August 13, 2013 | by Eric Neuenfeldt
I landed my first job in a bike shop at fifteen. My initial assignment was to bleach a deep sink in a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned since the shop opened five years before. I gloved up and went at it with a brush for the first hour of my shift. The manager stood in the doorway for a few minutes and told me when I scrubbed the rest of the bathroom he would let me dust bikes and chase spiders out of helmets in the showroom. He looked like a fat Lance Armstrong, or how I imagine Armstrong would look if his steroid admission led to obesity and an addiction to slot machines at truck-stop casinos. He liked to wear cycling socks with martini glasses on them. He shaved his thick legs and sported tight khaki shorts year-round.
After a couple weeks on the job, it was pretty clear to me the manager had two serious goals for his day: consume two king-size Snickers and race the only other employee around the shop on Razor scooters at least a dozen times. The other employee held the title of head mechanic. A small Bible college in Florida had recently expelled him after he allegedly shared a motel room in Memphis with a female classmate. Of course, he flatly denied it, not that anyone cared. I got the sense he really didn’t want to go back down to the swamps to sweat and study international ministry. He was content at the shop. During the day, he would clamp a repair bike in the stand, ignore it, and just eat several Tupperware containers of Thai food. He used his shop apron as a napkin.
When they weren’t racing scooters or eating, they were dismantling the racks and fixtures and rearranging the showroom. The manager would pace around the showroom and pick caramel out of his molars and say, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” After they made me move all the fixtures and bikes back to the original setup a few times, I figured out they were just trying to construct new courses for their scooter races. The two of them had time for these types of projects. I scrubbed the bathroom, dusted accessories in the showroom, and fetched pizzas that dripped grease all over my jeans. The owner never stopped by the shop, and we rarely had to deal with customers. When customers did walk into the showroom, they just picked up their unfinished repair bikes to bring to a shop with a competent mechanic on duty.
In the three months I worked there, I made one big sale: an entry-level mountain bike to a guy with visible anxiety problems. Through his panic attack, he told me he’d never learned to ride a bike and was prepared to confront his fear. The transaction taught me working sales was the lousiest job in the shop because there was a moment in almost every sale where you had no choice but to make the customer keenly aware of their biggest physical or psychological insecurity—bike manufacturers do set weight limits, they don’t make adult bikes for the unusually short or tall. After flipping through the wholesaler’s catalog for half an hour, I had to tell the guy we couldn’t order adult training wheels. The manager listened to the entire transaction from his shitty little office, a dressing room he’d converted into his command center. Afterward, he berated me for the sale, claiming the guy was just going to return the thing. He was right. Two days later the guy wheeled the bike into the shop after taking a nasty spill, looking to return it. He had a big patch of road rash on his cheek. I had to clean up the bike and install new grips. The manager took the cost of the grips out of my last paycheck.
I was gone by Christmas. I snagged a job across town at a semiprofitable mom-and-pop shop owned by an older couple tired as hell of selling $400 hybrids to middle-class families. They were good people. The husband taught me how to wrench on bikes, and they only occasionally threatened to fire me for things like sustained conversation with the other mechanic. Every few months, the owner would call me into his office on payday, hand me my check, and let me know there was a little bit extra on there. The raise was always fifteen cents.
Eventually I went off to college in Milwaukee, where I thought I would take a break from bike shops for the school year. But soon I was broke and failing all my classes. The dark shop-grit underneath the whites of my fingernails had disappeared. I found myself surrounded by frat guys trying to tent their freshman fifteen with baggy sweats. I was a regular at two classes early in my second term: freshman comp and introduction to biomedical engineering, a lab class required for my major. In lab—a course the university touted as “providing real-world, hands-on experience”—they would have us come in at eight in the morning to assemble some simple gadget and acquire a set of basic data. The cognitive demands of these so-called problem solving activities were roughly equivalent to assembling a Mr. Potato Head, but no one in the class knew the difference between a flathead and Phillips-head screwdriver, so it always took the full session to complete the exercise. Of course, I was naïve enough to think such activities insulted my intelligence, and I didn’t see that they were building toward more sophisticated problems, problems I would never have the chance to solve. In a comp paper on academic literacy, I wrote a lengthy argument about how crucial it was for engineers to be mechanically and culturally literate. After nine or so weeks of this, I stopped showing up to either class and instead sat in my dorm room and nursed a bottle of Jameson and read up on obscure French derailleurs from the seventies and exotic wheel-building patterns. At the time, I thought the classes proved it was impossible for someone who could turn a wrench to find a place at a university.
