Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reality Bikes

One of the bi-monthly Build Nights

Volunteering alters my reality. Whether it's a roundtable of Tagalog-speaking grandmothers named Madrea, Carmen, and Marta de la Cruz who are not Latina but Filipina, or an immigrant family doing everything right to be adopted by a country that apparently only wants to collect their taxes, I am confronted with unending streams of life that change my outlook. It's an endless construction project.

The consistent revelations come from the simplicity of not being in control of the variables of interaction. For Senior Lunch at El Centro de la Raza, the Day Worker's Center at Casa Latina, or the Tax Preparation Site in Lincoln and Seattle alike, the human palette presented you is not of your own making. I find this to be among the most deeply satisfying elements of serving in the myriad volunteer roles I've taken, where the breadth of interactions acts as a catalyst to inform my understanding of people and their lives. I've often felt politically powerless in the last 15 years but have always known that my time and little life could be utilized to affect positivity within my block, neighborhood, and city. I've not sacrificed the macro but have added the micro to it; with it I've discovered a thousand times the satisfaction and a large percentage more empathy.

Tonight I volunteered at Seattle's The Bikery, a humble space that serves as a hub of education and empowerment to get people working on their own bikes with confidence and skill. We have tools, work stands, some knowhow, and loads of good vibes for the DIY person for whom bicycling is both transportation and lifestyle. I run the shop on Monday nights, keeping the doors open for the handy or aspiringly-so person who could walk in with anything from a flat tire to a completely worthless drive train. We work together to figure out what is wrong and decide if they would like to fix here. If they are up for it, I proceed to place tools in their hands and show them (with the occasional YouTube clip) how to make the necessary adjustments. Even those who enter thinking we are a bike shop and will do the work to bill by the hour are happily surprised they will learn to do it themselves instead.

Winter is slower, but the problems never cease. Tonight there were a Spaniard named Ariel, a woman who's been by before, Anna, and a homeless man I met this week, Ian. Ariel didn't know that I knew he was from Spain, but I could tell seconds into our conversation, and when he said "I am from Spain," I threw out a "Ya lo sabĂ­a." My experience as a bilingual person produces no greater joy than connecting with a person in their language. The transition is always fun and sometimes awkward, but the seconds between when my interlocutor hears my words and their realization that not only was I responding to the conversation, but had done so a) in their native tongue and b) with such clarity that they didn't even notice we'd switched languages. He blinked a couple times, looked down, then back, and said, "Oh, you speak Spanish..? I wouldn't have guessed." Ariel needed to overhaul his drive train tonight by replacing a rear derailleur, cables, and truing his wheels. He did excellently and was mostly on his own by the time Anna entered.

I worked with Anna a month ago on a rainy night ahead of her 10 mile ride home. The Bikery is about one mile east of downtown, so we capture riders from all backgrounds (and foregrounds). Anna was impressive the first time she came to The Bikery; she is quiet and cautious but obviously has a knack for mechanical things, whether she would believe me or not. On her first visit, she fixed her brakes and drive train and stated at the end, "I feel like I know how my bike works now. I can't believe how easy it is to make small adjustments! I thought it would be so complicated." Tonight, a small shifting problem is easily resolved, but then we tackle a brake caliper that won't open completely. After a few approaches, which she patiently attempts though they fail to produce a result, we try disassembling and rebuilding the caliper in order to clean it thoroughly. This solves the hour-long puzzle and sends her on her way content and powerful.

"I found this bike in a tree." The third visitor of the night is Ian, a homeless man I met last week at REI. If I remember correctly, he came into the store for a new tube. We got to talking a bit, in part because security was watching him, and it became apparent that he has some mechanical interests. I told him about The Bikery as a place to use our tools to do repairs if needed, and when he opened the door tonight, I was happy to have remembered his name. We replaced an exploded tire, realigned his brakes, and set his wheels up in the truing stand. He undertook each task with his own set of tools, which he dug out of his backpack one by one to lay out like a baseball card collection. I thought to suggest he simply use our tools from the wall, but a quick realization caught my words when I thought of how important my own tools are to me (you want to use them when a chance presents itself!).

Ian's tree bike has a pretty cruddy chain, and I offer to lube it for him, which I do as he continues to work on his brakes. He's talking about how hard it is to maintain that chain, how it gets loud within days and that I shouldn't bother. I tell him it's supposed to be a dry week and so at least for this week it will be quiet. He relents and mentions something about sleeping outside and how hard it is on bikes to always be outside. He says, "It's so nice to have a work stand like this. I don't have to hang it from a tree to work on it." "Yeah, I know," I think I am identifying with him, "I have a pipe that sticks out of the wall in my garage. This is so much better, though."

My mouth hung aghast. I couldn't believe myself and the nakedness of my complaint of discomfort while simultaneously underlining my comfort to this man's face. I used the words "my garage" as a point of commonality with Ian, and I felt some kind of social vertigo as I teetered on the precipice of the layers of economic strata between us. The casualness with which I equated his difficulty and mine..

Ian gathers his things as he prepares to leave, and I find a Theo chocolate bar in my bag, "Want to share this chocolate bar?" It was a meager concession, but we crack and devour it together. He thanks me for the new tire, getting his wheels trued, and the brakes, and I thank him for stopping by and expect him to be by soon to change out some cables on his rear derailleur and brake. We share a handshake and bid each other farewell.

The Bikery closes doors on another night; the cranes are high over a reality under construction.


ben said...

I so enjoyed this, Aaron. Eloquent and introspective. Careful and genuine observations like yours have a long half life compared to most things I see in my phone. (Kind of unrelatedly I just got hooked on CRJ from two posts ago. :)

ben said...

It's inspiring to see the positive effect you're having on others & finding in yourself.