The fender of the trailer clipped his handle bar. Eli's bike swung wildly, but he stayed upright and was unhurt.
Eli could actually hear a little bit. He once told me he hears vibrations and clicks. That's all.
One day, a half-dozen of us had ridden our bikes to an ice cream place. We were idling around out front eating our cones. Eli was sitting in his unobservant way on the hood of someone's car. The owner of the car returned. Eli didn't notice. The owner got in, and still, Eli didn't notice. The driver then beeped his horn. Eli heard that, and nearly jumped out of his skin!
One time he showed up with two hearing aids. I asked him, "Can you hear better with those?" He said, "What?"
He wore those for a week or so, then gave up. They only made things louder, not better.
One time ten of us piled into Brian's Land Rover (which seated seven), and went roller skating. The rink was tremendously noisy due to the real live organ music and all the kids rolling around, shouting to each other.
For an hour, we kept telling Eli, "Louder, Louder." You see, deaf people can read lips, and they can learn to talk fairly well, even if they have never heard their own voice. But, they can only guess at the right volume. When you hear deaf people, you'll notice they usually talk in a sort of loud whisper. This is what they have learned to do, since as children, they learned that talking loudly in most situations is unappreciated.
Eli was learning that he had to shout above the noise to be heard in the roller rink.
Suddenly, the music stopped. A man grabbed the microphone and told everyone to line up against the walls, since a little girl had fallen and couldn't get back up. While two men came to see if she was alright (she was), it became so quiet you could hear someone turning pages in a book. That's when Eli, as loud as he could, yelled, "WHAT THE F*&%'s GOING ON?"
While Eli started training as a bike mechanic, he made a better salesman, and seemed to enjoy it. The customers loved him. I think part of it was the novelty of communicating with a deaf person. So Brian switched him to sales.
One day, $20 was missing from the cash register. Brian figured it was just an error, but the next day, exactly $20 was missing again. Brian figured it had to be Eli, since he was new to the sales floor, and all the other people had been there a while and were trusted.
Not knowing for absolutely sure it was Eli, Brian let him go on the pretext, actually more or less true, that he had more salespeople than he needed. Brian didn't just fire people. He usually tried to find them positions in other bike shops. Brian found Eli a position at a big sports shop that had a bicycle section larger than many dedicated bike shops. The manager called Brian and asked about Eli. Brian feels badly about it now, but never mentioned the missing money to the manager.
Eli got the job at the sports store. Everyone in the store had chores besides their main activity. Eli's chore was to vacuum the rug in the sales room at the end of the day. On the third day, Eli noticed the vacuum wasn't picking up very well. He held the nozzle to his hand, and no suction. He then turned his attention back to where the vacuum was plugged in. There, he saw a semi-circle of laughing salespeople. They had unplugged the vacuum five minutes ago. Eli actually appreciated the joke. His wish was to be treated like any hearing person, and that included good-natured teasing.
Unfortunately, this story doesn't end well. Within a week, the manager caught Eli stealing a pair of high-end running shoes. He had carried the shoes out to the dumpster, which one of the employees thought was odd. The employee told the manager, who secretly watched the dumpster at closing time. Sure enough, Eli came by the dumpster and pulled the shoes out to take home.
Actually, the story does end well. A couple years later, I met up with Eli. He is now well established as a motorcycle mechanic, and just finishing his college education. We talked openly about the theft problem. He said it was a sort of kleptomania. He didn't need to take anything, but he found it challenging at the time, and in some weird way, he was getting back at the world for his deafness. He was still young, and after getting fired twice for theft, he cried for a few days, got on with his life, and became a much better citizen.
One of the mechanics fixed the flat while Adrian stayed in his chair. It had become quite common for people in wheelchairs to come to the bike shop for service. It didn't take long to figure out it was much easier to fix the chair while the customer stayed seated, then to move the customer to somewhere else. In fact, there really wasn't anywhere else to sit, except the stools in front of the sales counter, and for a paraplegic to sit there would be out of the question. But Adrian wasn't paralyzed. He had cerebral palsy or something like that, so his body was really quite twisted. He could stand up for brief periods of time, but his stance was odd and he was wobbly.
Adrian was a good looking person, with his tall, slender features, tightly curled shiny black hair, and Roman nose, if you could ignore his strange facial expressions as he tried to slowly pronounce words clearly enough to be understood.
His helper may have been a brother, but I didn't really see any positive similarities. They were about the same age, probably around 28 or 29 years old, and they both had curly black hair, but in other ways they seemed different. We saw this pair several more times, and oddly, the helper never spoke beyond the occasional "OK," or "Will do."
It seems after his first visit to our store, where he must have seen some of Brian's weird contraptions, such as the penny-farthing, the PPV (a low three-wheel pedal-powered car with a fiberglass body) and the unicycle that consisted of three stacked wheels, Adrian became interested in human-powered vehicle technology.
