I thought it would be easy to describe. And I guess if we were to be perfectly literal, it would be. But there’s something more. An underlying ethos so inseparable from identity as to be defining in itself. So pervasive as to be woven into the fabric of every fold of existence. The red thread in the dark wool suit only evident under close examination. Look closely and it’s everywhere. Pay no attention and it doesn’t exist.
Ever gone to dinner with your wife or girlfriend whilst your mind was a million miles away analyzing and solving a mechanical issue you’ve been working on?
Lain awake nights making step-by-step plans for what you’ll do next time you’re at the workshop until the alarm goes off?
Learned to participate in casual conversation while simultaneously working on something else in your mind, giving not a clue?
Attended a business meeting in a suit and tie with grease in your fingerprints that could not be scrubbed out?
Made detailed sketches of parts and specialty tools that you’d like to make in notebooks, napkins and scrap paper. Saved them in your wallet interminably until you improve the idea and eventually create them?
Taken calls from friends Saturday nights asking you to come out and you’re in the shop and tell them you can’t make it?
Stopped to help a broke down motorist on your way to an important event and taken the time to explain troubleshooting methodology to the barely interested as you fixed their car intuitively? While the rest of the people in your car roll their eyes, not understanding the sickness?
You get the idea.
This is no flash in the pan.
I’ve been suffering or benefiting, depending on one’s perspective, from this mindset since I was six years old and disassembled completely the first bicycle I’d ever gotten by 2pm on Christmas day. My parents, not being able to find me, finally made their way out to the garage to discover me elbow deep in parts and my dad’s tools. They threatened “You’d best have that back together by bedtime or you’ll never get another bike from us again”. I was dismissive, and confident that I’d have it done in time, even then. Of course a few unnecessary parts remained when I was done. That’s no cutesy cover-up. They added nothing to the function of the machine. A few years later I figured out that a hacksaw could cut metal and whole new world opened up to me. I cut some sections out of a couple aluminum lawn chairs we had and made two foot long fork extensions to that same bike. I jammed them on the forks of the bright yellow Huffy and used existing holes in the tubes to bolt on the wheel. Sketchy as hell. And fun! The first couple ramp jumps (if you could see the dodgy crap we assembled as ramps in the neighborhood) proved that modification to be, let’s say, temporary at best. But it didn’t stop me.
Obsession. Useful if you can harness it. At the same time a detriment that can haunt you. Its kissing cousin, perfectionism, amplifies the effects. Perfection paralysis. I also call it Magnum Opus Syndrome. Know what it is? Ever have it? Only perfect is good enough. You can guess where that one might lead. Mostly towards more thinking than doing. But these same traits can also bring meaningful innovation and gainful employment. Everyone’s got something reckon with. I consider myself lucky to have been saddled with these.
Lost my way for a while in college. Lost touch with what I was good at. A dirt bag Philly kid in league with New England prep school prodigies. Except I had no safety net. Slightly coarse, but true, amongst many with more outward polish. And perhaps less constitution. All the while designing and conjuring and building. Bicycles. Dorm room lofts. Devices. Guitars. Electronics. And finally, motorcycles. The point hit home one evening in my basement, listening to the local public radio station blues show while rebuilding my first motorcycle, a horribly abused 1971 Harley-Davidson Sportster I’d bought with months of money saved cooking chicken wings in a tavern in upstate New York: This is all the same discipline. The same exercise. Just different media. Dissection. Analysis. Design. Assembly. Usage. Refinement. Aim for clarity, simplicity, accessibility. Ease of maintenance. Robust construction. Computer systems, motorcycles, anything. It’s all the same!
This cracked my world wide open. And put me back on track. One thought. One realization.
I finished that bike in my basement and rode it proudly to my graduation. Still an oddball. A greasy stain in a field of otherwise proper folk. But with direction and confidence. And most importantly, a new freedom from concern. Fuck conforming in appearance to get the right job. Fuck knowing the right people to get an “in” at some company. Fuck trying to adhere to a prescribed path. I see how things work. I know how to build them. I know who I am. These will sustain me.