I took a bus—a bus on the same line that supposedly carried Jeffrey Dahmer to his shift at the chocolate factory years before—to a shop where I had a distant contact from my last job. The bus carried me across the Milwaukee River with its barges of scrap, through the gutted tanneries of the Menomonee Valley, and into the neighborhoods of discount liquor stores and cash advance outfits on the Southside. The bus dumped me at a basilica five blocks from the shop. It was March and dark and raining the kind of rain that could have hardened into ice pellets at any moment.
By the time I walked into the shop, I was soaked. There was inventory everywhere—new bikes with essential parts filched off the frame, tires tossed in the aisles, faded jerseys dropped on the floor like dirty laundry. A bald guy was counting cash on the counter and yelling at someone on the phone. He looked at me and hung up.
“Yeah,” he said.
I asked him if he was hiring. He sized me up and asked me about my experience. I just answered yes rather than getting into specifics. I mentioned the contact I had from my previous shop. He called the guy right there, asked him if I was worth a shit, and hung up.
He walked into the workshop and pointed at a small man who had been grunting as he rebuilt a sweat-salted stationary bike.
“You’re fired,” he said to the guy.
Then he hired me.
I thought he was kidding when he fired the guy, but he worked only another week or so. Apparently he was a drunk. On my first day, the owner sent me down to the basement of the shop to assemble some high-end road bikes. I took the former station of the drunk, and throughout the shift discovered travel-sized liquor bottles in several of the parts drawers underneath the bench. Every time I found a new bottle, I set it on the back of the workbench until I made a full row of them. The owner didn’t say anything, and the bottles stayed there until months later when a new mechanic—a recovered alcoholic himself—took the bench from me and pitched them.
Merly, a fifty-something hippie with a bad case of the shakes, worked on the stand across from me. When he saw me pull the first road bike out of the box, he said, “Whoa. Nice one.” He told me I would be moving up in the shop fast, and tapped a screwdriver against the dumpster-picked Huffy he was tuning up. “The owner only lets me work on the wrecks.”
I assembled two bikes without saying much. At one point I stripped the head of the bolt on a headset cap, and Merly helped me dig through beat-up ammo cases of loose bolts to find a replacement. The basement of the shop had served as the dumping ground for spare parts and orphaned bikes for the better part of half a century. In the years I worked there, I could always find the part—no matter how small and rare—I needed. Everyone at was more helpful than their tones suggested, and they all seemed to know which drawer contained the solution to your problem.
Late in the day, the owner called downstairs to ask Merly if he was working. He’d been working on the same bike all day, a simple tune-up that should have taken forty-five minutes. The owner stomped down the stairs, saw the wreck in the stand, and asked Merly what the hell he was paying him for. He had a point. I’d assembled only three bikes, a humiliating pace, but the owner didn’t seem to care. He did care about warning me of the potentially toxic material just ten feet away.
“I’m pretty sure it’s asbestos. Don’t touch it. Just don’t go near it.”