At first it was little things. He had his helper fasten mirrors, lights and additional handles onto the wheelchair.
Soon they were coming in regularly, buying hubs, forks, old used bike frames and all sorts of little tidbits that Adrian was having his helper build into machines. I saw a photos of couple of his contraptions. One was essentially a lawn chair fastened onto a four-wheel pedal-powered platform. Another was a three-wheeled version, with two front wheels and one in the rear. What his machines had in common is that they were quite clunky with nuts, bolts and brackets holding things together that should have been welded.
Brian loved supporting Adrian in his inventions, but was a bit frustrated when after suggesting that Adrian or the helper learn welding several times, Adrian continued to design everything with bulky, wiggly fasteners.
Brian had an area of wall above a double-wide door that he covered in broken bicycle parts. This included things like a Zefal pump that had been run over by a car, some mangled derailleurs, and a horribly bent wheel with spokes sticking out every which way. Many people talked about that wall. It was part of the bike shop ambiance.
One day, when standing near the wall with all the broken stuff, His helper, who never seemed to speak as much as a full sentence, pointed at the badly bent wheel on the wall, and said, "Adrian, that wheel is as wiggly as you are!"
We all laughed.
What she asked for floored Brian. She asked for a pair of top-of-the line tires, naming them by brand and model. She wanted a heavy-duty one for the back wheel, and a lighter, thinner one for the front. She knew what she was doing!
We didn't see her bike that first time, but later we did, and it turned out to be a very nice hand-built, long-frame touring bike with fittings for panniers front and back.
In time, we became friends with Carol, as so often happened in the bike shop between personnel and customers. It was a big cross-generational stretch for us, what with her being 64 years old, and us in our early twenties, but the common interest in bicycling bridged the gap. We discovered that Carol used her two-month teacher's vacations to tour by bicycle in Europe. Every summer she'd disappear for two months, then come back telling us about adventures in remote regions of Spain, France or Belgium.
Then one spring, she disappeared. Normally, she'd be in several times to consider accessories, or perhaps buy a replacement part or two in preparation for her next big trip. But no Carol. The shop was busy, so you wouldn't say we missed her, but in a way, we did.
One of her touring buddies told us what happened, solving the mystery. It seems Carol was in a group riding along the local canal path, one of the few long dedicated bicycle paths in our county, and a dog came after the cyclists. This is a common annoyance for bicyclists. Most bicyclists love dogs as much as anyone else, but we feel that people who own dogs that are likely to chase runners or bicyclists should make extra efforts to keep their dogs under control. Some of these dog owners even seem amused when their dog has scared the bejeepers out of someone.
No one called this dog back. The dog focused in on Carol. In a panic, she grabbed her tire pump and started swinging at the dog. For those who aren't familiar with portable tire pumps, they are typically a tube about an inch (2.5cm) in diameter, and one or two feet (30 to 60cm) long. They don't make a very good club, but when that's all you have, that's what you use. Or at least that's what Carol used. But things didn't work out right. She fell off the bike in attempting to defend herself, and hit her head on the ground. That day, she wasn't wearing a helmet, which was unusual for her. She died on the scene.
Her estate sued the dog owner - not to get money - since the owner had no major assets, but to publicize the problem of out-of-control dogs. It turns out this very dog had been harassing riders along the canal path for years, often biting at their socks and pants cuffs.
Because you, beautiful reader, may be attacked by a dog while riding your bike someday, let me take a minute to tell you the best way to deal with the situation.
First, in a commanding voice, say "Go home!" Most dogs have a limited and predictable mindset. They are designed to believe that the world consists of leader dogs, and follower dogs. Everyone fits into the hierarchy as one or the other. If you act like a leader dog, the one chasing you will accept you as the boss. The dog may not understand exactly what "go home" means, but it'll know the general idea is that you don't approve of the current activity.
Second, stop riding immediately. In the dog's limited mindset, anything that is running away is prey, or at least a toy. Riding fast on your bike seems like running away to a dog. Stop, and the dog becomes confused. You are not supposed to do that. More to the point, the chase has ended. I know it seems counter intuitive, but there is very little chance you can accelerate sufficiently to get away from a dog. You're going to get bit if you keep trying to get away. But if you stop, there is actually much less chance the dog will still want to bite. Would a leader dog run? No the leader dog will confront the situation!
If you still have a situation at this point, stand so that your bike is between you and the dog. The dog can't immediately reach you to bite. Furthermore, if necessary, you can actually press the bike down against the dog, squeezing him to the pavement. This not only is strong self-defense, but it teaches the dog instantly that he is not in control of the situation. When you let off the pressure on your bike, the dog will run away as fast as it can!