Fast forward three or four years. I’m living in Manhattan. I’m riding that bike I built in my basement in college all around the city having the time of my life. I was hired by someone who saw potential in me (Thanks, Steve Adler!) and invested significantly in my professional development. He gave me the freedom to succeed, or fail. He tolerated my youthful cockiness and inexperience. I like to think I never let him down. I’ve ever since been building database systems for New York firms who just a few years prior had declined even offering me a job interview. Once I got enough money where I felt comfortable unpacking my stuff (Rent in NYC is the number one concern of everyone who lives there and don’t let them tell you otherwise) my mind turned towards having a place to work on bikes.
I started out working on the sidewalk on 83rd St on the east side. I’d haul all my tools out from the small closet in my apartment and get as much done as I could while it was still light out. I could never do anything that I couldn’t wrap up in a day because I’d have nowhere to put my bike if I couldn’t roll it back down to the parking garage a block away. While limiting, this was a strong motivator. I learned a lot, and messed up many things, out on that sidewalk. A few times I even received citations from an undercover cop (a psycho, and worthy of another story altogether) in the neighborhood. Supposedly it was against the law to work on the sidewalk. The ticket was cheaper than a parking ticket (which I’d have received had I worked on the street in front of my apartment) so I made my choice.
Later, I befriended the Columbian parking attendants at the luxury condo garage where I rented a parking space. We got to talking at length on plenty of occasions. One day, over a few beers, I offered to build a computer for one of the attendants from a throw-away at work. He said he wished his children to learn computers as he felt it of primary importance. I set it up with educational programs and locked down all the various configuration files so that the kids would not end up with an unusable brick. From then on, I had a designated spot two stories underground, in a corner, where they allowed me to do more serious work on my bikes. Alone underground in garage full of Mercedes and Bentleys I spent countless hours with a single work lamp and a tape player. They thought I was crazy for hauling three or four large toolboxes down there on a Saturday morning and working for 16 hours, or on occasion, straight through ’til the wee hours of Monday. I’d always drop off a six-pack for the man on duty and we spent countless hours telling stories and learning about each other.
See a trend here?
In ’98 I was lucky enough to have friend invite me to share a parking area, which we later developed into a full-fledged motorcycle shop, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, which was then entirely Puerto Rican and Dominican. Over the next eight years we expanded to the point where we occupied the whole 2000sf first floor and were fully equipped with welding, machining and metal forming equipment. By then I’d earned the trust of two local bike clubs (Unknown and Forbidden Ones) and serviced their bikes for extra cash and experience (“support your local ghetto club” a common sticker found on most of these bikes). Wanting to be closer, I moved out of Manhattan into the third floor warehouse space upstairs from the shop. Any time of day or night there were no impediments to my heading down there to make something or work out ideas. It was glorious. In the early years this was considered a downright dangerous neighborhood. Not one to generally be scared, it was still rough enough to cause me concern. Desolate and industrial, rather than hopping with activity, there were always news reports of serious shit going down. Even if we never saw it. It culminated one night in us all being interrogated by detectives over the gang-style execution of the guy who lived directly above our workshop by a local drug captain. This was no game.
Well, I could go on for about a book length on all the many experiences there. And I’d like to someday, given the time and the discipline to do so.
Back to the literal alluded to in the first paragraph . . .
For almost five years I ate breakfast at the Korean-owned and Mexican-staffed bodega across the street from our shop. It was a great place to shoot the jaw and it was always packed with people on their way to work in the various factories and warehouses in the neighborhood. I’d gotten to know Jorge, the cook, pretty well over that time. One time he asked me “why you always so greasy, any time of day, any day of the week.” The cashier, a young Spanish speaking Korean woman who I also knew pretty well, and loved to shoot one-liners to customers, said “he’s the Greasy Gringo!”.
And there it is.
Coincidently, the new workshop is in the Kensington section of Philadelphia where we are once again likely known as the greasy white boys on the street. Only this time, years later, I own the building, am a father and am considerably older than my days wrenching on Manhattan sidewalks. We have a great thing here and are blessed with good neighbors and friends in our neighborhood. We all look out for each other and have even had a few dynamite block parties.
The story continues, as it must . . .