The owner carried a roll of cash and often used it to bail his rough crew out of trouble, which happened often. Say you’d gone out after work and gotten good and shitfaced and started taking scorpion shots at a club you couldn’t afford and didn’t have the means to settle the tab—he had you covered. All it took was one phone call and the money would show up or the bill would be settled. On more than one occasion, he fronted me money for rent. It wasn’t uncommon for me to squander my rent money at the bar before I could pay off the crooked landlady who managed the dump I called home. I rented an efficiency in a tenement zoned for section 8, where the only source of warmth in the winter was a steam heater that hissed and spit vapor in the corner of the room. A substantial, likely structural crack ran the length of the ceiling, and every night I would stare at it and wonder if the three floors above would flatten me in my sleep.
The vast majority of the crew at the shop was like Merly. They may have been younger, hipper, but they were no less damaged. They all had designs on breaking out of Brew Town, but when you listened to their plans, you knew it was never going to happen. One guy was hundreds of thousands in the hole for a degree in photography from a private art academy and planned to move to New York as soon as he was done. Another guy, all six-foot-six and two hundred thirty pounds, wanted to move to Colorado and race bikes professionally. Another guy refused to wear shoes. He sat on a grass floor mat and laced wheels and talked about liberating himself by moving to a country with a shattered government and no authority. I was right there with them in my refusal to come to terms with how shitty my future was looking. Every semester, the university would send me an expulsion letter, and every term I would handwrite another ten-page appeal letter that would buy me another semester, another semester I would squander by spending the sixteen weeks wrenching at the shop. Sometimes I wondered how my life would change if I ever bothered to attend class. After a few terms, the appeal became a challenge I looked forward to. I would spend most of the semester crafting my letter, knowing that expulsion letter would arrive soon enough on its neat stationary.
The summer was a break from all of this. Summer was good to most of us at the shop, as it is to most Milwaukeeans. Stable hours. Summerfest. State Fair. Dollar beers. Sunlight. Bike rides.
Merly asked me if I wanted to take a ride out to West Allis, a suburb just outside the city he affectionately referred to as “Waste Allis.” I assume I’d fucked something up at the shop and the boss had cut me from my shift early because I remember riding with him midafternoon, the time of day I was usually standing in front of the barn fan in the warehouse trying to slap together some cheap suburbanite’s cruiser while he paced in the showroom and looked out the front windows to make sure someone wasn’t boosting his leased Camry.
It was warm and I was riding in my shop clothes. Merly was in his usual uniform: a pit-stained T-shirt tucked into blue nylon warm-up pants. When we passed a tidy fourplex, he turned and circled back. “One minute,” he said. He looked around to make sure no one was watching him, and took some folded bills out of his pocket. The owner of the shop had cut his hours even though it was summer. Merly slipped the cash underneath a rock.
I noticed a young girl standing in the window of the first floor apartment. She waved at Merly. He waved back. He turned his bike and pedaled down the street. I followed.
“That was my daughter,” he said after we were a few blocks down the road. “Her mother claims she isn’t mine, but I know she is. That’s all the matters.”
By winter, Merly was homeless. When summer business slowed at the shop, the owner cut him loose. But Merly showed up at the shop every day as if ready for work because he didn’t have anywhere else to go. He would just tinker around with his bike, or surf the Internet on the ancient Compaq in the showroom. He had a few of us help him type up a resume and send it to various employers around the city. No one ever called. He didn’t have a phone, so he was listing the shop’s number as his own. By February, he grew suspicious that we all had it out for him, that we simply weren’t relaying messages from potential employers. On more than one occasion, I talked the owner out of kicking Merly out of the shop—outside, he faced nothing but cold and illness and certain death. For that, Merly was grateful. That winter he found out where I lived and showed up at my apartment door several times, six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best in hand. He would sit in the corner and drink a few until he nodded off. I never threw him out.
Most nights Merly retired to twenty-four-hour businesses where he could shell out a couple bucks and have a place to stay warm. One of his favorite places was the budget cinema that played flops late into the night. Three bucks got you a seat in the theater and a big bag of burned popcorn. I was pretty damn broke around this time, and couldn’t afford to drink at a bar, so I decided to tag along one night. Maybe it was one of my many failed attempts at not drinking myself to sleep. We drove to the theater in Merly’s beater Ford Festiva, which was loaded with all his possessions. He must have had three disassembled but complete bikes packed into the hatchback. I rested my shoes on a stack of shredded T-shirts.
