(click for large view)
The hard boundaries of my personal bike world were instantly expanded recently in the process of doing a good deed for a local church, a deed which took me into a heretofore unexplored region of West Oakland. West Oakland is a legendary land not unlike the Wild West of old, complete with outlaws, gunfights, and goings on we right-thinking Alamedans dare not even ponder. We do not venture far from the safe haven there that is the BART station, and then quickly to our bikes and cars by day, and hyper-alert by night, but night in these parts is to be avoided if at all possible.
So I found myself driving a pickup truck west on 7th St., and I passed the establishment in the photo above, which that day, was sporting a lineup of welded art type bikes on the sidewalk. One in particular, a BMX kid's bike with a large metal frame box way out front of the handlebars, and a front wheel further beyond the box, was... just weirdly conceptual. And well made. The essential thing that struck me was that here was a bike shop in the Badlands, a bike shop with no name, just an old bike screwed vertically to the side of the building serving to announce its presence. I had to check this place out.
After unloading the pickup, I secured its steering wheel with the Club, and dared to walk the block back to the place with the art bikes. As I approached, my excitement grew...just what had I discovered here? After scanning the sidewalk bikes, I walked through the door into some kind of bicycle Purgatory.
This place was cave-like, colors muted by overpowering shades of gray, with bikes hanging from the ceiling, stacked against walls, laying on the floor. Three guys were holding forth inside, a skinny, bearded hipster with white framed glasses behind the counter, another guy behind him wire brushing a freewheel, hardened grease falling onto the floor, and another slightly grizzled guy attempting to patch a tube. There was little apparent order to this operation, but the randomness of the thing was intoxicating to me. Then, a really cool thing happened.
The shop lies in the shadow of the BART overhead tracks, and in this late afternoon, the sun was lighting the shop interior through plastic covered clear story windows. A dark yellowish light penetrated the gray shop area, unnoticed, until a BART train came rumbling by, and as it did, its form blocked the sun, casting a shadow on the building. The whole shop went almost black save one dim lightbulb hanging from a wire. Splinters of yellow light, the sun beaming between the BART cars, created a strobe effect on the windows. I have to tell you, it was surreal. David Lynch himself could not have thought of this cool noir effect, I was awed by it. Then the train passed and the yellowish light returned. THAT was performance art of the best kind, the kind that just happens when alternate realities collide.
I talked with the patch repair guy and it was his welded together workman BMX bike on the street. He claimed to be more of a fabricator than a mechanic. He was fixing the rear wheel of a fetching young lass, who's Schwinn Varsity's rear tire had seen too many miles, I mean, it was threadbare. He got her rolling again for 5 bucks. This is what these guys do...take discarded or recycled bike, cobble them together into rideable machines, sell them cheap. Do cheap repairs for the neighborhood. Make some food money. Some beer money. Trying to get by somehow. They are working, trying to move mostly crap bikes to people who can afford nothing better. They are under-the-radar Greens, providing alternative transportation without any government subsidies.
Upon departing, I noticed a sizable hipster (for lack of a better word) population in this part of town. My previous misconception was that it is all ghetto, all 'hood down here. Its more about struggling, disenfranchised, or starving artist types. My eyes have been opened.
What I do for my hobby, in my home workshop, is nothing different than what these guys are doing on 7th st. I came to the realization that I admire them because I've often thought about running a funky bike shop, but I always end up concluding there is no way that would ever work unless I won the lottery.
These guys didn't let that scenario stop them. So here's a toast to the urban underground bike shop, the outpost of East Bay bicycle civilization, the nihilist's counterpoint to commercial bike culture.
May they live long and prosper.
Ride On, My Friends.