Perhaps the hardest part will be what you ought to do next: If you can find the dog's owner, this person needs to understand that you will not permit the situation to happen again. If the owner doesn't agree to take the appropriate actions for future safety, let that owner know that you'll be contacting the police, or animal control officers. Do not accept the excuse that the dog is only playing - that the dog wouldn't have actually bitten. How can you, or anyone else, know that? Remember what happened to Carol. The dog didn't bite her. It was the panic of the attack that led to her death.
Ideally, you can check out the situation a few times in the future, see whether the dog is contained, to insure that other cyclists do not have to deal with the same issue.
Brian came down with the itch pretty badly. It might be because he was quite young, still only 22 years old in his fifth year in business. He looked into renting a much bigger store out in the suburbs. It was beautiful, with lots of big windows, and a creek flowing past a patio attached to the back of the store. It was in a sort of plaza that invited walking from store to store. I'm rather certain Brian could have been very successful there, but he never signed the lease. Instead, he took the winter off, leaving Carter in charge. When he came back, you'd think he would be all rested, and ready to go, but no, he was still burned out.
He confided to me more than once that Carol's death weighed heavily on him and was contributing to his burnout. He started thinking that "selling bicycles to people is risking their lives." Of course, I countered in a few ways, but you could see my arguments were falling on somewhat deaf ears. I told him that in bicycle-car accidents, you really ought to blame the car. He replied that seventy percent of bicycle accidents requiring hospitalization do not involve cars. I mentioned that in the big picture, the world can't sustain having everyone driving around in cars, so bicycles are the way of the future, and we may as well get used to that right now. I mentioned that cars are big polluters, make noise, that more people are injured in cars than on bicycles, but Brian never again felt like a bicycle advocate in the way he had been before Carol.
I thought I almost had him turned around when I mentioned that he can 'avenge Carol's death' by doing everything he can to make sure bikes are safe. One out of every eight bikes has a hidden safety problem. With all the tune-ups Brian and his employees were doing, he was saving lives, or at least preventing possibly hundreds of injuries a year.
We didn't know it at the time, but Brian had been secretly coaching Oliver Worthen. You may recall that he was Brian's former classmate who started a competing shop only blocks away. Oliver's shop had fallen $140,000 in debt. Even though he had hurt Brian's business to some degree with his stupid tactics - selling lots of bikes at or below cost, Brian felt sorry for him. Oliver didn't have much of an ego, so when Brian started coaching, Oliver listened. Under Brian's guidance, Oliver found positions in other shops in the city for some of his employees, so his huge payroll expense could be reduced. He had Oliver take a large portion of his inventory of parts and accessories to a big weekend bike swap and sell it off for less than it cost. Then, he had Oliver reinvest in a more balanced inventory. He actually kept a close watch on Oliver, showing him techniques in dealing with customers, how to write more profitable repair requests, how to place wholesale orders without spending the whole day. After a couple of years, Oliver was doing alright. He had reduced his debt to $60,000, and seemed to be a more balanced businessperson.
Oliver Worthen then came to Brian's rescue. He offered to buy Brian out. This meant Brian could be free to try new pursuits, and Oliver would have a branch store. They worked out a deal, and Oliver borrowed yet more money to buy the store. Brian was free!
What do you suppose Brian did first? Right. He came to work anyway. He sat on a workbench for the next two days with no sense of direction, trying to fit in to the chaos of the changeover. Oliver finally told him to leave, since he was just in the way, and more or less contradicting everything Oliver was telling people.
So, after two days, Brian was gone. He bought a motorhome and traveled for a while.
Remember the unicycles? After selling the store, he made himself three unicycles, one was a tall one, one was an ultimate wheel (no seat, no frame, just pedals on a wheel), and one was a fire unicycle. This had torch wicks in the spokes. He could set it on fire and ride it. He also taught himself juggling. For a couple of years he went around the United States as a professional unicyclist.
He went on to become a serial entrepreneur, opening a series of small stores all over the United States in various specialties such as used books, getting the stores established, and then selling them.
I was told he later taught himself C++ computer programming and did well as the inventor of some sort of multimedia authoring tool.
The shop started floundering immediately. Customers were confused by all the changes they were seeing. Oliver decided this would be the repair outlet, and he'd sell bikes only out of his other store. So, he took all the bikes out, and left the front room empty. He didn't even have anyone dust the place. There were dust balls rolling all around the floor, depressions and worn-ragged places in the carpet where fixtures had been, and blank, nail-hole riddled spaces on the walls where he'd taken accessory displays back to the other store.
His plan was a weak one. For instance, he tried to balance the parts inventory to have enough in the other store to sell over the counter, and enough in Brian's old store to handle the needs of the mechanics. The salespeople who had worked for Brian quit in rapid order when Oliver decided to put them back on hourly wage. The salespeople he replaced them with didn't even know how to write repair orders.
Within two months, Oliver gave up, and moved everything out of Brian's old place into his main store, and sublet the building, which is now a Thai restaurant.
Brian's bike shop was gone.
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