The movie theater’s staff consisted of two people: a nocturnal troll who took our money and a kind, too beautiful girl who worked behind the concession counter. I must have looked pretty damn feral because she offered to refill my bag of popcorn while I loitered in the lobby between showings of Team America: World Police. I tried to hold a conversation with her while Merly was using the break to take a cat bath in the lobby’s restroom.
“Is the theater always this empty?” I asked the girl behind the counter. I knew I sounded like a fool. I spent most of my days arguing with dumpster mechanics and ex-postal workers turned bicycle salesmen, so I didn’t know how to hold even a casual conversation with a woman. I stank like tires and wore T-shirts I’d gotten for free from sales reps when they came around the shop.
She didn’t respond and continued scooping charred popcorn into the bag. The whole theater smelled like it was burning. She handed the greasy bag to me. “Is he your dad?” she asked. “You know, the guy who has been in the bathroom for twenty minutes?”
“No,” I said.
“Maybe you should check on him.”
“He always manages.”
Halfway through the next showing of Team America, Merly fell asleep. Winter had been brutal on him, and he had no prospects of employment come spring. I knew the owner was planning to replace Merly with three high school dropouts with the energy to unload ten pallets of rims and spokes. They wouldn’t complain when the owner handed them a broom and dustpan and told them to sweep the shattered Pabst bottles and spent condoms and pit-bull shit out of the gutter in front of the shop. They wouldn’t complain when a bum took up residence in the dumpsters behind the warehouse and they had to chase him away with a tire hook. They wouldn’t complain when the owner abruptly slashed their hours because he decided to buy a semitrailer full of jogging strollers to hock on eBay.
I was closer to a life of three-dollar viewings of Team America and free sacks of scorched popcorn than I should have been. When I looked over at Merly, I saw a projection of the life awaiting me if I kept turning a wrench. I decided to call my only friend without a DUI for a ride and get the hell out of there. I stood up and set my bag of popcorn on the Pepsi-streaked floor in front of Merly. His head hung over the backrest of the seat and his mouth was agape. Even in his sleep, he looked horrified.
Merly vanished in the fall, and I decided to pack up and move to California for a fresh start. The university had punted me for good, and one of the lowly mechanics in the basement—Merly’s replacement—had attacked me with a pedal wrench for lazy handwriting on a repair slip. Before I left, I heard a rumor that Merly had patched things up with his family and was living in a converted chicken coop on their farm.
When I landed in California, I learned you had to have a resume if you wanted a shop to hire you. I found one willing to take me on, but I lasted just over a year. One day, I walked into the shop, and the owner rushed toward me. I could tell he was going to can me, so I stopped him and quit. Of course, he owed me months of commission, one of the reasons I was behind on bills. He also smiled too much when talking to customers and the apparent sincerity of it pissed me off. The workshop was open to customers, and the owner expected his mechanics to have the demeanor of salespeople. I was used to the shop in Milwaukee, where the workshop was hidden and the mechanics could wrench and scowl.
As I collected my jacket and messenger bag from the workshop, I saw the legal pad with the to-do list I hadn’t finished. I thought of all the other shitty tasks that weren’t listed, but the owner required of everyone at the shop, bullshit things like hauling trashcans to the dumpster, shaking out rubber floormats, and wheeling in display bikes outside at close. I left the legal pad and list behind. The next guy would need it. I stopped at the backdoor before leaving. The owner had his arms crossed and was making sure I walked out without taking anything. He knew he didn’t need me because somewhere out there a fifteen-year-old kid was waiting for his chance, waiting for the day he could punch in, glove up, and start his first assignment.
Eric Neuenfeldt is a writer living in Reno, Nevada.